What was the lampstand?
Lamps were in use in very remote times, though we have few allusions to them in the early history of Egypt. There are indications that they were used there. Niches for lamps are found in the tombs of Tell el-Amarna. Lampstands are also represented (ibid., Part III, 7). Torches were of course used before lamps, but clay lamps were used in Canaan by the Amorites before the Israelites took possession. The excavations in Palestine have furnished thousands of specimens, and have enabled us to trace the development from about 2000 BC onward. The exploration carried out at Lachish (Tell Hesy ) and Gezer (Tell Jezer ) by the Palestine Exploration Fund has given ample material for the purpose, and the numerous examples from tombs all over Palestine and Syria have supplied a great variety of forms.
"Lamp" is used in the sense of a guide in Psalm 119:105 ; Proverbs 6:23 , and for the spirit, which is called the lamp of Yahweh in man (Proverbs 20:27 ), and it of course often signifies the light itself. It is used also for the son who is to succeed and represent his father (1 Kings 15:4 ), and it perhaps is employed in this sense in the phrase, "The lamp of the wicked shall be put out" (Job 21:17 ; Proverbs 13:9 ; and perhaps Job 18:6 ).
The early Canaanite or Amorite lamp was a shallow, saucer-like bowl with rounded bottom and vertical rim, slightly pointed or pinched on one side where the lighted end of the wick was placed. This form continued into Jewish times, but was gradually changed until the spout was formed by drawing the rim of the sides together, forming a narrow open channel, the remainder of the rim being rolled outward and flattened, the bottom being also flattened. This was the early Hebrew pattern and persisted for centuries.
The open bowl was gradually closed in, first at the spout, where the rim of one side was lapped over the other, and finally the whole surface was closed with only an orifice in the center for receiving the oil, and at the same time the spout was lengthened. This transformation is seen in lamps of the Seleucid period, or from around 300 BC. These lamps have usually a circular foot and sometimes a string-hole on one side. The next development was a circular bowl with a somewhat shorter spout, sometimes being only a bulge in the rim, so that the orifice for the wick falls in the rim, the orifice for filling being quite small at the bottom of a saucer-like depression in the center of the bowl.
There is sometimes a loop handle affixed on the side opposite to the spout. Sometimes the handle is horizontal, but commonly vertical. This form is called Roman, and the bowl is often ornamented with mythological human or animal figures (Fig. 5). Other forms are elongated, having numerous wick holes (Fig. 6). The mythological and animal forms were rejected by the Jews as contrary to their traditions, and they made lamps with various other designs on the bowl, such as vine leaves, cups, scrolls, etc. (Figs. 7-11). One very marked Jewish design is the seven-branched candlestick (Exodus 25:32 ) of the temple (Fig. 12). The lamps of the parable of the Ten Virgins were probably similar to these (Matthew 25:1 ff).
The latest form of the clay lamp was what is called Byzantine, the bowl of which has a large orifice in the center and tapers gradually to the spout (Fig. 13); they are ornamented commonly with a palm branch between the central orifice and the wickhole, or with a cross. Sometimes there is an inscription on the margin (Fig. 13). The words on this read Φως κυ (ριου ) φενι πασιν καλη ? Phōs ku (riou ) pheni pasin kalē , "The light of the Lord shines to all (beautifully?)." Others read, "The Lord is my light"; "beautiful light," etc. These inscriptions determine the period as being Christian. In Roman times, and earlier also, bronze was much used for the finer lamps, often with covers for the orifice and sometimes with chain and ring for hanging. Very elaborate designs in this material occur.
These terra-cotta lamps are found in the tombs and burial places throughout Palestine and Syria, and they were evidently deposited there in connection with the funeral rites. Very few are found in Canaanite tombs, but they become numerous in later times and especially in the early Christian centuries. The symbolism in their use for funeral purposes is indicated by the inscriptions above mentioned (see PEFS , 1904,326 ff; Explorations in Palestine, by Bliss. Maclister and Wunsch, 4to, published by the Palestine Exploration Fund). These lamps were used by the peasants of the country down to recent times, when petroleum has superseded olive oil for lighting. The writer has seen lamps of the Jewish and Roman period with surface blackened with recent usage. Olive oil was commonly used, but terebinth oil also (Thomson, LB, III, 472).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).