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Monthly Archives: August 2013

A Thread of History

This week it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger, Judy Rand. In thinking about future posts for WomenfromtheBook, the topic of embroidery was intriguing, and who better to consult than my friend, Judy. Wife of a retired minister, a mother, grandmother, and thread artist in her own right, Judy Rand enjoys the arts of smocking and embroidery as well as mastering the challenges confronting an accomplished seamstress and machine embroidery enthusiast. I am delighted that she agreed to contribute an entry about something so near and dear to her heart. I know you will enjoy her post, “A Thread of History.” —KM

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What do you think of when you hear the word “embroidery”? Probably the little logo on your polo shirt. Or maybe the elaborate garments worn on Downton Abby by the elite class in old England. Most of the embroidery produced now is machine-made, but originally embroidery was done by hand by dedicated needle artists. Even though they’re increasingly rare, there are still embroiderers who work by hand to create stunning artwork–appropriately called “thread painting.”

Cunning work  tabernacle_pictures__image_4__sjpg761

In the book of Exodus the Israelites were directed to build a tabernacle in the wilderness. God gave them precise instructions for the size, materials and embroideries to be used on the draperies and priests’ garments (Exodus 25:9). The priestly ephod was made “of gold, of blue, and of purple, of scarlet, and fine twined linen, with cunning work.” The ephod was a garment made in two parts that were clasped together at the shoulder by two onyx stones set in gold. Each of these stones was engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six on one shoulder and six on the other (Exodus 28).

When the Israelites fled into the wilderness, they may have fashioned looms from available wood, or they may have brought their looms and implements with them. Whatever they did, it seems they were able to spin yarn, weave and embroider with a great deal of skill.

Covenant gift

Embroidery is mentioned in the blessings bestowed on ancient Israelites when they agreed to keep His commandments. God made a covenant with Israel and lavished them with beautiful garments of embroidered linen and silk. These fine embroidered garments were an extra blessing given by God to make life more beautiful and enjoyable (Ezekiel 16:10-13).

In Psalm 45:14 we read of a beautiful wedding procession where the bride is brought before the king clad in magnificent raiment with broidery to meet with her future husband, attended by her virgin companions, or “bridesmaids.” The word broidery used here means “something variegated” or “versicolored.” [1]

Skills and supplies

Exodus 35:31-33 indicates that the skill in art and science is a direct gift from God. Weaving was especially the business of men in Egypt. In Exodus 35:25, we see women, “gifted artisans,” spinning yarn for the men to weave fabric. The embroideries were either woven into the fabric or added later with needle and thread. Others offered their services in fabricating the needed tapestries which the Israelite women probably learned as bond slaves, in the houses of Egyptian princes (Exodus 35:29).

Where did the dyes come from to make these colorful embroideries? Historically, the color purple has been associated with royalty. Purple dyes were rare and expensive and only the rich had access to them. The most expensive dyes were from Tyre and purple was the rarest. It was made by extracting the essential oils from a species of shellfish that lived on a small stretch of coast near the city-state of Tyre.

Sumptuary Laws

Purple was so rare and so hard to make, and considered so beautiful that the Roman emperors decreed how it could be used by instituting Sumptuary Laws. The word sumptuary comes from the Latin word which means expenditure. These laws were imposed by the rulers to curb the expenditures of the people in order to maintain a specific class structure.

Royalty could have as much purple dye as they wanted and could wear it any way they wanted. Patricians and equestrians could have it only as bands, and the width was dictated by how high up they were in the Roman pecking order. [2]

This implies that Lydia, spoken of in Acts 16:14-15 as “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira,” must have been a wealthy Roman citizen of Tyre. Apparently her house was large enough to accommodate the disciples when they came to baptize her. [3]

Numbers 15:38 describes the fringes which the Jews wore upon their garments. They had a ribband dyed blue or purple to remind them to keep the commandments and be holy.

