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Holman Bible Dictionary

Vessels and Utensils

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Implements or containers ordinarily used as in, for example, the Temple service or household activities. Vessels are utensils designed for holding dry or liquid products. A number of vessels and other utensils are mentioned in the Bible.

Vessel Materials Vessels in biblical times were made of a variety of materials. As early as 3000 B.C., cups and goblets of precious metals were made by silversmiths and goldsmiths throughout the Near East. These were used for religious service (Numbers 7:13 ,Numbers 7:13,7:19; 1 Chronicles 28:17; 2 Chronicles 4:8; Ezra 1:9-10; Ezra 8:27 ) or by persons of great wealth or authority (Genesis 44:2 ). Copper and bronze (Exodus 27:3; Leviticus 6:28 ) vessels were also known.

Many containers, both large and small, were made of stone. Alabaster was easily carved and polished. It was especially prized for storage of perfumes (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3-4; Luke 7:37 ). According to rabbinical writings, stone containers were not susceptible to ritual uncleaness. Thus, a sizable industry existed in Jerusalem of New Testament times for making a variety of stone vessels. Excavations there have produced examples of all sizes and types, from large stone jars (John 2:6 ) turned on a lathe to cups carved by hand. By New Testament times, glass was becoming widely used for juglets and bottles. See Glass .

Baskets, made from reeds, were inexpensive containers which could be used for transportation and sometimes storage. Water or wine bottles were frequently made from animal skins (Joshua 9:4 ,Joshua 9:4,9:13; Judges 4:19; 1 Samuel 1:24; 1 Samuel 10:3; 2 Samuel 16:1; Nehemiah 5:18; Job 32:19; Psalm 119:83; Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37 ). Such leather vessels were popular among nomadic peoples for their durability.

By far the most widely used material for vessels was clay which was cheap and readily available. Indeed, pottery or “earthenware vessels” (Numbers 5:17; Jeremiah 32:14 ) were among the most common objects made in antiquity. The earliest ceramics, beginning before 5000 B.C., were handmade and somewhat crude. Though making pottery by hand continued, wheel-made pottery was predominant by Israelite times. See Pottery.

The abundance of poetry and widespread familiarity with the process of its manufacture provided object lessons for understanding spiritual truths. Isaiah referred several time to potters and their products. He likened the fury of God's chosen instruments to a potter treading clay (Isaiah 41:25 ). Israel is compared to a potter's vessel which, when broken, will not yield a single useful fragment (Isaiah 30:14 ). For Isaiah, the potter's work demonstrated the sovereignty of the Creator (Isaiah 45:9 ). Paul took up the same analogy to make a point about election (Romans 9:20-21 ): the potter can make any sort of vessel he chooses. Jeremiah also allegorically related a potter and his work to God, who molded His people Israel (the clay) and is able to rework a spoiled produce (Jeremiah 18:1-6 ). A completed clay vessel was used by the prophet to announce the fate of Jerusalem, which like the vessel would be irreparably smashed (Jeremiah 19:1-2 ,Jeremiah 19:1-2,19:10-11 ).

The fragments, or sherds, of a broken pottery vessel are extremely hard (compare Job 41:30 ) and thus remain forever. They are found in enormous quantities at every Near Eastern archaeological mound or tell and were quite familiar to biblical persons. Job, for example, used a handy potsherd to scrape his sores (Job 2:8 ). The ubiquitous sherds served as symbols of dryness (Psalm 22:15 ) and useless remnants (Isaiah 30:14 ). See Potsherd .

Types of Vessels The Old Testament sometimes refers to pottery by a generic term translated, “earthen(ware) vessel” (Leviticus 6:28; Leviticus 11:33; Leviticus 14:5 ,Leviticus 14:5,14:50; Numbers 5:17; Jeremiah 32:14; NIV, “clay jar”). Only two types of vessels are specifically designated as pottery, “earthen pitchers” (Lamentations 4:2 ) and “earthen bottle” (Jeremiah 19:1 ). Nevertheless, other common vessels mentioned in the Bible were presumably made of clay as well. The terms, especially for the Old Testament, are not entirely clear and are variously rendered even within the same English translation.

One of the most common and basic pottery forms was the bowl. Large mixing and serving bowls or basins (Exodus 24:6 NRSV, “basins”; Song of Song of Solomon 7:2 NIV, “goblet”; Isaiah 22:24 NRSV, “cups”), called kraters by archaeologists, generally had handles in the Israelite period. A different Hebrew word identifies similar, perhaps smaller, serving bowls ( Judges 5:25; Judges 6:38 ). Sprinkling bowls (Numbers 7:84-85 NRSV, “basins”) were usually of metal. A generic word for bowl designates the silver vessels used in the dedication of the altar ( Numbers 7:84; NAS, “dishes”; NRSV, NIV, “plates”). The main “dish” (2 Kings 21:13; Proverbs 19:24 NRSV; Proverbs 26:15 NRSV; Matthew 26:23 ) at meals was actually a medium-sized handleless bowl. It was evidently large enough to use for boiling (2 Chronicles 35:13; NRSV, NIV, “pans”). Smaller versions were used for other purposes (2 Kings 2:20 ). Plates did not become common until New Testament times. Cups in the modern sense also were virtually unknown in Old Testament times. Three Hebrew words so translated (Genesis 40:11; Isaiah 51:17 ,Isaiah 51:17,51:22; Jeremiah 35:5; Zechariah 12:2 ) refer to small bowls. Joseph's silver “cup” (Genesis 44:2 ,Genesis 44:2,44:12 ,Genesis 44:12,44:16-17 ) was probably a goblet or chalice. New Testament cups (Luke 11:39 ) remained bowl-like and varied in size.

