Israel’s Wood Choppers and Water Drawers
In his speech towards the end of Deuteronomy, Moses lists the various social strata who comprise the Israelite community, as part of the covenant with God:
דברים כט:ט אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ כט:י טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ׃
Deut 29:9 You stand this day, all of you, before YHWH your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 29:10 your children, your wives, even the sojourner (ger) within your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.
Woodchopping and water-drawing are menial jobs, usually associated with men and women respectively. For example, in Deuteronomy 19:5, wood-cutting (לַחְטֹב עֵצִים) is described as a task performed by Israelite men, and Jeremiah 46:22 compares Egyptian mercenary troops, presumably all-male, to woodchoppers (חֹטְבֵי עֵצִים). Meanwhile, water-drawing is often performed by unmarried girls for their families, as in the narratives of encounter with Rebekah (Gen 24:15–16), Rachel (Gen 29:6, 9–10), and the daughters of Reuel (Exod 2:16). Water-drawing girls also appear in the story of Saul looking for his father’s lost donkeys, when he and his servant וְהֵמָּה מָצְאוּ נְעָרוֹת יֹצְאוֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם, “meet girls coming out to draw water” (1 Sam 9:11). Presumably, these are young Israelite girls doing the work for their families.
Other ancient Near Eastern sources gender these tasks similarly; for instance, in the Ugaritic Kirta epic, a brother goes home to speak to his sister, but “his sister’s gone out to draw water” (3:1.51). Later in the same text, Kirta arrives with his army at Udum and begins to attack the outlying villages, where he (1:4.51–5.2):
Sweeps from the fields the men cutting wood, from the threshing floors, the women picking straw. Sweeps from the well the women drawing water, from the spring, the women filling jars.
Including Menial Laborers in the Covenant
At its most straightforward reading, then, Moses’ inclusion of woodchoppers and water-drawers emphasizes that the covenant with God is not only for the upper class and for landowners, but even for the working class. As Jeffrey Tigay writes in his JPS commentary (ad loc.):
The wording “from woodchopper to waterdrawer” means that other types of menial laborers are also included, such as washermen, gardeners, and straw collectors, who are often associated with these two in ancient Near Eastern texts.
Richard Nelson of Southern Methodist University summarizes the way Deuteronomy views these types of laborers in his OTL Deuteronomy commentary:
Even resident aliens are integrated into the covenant people, and all menial laborers are embraced by a traditionally patterned “from…to…” formula.
The last clause of Deuteronomy 29:10 is an attempt to clarify that every person who is part of “Israel,” even those who serve in menial tasks, should keep the covenant laid out in Deuteronomy; it likely has as broad a referent group as possible. Nevertheless, some interpreters, both traditional and modern, have argued that Moses is referring to a specific subgroup of people.
Tigay, for example, argues that Moses cannot be referring to Israelite menial laborers at the end of Deuteronomy 29:10: “Since all categories of Israelites have already been listed, this phrase must refer to aliens that serve as menial laborers.”  Of course, it is equally possible that menial laborers are being added for emphasis, and/or that their appearance at the end is only because the phrase is the longest in the list. Nevertheless, it is possible that Deuteronomy is thinking specifically about non-Israelite members of the community.
Slaves—The early peshat exegete, R. Joseph Kara (ca. 1065–ca. 1135, Northern France), suggests that “woodchoppers and water-drawers” refers to slaves:
מחוטב עציך – הם העבדים החוטבים עצים, עד שואב מימיך – הן השפחות היוצאות לשאוב מים.
“From the hewer of your wood”—these are the slaves who chop wood; “until the drawer of your water”—these are the maidservants who go out to draw water.
If the verse is referring to slaves, it would fit with other laws in Deuteronomy about slaves, especially the Decalogue Shabbat law that states, לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ כָּמוֹךָ, “so that your male and female slave may rest as you do” (Deut 5:14). The difficulty with this suggestion, however, is that Deuteronomy 29:10 doesn’t use any of the possible terms for “slaves and maidservants” employed elsewhere, implying that it has something else in mind.
Gerim (sojourners)—More frequently, commentators have suggested that the phrase modifies the preceding clause, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ, “even the sojourner (ger) within your camp,” and could be describing a subcategory of this group. Sojourners are a special class of vulnerable outsiders, placed together repeatedly with the widow and the orphan (Deut 10:18, 14:29, 24:14ff). Deuteronomy emphasizes how gerim are entitled to equal justice with Israelites (e.g., Deut 1:16), and the Israelites themselves must remember being gerim in Egypt (Deut 10:19, 26:5).
