The Cupbearer in Bible Times

Cupbearers were important servants in the ancient Near East. In the Bible we read about the cupbearer in Egypt in the time of Joseph (Genesis 40-41). Some English translations use the term butler.

The only person mentioned by name in the Bible as a cupbearer is Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11).

“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. “Now I was cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:11 ESV)”O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. “Now I was cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:11 ESV)

A source that I enjoy and use frequently is the IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. The comment about the cupbearer is brief but full of significant facts.

“The cupbearer in the ancient Near Eastern court held a very important position. He had direct access to the king and thus had great influence. Texts and reliefs describe cupbearers in Assyrian and Persian courts. The cupbearer was in close proximity to the king’s harem and thus was often a eunuch, although there is no evidence that this was the case with Nehemiah. Later sources identify the cupbearer as the wine taster. In addition he was the bearer of the signet ring and was chief financial officer.”

Have you visited the Bible Land Museum in Jerusalem? The museum is located across the parking lot from the Israel Museum. There is a separate entry fee for this smaller museum. It contains many artifact from a private collection. It is a good place to make photos that are useful in teaching the Bible. This rhyton or cup from the Persian Empire is one good example. This is likely the type of cup used by Nehemiah in his function as cupbearer to the king.

Phyton or cup from ancient Persia.
Inscribed just within the rim in cuneiform is “Ampirish, king of Samati, son of Dabala” Silver, gilt bitumen. From Iran, Early 6th century BCE, On loan from Cindy and David Sofer. From the Bible Land Museum, Jerusalem.

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