We read in Genesis 29:1-2 NKJV

So Jacob went on his journey and came to the land of the people of the East. 2 And he looked, and saw a well in the field; and behold, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it; for out of that well they watered the flocks. A large stone was on the well’s mouth.

This large stone had to be removed every time that they wanted to water their flocks.

8 But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well’s mouth; then we water the sheep.”

This verse seems to indicate that it was also not a one-man job. So, if it was so difficult to move, why put it there in the first place?

4 Answers 4


The heavy stone over the mouth of the well (which may have been a cistern) in Gen 29 served several purposes, all aimed at preserving the precious and scarce water, including:

  • it prevented the well filling with sand, soil and debris
  • it marked the well as private, ie, in this case belonging to Rachel's family - she watered her flock first (despite arriving last)
  • it prevented animals from falling down the well
  • it helped prevent (but did not totally stop) an enemy poisoning the well. The stone was probably large enough so that a single person could not move it.
  • it would have also made the well mouth visible and thus, easier to find.
  • it also kept the well in shade thus prevented the development of slime and algae
  • it would have also helped to reduce evaporation

See the comments on Gen 29:2 in Ellicott, Benson, Cambridge, Gill and Pulpit commentaries for more background.

  • good list, but I question the well's private ownership and would add the possibility that the stone helped prevent overflow. Jan 8 at 16:39
  • @DanFefferman - good and fair point.
    – Dottard
    Jan 8 at 19:15
  • Wow! That's a great list. No shame but, I didn't think of any of those!
    – Jason_
    Jan 8 at 22:27

In terms of what the text itself says we get a major clue in line 2:

Three flocks of sheep huddled near it, for flocks were watered from that well. (NABRE)

Whether the sheep huddled or lay down, they naturally gathered at the well as a source of water. Thus the primary purpose of the stone may have been to prevent contamination.

I would add one other possible factor to @Dottard's list. The stone may have been placed there to prevent the well from overflowing during rainy periods, causing the area to become mired with mud.

Regarding the idea that the stone marked the well as private, I do not think we can presume this. Several flocks of sheep were gathered there and when Jacob questioned the shepherds as to whether they knew Laban, they did not indicate that they worked from him or that this was his well. It is true that Rachel watered her flocks first, but the text also says "Rachel arrived with her father’s sheep." This seems to imply that the other flocks did not belong to him. The next line calls them "the sheep of Laban," again implying that the other sheep were not his. Rachel may have been allowed to water her sheep first because her father was the wealthiest man in the area or because she was daughter of a herd-owner while the other shepherds were either hired hands or slaves. So it seems likely that the well was shared communally, which also fits with the idea that all shepherds needed to be present before the well was opened to water the flocks. (This is not proof one way or the other; but the ownership of the well is an open question.)


Note the phrase " mouth of the well". It is natural for us to presume that the cover of the well looked something like the lid of manhole our roads have. We may be wrong. The wells of those days, especially wayside wells meant for public use, may have been dug by the side of mounds just like the tombs were. People had approach to the well from one side only. The wells had a ceiling which originally had been a part of the mound from which it was hewn. A round stone which could be rolled back to left or right ( See the phrase 'roll from the well's mouth' Gen 29:8) covered the mouth of the well , and not the well itself. Such a well did not cause accidental falling of travellers , and protect the water from contamination. But you could not help cattle or even children straying into the open well and going down ( See Jesus quizzing the Pharisee who would go down the well for rescue-- Lk 14:5). Wells of present times are different, with round built-up structure with a cross bar to hang the rope on. Even if they have lids, they are made of wood, with enough space for the bucket to go down and up. Those lids are seldom removed .Stone made lids for such vertical wells are cumbersome and easy to break. Hence the preference for wooden lids.


