Meal Customs

Many of the meals we see narrated in Scripture took place at religious events or in the presence of royalty; as such they are probably not representative of the eating practices of the general populace on a normal working day. Such banquets will be the subject of a later paper. This essay is rather going to attempt to glean some information regarding the general meal-time habits of Biblical times.

Of course the distinction just made, whilst valid, is also somewhat arbitrary. The reality was, then as now, that the luxury available at a given meal varied as much with the era and means of the eater as it did with the nature of the occasion. This is seen most clearly in the setting in which the meal took place.

Wight, Easton, ISBE and Smith are all agreed that the common eating position in the Middle East prevalent to modern times was sitting or crouching on the floor[1] surrounding a table that was at most slightly raised from the ground. There is some disagreement as to the exact nature of the table but that probably reflects that fact the means and fashions change. Easton mentions a round low table. Wight states that the 'Shool-khawn' generally translated 'table' really means a mat spread upon the ground. He also suggests that this explains David's wish that 'their table should become a snare for them'; envisaging someone with the foot caught in the cloth. Wight also mentions a raised table of some fourteen inches in height which is polygonal.

A step up from sitting upon the ground would be having a chair; ISBE equates this innovation with the more settled lifestyle possible once the Jews were living in Canaan citing 1Sa 20:25. It should be noted though that it was a king seated at that point and even by the time of Solomon having servants seated at a table was considered unsurpassable luxury (1Ki 10:5). It is interesting to note however that shortly thereafter (1Ki 13:20) an elderly prophet had chairs and was eating from a table.

By the time of Amos the fashion had become that one should lay on a couch to eat; and the more sumptuous the couch the better!

Amo 6:4  Who lie on beds of ivory, Stretch out on your couches, Eat lambs from the flock And calves from the midst of the stall;

The tenor of Amos' message suggests however that the innovation was still fairly recent and the words of Amos scarcely hide the contempt he had for those indulging in such luxury. It is perhaps all the more poignant therefore that by the time our Lord walked upon the earth reclining had become the almost universal custom[2]. The shape of the couches and the arrangement of the occupants thereof is also of interest; but it shall be dealt with within the paper upon banquets.

Whilst the setting of the Jewish meal varied greatly over time the daily timing of it remained fairly consistent. ISBE deals most thoroughly with the timing of the meal. Around nine or ten in the morning a morsel would be eaten alongside some dainty such as olives. This was considered enough the 'break the fast' but was not considered a meal; eating a full meal that early was considered reprehensible[3]. The first of two full meals would occur around noon; examples are Joseph's feast with his brothers in Egypt (Gen 43:16), Ruth's rest from her labors in the field (Ruth 2:14) and Peter's interrupted meal in Joppa (Acts 10:9). The main meal of the day occurred around sunset. This pattern was possibly created during the wilderness wanderings my God's provision of bread in the morning and meat in the evening (Ex 16:8).

It is probable that the serving and consumption of the food also remained fairly consistent over time. As discussed previously bread is the major foodstuff of Biblical times and a meal consisted principally of that; anything extra provided was usually set in a shared pot in the center of the table[4]. If a meat was provided with sauce (or grease) then the sauce would be in a pot separate from the meat[5]. The bread was dipped into this sauce to soften it; this is the derivation of the 'sop' of Scripture[6]. Indeed the bread was the only utensil provided at a table other than the human hand. Wight recounts an Arab proverb: 'why does man want a spoon when God has given him so many fingers'.

Given the shared pot and the use of the hand as a utensil it is good to note that hand hygiene is an essential part of the Biblical dining practice. The need for hygiene extends to the point where they will not wash their hands in static water; rather they expect someone to pour water whilst they wash their hands in the running stream. This task was often delegated to a servant; thus Elisha is noted as 'one who poured water on the hands of Elijah' (2Kings 3:11). The washing process is usually repeated at the end of the meal to remove any foodstuffs which may have accrued. By the time of the Lord this reasonable physical cleansing had become an elaborate religious ritual which the Lord's disciples where castigated by the Pharisee's for not following (Mark 7:1-5). As Wight is at pains to make clear; it was the elaborate ritual that the Lord rejected - not the need for hygiene.

Much as in a Christian household today a grace is said before meals. In the absence of anyone of particular religious status the host says a grace at the start of the meal; this would often be simple and formulaic such as 'In the name of God'. This would either be fully or partially repeated by each individual in turn. Wight quotes Edersheim as stating that the formula used at the time of Christ was: 'Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, King of the world, who causes to come forth bread from the earth.' If a prophet or teacher was present it would be normal to defer the blessing of the food to them. 1Sa 9:13 gives an early example of this; the blessing that Christ pronounced upon the bread before the feeding of the five thousand is a more famous instance.

In distinction to modern practice it was also customary to give thanks at the end of a meal. Interestingly this behavior has at least as much Biblical mandate as praying before the meal. Deu 8:10 specifically instructs that when you have eaten and are full you should give thanks for the food that has been provided for you. Once again a participant in the meal would give thanks out loud and then the remainder would either say an 'Amen' or recite some fragment of the prayer.

The discussion above has shown that the setting of the Biblical meal changed over time from a simple seated circle around a mat to sumptuous couches that people could lounge upon. The timing of the meal was more consistent; essentially corresponding to a noon lunch and an early evening main meal. The food itself was served without utensils in a shared bowl or bowls; individuals would eat by dipping their bread or hand into the food. Such communal eating required hand hygiene before and after meals although not the elaboration that sometimes occurred. Thankfulness to God for provision was expected before and after eating.


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