Evolution of design 

Silk ribbon embroidery by Judy Rand. Photo: J. Rand

Silk ribbon embroidery by Judy Rand. Photo: J. Rand

Many forms of embroidery have developed over the centuries. Needlepoint (filling in spaces of a grid), Crewel (working thread over a blank canvas), Blackwork or Redwork (using only one color throughout the design), Drawn Threadwork (pulling threads from fabric and working a design in the space), Smocking (pleating fabric and working designs over pleats), Silk Ribbon Embroidery (using ribbon instead of thread), Cross Stitch (designs using x’s).

Over the years embroidery has continued to appeal to artisans in all social levels. In fact, during World War II when embroidery threads were scarce, determined needle artists deconstructed old garments and draperies and painstakingly pulled threads from the discarded fabric in order to have threads to create new designs.

Example of Cross Stitch in progress by Judy Rand. Photo: J Rand

Example of Cross Stitch in progress by Judy Rand.
Photo: J Rand

The Internet has opened doors for anyone with an interest and a few basic supplies to partake of this craft with videos available and step-by-step instructions to guide one through each phase of the process. http://www.needlenthread.com/ is an excellent site for beginners and advanced embroiderers.

Hopefully, this entry will give you a deeper appreciation for the work of the embroiderer—both ancient and modern.—Judy Rand

[1] http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/barnes/psa045.htm
[2] http://www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/roman-clothing/colors-of-roman-clothing.htm
[3] http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/jamieson-fausset-brown/acts/acts-16.html

Ahab’s Garden

So it was, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab got up and went down to take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite (I Kings 21:16).

 Ahab had a purpose in mind for the vineyard, the land adjoining his own place, and confiscated by a cowardly murder. Jezebel had handled the preliminaries to acquiring the property— the false witnesses and the execution of Naboth—enabling Ahab to take possession of the vineyard for precisely the reason he said he wanted it.

Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it (I Kings 21:2).

Ahab already owned a better vineyard than Naboth’s, one he proposed to swap for the property he coveted next to his house. He planned on tearing out Naboth’s grape vines, uprooting the fruit trees, knocking down the stone structures and planting vegetables.

Vegetables? What was the man thinking?

In a time when grapes and fruit trees signified wealth, and vegetables were held in low regard,[1] was he dreaming of another Eden? Did he imagine his own land flourishing with rows of onions and sweet muskmelons as in Egypt? Did he assume it would be easy to transform the land into a garden, as easy as it was to take it from Naboth?

For the land which you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it with your feet, like a garden of vegetables. But the land which you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drink water by the rain from heaven (Deuteronomy 11:10-11).

Because of the scarcity of water and the hilly terrain in Israel, most people didn’t plant vegetables, tending instead to gather what grew in the wild. The exception to the practice of not planting a vegetable garden was an individual who lived near enough water to irrigate or carry water by hand. Ahab was an exception it seems, convinced he had enough water near his house, enough manpower to pull down the vineyard and enough wisdom to cultivate the soil—he controlled everything necessary for a gardening venture.

What did his garden grow?

Garlic & Onion

Garlic & Onion (Photo credit: Ruby’s Feast)

If Ahab had followed through and demolished the vineyard, what vegetables would he have planted in its place?  In an Old Testament list of vegetables found in Numbers 11:5, Israel yearns for the foods they ate in Egypt and lacked in the desert.

We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.

Scholars of ancient agriculture believe these same vegetables probably grew in Israel, but rotted produce, unlike hard goods like stone, tools, and pottery, doesn’t leave evidence. Although researchers found watermelon seeds in extremely dry areas around the Dead Sea,[2] they’ve come up with no other vegetable remains than the seeds and a few dried bulbs. As agricultural scholars admit, “a definite identification [of vegetables grown in ancient Israel] based on the information available is impossible.”[3] Students studying agriculture in Hebrew and Greek texts find descriptions of leafy green salad-like plants, spicy grass, garlic, onions, four species of cucumbers, and two types of melons (muskmelon and watermelon), all grown in Egypt and probably cultivated in Israel.

