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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

Jeroboam – three litres/four bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

The “wise man of God” warns of the destruction of Jeroboam’s profane idols

As it goes in the Bible, Jeroboam was the first king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (sometimes called the Kingdom of Israel Samaria after its capital) following the rebellion of 10 tribes of Israel in the wake of Solomon’s death in 931 BC, which led to the end of the first united Kingdom of Israel.

If one follows the narrative of the Bible, at the beginning of the Iron Age, the 12 tribes of Israel coalesced into a united kingdom under the rule of Saul sometime around 1050 BC (although the dates are disputed as indeed is the whole idea of a united kingdom*). This was, it is argued, very likely a result of increased pressure from enemies such as the Philistines.

The Philistines were very real as a people, we know a reasonable amount about them and in the Book of Samuel, Saul does indeed meet death and defeat at their hands 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 great King David succeeded Saul, initially just in Judah but eventually over the united Israel again after Saul’s surviving son, Ish-Bosheth, was murdered. David is followed in turn by the great temple builder Solomon and the united kingdom lasted until 930 BC when Rehoboam, son of Solomon, came to the throne.

At this point, says the Bible, the 10 most northerly tribes of Israel rebelled, apparently after Rehoboam seemed poised to continue the policy of heavy taxation implemented by his father.

As is related in 1 Kings, Jeroboam, upon hearing of Solomon’s death, returned from exile in Egypt, where he had fled after plotting an armed rebellion, and led a delegation to Rehoboam at Sechem where the latter had come to be crowned.

It is suggested that Solomon, in the building of his temple in Jerusalem and in supporting his increasingly decadent lifestyle, had implemented heavy taxes and effectively used his people as slave labour.

The elders of the northern tribes, Jeroboam at their head, went before Rehoboam asking for some relief from these duties.

“Thy father made our yoke grievous: now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father, and his heavy yoke which he put upon us, lighter, and we will serve thee,” they apparently asked.

Older men counselled Rehoboam to take a sympathetic line and grant the wishes of the Ten Tribes but younger men called for no compromise and in fact an even tougher stance. Rehoboam took the latter course, arrogantly and foolishly declaring to the northern tribes: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”

At this the Ten Tribes rebelled, with the powerful and influential Tribe of Ephraim being among the most vocal in their condemnation of Rehoboam. Jeroboam who had led the delegation was part of the tribe of Ephraim and they acclaimed him king.

Yet Jeroboam was immediately faced with a serious problem. Although the larger territory, his Kingdom of Israel was bereft of important religious sites. The Israelites, no less than the Judeans, were bound by their Covenant with Yahweh and the centre of that important bond was very firmly established at the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem – now enemy territory. In order to establish religious authority over the new kingdom and break the bond with Jeroboam reintroduced polytheism.

He did this, says the Bible, because he was afraid the people would continue to head to Jerusalem, now in the Kingdom of Judah, to make their sacrifices and so be reconciled with Rehoboam and turn against him.

The first Book of Kings continues that he: “Made two calves of gold; and he said unto them [the Israelites]: ‘Ye have gone up long enough to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’

“And he set the one in Beth-el, and the other put he in Dan.”

Of course this reversion back to the worship of false idols and the like gives Jeroboam something of a poor reputation in the Bible. At one point while he is offering a sacrifice to the idol at Bethel a “man of God” warns him that House of David will one day return to destroy his altars.

Naturally, the two kingdoms were soon at war, “perpetual war” according to the Bible. Jeroboam was largely unsuccessful in battle, losing one large battle in particular to Rehoboam’s son, Abijam, but the smaller Kingdom of Judah could never quite defeat its northern neighbour.

Jeroboam died, it is said, in 910 BC to be succeeded by his son, Nadab. Nadab reigned for just two years before he was murdered by one of his own lieutenants, Baasha, who then made himself king. It was the end of the, short-lived, House of Jeroboam and 200 years later the kingdom would be subsumed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire as it expanded westwards and, indeed, Jeroboam’s altars at Bethel and Dan were destroyed by king Josiah of Judah in the 7th century BC – as the mysterious “man of God” had foretold.