I just wanted to add what my own research concluded and add links to relevant commentaries, including some points already stated by the others. I noted around 10 primary purposes of the stone with some overlap:

A great stone was upon the well’s mouth.—

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers:

The region round Haran, though fertile, is very dry, and the chief use of the stone was to

  1. prevent the well from being choked with sand. As the proper translation is the stone upon the well’s mouth was great, it would also serve to

  2. prevent the well from being used, except at fixed times; for it probably required the strength of two or three men (comp. Robinson, Bibl. Res. ii. 180) to remove it; (the language of Genesis 29:10 necessarily imply that Jacob rolled it away without the aid of others.)

  3. The stone may have marked that the well was private property: for, as we have seen in the account of the covenants of Abraham and Isaac with Abimelech, no possession was morevalued than that of wells. And as we find the shepherds all waiting for Rachel, and that immediately on her arrival the stone is rolled away, and her sheep watered first, while the rest, though they had been there long before her, yet have to bide their time till her wants are supplied, it is probable that Laban had at least a first claim upon its enjoyment.

Benson Commentary:

  1. This might be intended either to prevent the lambs of the flock from being drowned in it; or
  2. to secure the water, which was and still is scarce in that country; or
  3. to save the well from receiving damage from the heat of the sun, or the sand put into motion by the winds, which, probably, would soon have filled and stopped it up.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary:

The stone at the well's mouth was to secure it; water was scarce, it was not there for every one's use (Agrees with point 5)

Barnes' Notes on the Bible:

On its mouth was a large stone, indicating that water was precious, and that the well was the common property of the surrounding natives. The custom was to gather the flocks, roll away the stone, which was too great to be moved by a boy or a female, water the flocks, and replace the stone.

There was a rule or custom that the flocks must be all assembled before the stone was rolled away for the purpose of watering the cattle. This may have been required to

  1. insure a fair distribution of the water to all parties, and especially to those who were too weak to roll away the stone.

Matthew Poole's Commentary:

  1. A great stone was upon the well’s mouth, to preserve the water, which was scarce in those parts, and to keep it pure.

Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible:

  1. and a great stone was upon the well's mouth; so that until that was rolled off, they could not be watered, which was the reason of their lying by it: this stone was laid upon it, partly to keep the water from flowing out, and being wasted, that there might be a sufficiency for the flocks; and partly to keep the water pure and clean, that it might be wholesome for the flocks, as well as entire for the use of those that had a property in it.

Henry's Complete Commentary on the Bible:

The stone at the well's mouth, which is so often mentioned here, was

either to secure their property in it (for water was scarce, it was not there usus communis aquarum--for every one's use) (similar to point 5), or it was to save the well from receiving damage from the heat of the sun (same as point 6), or

  1. from any spiteful hand, or to prevent the lambs of the flock from being drowned in it.

Many commentators say that it may have been a cistern:

Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament:

There the water was drawn at once from the (open) well and poured into troughs placed ready for the cattle, as is the case now at most of the wells in the East; whereas here the well was closed up with a stone, and there is no mention of pitchers and troughs. The well, therefore, was probably a cistern dug in the ground, which was covered up or closed with a large stone, and probably so constructed, that after the stone had been rolled away the flocks could be driven to the edge to drink.

Pulpit Commentary:

For out of that well they watered the flocks: and a great stone was upon the well's mouth. "Most of the cisterns are covered with a large thick, flat stone, in the center of which a hole is cut, which forms the mouth of the cistern. This hole, in many instances, we found covered with a heavy stone, to the removal of which two or three men were requisite" (Robinson, 2. p. 180). Genesis 29:2

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges:

the stone upon the well’s mouth] A well was a cistern or tank, often covered with a large stone requiring two or three men to remove it.

This stone protected the water from the rays of the sun and from mischief or pollution. In the present instance the well seems to have belonged to the community, and was not opened for use, until all the herdsmen and shepherds had come.

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes:

The well was probably a cistern that had a mouth with a large circumference (Genesis 29:8). A very large stone that required several men to remove it evidently covered it. After someone moved the stone, the flocks would gather around the edge of the well to drink. The well from which Rebekah drew water for Eliezer (Genesis 24:16) may have been a different kind.

The male shepherds may have been unable to roll the stone away because the well belonged to Laban; their inability may have been moral rather than physical. [Note: Bush, 2:116-17.]

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