Biblical Cookware and Crockery
Pottery is the most ubiquitous find in just about every excavation. Serving people for millennia, ceramic vessels were used for the mundane tasks of food preparation, cooking and serving, and storage and trade. In contrast to objects made of more valuable raw materials, such as precious metals, stone, and ivory, pottery vessels were seldom treated as luxury or prestige items and played mainly a functional role in rituals.
Pottery and Culture
Ceramics, especially food-related vessels, offer insight into many aspects of ancient life, including cultural practices, ethnic identity, and social status, as cuisine is an integral and robust expression of such identities. Indeed, pottery often reflects both the entrenchment and continuity of ancient traditions and the adoption of new customs and behaviors that evolve due to changing social, historical and physical circumstances, such as migration, conquest, or environmental instability.
For example, when the Philistines first arrived in Canaan from the Aegean world in the 12th century B.C.E., they brought with them their own particular type of cooking pot (and attendant cuisine) that was very different from the long-lived traditional Canaanite pot.
The typical Canaanite cooking pot (See #2) was a rather shallow open vessel, kind of like a large bowl, with a wide rounded bottom. They came in a variety of sizes, including very large ones. By contrast, the Aegean-type cooking pots (See #1) were small, closed vessels that look more like jugs, with a restricted neck and usually one handle. Their bottom also has a narrow flat or a ring base, which is counter-intuitive for heat distribution (which the wide round Canaanite base provides).
Different types of food would have been cooked in these two very different types of pots. The open shallow Canaanite pot could be used to boil the contents, as in a stew, and could accommodate bones of meat, while the small, closed pot would more suit cooking food like wheat or rice. In addition, the Aegean pots were for single portions, while the Canaanite pots could feed a family or other large group.
Over time, the new Philistine type of pot was adopted and adapted into the local Canaanite cooking practice (See #3), and the traditional Canaanite pot was used by the Philistine immigrants as well. These cooking pots thus afford us a “behind the scenes” peek at the social and cultural intermingling that took place between the locals and the newcomers.
Pottery Form and Function
Archaeologists identify a vessel as a jug, storage jar or lamp, etc., based mainly on its shape. With some vessels, the rationale is sound: a bowl is usually a small, open serving vessel, and a jar is mainly a large, closed vessel with a capacity for storage for household needs, taxes, or trade.
Yet there is a degree of uncertainty in some of these designations. For example, we define a jug as a vessel used to pour liquids since it has a narrow opening and a convenient side handle. Jugs, however, could also have been used to ferment beer or to process dairy products. Chalices are often considered to have been used to burn incense in rituals, but perhaps (also?) served for illumination or as a decorative serving dish, as they have a tall, elegant base. Thus, presentism—defining the ancient function according to the modern use of similar pots—has limitations.
Identifying Pottery by Location
Archaeologists also attempt to identify vessels based on where they are found, although this approach can suffer from a “chicken and egg” problem. For example, at Tel Halif in the south of Israel, in a house dating to the 8th century B.C.E., a group of small bowls concentrated in one room were understood to have been personal drinking cups, and the room was designated a “living room.” And yet, in different contexts, for example at Yavneh in an Iron Age II favissa—i.e., a pit or crypt near a temple where materials were discarded—and a Late Bronze Age temple at Hazor, concentrations of small bowls were interpreted as indicating a ritual context or as evidence for feasting. Thus, interpretation of the use of a given object is highly influenced by its archaeological context, which in turn affects how the surrounding materials are understood.
Moreover, ceramic vessels typically had multiple uses and were moved around between different venues on various occasions. As anthropologist Prudence Rice notes, “The archaeological context is often their final resting place rather than an accurate indicator of how their use life was spent.”
Pottery in the Bible
The biblical text is of little help in sharpening our understanding of how specific ceramic items were used since most references to pots lack explicit descriptions of their shape, origin, or function. It also is difficult, if not impossible, to correlate any of the biblical terms with actual pottery vessels found in archaeological contexts. Thus, we need to understand these terms according to context, comparisons, and conjecture, all of which prove to be quite as problematic as in the archaeological examples discussed above.
Alexander Honeyman (1907–1988), an archaeologist and epigrapher from the University of St. Andrews, and James Kelso (1892–1978), a Bible scholar and archaeologist from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, each penned what is now considered a classic survey dealing with the identification of ceramic (and metal), mostly food-related vessels in the Bible, in which they itemize the many terms used to describe the vessels. Even so, most remain ambiguous when it comes to understanding their shape and function.
The most frequently used term for a ceramic vessel in the Bible is כְּלִי חֶרֶשׂ (keli cheres). For example, in describing what to do with various types of pots that became impure, we read:
ויקרא טו:יב וּכְלִי חֶרֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר יִגַּע בּוֹ הַזָּב יִשָּׁבֵר וְכָל כְּלִי עֵץ יִשָּׁטֵף בַּמָּיִם.
Lev 15:12 Any clay vessel that the one with the discharge touches shall be broken; and every vessel of wood shall be rinsed in water.