*The argument for this is that we have comparatively little evidence for the existence of a united kingdom in the late Bronze/early Iron Age. Even the existence of King David himself is open to serious question. The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel Samaria certainly did exist as separate entities and were rivals. The Bible seems to have been largely composed in the Kingdom of Judah however and so we must be aware of its bias. The kings of Israel Samaria are inevitably dismissed as wicked and sinful in the eyes of Yahweh and very real kings who we know quite a lot about thanks to archaeological evidence get hardly a verse or two apiece in the Old Testament – usually that they came to the throne in such a year and then died in such a year.

It is entirely plausible that in a bid to make their northern neighbours look particularly bad and to explain the Kingdom of Israel’s fall to the Assyrians, scribes in Judah cooked up a mythical past in which the two realms were happy and unified under a strong king and god, and that king was David and the god was Yahweh. The rejection of the House of David by the 10 northern tribes led to the end of this union and was the cause of the all the subsequent suffering of the Hebrews – the strife between themselves and both Israel and Judah’s eventual punishment from God in the form of their respective destruction by Salmanazar V and Nebuchadnezzar. In effect, the Biblical authors from Judah are accusing the northerners of being rotten spoilsports who ruined everything by their refusal to play ball with Judah. It is reminiscent of that classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where Brian attempts to join the Judean People’s Front, only to be told Reg, Francis & co that they are, in fact, the People’s Front of Judea. 

Reg: “The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f**king Judean People’s Front.”
Omnes: “Yeah!”
Judith: “Splitters!”

Rehoboam – four and a half litres/six bottles
Used in: Champagne and Burgundy

The arrogance of Rehoboam towards the elders of the Ten Tribes of Israel by Hans Holbein the Younger

Rehoboam, as the first part made clear, was the son and successor of Solomon. His apparent arrogance and threats to tax and “chastise… with scorpions” the 10 northern tribes of Israel led to their rebellion and the sundering of the united kingdom. Jeroboam became king of Israel (Samaria) and Rehoboam king of Judah, which encompassed the territories of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah and with Jerusalem as his capital.

After his declaration to the northern tribes he was forced, ignominiously, to flee Sechem without being crowned after one of his lieutenants was stoned to death by a mob.

Although a state of war existed between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Rehoboam did not succeed in defeating the rebellious northern tribes and his attentions were soon drawn elsewhere when his territory was invaded by the Egyptians.

In the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign, the pharaoh ‘Shishaq’ invaded Judah with over 1,000 chariots and, say the chronicles, swarms of subject soldiery: Libyans, Sukkites and Kushites. Shisaq as he is referred to in both Kings and Chronicles has tentatively been identified as Shoshenq I who did pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the Levant, attacking numerous towns in the region as listed on the Bubasite Portal.

According to the Biblical narrative, Sishaq captured the fortified towns leading to Jerusalem and laid siege to the city. The Book of Kings relates that Rehoboam was forced to give up the city and Shisaq marched off with “the treasures of the temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made,” and Judah became a vassal state of Egypt.

However, Jerusalem is not mentioned on Shoshenq’s list of conquered places, leading some to suggest he is not the Shishak of the Bible. Others suggest that Jerusalem may be one of the missing names on the list (many are lost or damaged) or Rehoboam may have surrendered the city and its treasures without a fight so Shoshenq did not consider it truly part of his conquests. Not that pharaohs are much noted for their humility.

Rehoboam is said to have died in 913 BC, to be succeeded by his son, Abijam.

Methuselah – six litres/eight bottles
Used in: Champagne and Burgundy

The oldest man in the Bible and the grandfather of Noah – who was after all the world’s first vintner.

