Biblical bottles: Jeroboam to Salmanazar

Just who were the Biblical kings and prophets of ancient Israel, Judah, Assyria and Babylon whose names grace the large format bottles of wine that dominate tables and collections today?

There’s always been a question mark as to why large format wine bottles have the names they do. Why were the names chosen? Who chose them? When did it happen? Well, unfortunately, this piece will not and can not answer those questions – for now anyway.

There must be more information somewhere but, barring a dramatic discovery, we shall have to consider the reasons largely lost to history. There is a suggestion, however, that the name Jeroboam came to be associated with a large bottle size in Bordeaux in around 1725.

It was apparently created, along with the now classic ‘Bordelaise‘ bottle shape by the royal glassmaker in the city, Pierre Mitchell. After that the trail goes cold and even why Mitchell might have plumped for ‘Jeroboam’ as a name is mysterious itself. There were two kings of ancient Israel who went by that name, the first, as we shall see, was a rebel against the House of David, who turned away from God and set up false idols – hardly the model Hebrew king, while the second, who ruled some time later merits barely three verses in 2 Kings. More recent archaeology has shown that Jeroboam II probably ruled over Israel at a time in the 8th century BC when it was flourishing (not that you’d know it from the Bible) because of its production of and trade in olive oil and wine. But this would not have been known in the 18th century. So, why?

One can speculate of course. The 18th and 19th centuries were more religious times, knowledge of scripture was more widespread. There seems (to me at least) in these first four bottle sizes an element of continuity and perhaps a clever allegory alluding to the passing of time which itself is a nod to a device used in the Bible.

To elaborate: the first two Biblical bottle names are Jeroboam and Rehoboam. They were (in the Bible at least) contemporary rivals, the former king of Israel, the latter of Judah. Jeroboam is a wicked king who commits many sins in the eyes of “the Lord” (Rehoboam isn’t actually much better) and is cursed by the prophet Ahijah that he, his house and the kingdom will one day fall. Methuselah meanwhile is the oldest man in the Bible who, we are told, lived 969 years. Some might take this literally but most see it as a suggestion of the passing of time between Adam and Noah. Then we have Salmanazar, the Assyrian king who, indeed, overruns the Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC, bringing an end to that kingdom as a sovereign power and takes away many Israelites into captivity. We might then throw in Nebuchadnezzar as well who is important for bringing about the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, destroying Solomon’s great temple and carting off a great part of the Hebrew people into slavery in Babylon.

So did the person or persons who came up with the names for the bottles create something of a chronological and historical link between them, which would have been immediately obvious to people with a basic understanding of Biblical scripture?

The first two kings of the disunited Israel after the death of Solomon represented by Jeroboam and Rehoboam; a long passage of time represented by Methuselah; and then the eventual nemeses of both the Kingdom of Israel (Salmanazar) and Judah (Nebuchadnezzar)?

The chronological theory falls somewhat flat because Balthasar, who in reality came after Nebuchadnezzar, is a smaller bottle size and some of the bigger bottle sizes take us back to eras in the Bible that predate Jeroboam and Rehoboam. Still, depending on when all these bottles were introduced – and the much larger bottles can only have come much later as glassmaking methods became more advanced – there maybe something to it; make of it what ye will.

So, with the great central (and possibly more intriguing) mystery still unanswered, let us instead throw rather more light on the characters behind the names and what they did for they are, very often, real historical figures, who existed beyond the pages of the Old Testament or Torah, in a flesh and blood world that was as tumultuous and splendid as anything you might have seen in a Biblical Hollywood epic.

Biblical passages (from the King James Bible) have been quoted freely though, it must be stressed, more for flavour than reliance on them as actual evidence of fact. Nonetheless, as archaeological evidence builds and historians’ understanding of the ancient Near East improves, it has been shown that large parts of the Old Testament are corroborated by other texts, usually from Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian sources.

Wine and viticulture’s role in this world is also being teased out bit by bit. Mentioned frequently in the Bible, modern excavations have thrown a fascinating light on wine culture in ancient Israel and Judah during the times of these ancient kings.

Just last year evidence was found of the earliest reference yet found in Hebrew to Jerusalem. A scrap of papyrus mentions the city in relation to an order for wine meant for the king. Dated to the 7th century BC, we do not, sadly know, which king it is referring to.

Meanwhile, in April last year shards of pottery from the same period were found bearing inscriptions in Hebrew, many of them with orders for wine for men stationed in garrison forts. Analysis of the handwriting has led some scholars to believe that the literacy rate of the Kingdom of Judah was actually much higher than originally thought and thus, it is possible, work on the first books of the Bible might have begun before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587BC and not afterwards when the Jews were in exile in Babylon as is often accepted.

READ MORE: Biblical Bottles – Balthasar to Melchizidek

5 Responses to “Biblical bottles: Jeroboam to Salmanazar”

  1. Kent Benson says:

    “In the Book of Samuel, Saul does indeed meet death and defeat at the hands of the Philistines at the Battle of Gilboa after proving himself unworthy in the eyes of God, although whether he fell on his own sword or was polished off by an Amalekite is unknown as both accounts are given in 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel respectively.”

    The II Sam. 1:1-16 account of Saul being killed by an Amalekite at the battle of Gilboa was a story told to David by the very Amalekite in question. It is thought that the Amalekite was an opportunist hoping to curry favor with the heir to the throne (David) by delivering the news of Saul’s death and taking credit for it. It didn’t work, David had him killed for slaying “God’s anointed.”

    The Amalekite’s story is probably not what actually happened. The history recorded by the chroniclers of I & II Samuel (I Sam. 31:1-6) has Samuel killing himself with his sword in order to avoid torture at the hands of the Philistines, after being incapacitated by a Philistine arrow – this, only after his armourbearer refused to do the job. An almost identical account is recorded in I Chron. 10:1-6.

  2. Kent Benson says:

    “Of course, these figures are nonsense, although people have tried to justify them literally through all manner of tenuous arguments.”

    It is your explanation of the Bible’s account of pre-flood longevity that is tenuous. Many things in the Bible seemed like nonsense until science advanced to enough to give them credence. Isaiah 40:22 refers to the “circle of the earth”, which was nonsense prior to Galileo. The physical world prior to a world-wide flood could have been dramatically different. According to the biblical record, it never rained, instead a mist went up from the earth to water the ground (Gen. 2:5-6). One speculation is that a filtering canopy surrounded the earth blocking virtually all harmful solar radiation. In addition, there could have been a much more oxygen-rich environment contributing to longevity. We’re not likely to ever know why humans may have lived much longer thousands of years ago, but treating the idea as nonsense is a closed minded approach to examining human history.

  3. There are several kings named Shalmaneser, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalmaneser .
    Shalmaneser II was the king of Assyria 1030–1019 BC and ruled for 12 years according to the Assyrian Kinglist.
    So, I think, a big bottle containing 12 standard bottles, is named in honor of these 12 years 🙂

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