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Bible Gemz 531 - Ostraca - a Symbol of Brokeness (2 Cor 4:7)

April 24, 2019


But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us (NIV) (2 Cor 4:7)



You have seen from the input so far that the ostraca are the fragments of pottery used in the ancient world for all kinds of purposes. They are also the archeological textual source for much of what we know of everyday life at various stages through history. The reason for that is the ostraca were the note paper of the day. The people could not simply go and buy a block of paper from Paper Plus or Gramedia or wherever it is you get your paper. Instead the populace used broken fragments of pottery to make their notes or their “telephone” messages. Ostracon is singular and Ostraca is plural. 


But let’s back track one step. Earthenware jars were used for all sorts of purposes. The most prevalent were for holding water. In fact in every Jewish, Roman or Greek home there was a large jar inside the front door for storing water, which was used for washing the feet of a guest. It was called the “vessel of honour”. Over time this vessel would develop cracks to the extent it was passed its use by date. It was no longer fit for holding water. But it was fit for something else. It was designated to become ostraca. It was set aside for that moment when it would be broken and become useful again. It was even called Ostraca before it became ostraca. 


When the need arose for fragments of pottery the jar would be broken as a source of ostraca. These ostraca would be used to record messages, used for voting and even used to scrape and cure leather. But the usefulness was dependant on brokenness. Hence the term ostraca became a symbol for brokenness. Arndt Gingrich and Bauer’s authoritative Lexicon of New Testment usages records Ostraca as “a symbol of brokenness”. Ostraca were destined to be broken in order to be useful again. Well isn’t that interesting!


When I first came across this years ago, I was doing some digging in the Word on this verse and its surrounding context when at the same time I watched a movie on the story of Masada. Masada was a mountaintop fortress in the days of Jesus which was besieged by the Romans for two years and finally fell into their hands in AD 73. (I know I should write CE but I refuse) Nine hundred Jewish defenders had resisted 10,000 crack Roman troops for two years. When it was finally inevitable that the Romans would break through, the Jewish inhabitants made a mass suicide pact. The movie depicted the events and at the moment of decision they caste a vote as to whether they would die at their own hands or fight the Roman to the death. How did they caste their vote? The movie depicted them taking an old earthen ware jar in the corner and breaking it into pottery shards and then using those to caste their vote. At the time I had a sense that that act was somehow connected with what I had been studying in the Bible and so dug into it and found treasure in jars of clay. I didn’t know anything about Jars of Clay (the Rock band) at that time. They weren’t even formed. Good name for a Christian band though.


Jars of Clay’s song “Worlds Apart” is very interesting. It has a very powerful meaning. It’s about sin and how nobody is to be blamed but themselves. Its focused on confessing our faults and asking for forgiveness, asking God to break us and tear our world apart in order to have a new life. It makes me wonder if they indeed know what Ostraca are all about. 


A few years after finding the link between the ostraca and 2 Cor 4:7 I shared the truth at a Wycliffe devotional in Australia while we were being trained as Bible Translators.  Bruce Hooley, one of the lecturers, shared with me his poem Masks. I have asked Bruce for permission to share it with you gemmers now. Maybe I am breaking with tradition in sharing the lyrics of a song at least once with each book I Gem. This time not a song but a poem. Same diff, just no music. You can add the music as you sing it. 





Read a book, write a letter,

Masks we wear, fences we build.

Sweep the floor, wash the dishes,

Masks we wear, fences we build

to prevent the sweet terrifying

confrontation of self with self.


Wanting to know, wanting to be known.

Afraid to know, afraid to be known.

Not knowing how, not daring

to reveal the ill-formed follies that we owe.


Separate, Alone, Half known


How do we learn the sharing of our being?

How do we find the courage needed?

How do we achieve that intimate communion of our minds?


Masks we wear, fences we build

Frightened of the shallow imperfections

so carefully protected even from loving eyes.

When will we learn to abandon our petty vanities,

allowing love to create meaning out of our empty nothingness?


You alone O God can perform that miracle.

But even You do not despise the puny fences we build,

the feeble facades behind which we hide.

You do not tear away unbidden the leafy screens

erected to cover our nakedness.

You call but do not violate.


Help us to answer

Confessing the sin the causes us to hide from You

and from each other.

                                               Bruce Hooley



Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. James Baldwin 

The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped. Cesare Pavese




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