Notably, this reading goes against the Masoretic pointing, since a disjunctive trope (etnachta) separates the two groups. Nevertheless, it found strong support among rabbinic and medieval interpreters due to an intertextual connection with the only other biblical text to use the phrase “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
The Gibeonite Intertextual Connection
In Joshua 9, the Gibeonites, a Canaanite group living in the heartland of the future region of Benjamin, pretend to be from outside the land in order to trick the Israelites into signing a peace treaty with them, since all Canaanites need to be killed according to the law of the חרם, “proscription” (Deut 20:16–18).
A few days later, when the Israelites realize they have been deceived, they ask themselves what they should do about the Gibeonites, and the leaders of the people respond:
יהושע ט:כא ...יִחְיוּ וַיִּהְיוּ חֹטְבֵי עֵצִים וְשֹׁאֲבֵי מַיִם לְכָל הָעֵדָה...
Josh 9:21 … They shall live, but let them become hewers of wood and drawers of water for the whole community…
Joshua then rebukes the Gibeonites and tells them about their punishment:
יהושע ט:כג וְעַתָּה אֲרוּרִים אַתֶּם וְלֹא יִכָּרֵת מִכֶּם עֶבֶד וְחֹטְבֵי עֵצִים וְשֹׁאֲבֵי מַיִם לְבֵית אֱלֹהָי.
Josh 9:23 Therefore, be accursed! Never shall your descendants cease to be slaves, hewers of wood and drawers of water for the House of my God.
Joshua frames this rebuke as a curse that will last for all time. Notably, as opposed to making them servants for the community, he specifically makes them servants for the Sanctuary/Temple. The chapter ends with the narrator’s summary of what happened with the Gibeonites:
יהושע ט:כז וַיִּתְּנֵם יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא חֹטְבֵי עֵצִים וְשֹׁאֲבֵי מַיִם לָעֵדָה וּלְמִזְבַּח יְ־הוָה עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר.
Josh 9:27 That day Joshua made them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the community and for the altar of YHWH—as they still are—in the place that He would choose.
The implication of the story is that, from this point on, the woodchoppers and water drawers in the Temple were Gibeonites.
What Is the Connection?
The phrase “woodchoppers and water-drawers” may simply be an expression for menial laborers used by both authors, with no intent to connect the stories. Nevertheless, Andrew D. H. Mayes, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew at the University of Dublin, has argued that the verse in Deuteronomy is an attempt to reinterpret the story in Joshua 9, granting the Gibeonites a legitimate Israelite status.
Rabbinic tradition also assumed a connection between the stories, but from their perspective, since the stories are historical accounts, and the book of Deuteronomy is set before Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, how could Moses be referring to this future event?
Midrash Tanḥuma: Gibeonites Came Twice
In Midrash Tanḥuma (Nitzavim 2), R. Isaac ben Tavli, a third generation Amora from Israel, suggests that Gibeonites had first tried to deceive Moses:
מחוטב עציך, אמר רבי יצחק בן טבלי, מלמד, שבאו הגבעונים אצל [משה ולא קיבלן, ובאו אצל] יהושע בן נון וקיבלן, שנאמר: ויעשו גם המה בערמה וגו'. מהו גם המה? המלמד שבאו אצל משה ולא קיבלן.
“From the hewer of your wood” (Deut. 29:10)—R. Isaac ben Tavli said: “This teaches that the Gibeonites came [before Moses, but he did not accept them; then they came before] Joshua ben Nun, and he accepted them. As it is said: ‘and they also acted also with cunning, etc.’ (Josh. 9:4). What does ‘they also’ mean? It teaches that they had come before Moses, and he did not accept them.”
According to this midrash, the Gibeonites tried to trick Moses into making peace with them even before the Israelites crossed the Jordan, but Moses saw through their deceit. When they tried the same trick on Joshua, however, it worked.
R. Isaac ben Tavli praises Moses at Joshua’s expense, since Moses figured out a trick that Joshua later missed. At the same time, he also implicitly raises the question of why Joshua and the other Israelite leaders, who would have been with Moses at the time, still didn’t recognize the Gibeonite gambit on their second attempt.
A Transferred Homily?
The midrash as presented makes little sense: If Moses refused to accept the Gibeonites’ overtures, why is he including them (i.e., the woodchoppers and water-drawers) in the covenant? Didn’t they only become woodchoppers and water-drawers after tricking Joshua?
It seems likely that the homily was originally written as a gloss on Joshua 9:4 (“they also”), which is the explicit midrashic hook, and that it has been artificially attached to Deuteronomy 29:10 because of the repeated words “woodchoppers and water drawers.” The copying of a midrash from one verse to another, even when the latter doesn’t fit perfectly, is so common throughout midrash that rabbinic scholars have created a special name for it: דרשה מעוברת, “a transferred homily.”
