Oil and water don’t mix, but the same jug is used for them both

In my last post I tried to connect some of the pottery mentioned in the Bible with pottery forms found in archaeological excavations. Here I continue with that effort. This time I’m looking at the vessel called צַפַּחַת (zapahat). It isn’t mentioned very often in the Bible – just seven times. And really it is just three times, because it is used several times in two accounts.

The first of those accounts is in the continuous persecution of David by Saul. In 1. Samuel 26 is a story of an opportunity by David to kill Saul, but he does not do so, for he does not want to lay hand on the LORD’s annointed. David was in the desert and Saul was looking to kill him. David’s scouts had reported the location of Saul’s camp, so David went and observed the camp himself. He noted the exact location where Saul lay down to sleep at night in the centre of the camp. In a daring night raid David and his companion sneaked into the camp, past all of Saul’s men and stood at by Saul’s head, with all the men around him sleeping. David did not kill Saul.
1. Samuel 26:12 reads (NIV)

So David took the spear and water jug near Saul’s head, and they left. No-one saw or knew about it, nor did anyone wake up. They were all sleeping, because the LORD had put them into a deep sleep.

Then (probably the next morning) David stood on a hill opposite the camp and shouted. He showed Saul and his army the spear and the zapahat. Saul recognizes that David had the opportunity to kill him and did not do so. He repents and promises David not to kill them. The two go their separate ways – for now.

From the description it becomes clear that the zapahat is something personal, a jug kept close to one’s side. It’s not just for household use, but also travels with a soldier in the field. That means that it probably isn’t very large, but neither exceptionally small.

Another reference is in 1. Kings 17:7-16. During a famine in Israel Elijah is directed by the LORD to go to Sidon. A widow is to give him food and shelter. When Elijah sees the widow he asks her to give him water to drink “in a jar” as the NIV translates. However, the Hebrew word used here is כְּלִי (kƒlı̂), which seems to better translate as “thing”. When he also asks her for bread she answers (1. Kings 17:12 NIV)

“As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have bread – only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die.”

Here the NIV translates צַפַּחַת (zapahat) as “jug”. And it contains oil. Elijah asks the woman to not be afraid, but to make some bread for him first using the oil and the flour. He adds (1.Kings 17:14)

“For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says:’The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.'”

And that’s what happened according to this account. The צַפַּחַת (zapahat) is used for storing oil. It may be large, but maybe it’s just what is used for a few day’s supply of oil for cooking and baking.

The last reference also has to do with Elijah. After his show-down with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, Elijah fled into the desert near Beersheba, because he feared the revenge of Jezebel. He lay down to sleep and die. But after he slept an angel touched him and told him to eat. Elijah got up and then (1. Kings 19:6 NIV)

He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The צַפַּחַת (zapahat) from which Elijah drank contained water. It seems to have been a fairly small jar, something from which people drank directly.

So overall, צַפַּחַת (zapahat) seems to have been a container used to carry water and oil for fairly immediate consumption. It probably was about medium size.
Because of the reference in 1. Samuel 26 as a personal water container, it sometimes has been equated with a ceramic container called “pilgrim flask” among archaeologists.
And this is one of those pilgrim flasks as found at Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem. This flask probably comes from the late 7th century BCE. Picture courtesy of the Israel Museum.
pilgrim flask
But they also had similar pilgrim flasks earlier, such as this flask from Achzib, probably from the 11th or 10th century BCE – about the time of Saul and David. This image is also courtesy of the Israel Museum.

While such a vessel makes sense as the personal water container of King Saul and possibly as the jar from which Jeremiah drank, it probably isn’t so suitable as a household container to keep oil. If I were to suggest a container, it would be something like this jug or pitcher found complete at excavations at Tell Halif.

And here’s the same pottery vessel in close-up:
A jug this size could be used as a personal water jug, but also to store a bit of oil for daily use. Of course, maybe צַפַּחַת (zapahat) just refers to any medium-sized pottery container for liquids. Maybe the terms were not quite that defined.
Still, when we excavate pottery pieces like the pilgrim flasks or those pitchers, we can get some impression from the Bible what they may have been used for. As archaeologists we do not only have to go from the context and from ethnographic analogy.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, artifacts, Bible and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Oil and water don’t mix, but the same jug is used for them both

  1. Pingback: Gideon’s jar | Imagining the past: Archaeology and the Bible

  2. glassocean says:

    Hi, could you please tell me when you think the jug in the bottom picture is from? Many thanks

  3. Mary Ann Eagleson says:

    I’m on the hunt for a color, public domain, free image of the jar that is something like Gideon and his men would have hid their torches in. Any ideas of where I might find such a photo? I am preparing a Jesse Tree project for our church and then maybe for publication, thus the need for a public domain image.

  4. Terry Tryals says:


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