“The small number of vegetable samples from Iron Age deposits does not indicate that vegetables were a minor component of the daily diet during that period. However, as I [author Oded Borowski] pointed out above, the small number of references to vegetables and the low regard in which vegetables were held suggest very strongly that vegetables were not considered very nutritious and did not constitute an important part of the Iron Age diet in Eretz-Israel.”[4]

Spiritual growth?

 The Bible doesn’t say if Ahab uprooted the vineyard and planted vegetables, but the whole affair is lamentable.  If vegetables were not highly valued in ancient Israel, if people were well-nourished, primarily by fruits, grains, dairy, and meat, then Ahab’s excessive overreach—all of it, seizing the property, murdering Naboth, destroying priceless vines and fruit trees—was for something of incredibly less value. It’s a wretched story but it’s worth reading to the end. It leads to Ahab’s encounter with God’s judgment, and then with God’s mercy (I Kings 21:20-28).—Mary Hendren

 

 


[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 135

[2] Same source, p. 137

[3] Same source, p. 138

[4] Same source, p. 139

Naboth’s Vineyard

1And it came to pass after these things that Naboth  the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 So Ahab spoke to Naboth , saying, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its worth in money.” 3 But Naboth  said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” (1 Kings 21:1-3).

The family inheritance

“Give me your vineyard!” What an unthinkable demand. Not only did the Torah forbid such a thing[1]—to give away or sell one’s inheritance—this vineyard embodied Naboth’s life, as it had his father’s and distant generations before him.

More than two hundred years earlier, when the tribes of Israel ceased their wilderness wanderings and began to possess the Promised Land, his ancestors had chosen this spot within their tribal allotment. Undoubtedly they recognized its potential, its fertile soil and adequate subsoil water supply. It lay in the beautiful Jezreel Valley—a place later chosen by kings as a wintering place. In fact, the covetous King Ahab had a palace right next door.

The tending of a vineyard

It seems possible that Naboth’s ancestors became owners of a functioning vineyard, acquired from some who were conquered or driven from the land. But if not, there was much work to be done for those first settlers. The land had to be “digged” with a hoe or a plow to rid the soil of stones and debris in preparation for spring planting. Men and boys spent long hours of manual labor until the land was finally cleared, leveled and made ready.

A green wine grape.

A green wine grape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next item on the list was collecting choice stock (for green grapes, red grapes, or tiny black grapes to be dried as currants), and planting each cutting about three paces apart in orderly rows. By early Nissan (March-April) the first buds should appear, with blossoms soon to follow. With God’s blessing, a harvest could be expected beginning in Tishri and lasting through Heshvan (September through October) and possibly beyond, but not before the all-important steps of pruning and dunging were accomplished.

An experienced vine-dresser used his sharp pruning knife to cut away unproductive branches, driving the strength of the vine into a few main stocks. Sometimes very little of the original vine remained.

Afterwards the entire vineyard was spaded up, and fertilizer applied.

As his father before him

Naboth followed the same routine on the same land these many years later. He and his sons tended their precious vines, just as had the generations before them. By this time, his vineyard had become a valuable asset which could be mortgaged and the money invested, or it could be used as security for borrowing money to pay the mandatory tribute to King Ahab.

Guarding the assets

The original vineyard changed over time. Sometime during past decades a stone wall was added to surround, guard, and protect the precious vines. When Naboth gazed at his holdings, his eye would have noted the hedge that topped the wall—an added deterrent for robbers and varmints (foxes were particular spoilers for any vineyard)—and the occasional fig tree interspersed among the vines. Someone long ago had begun using them, along with olive trees and mulberry bushes, to train the vines off the ground and upward. He must have often enjoyed sitting under his own vines and fig trees, basking in the peace and satisfaction of it all.

