Whilst a simple meal of bread was the centerpiece for the average person�s day it was the special supper or banquet which is the centerpiece in many Biblical narratives. This is perhaps because, almost by definition, an occasion worthy of being recorded in scripture is a special occasion. Certainly one can easily justify theologically the assertion that any meal at which the Lord was a guest should be deemed a banquet. Therefore the purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the custom and behavior that surrounded a Biblical Banquet.
The discussion will start, as would the banquet, with the invitation. The custom in the East was to double the invitation. The first invitation would announce the future event and the second would be sent when the food was ready. Examples of this in scripture include Esther's invitation to Ahasuerus and Haman (Est 5:8, 6:14) and perhaps more importantly the parable of the Wedding of the King's Son (Mat 22:2,3) and the parable of the Great Supper (Luke 14:16,17). ISBE suggests that the double invitation was of practical necessity given the scarcity of timepieces.
The banquet was a sufficiently important part of Eastern life that an invitation to it, or exclusion from it, was an important hallmark of someone's status. This is manifested in a number of ways.
The status derived from attending a feast did not, however, stop when the door was shut; if anything it became more visible and focused. The coveted status symbol became the seating position. Fausset cites Gen 43:33 to show that initially this would have been a fairly simple line with the most senior closest to the head of the table. Wight details that arrangements become more elaborate over time: some guests might be seated in a lower part of the house and those with greater status in a higher part. The ultimate seating position was at the right hand of the host with the left as a close second. Easton shows that even further honor could be implied by serving the guest an extra portion (Gen 43:34) or filling their cup until in overflow (Psa 23:5). Closeness to the host and extra portions were combined into the honor of the sop. The sop was a particularly choice morsel of food which was fed by the hand of the host to some particularly honored guest. It is thus particularly poignant that the Lord should have given such a sop to Judas.
The 'extra elaboration' referred to previously was principally set around the triclinium. The triclinium consisted of three couches set into the shape of a U; the fourth side was left open allowing those serving to get to each of the guests. The triclinium was not a Hebrew invention and we see the prophet Amos railing contemptuously against those that lay on couches to eat (Amos 6:4); nonetheless this had clearly become standard practice by New Testament times. The commentators offer at least two opinions as to how these couches were populated. Wight believes that three couches would hold three people; the host being the one at the base of the U shape. Fausset and Smith both disagree; rather they believe that each couch would hold three people. The most honored was 'underneath' with the next most honored lying so as to place his head upon the breast of the first; the next positioned further down. This latter arrangement would explain the expression of John having his head upon Jesus' bosom (John 13:23). The more closely packed approach would also allow nine people to share a meal rather than three.
Naturally the banquet would be set with better or more plentiful food than a normal meal; it was also common for a banquet to have lavish amounts of wine. Fausset believes it is for this reason that starting a banquet early in the day, when there was still work to be done, was considered a sign of excess (Isa 5:11). Meat, often scarce in normal life, would usually be provided at a banquet and if it were possible to find the most tender and juicy stall-fed calf then so much the better. The revelry could include garlands upon the head (Isa 28:1), music (Isa 5:12) and dancing (Luke 15:25).
It is perhaps fair to conclude that whilst everyday meals reflected the necessities of a harsh reality the banquet was an attempt to escape, at least for a moment, from that reality. Food and entertainment was plentiful and a dose of alcohol often further distanced the real world from experience. Viewed more positively it was an occasion where people could be together in extremely close quarters to socialize and where relationships could be forged and cemented. For better or worse this was all wrapped in an elaborate and well understood ritualistic ranking system which allowed the host to express in very clear terms the favor or otherwise he felt towards everyone that he knew.