He is first mentioned in Genesis as part of the genealogy linking Adam to Noah. It is explained that he was the son of Enoch who was already aged 65 when Methuselah was born and lived to 365 years old himself!

Methuselah easily surpassed his father, however, begetting his first son, Lamech, at the age of 187 and having more children over the span of 780 years before dying aged 969.

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

It may very well be that Methuselah, Enoch and Lamech were important, semi-legendary figures who lived for an unusually long time.

More logical explanations have tried to reason that perhaps the chronicler had meant months rather than years or perhaps tenths of years – either explanation would make Methuselah a more believable 78½ or 96 when he died. The only problem then is that would make his father, Enoch, just five or six when Methuselah was conceived.

Better is to take these extreme ages as either symbolic or out-and-out fiction. Methuselah is counted as the eighth patriarch, Adam being the first and Noah the tenth. So the lengthy lives of these figures might just be a convenient way of having 10 figures representing the history of Man from Adam to Noah. It’s neat, and 10 names in a genealogy is much easier to remember than several hundred – and a lot of these teachings would have to be remembered by people because written texts would have been rare and most people couldn’t read anyway.

Having 10 names is likely just a device to move the story on quickly and efficiently from the expulsion from Eden to the flood.

Salmanazar – nine litres/12 bottles
Used in: Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy

Assyrian siege warfare as depicted by Angus McBride for the Osprey military history series

In the litany of Assyrian kings that have had the name Salmanazar, the one the bottle may refer to is Salmanazar V – this would lend some historical continuity to the early bottles at least.

Salmanazar was king of Assyria from 727-722 BC. The Assyrians were a very ancient Semitic people whose civilization had emerged in the early Bronze Age, around 2,600 BC, based around the cities of Assur and Nineveh.

Having reached its apogee in the late Bronze Age when it was an empire that stood in comparison to the Baylonians, Hittites and Egyptians, Assyria suffered a slump during the Bronze Age collapse that began in 13th or 12th century BC and lasted some 150 years – a ‘systems collapse’ which saw the end of the Hittites and Mycenaean Greece among others.

In the late 900s BC however the Assyrian empire, frequently referred to now as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, began to expand once again and grew enormously over the course of the next 300 years. It subjugated Babylon and spread westwards until its territories encompassed the entire span of the fertile crescent from the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Negev desert and borders of Egypt.

Salmanazar’s reign was short but eventful. His father, Tiglath-Pileser III had received the tribute of both king Ahaz of Judah and king Menahem Israel (Samaria) and the Biblical account in 2 Kings is corroborated almost exactly in the Assyrian records.

Hoshea came to the throne of Israel in 732 BC, having overthrown king Pekah, and initially remained a loyal vassal of the Assyrians but when Salmanazar succeeded his father this loyalty began to waver.

It seems Hoshea began making overtures to Pharaoh Osorkon IV (‘King So’ in the Bible but the chronology suggests it should be Osorkon) and Salmanazar quickly discovered this treachery.

He turned his armies loose on Israel and campaigned there in 727, 726 and 725 BC according to the Assyrian Eponym Canon, while the Babylonian Chronicle apparently relates that he ravaged the city of “Sha-ma-ra-in” – likely Samaria/Sechem.

Hoshea was captured but the fate of this last King of Israel is entirely unknown. It is likely he was executed. The Assyrians and Babylonians were not renowned for their clemency towards defeated enemies.

Salmanazar and his successor, Sargon II, were then responsible for the first great deportation of Hebrews.

2 Kings relates: “In the ninth year if Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”

It is highly unlikely that they took away everyone, however. As we shall see with the later Babylonian captivity, it is more likely they took just the ruling elite of Israelite society. Nonetheless, due to small population sizes of the time this could still have represented a substantial proportion of the people in Israel and helped give rise to the idea of the “10 lost tribes of Israel”. The Samaritans who came to live in that land and who exist as an ethno-religious group to this day, claim they are descended from those Hebrews left behind after the destruction of Israel by Salmanazar V.

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