Summary: Not only are broken pieces of pottery prevalent in archaeological excavations, the Bible uses potsherds to illustrate some powerful lessons.
Thus says the LORD, “Go, buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. – Jeremiah 19:1-2 (ESV)
“Here a Sherd, There a Sherd, Everywhere a Sherd, Sherd”
A major component of modern trash is plastic. Regretfully, we find it littered all over the place (posing potentially significant environmental complications). Many of us casually throw these items away when finished with them and especially when they “break,” and thus, they tend to accumulate often in an unsightly (and sometimes hazardous) manner.
In a sense, the ancient counterpart of plastic was pottery (although with a significantly reduced hazardous implication). Other than soil, the most prevalent component of typical Middle and Near Eastern archaeological sites is broken pottery pieces (in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East, we normally refer to them as “sherds” rather than “shards”). You can hardly walk across a typical archaeological ruin without stepping on broken pottery (see photo below). It is almost as if they breed in the ground and migrate to the surface! Not only are they pervasive, they are almost indestructible!1 The Bible refers several times to these broken pieces to teach some powerful lessons.
Shattered Pots and Potsherds in the Bible
In both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the LORD refers to the punishment of his people with images of shattered pots and the resulting sherds: “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psa. 2:9 ESV; cf. Rev. 2:27 and similar images in Isa. 30:14 and Jer. 48:12). Another passage mentions the potential severity of that destruction which also emphasizes an unusual feature—God threatens to destroy Judah so severely as when a vessel is broken “so that it can never be mended” (Jer. 19:11).
We do not usually think of mending pottery except with glue, but people would occasionally drill holes in a vessel along its break and tie it together with wire or thread, perhaps daubing it along the seam with wax or some other substance to seal it. Such a mended vessel would usually be of little value for liquids, but it could still be useful with dry goods.
Assembling Pottery Pieces
One of the joys of archaeology is to find whole ceramic pieces (see photo, above). Whole pottery is generally rare since in the destruction of the sites the brittle ceramics tend not to survive intact. Somewhat more often, we find broken pottery whose remains are generally confined to a small area (see photo at top of article; this pile of broken pieces represents the remains of several ceramic pieces). A major task is the need to reassemble them. (See the invisible text written on First Temple period potsherds.)
Overwhelmingly, however, the pieces we find cannot be pieced together at all, but are random pieces that have become components of the debris through which we work. The photo above shows the collection of pottery pieces from a relatively small area of an excavation. These have been cleaned and sorted according to the part of the vessel from which the pieces came (i.e., rims, bases, handles, body sherds).
More Potsherds in Biblical Scripture
References to sherds often appear as metaphors of despair. God prophesied that Judah’s sins would bring punishment and that the people would be so destitute that they would “gnaw the shards” (Ezek. 23:34; ESV) apparently in an effort to extract the very last drop of nourishment and/or moisture from the sherds (Greenberg 484).
The Psalmist expresses similar despair in one of the Messianic psalms, declaring that “my strength is dried up like a potsherd” (Psa. 22:15). It is unclear if the metaphor refers to his strength being broken as a broken pot which can no longer be used for its original purpose, or if it alludes to the misery of a dry, hot sherd which in turn serves as a metaphor for extreme thirst and one’s tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth.
The Bible describes the enigmatic leviathan (probably a crocodile)2 as having a belly like “sharp potsherds” (Job 41:30). While the belly of the crocodile is relatively smooth, commentators seem generally to suggest that the image derives more from the impression the crocodile leaves in the mud. This imprint looks somewhat like the impact of the teeth of a threshing sledge thus appearing that “its undersides are composed of sharp, rough potsherds” (Hartley 533; cf. also Clines 1199 and Delitzsch 2: 378-79).
With a vivid visual image, God instructed Jeremiah to demonstrate the threat of Judah’s demise when he directed him to take a “flask” (the Hebrew word for the vessel is baqbuq3) and take it to the Potsherd Gate which apparently led to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Jer. 19:1-2). There, before some of Judah’s leading citizens, Jeremiah was to deliver a speech to reveal the LORD’s punishment against Judah and that they would be destroyed in such a way that they could not be fully “mended” again (19:1-11). He was to end his speech by busting the vessel as a visual demonstration of the degree of punishment that would result. As a vessel it would become useless. (Read about the pottery workshop associated with the oldest known inscription of Jerusalem in Hebrew.)
Beyond such metaphorical uses of sherds, the Bible also describes literal uses. Isaiah prophesies of God’s judgment against Judah (30:14):
…and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
that is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a shard is found
with which to take fire from the hearth,
or to dip up water out of a cistern.
While the passage applies the imagery metaphorically, Isaiah appropriates reality to make those lessons. Broken sherds, if they were sometimes of sufficient size and shape, might be used as fire and ash shovels as well as small containers with which to dip water (see photo below).
Very literally, Job used a potsherd to scrape his sores in an effort to find relief from his misery (Job 2:8). Essentially, any kind of sherd would be suitable for this procedure. The texture of pottery and probably the rough edges of the break would provide relief (although potential infection) from the misery of his malady.
While for the believer “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psa. 19:1), God can use the humblest of elements, even sherds, to teach some potent lessons! – Keep Thinking.
1 Obviously ceramic vessels can be broken, which produces the sherds. The fired pottery, however, takes on almost the character of stone. Even though it can be broken into smaller components, it does not rot. The only real viable avenues by which sherds are eliminated are through erosion (wind, water/waves) or ground up into granules, sometimes called “grog” which can serve as a temper in new pottery production. Thus, the sherds may be recycled as part of new ceramic vessels.
2 Exactly what a leviathan is tends to escape us. In the Ancient Near East, there was a mythical creature with seven heads known by this name who was the primeval sea monster of chaos (see conveniently Cornelius 257, 298-99). Some interpret the creature, at least in the book of Job, to be a crocodile (Hartley 530-31). The passage in Job seems to describe the challenge of a creature with which the people are familiar; since crocodile hunting was a reality in Egypt and other places in the Ancient Near East, it is likely that the passage in Job alludes to a crocodile instead of an elusive mythical creature.
3 The term baqbuq apparently derives from a Semitic word meaning to “babble, chatter…gurgle…” (Koehler and Baumgartner, 1:149). Hence it appears to be an onomatopoeia to describe the sound that the liquid makes as one pours it from the vessel. The vessel known as a baqbuq has a globular body with a ring base surmounted with a narrow neck. It has a handle attached from the neck to the body of the vessel. Kelso (17) points out that the shape was partially “significant since it had the narrowest neck of all pitchers and therefore could never be mended.”
Clines, David J. A. Job 38-44. Word Biblical Commentary 18b. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011.
Cornelius, Izak. “Job.” Pp. 246-315 in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, vol. 5. Ed. J. H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Delitzsch, F. Job, vol. 2. Trans. F. Bolton. Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.
Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 21-37. Anchor Bible 22A. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Hartley, John E. The Book of Job. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Kelso, James L. “The Ceramic Vocabulary of the Old Testament.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Supplementary Studies 5-6. New Haven, CT: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1948.
Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 1. Trans. and ed. M. E. J. Richardson. Leiden: Brill, 1994.
TOP PHOTO: A pile of broken pieces in place represents the remains of several ceramic pieces. (© Dale Manor)