A special bowl-like trough was used for kneading dough in bread making (Exodus 8:3; Exodus 12:34; Deuteronomy 28:5 ,Deuteronomy 28:5,28:17 ). Other special bowls served as fireports for holding coals (Zechariah 12:6 ). Lamps in the Old Testament were essentially bowls for oil whose rims were pinched in to hold a wick. By New Testament times, lamps (Matthew 25:1; Mark 4:21 ) were molded in two parts forming a covered bowl with central opening to which a handmade spout was added. See Lamps.

“Pot” in the Old Testament (Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:8; 2 Kings 4:38-41; Job 41:20 ,Job 41:20,41:31 NIV, “caldron”) generally translates several Hebrew words which designate cooking pots. In pre-Israelite times, these were similar to deep bowls without handles. Israelite cooking pots of the monarchy period usually had two handles and were more closed. A more globular shape with a short neck and smaller mouth also developed. New Testament cooking pots were similar, but smaller and more delicate with thin straplike handles. Cooking pots required a clay tempered with various grit materials to withstand the expansion of extreme heating and cooling. They were produced in graduated sizes much like their modern counterparts.

Another basic vessel type in antiquity was the storejar, tall oval or pear-shaped jars usually having two or four handles. The tops were closed with an appropriately shaped potsherd or by a clay stopper. Jars were used for storage or flour or meal (1 Kings 17:14 ) or for transport and storage of liquid rations such as water (Mark 14:13 KJV, “pitcher”; John 4:28 KJV, “waterpot”). A smaller jar was used for storing oil ( 2 Kings 4:2; KJV, “pot;” NIV, “a little”). Storejars were often designed to hold standard measures, a common size in the Old Testament period being two baths, averaging twenty-five inches high and sixteen in diameter. Typical storejars had rounded, almost pointed, bases and were placed in stands, holes in wood planks, or pressed into soft ground. A special type was shaped like a cylinder with no handles and a ribbed rim.

Jugs or pitchers (1 Kings 14:3 KJV, “cruse”; Jeremiah 19:1 ,Jeremiah 19:1,19:10 KJV, “bottle;” Jeremiah 35:5 KJV, “pots”) were smaller than storejars and generally had a single handle attached to the neck and shoulder. There were wide and narrow-necked varieties, the former being more likely to have a pinched rim forming a slight spout. A variation on the jug was the pilgrim flask, a flattened bottle with twin handles around a thin neck which functioned like a canteen. Saul may have used one of these ( 1 Samuel 26:11-12 NRSV, “jar”), but the same Hebrew word ( 1 Kings 17:14 ) can refer to the smaller juglet. Juglets with round or oblong bodies, a single handle, and small necks and openings, are well known to archaeologists who work in the Holy Land. They were used for dipping liquids out of large jars and keeping oil (1 Samuel 10:1 NRSV, “vial”; NIV, “flask”; 2 Kings 9:3 NRSV, NIV, “flask”). New Testament versions (variously translated) are mentioned as containers for oil ( Matthew 25:4 ) and, in alabaster, for perfume (Matthew 26:7 ).

Utensils A general word for utensils (KJV, “vessels” or “furniture”) is often used in the Old Testament as a collective term for the gold and bronze articles used in the tabernacle service (Exodus 25:39; Exodus 27:3 ,Exodus 27:3,27:19; Exodus 30:27-28; NIV, “accessories,” “utensils,” or “articles”). These included snuffers, trays, shovels, pots, basins, forks, firepans, hooks, and the like. The same word is used of utensils used in the Temple service (1 Chronicles 9:28-29; 2 Chronicles 24:14-19; Jeremiah 27:18-21; NIV, “articles” or “furnishings”) and for household articles (1 Kings 10:21; 2 Chronicles 9:20; NRSV, “vessels”).

Common household utensils included items for cooking. In Old Testament times, grain was ground by hand (Exodus 11:5; Isaiah 47:2 ) using grindstones usually made of basalt, a hard volcanic stone with many cavities which made natural cutting edges. See Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2; Revelation 18:21 ) of which required animals or two persons (Matthew 24:41 ) to operate. Smaller grinding and crushing chores were done with a mortar and pestle (Numbers 11:8; Proverbs 27:22 ).

Eating utensils are not usually found in excavations and were probably made of wood. Knives (Genesis 22:6; Judges 19:29; Proverbs 30:14 ) for various purposes were made of flint (Joshua 5:2-3 ), copper, bronze, or iron. See Archaeology; Tools .

Daniel C. Browning, Jr.


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Vessels and Utensils'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?n=6398. 1991.

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