Watering By Hand? Or Foot? Or God?
For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs: (Deut 11:10, KJV)
We come across an puzzling word while reading Deuteronomy in the New English Bible: foot.
The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for 40 years. They have been given the law and instruction in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. And now, before sending God’s undisciplined people across the Jordan with deputies Joshua and Caleb, the dying Moses repeats the law — a so-called “second law” — in what we Christians call the book of Deuteronomy. Moses and the Israelites have come out of slavery in Egypt and will now, if they follow God and follow these instructions, be free and well-taken-of in the land of milk and honey:
The land which you are entering to occupy is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where, after sowing your seed, you irrigated it by foot like a vegetable garden. (Deut 11:10, NEB)
Yes, life was tough in Egypt for sure. But what about this “irrigated it by foot?” What’s up with this? Just how did the early Jews water Pharaoh’s wheat and corn fields by foot? Did they kick water from the Nile onto the soy bean pasture? Did they stomp and splash the water from the Nile into irrigation channels?
Perhaps there something funny with the NEB translation? No. That’s not the case.
Sure enough, the Hebrew word translated as foot is וְרַגְלְךָ֖ / wə·raḡ·lə·ḵā, and the other two times it is used in the Old Testament it makes sense to translate it as “foot did not swell” (Deut 8:4) and “foot does not stumble” (Proverbs 3:24). This is a variation on the more rooted words רַגְלָ֔יו / raḡ·lāw and רַגְלָֽי / raḡ·lay and בְּרַגְלָ֔יו / bə·raḡ·lāw, the three of which consistently (but not always) carry the meaning of foot or feet, and are used over 70 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Plus there are a number of other variations of the root word.
Do other translations help?
Most do not, and stick with the explicit, yet puzzling, Hebrew “foot.”
New English Bible The land which you are entering to occupy is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where, after sowing your seed, you irrigated it by foot like a vegetable garden.
New Jerusalem Bible For the country which you are about to enter and make your own is not like the country of Egypt from which you have come, where, having done your sowing, you had to water the seed by foot, as though in a vegetable garden.
New International Version …where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden.
New American Standard Bible … where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden.
New American Standard 1977 … where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden.
New King James Version … where you sowed your seed and watered it by foot, as a vegetable garden;
King James Bible … where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs:
New Heart English Bible … where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your feet, as a garden of herbs;
JPS Tanakh 1917 … where thou didst sow thy seed, and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs;
King James 2000 Bible … where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs:
American King James Version … where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs:
American Standard Version … where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs;
Darby Bible Translation … where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs;
English Revised Version … where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs:
Webster’s Bible Translation … where thou didst sow thy seed, and water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs:
World English Bible … where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs;
Young’s Literal Translation … where thou sowest thy seed, and hast watered with thy foot, as a garden of the green herb;
International Standard Version … where you plant a seed and irrigate it with your feet like a vegetable garden.
New Revised Standard Version … where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
Orthodox Jewish Bible For ha’aretz, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as Eretz Mitzrayim, from whence ye came out, where thou sowedst thy zera, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a gan (garden) of herbs:
Brenton Septuagint Translation … whensoever they sow the seed, and water it with their feet, as a garden of herbs:
(The Brenton, above, is not translated from the Hebrew, but from the Septuagint Greek.)
The recent Berean translators use “on foot” rather than “by foot,” suggesting that walking around is part of the process. One might take away the idea that the workforce carried buckets of water, “on foot,” walking back and forth from the Nile to the next few feet of unwatered crop row:
Berean Study Bible … where you sowed your seed and irrigated on foot, like a vegetable garden.
The NLT translators seem to reject the idea of watering by foot, replacing it with the notion of digging the irrigation ditches by foot. Drag your heal backwards in the dirt and you’ll produce for Pharaoh an irrigation channel:
New Living Translation … where you planted your seed and made irrigation ditches with your foot as in a vegetable garden.
Hmmm. We do not believe that digging irrigation ditches is correct. The issue is watering, not ditch-digging. Yet hold on to this foot-moving-dirt thought, as we will come back to it.
And then David Stern steps up and offers our first bit of seems to be an explanation. His excellent CJB translation stops to explain what is going on out in the wheat field, by adding a few words to suggest some sort of mechanical, water-moving contraption operated by standing or stepping foot power:
Complete Jewish Bible For the land you are entering in order to take possession of it isn’t like the land of Egypt. There you would sow your seed and had to use your feet to operate its irrigation system, as in a vegetable garden.