Stationed in the middle of the vineyard was the multi-functioning watchtower, some forty feet high, with its commanding view of the neatly terraced hillsides. Watchmen lived in the tower between seasons, but during vintage time, it was an entirely different matter. Naboth and his family took up quarters in the tower in preparation for the harvest work that lay ahead. It was a time filled with anticipation, excitement, and promise.

Talmudic Wine Press

Talmudic Wine Press (Photo credit: goldberg)

Harvesting the bounty

How many times had they performed this ritual—his wife and daughters working alongside the grape-gatherers, cutting the fragrant clusters, and placing them in the traditional baskets? And he and his sons with the day laborers carrying them to the wine-press, chiseled out of solid rock ages ago? Was there any sweeter sound than the men trampling out the grapes, singing and rejoicing in the warmth of an autumn day?  The musky fragrance of freshly- pressed juices wafting from the holding vat was forever etched in his memory, as was the image of newly-filled wine jugs, conspicuous in their abundance.

During these weeks of in-gathering the whole of the surrounding community joined in a harvest festival which added to the festivities of the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Naboth’s neighbors joined the celebration with singing and dancing, sampling the new wine, and eating to the full. Life had been good— until now.

Until the day he died

To be asked to sell his vineyard—his family’s inheritance, the place where his children were born, and where relatives had died—was simply too much to ask, even by a king. And to be offered a substitute in trade was ridiculous. There could be no substitute! No. Naboth would not comply. This vineyard was who he was. He would keep his vineyard until the day he died.—Karen Meeker

***

Author’s Note: Bible readers know the tragic end of this sorry incident. Jezebel contrived a murderous scheme in which Naboth was falsely accused of blasphemy against God and king. He was summarily executed and the petulant Ahab got his vegetable garden.

I wonder what happened to Naboth’s family. (This post is written based on the assumption that Naboth was both married, and that he had sons and daughters. I trust that the Bible would have noted otherwise if that had not been the case. That state would have been quite noteworthy for his time, in my opinion.) Their inheritance and livelihood were mercilessly wrested from them. What did they do? Where did they go? Only God knows, as the Bible is silent on the matter.[i]


[1] See Leviticus 25:23; Numbers 36:7; and Ezekiel 46:18.


[i]References consulted:

Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1961), p. 235.

Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1944), pp. 405-414.

For further Bible examples concerning vineyards, please see:

Leviticus 19:10

Deuteronomy 23:24

Isaiah 5:1-7

Matthew 21:33-46

Luke13:6-9

Wine and Beer in the Ancient Near East

Harvest celebration

 In ancient Israel the high point of grape harvesting was winemaking, “an activity which was carried out by the vinedresser and his family.”[1] The treading of grapes in the wine press was “accompanied by music.” Grape juice flowed into troughs and was later poured into large jars. Do you picture the vinedresser’s happy family—father, mother, and children—laughing, slipping and sliding on grape skins? It probably didn’t happen that way.

Ancient Wine Bottles

Ancient Wine Bottles (Photo credit: Ryan Opaz)

Production line

 From Egyptian drawings of winemaking, men did most of the work. Men are shown treading the grapes and carrying storage jars to cellars where the wine fermented. If the Egyptians and Israelites followed similar winemaking techniques, men and women picked grapes, but men carried the heavy baskets and treaded the press. Archeologists discovered several wine presses in the cities of Gibeon and Beth-shemesh, (also En-gedi, Samaria, Shiloh and Timnah) suggesting that these areas were centers for wine production in ancient Israel. “Jars discovered in the Gibeon were inscribed with names of winemakers, an indication that these jars were returnable.”[2]

The first wine—a fortuitous accident?

Where did wine come from? In researching the role of women in making and/or providing wine for their families, I was given an article entitled “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt.” The authors wondered if wine came into being by accident. Did ancient people come across wild grapes that had fermented on the vine? When they placed harvested clusters into leather bags, did some of the fruit crush and make juice that fermented at the bottom of the bags? Did the ancient people experiment with wild grapes and fortuitously come up with an intoxicating drink? Researchers can’t prove how wine was discovered, but they have tracked down the earliest evidence of winemaking.

