Pottery in the Bible

[This article was taken from Chapter Three of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].

 

(A) Its usefulness. In the East the fragility of the pottery, the expensiveness of copper vessels, and the unsuitableness of leather bottles for many of the requirements of town and village life, creates a large and constant demand for the potter’s goods. Earthenware jars are also preferred for holding drinking water, because the evaporation from the porous substance helps to keep the water cool. In the warm East it is a point of courtesy to give “…a cup of cold water…” (Matt. 10:42).

Potter’s Wheel

(B) The Wheel. The clay is trodden by the feet until it is reduced to a suitable and uniform consistency (Isa. 41:25). A quantity of it is then lifted and laid on the table beside the potter. He keeps beside him a dish of water into which at any moment he can dip his fingers. The potter’s wheel itself consists of an upright, revolving wooden rod to which two horizontal wooden discs are firmly attached, so that whatever turns one turns the other also. Hence the prophet speaks of the wheels of a certain potter (Jer. 18:3). [1] The lower and larger one is driven by a kick of the heel; the upper by a push of the hand. The potter has a considerable variety to choose from, even in the shapes and sizes of the common water pitchers, apart from such articles as cooking pots and jars for olives, cooking butter, grape syrup, etc.

When, during the process of molding, the lump of clay seems to be either insufficient or too much for one form, he can convert it into a somewhat different form. To break off or add a fresh lump of clay would involve a fresh commencement. The potter can do what he likes with the clay, but not with himself; he must make the best possible use of each lump. His liberty is directed by wisdom. The form, ornamentation, and to a large extent the color of the pottery, as drab, red, or black, are determined at the moist stage. The baking makes these unchangeable.

(C) The baking. After being lifted from the wheel the vessel is set on a shelf along with rows of others, where they are all exposed to the wind from every direction, but sheltered from the sun until they are considerably dried and hardened. They are then arranged in the brick kiln, a shallow well of brick work or stone about four feet deep and eight or ten feet in diameter, with a small oven of brick at the base. The pottery is piled up over this until the wall rises like a cone to the height of some twelve feet. It is thickly covered with brushwood to keep in the heat and prevent sudden chilling from outside.

The fire is kept burning below until the pottery is sufficiently hardened. A few of the jars come out bent at the neck, with a dent in the middle, or a general lean to one side, and the ground around a potter’s kiln is always thickly strewn with the broken pieces of the vessels that, in spite of his skill and care, have proved unable to stand the test of fire. The expression “…make strong the brickkiln” (Nah. 3:14), refers to the reconstruction of the circular wall and the dome when the kiln is to be filled with bricks to be fired.

Pottery excavated from a grave at Dan

Besides the uses referred to, clay was the writing material of Assyria and Babylon. Job refers to the impression produced upon it by the seal or mold, and compares the relief design of the clay tablet to embroidered cloth (Job 38:14).

Clay bricks that were dried by the sun or in a fire were used extensively in building. Baked clay bricks are mentioned as early as the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:3. Clay bricks were used for houses, temples, cisterns, walls and fortresses, etc. At the present day in Syria, wherever building stone is scarce, houses are built of sun-dried brick except on the side or gables facing the western rainy quarter. The use of mud bricks in building explains the reference to thieves as people who “…dig through [the walls of] houses…” (Job 24:16). [2]

(D) The Scripture illustrations drawn from pottery emphasize three important resemblances between it and the spiritual life.

(1) The subjection of the clay to the potter (Isa. 29:16, 45:9, 64:8; Jer. 18:4-11; Rom. 9:21). This teaches the possibilities of faith and the iniquity of rebellion against the will of God. An Arabic proverb says, “The potter can put the ear where he likes.”

(2) Its cheapness and insignificance. Common clay pitchers and water jars cost very little. This fact provides a graphic background for the humiliation of Zion described in Lamentations 4:2: “The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!”

Fervent words from a wicked heart are compared to silver dross over an earthen vessel (Prov. 26:23). The earthen vessel can hold what is valuable without having any value of its own. Such is the condition of the Christian, who holds within himself the knowledge of the eternal Word of God (2 Cor. 4:7). [3]

(3) Fragility. The pottery vessels are very easily broken and cannot be mended. Sometimes a small hole in a jar can be stopped up with mud, a rag, or dough, but usually the knock or fall that breaks one part breaks it altogether and instantaneously (Ps. 2:9, 31:12; Isa. 30:14; Jer. 19:11; Rev. 2:27). This frailty is alluded to in a familiar Arabic proverb, which teaches patience amid provocations: “If there were no breakages, there would be no potteries.” David speaks of his strength as “…dried up like a potsherd…” (Ps. 22:15). Clay fragments lie about everywhere, exposed to all kinds of weather, and are practically indestructible. Archaeologists tell us that they often render a very important service. Similarly, the sorrows of God’s people have been as helpful as their songs. [4]

Endnotes

[1] Most of the modern versions miss the custom and ignore the fact that the Hebrew text has the plural “wheels.”
[2] Many of the modern versions translate the custom right out of the text, and have “breaking in” or some similar translation, instead of “digging through” which is the accurate translation of the Hebrew text.
[3] In 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV) it says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” The context shows that the “treasure” is the knowledge we have of God and His glory that was revealed by Christ.
[4] The potter teaches another lesson, one that Mackie does not mention and one that modern theology usually does not mention either—the part the clay plays. It is common to hear Christian preachers say that the potter can do whatever he wants with the clay. However, the clay also has a part to play—it has to be willing to be worked with. Every potter knows this. It often occurs that a potter does his best to produce a quality product, but the clay seems to have a mind of its own and does not cooperate. Either it will not hold the shape the potter is attempting, or it cracks or breaks in drying or firing, or it will not take a glaze, etc.. The potter does his best, but the clay is uncooperative.

Jeremiah 18:1-10 describes a potter trying to make a pot, but the clay was “marred” in his hands (v. 4). It would not do what he wanted, so he had to do something different. God was showing Jeremiah, via the potter, that there are times when God has a purpose for a person or people but, because of the way they respond to Him, He has to do something different. God mentioned that there are times He announces evil for a nation but they repent and so He has to change (vv. 7 and 8), and there are other times when He plans good for a nation, but they are evil and disobedient so He cannot do the good that He purposed to do. God designs each of us with specific abilities and ways that we can serve Him. However, if we are unwilling, He cannot fulfill His purposes. 2 Timothy 2:21 encourages us to do our part to be honorable vessels, sanctified and adequate for the Master’s use, prepared to do good works.

God designs each of us with specific abilities and ways that we can serve Him. However, if we are unwilling, He cannot fulfill His purposes. 2 Timothy 2:21 encourages us to do our part to be honorable vessels, sanctified and adequate for the Master’s use, prepared to do good works.

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