This law might reflect the fact that porous clay walls made it impossible to totally cleanse the pots of impurity; in addition, clay pots were the cheapest type of vessel available and were readily produced.
סִיר (sīr), translated as pot, is also commonly found in the Bible in contexts suggesting it was used for cooking. For example, when the Israelites complain about the lack of food and water, they reminisce:
שׁמות טז:ג ...מִי יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד יְ־הוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל סִיר הַבָּשָׂר בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע....
Exod 16:3 …“If only we had died by the hand of YHWH in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread….”
In the book of Ezekiel, YHWH uses the cooking of meat in a sīr as a metaphor in a rebuke of Israel:
יחזקאל כד:ג וּמְשֹׁל אֶל בֵּית הַמֶּרִי מָשָׁל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה שְׁפֹת הַסִּיר שְׁפֹת וְגַם יְצֹק בּוֹ מָיִם. כד:ד אֱסֹף נְתָחֶיהָ אֵלֶיהָ כָּל נֵתַח טוֹב יָרֵךְ וְכָתֵף מִבְחַר עֲצָמִים מַלֵּא. כד:ה מִבְחַר הַצֹּאן לָקוֹחַ וְגַם דּוּר הָעֲצָמִים תַּחְתֶּיהָ רַתַּח רְתָחֶיהָ גַּם בָּשְׁלוּ עֲצָמֶיהָ בְּתוֹכָהּ.
Ezek 24:3 And utter an allegory to the rebellious house and say to them: “Thus says the Lord YHWH, ‘Set on the pot, set it on, pour in water also, 24:4 put in it the pieces, all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder. Fill it with choice bones. 24:5 Take the choicest one of the flock, pile the logs under it; boil its pieces, seethe also its bones in it.”
These pots were also used in the Temple:
זכריה יד:כ ...וְהָיָה הַסִּירוֹת בְּבֵית יְ־הוָה כַּמִּזְרָקִים לִפְנֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. יד:כא וְהָיָה כָּל סִיר בִּירוּשָׁלִַם וּבִיהוּדָה קֹדֶשׁ לַי־הוָה צְבָאוֹת וּבָאוּ כָּל הַזֹּבְחִים וְלָקְחוּ מֵהֶם וּבִשְּׁלוּ בָהֶם....
Zech 14:20 …And the cooking pots in the house of YHWH will be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar. 14:21 And every cooking pot in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be sacred to YHWH of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil….
In a study of Iron IIB cooking pots from Judah and Jerusalem with an incised “X” on their handles, Aren Maeir suggests that this mark is similar to the Paleo-Hebrew letter tav, the first letter in the word terumah, signifying that the contents were designated as an offering to the temple in Jerusalem.
Four other words denoting cooking vessels appear in the description of the sins of the sons of the priest Eli:
שׁמואל א ב:יג ...כָּל אִישׁ זֹבֵחַ זֶבַח וּבָא נַעַר הַכֹּהֵן כְּבַשֵּׁל הַבָּשָׂר וְהַמַּזְלֵג שְׁלֹשׁ הַשִּׁנַּיִם בְּיָדוֹ. ב:יד וְהִכָּה בַכִּיּוֹר אוֹ בַדּוּד אוֹ בַקַּלַּחַת אוֹ בַפָּרוּר כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲלֶה הַמַּזְלֵג יִקַּח הַכֹּהֵן בּוֹ....
1 Sam 2:13 …When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 2:14 and he would thrust it into the pan (kiyyor), or kettle (dud), or caldron (qalachat), ֹor pot (parur)….
Many of these translations are uncertain, and some have suggested that the last item, a parur, may refer to a one-handled cooking jug.
Other Types of Ceramics
Aside from terms for cooking vessels, many words for ceramic vessels can be identified in terms of their function, even if their exact shape is uncertain (See main image above). These include:
צַּלָּחַת (tzallachat) – usually translated as dish or plate, but tzallachat may have referred generally to any of the known Iron Age bowl types.
משׁלי יט:כד טָמַן עָצֵל יָדוֹ בַּצַּלָּחַת גַּם אֶל פִּיהוּ לֹא יְשִׁיבֶנָּה.
Prov 19:24 The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and will not even bring it back to the mouth.
In another passage, the plural for this term, צֵלָחוֹת (tzelachot), are vessels used for boiling:
דברי הימים ב לה:יג וַיְבַשְּׁלוּ הַפֶּסַח בָּאֵשׁ כַּמִּשְׁפָּט וְהַקֳּדָשִׁים בִּשְּׁלוּ בַּסִּירוֹת וּבַדְּוָדִים וּבַצֵּלָחוֹת וַיָּרִיצוּ לְכָל בְּנֵי הָעָם.
2 Chr 35:13 They roasted the Passover lamb with fire according to the ordinance; and they boiled the holy offerings in pots (sīrot), in caldrons (dewadim), and in pans (tzelachot) and carried them quickly to all the people.
To confuse matters more, the term צְלֹחִית (tzelochit) sometimes refers to a smaller bowl (2 Kgs 2:20).