The authors believe that when the ancient peoples moved from a nomadic existence and settled in cities, they became farmers and tillers. They learned how to grow and process food, including how to make wine and beer. The “best candidate for early wine making and viniculture”[3] is in eastern Turkey, somewhere in the region of the Taurus Mountains.  Archeologists found pottery jars there with traces of tartaric acid “which occurs in large amounts in nature only in grapes” and residues in the same jars of “terebinth tree resin,”[4] a preservative that would have extended the life of the wine.

Beginning or revival?

Getting back to the origin of wine, there is a school of thought which hypothesizes that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.

The Bible records that after the Flood, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. When Noah settled there, he planted a vineyard and made wine. Whether this was the actual beginning of winemaking, or perhaps a revival of pre-flood viticulture is not addressed by the Bible. [5] It is safe, however, to note that from that time on, wine production eventually spread throughout various existing cultures.

Home brew?

With grape-growing and winemaking an established industry in Palestine, did individuals plant grapes and make a little wine at home? I imagine some families planted grapes to eat as fresh fruit and raisins, to make vinegar and syrup and to press into dried fruit cakes. However, the quantity of grapes needed to make wine, the skill involved and the fermentation time, make it likely that men and women bought wine for the family from a vintner—perhaps in refillable jars?

Israelites also drank beer made from barley and wheat. To celebrate the annual Holy Days, the people set aside money to spend “for whatever your heart desires; for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink.” [6] The Hebrew word sikura or shekar translated similar drink or strong drink includes any number of intoxicating beverages made from apples, honey, dates, wheat and barley.

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on displ...

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. Barley beer is being brewed, with the men on the left mashing the yeast starter in a bowl for fermenting, while the ones on the right are bottling. The rightmost figure with a tablet tucked under his arm is a scribe, counting the bottles. RC 483 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was beer a significant beverage in Israel? Some scholars believe beer was as common in Israel as it was in other ancient countries; however, the word beer became associated with drunkenness in general, regardless of the beverage.

Israelites enjoyed a variety of drinks: wines fermented from fruit, some beer-like beverages fermented from grain; and non-alcoholic drinks such as sweet milk, soured milk and water. When used properly, wine had the additional benefits of making the heart glad and settling the stomach (Psalm 104:15, 1 Tim. 5:23).—Mary Hendren


[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 110

[2] Same source, p. 112

[3] “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt” (Patrick McGovern, Ulrich Hartung, Virginia R. Badler, Donald L. Glusker, and Lawrence J. Exner) p. 4

[4] Same source and page

[5] Is it possible that the origin went back even farther, and that God told Adam and Eve how to make wine? I’ve wondered about how God helped Adam and Eve learn to till the ground. Did He teach them how to support themselves by tilling the soil? The Bible doesn’t say. Later, when God cleaned up the corruption on earth, I’ve wondered if Noah took on board the ark plant material (grapes, wheat, fruit) for re-establishing staple crops? Again, the Bible doesn’t say how God took care of that.

[6] Deuteronomy 14:26

The Power of the Ring

Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, “Indeed, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows because he tried to lay his hand on the Jews. You yourselves write a decree concerning the Jews, as you please, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for whatever is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet ring no one can revoke.”

So the king’s scribes were called at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and it was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces in all, to every province in its own script, to every people in their own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language. And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horseback, riding on royal horses bred from swift steeds.  (Esther 8:7-10)

One of the most powerful pieces of ornamentation mentioned in the Bible is a ring—particularly the signet ring. It was worn not as an accessory, but rather the wearing of it represented the personal legal signature or status of the owner. For Mordecai to have access to the king’s own signet ring indicates the trust and power he had been afforded, and his badge of office.