At least the smells to us like some sort of mechanical, water-moving contraption. We will return to this foot-moving-a-contraption idea also.
Back to the translations.
Some translators replace “foot” with “hand,” not because they believe “hand” to be the correct word, but because (we imagine) they suspect “foot” might puzzle the reader, and “hand” offers an idiom familiar to modern English readers. They emphasize correctly the human “man-power” nature of the labor, and insert the understandable English expression “by hand.” This is not to declare that literal hands and arms are used to carry buckets or operate levers, and so forth, but that human bodily labor, and man-power, is the source of the work:
Evangelical Heritage Version … where you were accustomed to sow your seed and water it by hand like a vegetable garden.
Christian Standard Bible … where you sowed your seed and irrigated by hand as in a vegetable garden.
New American Bible (Revised Edition) … where you would sow your seed and then water it by hand, as in a vegetable garden.
NET Bible … a land where you planted seed and which you irrigated by hand like a vegetable garden.
By the way, it was one of the excellent (and plentiful) translator notes in the NET Bible which inspired this Bible Bit.
Several translators avoid the word “foot” altogether, mention neither hands or feet, and get the point across without confusing the modern English language reader unfamiliar with ancient and/or rural farming techniques:
English Standard Version … where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables.
Good News Translation … There, when you planted grain, you had to work hard to irrigate the fields;
GOD’S WORD® Translation … There you used to plant your seed, and you had to water it like a vegetable garden.
Douay-Rheims Bible … where, when the seed is sown, waters are brought in to water it after the manner of gardens.
Contemporary English Version It’s better land than you had in Egypt, where you had to struggle just to water your crops.
We like the CEV translation. Its translators get to the point. 🙂
And finally, in the neither-hand-nor-feet category, the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh:
JPS Tanakh (compare with JPS Tanakh 1917 above) For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden;
The JPS Tanakh gets closest to the theological message: “watered by your own labors.”
In the land of Canaan, which God promises to the Israelites, who waters the crops and vegetables and herbs? Does man do the watering? Do the Israelites do the watering? Is this watering by manual labor, whether by hand or foot?
No, God waters the land. And the observant Israelite follower of God allows for God to water the land as God pleases, and to produce food and manna and other provisions as it pleases God in response to the dutiful obedience of the God-fearing Jew. God prefers the second-born wandering shepherd Abel over the first-born self-reliant farmer Cain. Cain presumes to produce himself his food. Abel wanders to wherever God provides his food.
Egyptian pagan gods and Egyptian industrial farming is not favored by God. God wants his followers to eat what God produces, especially in the seventh year when he instructs his people to leave their plows in the barn.
1Then the LORD said to Moses on Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the LORD. 3For six years you may sow your field and prune your vineyard and gather its crops. 4But in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land—a Sabbath to the LORD. You are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5You are not to reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untended vines. The land must have a year of complete rest. 6Whatever the land yields during the Sabbath year shall be food for you—for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, the hired hand or foreigner who stays with you, 7and for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. All its growth may serve as food. (Berean Study Bible)
(Compare Exodus 23:10-13 and Deuteronomy 15:1-6.)
Here is the surrounding context of our Bible Bit verse:
Deuteronomy 11:8-12 8Therefore you shall keep all the commandment which I command you this day, that you may be strong, and go in and possess the land, where you go over to possess it; 9and that you may prolong your days in the land, which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give to them and to their seed, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10For the land, where you go in to possess it, isn’t as the land of Egypt, that you came out from, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs; 11but the land, where you go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, [and] drinks water of the rain of the sky, 12a land which Yahweh your God cares for: the eyes of Yahweh your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year even to the end of the year. (World English Bible)
But what about the feet? Or foot?
It turns out that there are today several mechanical device types used to either pump water or lift water. While all have been modernized with metal or high density plastic construction, and equipped with electronic monitoring and feedback systems, and powered by gas or diesel or electricity, rudimentary versions can be made from wooden parts and operated with (depending on the device type) human hands and arms or human feet and legs. Some of these pump water. Some of these lift water. And these are in fact used today by farmers in various poor and remote places around the world.
