[b-hebrew] [biblicalist] "Pit" in Exodus 21:33-34

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Tue Apr 5 10:26:37 EDT 2011

Dr. Yigal Levin:
You wrote:  “Does anyone have an idea what kind of "pit" the verses [Exodus 
21: 33-34] envision a person having on his property, that would have a 
large enough opening for an ox to fall into and be deep enough for the ox to be 
In ancient Canaan, one common method for hunting was to dig a very deep pit 
at the end of a V-shaped row of hedges, cover the pit with branches, and 
then try to drive wild game into the hedges.  Some of the wild animals would 
fall into the pit at the end of the V-shaped row of hedges.  The pit would be 
so deep that an animal could not get out of it.  If an ox fell in to such a 
big game hunting pit by mistake, the ox would likely break one of its legs, 
and so would die or would have to be killed.  [Hunting of that type was for 
food for the community, not the selfish big game trophy hunting -- the “
sport of kings” -- selfishly indulged in by Esau.  For example, at 
Luz/Laish/Dan in northern Canaan, wild game likely was hunted on a routine basis in this 
manner in the Late Bronze Age.]
The word BWR at Exodus 21: 33 more famously occurs five times in quick 
succession in the Patriarchal narratives at Genesis 37: 20, 22, 24, 28, 29, when 
Joseph is thrown into a pit by his older half-brothers.  Genesis 37: 24 
says that there was no water in that pit, suggesting that it was normally a 
cistern, used for holding water.  But Genesis 37: 22 refers to the pit being in 
the wilderness;  that would fit a big game hunting pit, and the wilderness 
would be an unexpected place for there to be an active cistern.
It’s true that most big game hunting pits would be in the wilderness, 
rather than on private property.  But on occasion, a landowner could build a pit 
at the end of his property, where wild game sometimes roamed.  The pit would 
be very deep, and would be wide enough for an ox to fall in.
We know from Rivka Gonen’s work that in the Late Bronze Age, former 
cisterns were sometimes re-used as burial caves.  Exodus 21: 33 talks about both “
opening” a pit and “digging” a pit;  that may suggest that sometimes a pit 
was dug for a specific purpose, but at other times a former hole in the 
ground of some sort was opened as a pit for a different, new purpose.  A cistern 
would usually be dug out of rock, and normally the opening would not be big 
enough for an ox to fall in.  A big game hunting pit, by contrast, would 
normally be dug out of earth, and would be purposefully designed to be big and 
deep enough to hold an ox or other large animal.  Thus although cisterns 
were common on private property, and big game hunting pits would have been rare 
on private property, the more likely place for a neighbor’s ox to fall into 
and die would seem to be a big game hunting pit.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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