Cylinder seals

A signet could be shaped as a ring to be worn usually on the right finger, or as a cylinder or rod of metal suspended from a cord worn around the neck. Exodus 28:9-14 indicates that signets were engraved, in this case, on stone. Cylinder seals  were incised on many hard surfaces, from baked clay to lapis lazuli, gold, silver, carnelian, blue chalcedony, rock crystal, pink marble, jasper, shell-core, ivory, and glazed pottery.[1]

When an ancient letter-writer had finished his message on a clay tablet, “he had the sender and any witnesses remove from around their necks their own small cylinder seals and roll them over the still-wet clay to make their signatures.”[2] Often these were written by professional letter-writers—some of whom were women—who stationed themselves at the city gates.

Signed, sealed, and delivered

The Babylonians used cylinder-seals to insure safe shipment of valuable papers or commodities  to distant destinations. Items were inserted into a jar which was then covered with cloth and tied with cord at the neck. The sender covered the binding cord with soft clay and rolled his cylinder-seal across the wet mud. If the jar arrived with the seal intact, its contents had arrived secure.

Hundreds of such cylinders have been found at various archaeological sites, and it seems that T. E. Laurence was himself an avid “seal-hunter,” searching for these small treasures to send back to his friends in England.

Matters of state

The principle uses for the signet ring were to provide legal signatures, and/or   proof of authority. A hard, flat substance associated with the ring—perhaps a precious stone, a bit of marble, or the metal of the ring itself—was engraved with its owner’s unique symbol or signature. The resulting inscription could then be pressed into wax or clay as needed, leaving an impression which amounted to a seal of authorship or authority.

When Joseph was appointed vizier or governor in Egypt, Pharaoh took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph’s finger (Genesis 43:42), clothed him in fine linen (court dress), and further rewarded him with a gold chain. In effect Joseph was awarded the accouterments to signal him as the second in command.

Used for good …

One of the most-loved of Christ’s parables concerns the return of the prodigal son to his ever-watchful, ever-hopeful father. After an emotional reunion and period of reconciliation, the father called for the best robe and put it on his beloved son. Then he put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. The celebration culminated with music, dancing, and the killing of a fatted calf. (See Luke 15:20-24.) The Woman’s Study Bible, in a note on Luke 15:17-24, comments that “the best robe was a sign of position; the ‘ring’ indicated authority[3], the ‘sandals’ [a sign of freedom and luxury] put on his bare feet set him apart from the barefoot slaves.”

…Or ill

When authority is wrested by evil hands, wickedness is sure to follow. Jezebel well understood power, and she was not afraid to use it, especially when her husband Ahab was in a funk. A prophet of God had given him terrible news. Because he failed to obey God’s instructions concerning Ben-Hadad, the prophet said: “”Thus says the LORD: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people'” So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria” (1 Kings 20:41-43).

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Na...

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard Giclee. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if that weren’t enough, the petulant king coveted a piece of property that belonged to his neighbor Naboth. It had been passed down as an inheritance in his family for generations, and Naboth stubbornly refused to sell.

Ahab did not handle rejection well. The scripture says, “And he [Ahab] lay  down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food” (21:4).

Tiring of her husband’s fit of depression, Jezebel took matters into her own hands. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent them out. The missives contained orders that eventually led to the death of innocent Naboth. But as an unintended consequence, her actions also sealed the fate of the despicable pair—ignominious deaths.

Its power endures

Alan King, in his Ezine article, “Signet Rings Have Significance Today,” comments that “in Europe the rings were commissioned by nobility and created by artists. Therefore, they were works of art, often made of gold and very much valued for their beauty as well as for their material value. Sometimes they were even embellished with designs and calligraphy on the side to add to the appearance. The rings were guarded and treasured by the owner, and passed on to successive generations in much the same way that a crown would be passed on to a prince or princess. They were a symbol of authority and power, indicating that the owner had the right to bear arms (the crest or shield) in medieval Europe. The Pope’s ring was kissed to honor the supreme authority of the position, and when a Pope died, his ring was destroyed to symbolize the clearing of the way for a new Pope.”

Medieval gold signet ring from England, with a...

