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I'll just use one example where the word is translated different ways:

Genesis 37:24 — The New International Version (NIV) 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

Genesis 37:24 — King James Version (KJV 1900) 24 And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.

Genesis 37:24 — New Living Translation (NLT) 24 Then they grabbed him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

Genesis 37:24 — The New King James Version (NKJV) 24 Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Genesis 37:24 — New Century Version (NCV) 24 and threw him into the well. It was empty, and there was no water in it.

Genesis 37:24 — New International Reader’s Version (1998) (NIrV) 24 And they threw him into the well. The well was empty. There wasn’t any water in it.

Genesis 37:24 — New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (NASB95) 24 and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it.

Genesis 37:24 - English Standard Version 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

I notice that some translations use cistern and others use well and in this case some even use pit. However, I know that a cistern and a well are not one and the same (perhaps one could argue that they are both pits though). I also know that they are not built the same today as they were in Biblical times. This led me to be curious. What is the Biblical difference between the two, how are they made, and why is there a split in the translating?

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The split is apparently due to the fact a that the word in Hebrew (hab·bō·rāh) could mean either cistern or pit. In those days - unlike today where a tank is usually involved - cisterns were either natural or man-made pits that collected water, sometimes involving a stone surfacing.

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The fact that the text states "there was no water in it" means that its purpose was to act as cistern. The word "well" is used by a minority of interpreters, probably thinking that the pit was dug in order to reach the water table below, in which case it would be both a pit and a well.

Conclusion: a cistern was a particular type of pit, and since this pit was empty of water, either translation works.

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The operative word here in Gen 37:20, 22, 24, 28, 29 is בּוֹר (bowr). Its meaning can include (BDB):

  1. Cistern for containing water, made by digging, eg, Deut 6:11, 2 Chron 26:10, Neh 9:25, Prov 5:15, etc
  2. Well eg, 1 Chron 11:17, 18, 2 sam 23:15, Eccl 12:6, Jer 6:7, etc
  3. Pit, any hole in the ground, eg, Ex 21;33, 34, Ps 7:16, 1 Sam 13:6, 2 Sam 23:20, etc
  4. Dungeon (pit with no water), eg., Jer 38:6, Zech 9:11, Gen 37:24, 40:13, etc.
  5. Pit of the grave, she'ol, eg, Prov 28:17, Isa 14;19, Ps 30:4, etc.

The meaning must be gleaned from the context. In Gen 37, the meaning is either:

  • dry cistern
  • dungeon
  • pit

indeed, Strong's more succinctly lists the meaning of בּוֹר (bowr) as:

a pit hole (especially one used as a cistern or a prison) -- cistern, dungeon, fountain, pit, well.

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A cistern stored water, usually rainwater. It was coated with lime to make it somewhat watertight to keep the water from escaping, like a huge water jar. Thus, it had to be maintained to keep the water from leaking out. A poorly maintained cistern that no longer held water was only good as a pit.

Cistern. Place to store water; a man-made catch basin or reservoir. Stone cisterns plastered with lime came into common use in Palestine in the 13th century BC. -- Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Cistern. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 465). Baker Book House.

One digs a well to down below the water table. Thus, it isn't sealed to keep water in. It lets water in. It depends on rainwater not to capture it from above ground but on rain keeping the water table high enough for the well.

Well. Man-made reservoir fed either by subterranean springs or by rainwater. Because the majority of the biblical world ranges from arid to semiarid, wells were a critical source of water for humans, livestock, and the irrigation of crops. Unfortunately -- Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Well. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2139). Baker Book House.

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