Because of its durability, the primary means by which archaeologists determine dates, ethnic affinities, and trade connections is through a study of pottery. Earthenware vessels were used in antiquity for storing, cooking and serving food, as well as for containers for shipping a variety of liquid commodities.
Pottery played a vital and important role in the everyday lives of the people of Bible times. It is not surprising therefore, that pottery and pottery making is often mentioned in the Bible. Many times prophets and preachers of the Bible used everyday experiences as object lessons to illustrate spiritual truths. The bowls, jars, and the manufacturing processes which produced them were familiar to everyone. The holy men of God used these to good advantage. This article will briefly consider how pottery was made during Bible times and explore a few of the references to pottery making in the Bible. In a later article we shall consider the use of pottery in the Bible.
Metal vessels were used in antiquity as well. However, these were expensive and largely limited to the upper classes of society. Thus the quantity of metalware found is relatively small compared to earthenware. Receptacles of wood, basketry and skins were also in use. But these perishable materials generally do not survive, to be discovered by the archaeologist.
Pottery is different. Once fired in a kiln, pottery is virtually indestructible. Unless intentionally ground up, the remains of all the pottery made in antiquity, even though broken and discarded, are still with us today. Thus, when you visit an ancient site, the ground is littered with pottery sherds. One site is even named after its potsherds. While doing survey work in Egypt a few years ago, I visited a site called “Tell el-Ahmar,” “the red ruin.” The name was derived from the abundance of red pottery lying on the surface.
Clay is common in Palestine. Consequently, pottery-making was carried out in numerous locations in the country. Many excavators have found evidence of the pottery industry in the form of remains of potters’ wheels, potters’ tools, unfired vessels, prepared clay, kilns, etc. Taken together, these data indicate that the pottery industry in ancient Palestine was quite sophisticated with a potters’ wheel and permanent kilns being used. This industry is in contrast to more primitive cultures where hand forming and open firing in bonfires were the mode of production. Incidently, studies of pottery-making in contemporary cultures have revealed that when vessels are formed by hand and fired in open bonfires, production is carried out by women. Whereas, when the potter’s wheel and permanent kiln are used, production is in the hands of men. The word for “potter” in the Old Testament, yatsar, “the one who forms,” is masculine gender. We can be certain that the vast majority of potters in Bible times were men.
Early Potters' Wheel
After the clay was extracted from the ground, it was brought to the potter’s shop where it was prepared. Foreign objects (such as stones, sticks, etc.) were removed and usually water was added to soften the day. Many times a tempering agent such as sand was added to make the clay more workable or to give it particular qualities desired by the potter. One of the potter’s assistants prepared the clay by kneading it with his feet. Ancient tomb scenes from Egypt show clay being prepared in this fashion. In Isaiah 41:25, where God is telling of His great power, He alludes to this process:
I roused one from the north, and he obeyed; I called one from the east, summoned him in My name, he marches over viceroys as if they were mud, like a potter treading his clay. (NEB)
With the clay properly prepared, the potter was ready to form his vessels. He did this on a potter’s wheel. In the biblical period the potter’s wheel was a type called the “double wheel,” or “kick wheel.” A flywheel, which turned on a stone bearing (many of which have been found in excavations) was placed in a shallow pit in the floor of the potter’s workshop. A shaft was attached to the top of the flywheel and at the end of the shaft was a small, round wooden platform upon which the potter worked. He placed the clay on the platform, turning the platform by kicking the flywheel with his foot. As the lump of clay on the platform spun, the potter could form, or “throw,” a pot by guiding the clay with his fingers and allowing the centrifugal force to aid in shaping a symmetrical vessel. Having formed the pot, the potter separated it from the remaining lump of clay by pinching it off with his fingers or cutting it off with a string. Elihu refers to this process in his speech to Job:
Behold, I am toward God as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay (Job 33:6, RSV).
The Hebrew word translated “formed,” qoras, means “to nip” or “pinch.” The correct translation should be, “I too was pinched off from a lump of clay.”
Interior of a potter's wheel and a typical kiln.
After a vessel was formed, it was allowed to air dry to a “leather hard” condition before it was fired. This drying process took several days, depending on the temperature and humidity. When a sufficient number of pots were thus prepared, they were stacked in a kiln and baked for several hours to turn them into the impervious jars, bowls, and cooking pots which are studied so diligently by archaeologists today.
The Apocrypha, from the period between the Testaments, tells of the various activities of the potter:
So [it is] with the potter sitting at his labor, revolving the wheel with his feet. He is always concerned for his products, and turns them out in quantity. With his hands he molds the clay, and with his feet softens it. His care is for proper coloring, and he keeps watch on the fire of his kiln (Ecclesiasticus 38:29–30).
God sent Jeremiah to a potter’s workshop to give him an object lesson:
The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house and there I will cause thee to hear my words.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter?” saith the Lord. “Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (18:1–6, KJV).
Pottery workshops were usually located outside of town so as not to antagonize the residents with the smoke from the kilns. It brought the potters closer to their raw materials and, more importantly, it removed a potential fire hazard also. Notice that Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house, indicating that he went from the heights of Jerusalem to a lower place outside the city walls. The pottery workshops of ancient Jerusalem were probably located in the Hinnom Valley on the west and south sides of the city since a gate opening onto this valley was called the “Potsherd Gate” (Jeremiah 19:2, mistakenly translated “East Gate” in the King James Version). Allusions to a “Tower of Furnaces” in Nehemiah 3:1 and 12:38 may refer to a fortification tower overlooking potters’ kilns In the Hinnom Valley.