Medieval gold signet ring from England, with a ruby and the arms of de Grailly, now in the British Museum. Tag reads: “Signet ring with the arms of de Grailly.” and “About 1351-99, England, Gold, ruby. PE 1982,0501.1”. See British Museum Database entry for further details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He further explains that the tradition surrounding the signet ring continues to this day. In Europe, each country (and its nobility) has its own preferences as to how the ring is to be worn, on which finger and on which hand. “French, German, and some Spanish nobles wear it on the ring finger of their left hands. The Swiss wear signets on the right hand, and nobles of the United Kingdom wear them on the little finger of the left hand. Of course, it is worn with the impressing outward to enable the wearer to turn his hand over and press it into the wax.”

From ancient times to modern day, the signet ring has endured and continues to symbolize power and authority.

***

For further study, the following scriptures may be of interest concerning this topic. Some contain historical references; others are viewed metaphorically.

Genesis 38:18 Tamar requests Judah’s signet and his bracelets and his staff.

Exodus 28:11, 21, 36 engravings of a signet

Isaiah 3:18-23 jewelry worn by the haughty daughters of Babylon

Song of Solomon 8:6 Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm.

Haggai 2:23 God’s statement to Zerubbabel: ” . . .will make you like a signet ring: for I have chosen you. . . .”

Revelation 7:3-4 servants of God sealed in their foreheads

 


[1] Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1944), p. 134

[2] Ibid., pp. 127, 134

[3] It is the author’s opinion that this was likely a signet ring.

Jewelry Speaks

For 3,300 years, King Tutankhamun secretly rested in the Valley of the Kings. In 1922 archeologists discovered his tomb and years later displayed his mummified body in a climate-controlled glass box. When researchers removed the burial linens that wrapped the king’s body, they found magnificent jeweled collars, bracelets, rings, amulets and daggers of gold, and semi-precious stones—all confirming the skill of ancient Egyptian jewelers. “The Egyptians loved their jewelry, and their craftsmen produced some of the most colorful and lovely jewelry the world has ever seen. Elaborate pendants with bead chains were made from semi-precious stones—deep blue lapis lazuli, turquoise, and red carnelian, quartz and colored glass in dazzling blues and reds set in gold and silver.”[1] 

English: Winged scarab of Tutankhamun with sem...

English: Winged scarab of Tutankhamun with semi-precious stones. This pectoral is composed of Tut’s Prenomen name: “NebKheperU-Ra”, the hieroglyphs of: Basket, Scarab-(in Plural-strokes), and Re. (The “James, 2000, Picture Book, Tutankhamun, describes this pectoral in the section of ‘Necklaces and Pectorals’, as: “Pectoral with Royal Prenomen and Lotus Fringe”, p. 234.) (Two other hieroglyphs are on the pectoral, the Eye of Horus, and the Ankh.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the stunning burial items found in the king’s coffin is the Collar of Nekhebet, a flexible piece that lay across the king’s chest. Made of 256 small gold plaques threaded together and inlaid with colored glass, the collar forms an image of the white vulture Nekhebet, the patron goddess of Pharaoh. In her talons the vulture clutches two orbs that symbolize the eternal protection thought to be in her power.

Symbolic of Power

The Collar of Nekhebet and other of the king’s treasures recall a time when Egyptian jewelry played an important role in Israel’s history. Jacob (Israel) and his family had moved to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. There the Israelite population grew large, and Pharaoh eventually forced them into slavery.  God had compassion on the slaves and delivered them under the leadership of Moses. In preparation for leaving Egypt, the Israelites “asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing” (Exodus 12:35). Note that the jewelry taken from King Tutankhamun’s tomb is dated roughly within 100-150 years of the time of the Exodus. So it’s probable that the riches Israel carried out, while not royal treasures, reflected the artistry of the tomb pieces.

God required an offering from the people. Under His inspiration, they built a tabernacle for the LORD from the clothing, jewelry, silver, and gold that once belonged to Egypt (Exodus 36-40). The tabernacle represented God’s presence with His people, and the end of Egypt’s power to enslave them.

