When excavating archaeological sites in Israel, potsherds normally turn up in large quantities. Whoever lived there must have used ceramic vessels for a whole lot of purposes, and many of those ceramic vessels somehow must have been broken and left behind. Especially for those archaeological layers associated with biblical times, the question arises how the people would have called these pots and jars at the time and how they might have used them. After all, in the Bible we read of jars and jugs, of potters and potsherds.
But it is not easy to relate the pots we find in excavations to those mentioned in the Bible. There are several reasons for that. First, I think that the Biblical terms were not always consistently applied to refer to one particular form. Rather, they probably covered a surprisingly wide range of forms with sometimes overlapping descriptions. Second, there are far fewer references to pots and jars in the Bible than we might assume. It is sometimes difficult to ascertain from the few references what the ceramic vessel might have been used for and what it might have looked like. Third, the references in the Bible mention the ceramic vessels in passing. They are not really interested in the ceramic vessels. A description of life in Ancient Israel is not the purpose of the Bible. It is just the back-drop and a familiarity with the ordinary things of life is assumed.
The first example doesn’t look very promising at all, for from a reading of many Bibles it doesn’t even refer to a ceramic vessel, but rather a wine-skin. Following the NIV (New International Version) translation, in 1. Samuel 1:24 we read that Hannah kept her promise to the LORD and brought her son Samuel to the house of the tabernacle in Shiloh.
After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh.
We only have a reference here to a “skin of wine”. Something like that wouldn’t survive in the archaeological record. The Hebrew word used for that is נבל(nebel). And right, if we look this word up in the New Strong’s Dictionary for Hebrew and Greek Words we do get the meaning “a skin-bag for liquids”. It comes from a root that means “collapsing”, since when the skins were empty they were collapsed and folded away. With that we may leave the vocabulary to the Hebrew scholars and consider that unfortunately as archaeologists we do not find any trace of those wine-bags.
However, I want to advance an argument that we do find those wine-containers in archaeological sites. It may be true that initially the term nebel referred to wineskins, but even that isn’t sure. The root of the word is also used in a word, which generally seems to have the meaning of being foolish or wicked. Trying to find some commonality between the different words, scholars have argued that the root meaning should be something like “collapsing”. While I am no Hebrew scholar, I am not sure that this is the only possible root meaning.
Clearly those wine containers must have been transportable. In 1. Samuel 25:18 we read:
Abigail lost no time. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seas of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys.
It’s pretty difficult to transport big wine jars, so it might seem more logical to translate the word nebel as wine-skin. But clearly if we assume this, we haven’t seen this guy:
This is a 7th-century BCE figurine from Cyprus showing someone carrying jars on a donkey. The original is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the photo is courtesy of the Museum.
That nebel referred to pottery also becomes clear from a few other verses in the Bible. Isaiah 30:12-14 reads (NIV):
Therefore this is what the Holy One of Israel says: Because you have rejected this message, relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant. It will break in pieces like pottery, shattered so mercilessly that among its pieces not a fragment will be found for taking coals from a hearth or scooping water out of a cistern.
Here the NIV translates nebel simply as “pottery”. It might have said “jar” instead. But it is clear that this is a ceramic vessel that is smashed to pieces, not a skin-bag. The verse also gives us a hint about the secondary use of potsherds. When a jar was broken, potsherds were apparently used to take coals from a fire and to scoop water. But let’s return back to the discussion.
In praise of Eliakim son of Hilkiah, Isaiah uses well-known ceramic vessels to poetically say “from the least to the greates”. Isaiah 22:24
All the glory of his family will hang on him; its offspring and offshoots – all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to the jars.
Here the word nebel is translated as “jar”. But what becomes clear from the context is that it was a large pottery vessel, maybe the largest that was commonly kept in a household.
But not only wine was kept in these vessels. Job 38:37 seems to refer to jars filled with water. At least that’s how the NIV translates nebel here.
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?
I suggest that the term nebel generally refers to the large storage jars as we find them in many excavations. Many of them would have been used to store and transport wine, others might have been used for water. The Bible does not tell us directly of other uses for these nebel jars.
I need to mention that the term נבל (nebel) also refers to a musical instrument in the Bible, probably the lyre. A large sound box might account for the similarity.