אָסוּךְ שָׁמֶן (ʾasukh shamen) – a small jar of olive oil, possibly a flask, or a small jar with a spout, though the shape is unknown.
The term appears in the story of the miraculous provision of oil by the prophet Elisha for the poor widow:
מלכים ב ד:ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ אֱלִישָׁע מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה לָּךְ הַגִּידִי לִי מַה יֶּשׁ לְכִי בַּבָּיִת וַתֹּאמֶר אֵין לְשִׁפְחָתְךָ כֹל בַּבַּיִת כִּי אִם אָסוּךְ שָׁמֶן.
2 Kgs 4:2 Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.”
From that one jar of oil, the widow fills every vessel that she can borrow from her neighbors, and she then sells the excess oil to pay off her debts (vv. 3–7).
כַּד (kad) – a jar, probably a household storage vessel.
The story of Elijah asking for food from the destitute Sidonite widow refers to storing meal in a kad:
מלכים א יז:יד ...כַּד הַקֶּמַח לֹא תִכְלָה וְצַפַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶן לֹא תֶחְסָר....
1 Kgs 17:14 “…The jar (kad) of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil (tzappachat hashemen) will not fail....”
The צַפַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶן (tzappachat hashemen), an oil flask, in this passage was likely similar to the ʾasukh shamen; context does not allow us to determine how they might have differed, or if these are slightly different regional terms for the same item.
נִבְלֵי חֶרֶשׂ (nible cheres) – wine jars, though perhaps also used for oil and grain.
The term appears in a metaphor deriding the children of Zion:
איכה ד:ב בְּנֵי צִיּוֹן הַיְקָרִים הַמְסֻלָּאִים בַּפָּז אֵיכָה נֶחְשְׁבוּ לְנִבְלֵי חֶרֶשׂ מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי יוֹצֵר.
Lam 4:2 The precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold—how they are reckoned as earthen jars (nible cheres), the work of a potter’s hands!
בַקְבֻּק יוֹצֵר חָרֶשׂ (baqbuq yotzer cheres) – a decanter, possibly referring to a water (or wine) decanter, typical of the Iron IIB–C (8th–early 6th centuries B.C.E.).
ירמיה יט:א כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה הָלוֹךְ וְקָנִיתָ בַקְבֻּק יוֹצֵר חָרֶשׂ....
Jer 19:1 Thus said YHWH: “Go and buy a potter’s earthenware decanter….”
פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן (pakh hashemen) – an oil jug or juglet.
Samuel uses such a vessel when he anoints Saul as king of Israel:
שׁמואל א י:א וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן וַיִּצֹק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר הֲלוֹא כִּי מְשָׁחֲךָ יְ־הוָה עַל נַחֲלָתוֹ לְנָגִיד.
1 Sam 10:1 Samuel took a juglet of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “YHWH has anointed you ruler over his heritage.”
Pottery Vessels in Metaphors and Parables
The deeply entrenched and central role that pottery played in the lives of everyday people in ancient Israel, and the fact that most people would have seen pottery produced in their villages and the cities, prompted its serving as a powerful metaphor in which the relationship between humans and YHWH is expressed as that between the potter and his clay:
ישׁעיה סד:ז וְעַתָּה יְ־הוָה אָבִינוּ אָתָּה אֲנַחְנוּ הַחֹמֶר וְאַתָּה יֹצְרֵנוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ כֻּלָּנוּ.
Isa 64:7 (*64:8) Yet, O YHWH, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Jeremiah draws on this imagery to describe YHWH’s relationship with Israel when he goes to the potter’s house to watch him working at the pottery wheel:
ירמיה יח:ד וְנִשְׁחַת הַכְּלִי אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה בַּחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר וְשָׁב וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ כְּלִי אַחֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר יָשַׁר בְּעֵינֵי הַיּוֹצֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Jer 18:4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
As the potter remakes the vessel, so YHWH will also remake Israel as he sees fit:
ירמיה יח:ו הֲכַיּוֹצֵר הַזֶּה לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲשׂוֹת לָכֶם בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם יְ־הוָה הִנֵּה כַחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר כֵּן אַתֶּם בְּיָדִי בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Jer 18:6 “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” says YHWH. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
Like pottery, this simple and effective metaphor has remained relevant, preserved in the piyyut, כִּי הִנֵּה כַחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר, “For like the clay in the potter’s hand,” recited on Yom Kippur evening.
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Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen received her Ph.D. in archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she is a researcher and lecturer. She is also the editor of the Qedem Monograph series of the Institute of Archaeology and the Israel Exploration Journal of the Israel Exploration Society. She has excavated with Prof. Amihai Mazar at Tel Batash, Tel Beth Shean, and Tel Rehov, and has participated in the publication of the final reports of those excavations. Currently, she co-directs the excavations at Tel Abel Beth-Maacah in northern Israel. Her research interests include Bronze and Iron Age ceramics and ceramic technology.
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