Symbolic of Love

In an account pre-dating the Exodus, Rebekah accepted two gold bracelets and a nose ring from the servant of Abraham. In attaching the nose ring and slipping the bracelets on her wrists, the servant claimed Rebekah for his master’s son, Isaac. This formality of giving and receiving jewelry was the first step in a marriage negotiation.  Similar to wearing an engagement ring, Rebekah’s wearing of the nose ring and bracelets indicated her willingness to discuss terms of marriage (Genesis 24).

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God expressed His love in terms of giving jewels to His bride, Jerusalem.

“. . . I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth . . . you were exceedingly beautiful”  (16:10-13).

If negotiations had broken down between Rebekah’s parents and the servant representing Isaac’s interests, I believe Rebekah would have returned the nose ring and bracelets. They were given and received as a prelude to marriage with the hope that Isaac and Rebekah would build an enduring relationship with one another, which they did.  Isaac had no other wives, and the marriage between Isaac and Rebekah was characterized by affection.

That’s not how it turned out for God and ancient Israel, however. Ezekiel tells of God’s incredulity: Jerusalem (Israel) gladly received His gifts of material wealth and health, but failed to love Him. Shamelessly she used the presents to go after others.

Symbolic of Position

King Saul customarily wore a broad gold bracelet on his upper arm and a crown to signify his royalty. When an Amalekite killed Saul and took his crown and bracelet to show David, he made a fatal error in thinking David would be pleased with proofs of Saul’s death (2 Samuel 1:10-16).

Women of royalty wore bracelets on the upper arm, though more commonly their bracelets were narrow gold bands worn at the wrists. Anklets favored by women of high rank were hollow and “filled with pebbles, so that the rattling sound could be heard when they walked.”[2]

Packer and Tenney state that nose jewels were “one of the most ancient ornaments of the east” and were made of ivory or gold and set with stones. . . . At times these nose jewels were more than 6 cm (2.5 in.) in diameter and hung down over the women’s lips.”[3]

A silver coin dowry necklace or headdress was “one of the most prized pieces of jewelry worn by a bride.”[4] A woman’s dowry and jewelry belonged to her and formed a kind of insurance policy when her husband died, or if the marriage failed. It is suggested that the lost coin in Jesus’ parable may have been part of a dowry necklace or headdress, although Jesus did not specify the coin constituted part of the woman’s dowry.

Symbolic of Pride

The prideful wearing of jewelry usually brings undesirable consequences. Isaiah wrote of God’s displeasure with the arrogant women who made an ostentatious display of themselves.

“. . . Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet; therefore the Lord will strike . . . in that day the Lord will take away the finery, the jingling anklets, the scarves, and the crescents, the pendants, the bracelets, and the veils; the headdresses, the leg ornaments and the headbands; the perfume boxes, the charms, and the rings; the nose jewels, the festal apparel, and the mantles; the outer garments, the purses, and the mirrors; the fine linen, the turbans, and the robes” (Isaiah 3:16-23).

 It may have been in response to the heavily adorned female attendants at the Temple of Diana, that Paul and Peter advised Christian women to be moderate in their wearing jewelry and in their dress. Peter stated that a woman has both an outer and an inner adornment to consider in light of God’s preference.

“Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4; see also 1 Timothy 2:9).

With all that can be studied in the scriptures about jewelry and adornment, my favorite passage about jewels has to do with conversation among believers. Malachi says that God listens to the conversations going on among those who fear the LORD. He takes note of their discussions in a book of remembrance. These people will be His “in the day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son that serves him” (Malachi 3:16-17).—Mary Hendren


[1] NIV Pictorial Bible, Zondervan publishers, l978, p. 128

[2] Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, J.I. Packer and M.C. Tenney, p. 484

[3] Same resource, p. 484

[4] The Women’s Study Bible, NKJV, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006, p. 116

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