This reconstruction explains R. Isaac’s homily in its original context. However, traditional sages felt the need to make some sense of the Tanḥuma in its current context, and did so by modifying the homily in several ways.
Moses Prophesies the Gibeonite Conversion (Midrash HaGadol)
Midrash HaGadol, the 14th century midrash compilation on the Torah by the Yemenite sage David Adani, suggests that Moses was speaking prophetically in Deuteronomy 29 (ad loc.):
מחטב עציך עד שאב מימיך. אם תאמר שחוטבים ושואבים אלו מישראל, והלא כבר נאמר כל איש ישראל, ומה ת"ל מחטב עציך עד שאב מימיך, מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה באותה שעה אנשי גבעון שעתידין לחסות בכנפי השכינה ולהיות חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים לכל העדה. וכיון שבאו אצל יהושע וקיבלו עליהן להיות חוטבים ושואבים מיד קיבלן, שנאמר ויתנם יהושע חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים לכל העדה (יהושע ט כא - כז)
“From the hewer of wood to the drawer of water”—If you say that the woodchoppers and water-drawers are Israelites, doesn’t it already say “all the men of Israel” (Deut 29:9)? So then what does “from the hewer of wood to the drawer of water” teach us? It teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moses at that point that the people of Gibeon were eventually to take refuge under the wings of the divine presence, and become the woodchoppers and water-drawers for the whole community. So once they came to Joshua, and agreed to be woodchoppers and water-drawers, [Joshua] accepted them immediately, as it says (Josh 9:27) “and Joshua made them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the community.”
Although this midrash shares features with that of Midrash Tanḥuma, upon which it may have been based, it serves an opposite function, depicting Joshua positively: Here, Joshua and Moses are presented as working in tandem, with Moses prophesying what Joshua will correctly do in the future. Moreover, it presents the Gibeonites as volunteering to serve the Israelite community. They are described as cherished converts, like Ruth, who simply want to join the people of God.
Lying Canaanites (Rashi)
A very different solution to the problem appears in the retelling of the midrash in the commentary of Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105), who suggests that it was not the Gibeonites themselves who approached Moses, but some other Canaanites:
מחטב עציך—מלמד שבאו כנענים להתגייר בימי משה, כדרך שבאו גבעונים בימי יהושע, וזהו האמור בגבעונים: ויעשו גם המה בערמה. ונתנם חטבי עצים ושואבי מים
“From the hewer of your wood”—This teaches that Canaanites came to convert in the days of Moses, just as the Gibeonites came in the days of Joshua, and hence what is said about the Gibeonites, “and they also acted with cunning,” and Moses designated them hewers of wood and drawers of water.
First, Rashi avoids the Tanḥuma’s confusing chronology by describing the people who come to Moses as Canaanites rather than Gibeonites. Second, he has Moses accept them and make them into menial laborers, just as Joshua would later do. Third, Rashi introduces the term להתגייר, “to convert,” into his narrative. This may subtly paint converts as unwanted Israelites whom Moses and Joshua relegated to second-class citizenship, which would fit with other negative statements Rashi makes about converts elsewhere.
Simha Goldin, Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, has argued that Ashkenazi Jewish authorities remained cautious of converts at best, and suspicious of their likely ulterior motives at worst, until at least the end of the twelfth century. Rashi in particular, Goldin observes, shows “fear and suspicion regarding those converts who attempted to enter the gates of the Jewish people.”
As attitudes toward converts grew warmer in the generations after Rashi, and despite the growing prestige of Rashi’s Torah glosses, many later commentators avoided interpreting Moses’ woodchoppers and water-drawers as converts. As noted above, R. Joseph Kara understood the verse to refer to slaves, and a number of Tosafist commentaries—Bekhor Shor, Chizkuni, Sefer HaGan, Hadar Zekenim, and Daat Zekenim—all followed suit. While this is a straightforward reading of the biblical verse itself, its departure from the previously established midrashic tradition also avoids potential damage to converts who might be reading or listening to such a reading.
The Mixed Multitude: An Alternative Group of Converts (R. Meyuhas)
Another approach popular in the medieval period also understands the woodchoppers and water-drawers as not regular Israelites but outsiders; however, it identifies them with the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt together with the Israelites during the exodus (Exod 12:38). For example, the Greek peshat exegete R. Meyuhas ben Eliyahu writes:
מחוטב עציך—אלו ערב רב שנתגיירו ממצרים והיו להם חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים כדרך שהיו הגבעונים בימי יהושע.
“From the hewers of your wood”—these are the mixed multitude who converted in Egypt, and they became woodchoppers and water-drawers, just as the Gibeonites did in the time of Joshua.