The Hinnom Valley was also called Topheth, a place renowned for child sacrifice (2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:4–7). In Isaiah 30, God’s judgment is depicted as a devouring fire (vss. 27, 30). Part of the imagery is a reference to fires burning in Topheth:
For Topheth has long been prepared; yea, for the king (of Assyria, vs. 31) it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance, the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it (vs. 33, RSV).
It is possible that the prophet is alluding to the well-known potters’ kilns in the Hinnom Valley. At this location there were many kilns belching hot flames and thick black smoke and the sky was darkened from the smoke much of the time. The squalor of this industrial quarter would have been considerable, with piles of clay, heaps of “wasters” (pottery ruined in the kiln) and filthy workers on every hand. One can imagine that a walk down Hinnom Valley was indeed an eerie experience. The Valley of Hinnom, ge’hlnnom in Hebrew, became the Gehenna of the New Testament. Why the place of eternal punishment came to be named after this valley is understandable.
Jeremiah tells us that the potter was working at his wheel, “ovnayim in Hebrew. The word is in the dual form (giving rise to the translation “wheels” in the KJV) and it literally means “pair of stones.” This truth may derive from the fact that the earliest potters’ wheels were probably simple tournettes made from two fiat stones, one rotating on the other (see picture on page 28). The potter apparently was unhappy with the first vessel he made in Jeremiah’s presence, so he re-consolidated his clay and made a second one. This project was an illustration for the prophet, for God told hIm, “O house of Israel... as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand.” God was demonstrating His sovereignty and this is generally the way in which the potter is used as an illustration in the Bible.
In the creation account, God is pictured as forming man from the earth as a potter forms his pots from clay:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
The Hebrew word used here for “formed” is the same word that is used for potter, “the one who forms.” God created man from ‘aphar rain ha’adamah, “native clay of the earth.” Likewise,
Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air (Genesis 2:19).
In the midst of his tribulation, Job cried out to God,
Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet Thou dost destroy me. Remember, I beseech thee, that Thou hast made me as the clay; and writ Thou bring me into dust again? (Job 10:8–9).
The word for clay here, homer, means refined potter’s clay, whereas the word for dust, ‘aphar, means undefined natural clay.
In speaking to Jerusalem, God said:
How you turn things upside down, as if the potter ranked no higher than the clay! Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’? Shall the pot say of the potter, ‘He has no skill’? (Isaiah 29:16, NEB)
Here, God is speaking out against the impertinence of man who thinks he can place himself above God, the One who created him. In the same vein, God says:
Will the pot contend with the potter, or the earthenware with the hand that shapes it? Will the clay ask the potter what he is making? or his handiwork say to him, “You have no skill”? (Isaiah 45:9, NEB)
Isaiah learned the illustration of the potter well, for near the end of his book he uses it to describe the proper relationship between God and man.
But now, O Lord, thou art our father, we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thy hand (64:8).
In the New Testament, as well, the theme of God’s sovereignty is illustrated by the potter.
You will say, “Then why does God blame a man? For who can resist His will?’ Who are you, sir, to answer God back? Can the pot speak to the potter and say, “Why did you make me like this?’ Surely the potter can do what he likes with the clay. Is he not free to make out of the same lump two vessels, one to be treasured, and the other for common use? (Romans 9:19–21, NEB)
God’s sovereignty over man is one of the great doctrines of the Bible and its truth can no better be illustrated than by the example of the potter. As the clay yields itself to the potter, so the Christian must submit to the authority of God. When clay is first brought in from the field it is unusable; it is hard and full of impurities. As the clay must be refined, so too must the Christian be refined before he can be shaped into a useful vessel by the Master Potter. Impurities have to be removed and tempering agents added; the Christian has to be softened and kneaded. After the Master Potter has formed and shaped the Christian according to His will and pleasure, he must then be “tried by fire” in order to be strengthened for the function God wishes him to perform.
We must learn to be content with the way the Master Potter has made us and with the task He has called us to perform. In the final analysis, this is in our own best interest because God knows each of us better than we know ourselves and His plan for our lives is tailor-made to our individual needs and abilities. He knows the end from the beginning and can direct our paths much better than we can ourselves.
Put yourself in the hands of the Master Potter and allow Him to make you into a beautiful vessel fit for His service.
Egyptian tomb painting showing a pottery workshop in the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty (late 15th - early 14th century BC). The potter sits at a simple wheel fashioning a vessel from a conical lump of clay. An assistant turns the wheel and aids the potter with the clay. Behind the potter are rows of vessels, probably newly formed and in the process of drying. In the foreground another assistant kneads clay with his feet, preparing it for the potter. Beside him are two large Jars, probably containing water to be mixed with the clay. In the background are two baskets containing reddish material, possibly prepared clay, and a pile of the same material is on the floor. To the right of the scene a worker seals the top of a kiln, probably in preparation for firing. (After N. G. Davies, The Tomb of Kenarnun at Thebes, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1930, Pl. 39.)