We see two types operated by foot power. One is a pump system where the laborer stands on two see-saw type levers, shifting his weight between one lever and the other — left down, right up then left up, right down — causing a connected pump to move water. This is called a treadle. The other is a water wheel system where a collection of buckets goes round and round a central axle, with the movement of buckets and wheel forced by the laborers continous stepping from bucket to bucket to bucket. With this wheel system, water is lifted. Either of these system can be operated in a side stream or pool made next to a large river water source. (Many systems are based on a well as source, which is not of interest here.)
The basic mechanical physics of operation, and the ability of skilled wood workers to build them, suggests the possibility that one or both of these device types could have been built by engineers in ancient times.
In our short time researching, we find some suggestion of ancient Egyptian foot-operated irrigation systems, but not hard evidence.
There is yet another explanation which several commentators mention. It is that of a sluice system which moves water from a large reservoir (filled by means other than this foot operation) into the series of channels, one or more at a time, by means of earthen (or wooden?) gates opened and closed by the foot. Water is directed into channel 1 by quickly shoveling with the foot earth in the path of channels 2 and 3 and so on. Once channel 1 is filled, the dam is moved with the push of the foot so that flow into 1 is stopped and flow continues on to 2. The worker moves down the grid of channels, opening and closing by foot the earthen (or wooden?) stoppers. This system has been seen in modern times.
John Gill (writing in the mid-1700s) mentions several commentator’s thoughts on the topic, including one by recent English traveller Thomas Shaw. Shaw’s 1738 publication, Travels or Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant, contains a description of the Nile river irrigation-by-moving-dirt-with-the-foot technique. We’ve included an image from Shaw’s book, which, by the way, quotes the Deuteronomy 11:10 verse.
Here’s what Shaw reports:
“Their Engines for Raising Water: Now such vegetable productions, as require more moisture, than what is occasioned by the inundations, are refreshed by water, that is drawn at certain times out of the river, and lodged in large cisterns, made for that purpose. Archimedes’ Screw seems to have been the instrument that was anciently made use of upon these occasions [probably operated by hand]; thought at present [in the 1730s] it is not known; the inhabitants serving themselves either with various kinds of leather buckets, or else with a Sakiah (as they call the Persian Wheel) [the Persian Wheel is a foot operated or water-driven water wheel] which is the most general and useful machine. Engines and contrivances of both these kinds are placed all along the banks of the Nile, from the sea to the cataracts; their respective situations being higher and consequently the difficulty of raising water the greater, in proportion as we advance up the river.
“The Method of Watering their Plantations: When therefore their pulse [peas, beans, legumes, chickpeas], safranon (or Carthamus) [saffron, safflower], melons, sugar canes, etc (all which ae commonly planted in rills) require to be refreshed, they strike out a plug that is fixed in the bottom of one of these cisterns, and then the water gushing out is conducted, from one rill to another, by the gardener, who is always ready, as occasion requires, to stop and divert the torrent by turning the earth against it with his foot, and opening at the same time, with his mattock, a new trench to receive it. This method of conveying moisture and nourishment to a land that is rarely refreshed with rain is often alluded to in the Holy Scriptures, where also it is made the distinguishing quality between Egypt and the Land of Canaan. For the Lord, says Moses to the Children of Israel (Deut 11.10) whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence you came out, where though sowest thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs: but the land whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven.”
How about that!
Yes, a long time period stretches between the ~1400 BC era of captivity and Thomas Shaw’s observations of the 1730’s AD. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable enough that the Israelites used some sort of foot operated irrigation system during their 400 years of slavery in ancient Egypt. For what its worth, they probably used hand operated systems also, such as the long, counter-weighted horizontal pole atop a second tall pole system called the shaduf. And they probably also carried buckets.
But while this Bible Bit may be about foot versus hand, the larger message is about our willingness to rely on the irrigation system of God.
What does your study Bible or commentary say about this? Can you find Egyptian artwork illustrating a laborer using such a device?
Several commentaries weigh-in on this. See the John Gill Exposition, Cambridge, Ellicott, Barnes, and the ancient writer Philo, for example. And again, we are indebted to the NET Bible for bringing this puzzling verse’s use of “foot” to our attention.
We pray that you are nourished by God with blessings falling like rain.
If you choose to comment, please include scripture and citations from commentary.