R. Meyuhas goes further and even polemicizes against the midrashic approach of Tanḥuma and Rashi:
ורבותינו אמרו שאף בימי משה באו כנעניים ונתגיירו, ולא ידעתי מתי באו. ועוד, אחר שרימום בימי משה, היאך האמינו להם בימי יהושע?!
Our Rabbis said that in the time of Moses, Canaanites came and converted, but I do not know when they would have come. Moreover, after they tricked Moses, how could they have been trusted in time of Joshua?!
According to R. Meyuhas, the midrash makes no sense as peshat, both because the encounter is never mentioned and because it makes nonsense out of the story in Joshua 9.
Defending Moses in the Midrash (Ramban)
Nahmanides (R. Moses ben Nahman [Ramban], 1194–1270) similarly identifies the “mixed multitude” as the straightforward referent of “woodchoppers and water-drawers”:
וחוטבי עצים ושואבי מים אשר להם מערב רב
The woodchoppers and water-drawers that they had from the mixed multitude.
However, Nahmanides wanted to make sense of the midrashic tradition quoted in Rashi and Tanḥuma as well. Thus, he writes:
ורבותינו אמרו שבאו קצת כנענים בימי משה כדרך שבאו בימי יהושע, ונתנם חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים לעדה ולמשכן י"י. ואין הכונה לומר שרמו אותו, אבל באו אליו להשלים עמו, כי כן המשפט כאשר ביארנו (רמב"ן דברים כ':י'-י"א). וכך מצאתי במדרש תנחומא: ללמדך שבאו אצל משה ולא קבלם, כלומר שלא יכלו לרמותו לכרות להם ברית, אבל עשאם מיד חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים.
Our teachers said that some Canaanites came in the days of Moses, just as they came in the days of Joshua, and he made them woodchoppers and water-drawers for the congregation and the Tabernacle of God. They did not intend to say that they deceived him! Instead, they came to make peace with him, for this is the law as we explained (in the gloss to Deut 20:10–11). So too, I found in Midrash Tanhuma, “this teaches that they came before Moses, but he did not accept them.” It means to say that they could not trick him into making a covenant with them, but he immediately designated them as woodchoppers and water-drawers.
In Nahmanides’ reading, Moses had already agreed to make peace with the Gibeonites (or any Canaanites who wished to make peace with Israel), and they were already designated as Israel’s menial workers. The only thing that Joshua added to the mix was accidentally making a covenant with them. This interpretation was also adopted by R. Jacob ben Asher (1269–1343) in his long commentary on the Torah.
Making Menial Laborers into Torah Scholars (Rambam)
A very different approach to the woodchoppers and water-drawers appears in Moses Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah (Book of Knowledge, “Laws of Talmud Torah,” 1:9), which reimagines these menial laborers as Torah scholars:
גדולי חכמי ישראל היו מהן חוטבי עצים ומהן שואבי מים ומהן סומים ואף על פי כן היו עוסקין בתלמוד תורה ביום ובלילה והם מכלל מעתיקי השמועה איש מפי איש מפי משה רבנו.
The great sages of Israel had among them hewers of wood and drawers of water and blind men, but nevertheless they occupied themselves in Torah study by day and by night, and they are included among those who translated what they heard, from the mouth of one man to another, from the mouth of Moses our Teacher.
Maimonides does not explain here who these wood-chopping and water-drawing rabbis were, but in his commentary to Mishnah Avot, in the context of proving that rabbis must earn a living outside of their Torah teaching, he discusses the particulars (4:6, Sheilat edition):
וכבר ידעת כי הלל הזקן היה חוטב, והיה חוטב עצים ולומד לפני שמעיה ואבטליון, והוא בתכלית העניות... וקרנא דין בכל ארץ ישראל, והוא היה משקה שדות...
As you already know, Hillel the Elder was a woodchopper, and he would chop wood and learn before Shemaiah and Avtalyon, while he was as poor as can be… Karna was a rabbinic judge throughout the land of Israel, and he would water fields…
While elsewhere in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides expands a similar list to include other famous rabbis with various professions, here he seems to be making a quick textual allusion to the passage in Deuteronomy and to the presence of wood-hewers and water-drawers in the Israelite community, as they heard Moses’s Torah from his own mouth. In this Maimonidean homily, the woodchoppers and water-drawers have become the sages of the Talmud.
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Dr. Wendy Love Anderson is Assistant Director of Academic Programs in the Center for the Humanities and affiliate faculty in Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her M.A. in Religious Studies and her Ph.D in History of Christianity from the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Discernment of Spirits: Assessing Visions and Visionaries in the Late Middle Ages.
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