Without an understanding of Middle-Eastern cuisine it is almost impossible to understand the significance of the Lord calling Himself the 'Bread of Life'. It is estimated that three quarters of the Middle Eastern population live entirely upon bread or other grain derivatives[1]. This is clearly different from the highly omnivorous American diet; particularly with the recent denigration of carbohydrate as a foodstuff. In an attempt to bridge this cultural gap this paper will attempt to give an overview of the food of Palestine and its' preparation; particularly noting how this should alter our thinking when reading Biblical passages mentioning food.

The preeminence of Bread in the East is so strong that the term 'bread' is often used to include all foodstuffs. The ISBE shows that as early as Gen 3:19 the production of 'bread' is seen as one of the principle activities of man. They also suggest that part of the reason for the centrality of bread within Eastern thought is that even when other articles are combined with the bread they are usually placed within the bread; either to eat or to carry[2]. Thus when the Lord told us to pray for our daily bread; or called Himself the 'Bread of Life' he was describing all food not just a single item.

As one might expect Biblical 'Bread' came in a number of different forms:

There is greater agreement regarding the method of preparation of the bread; and there is at least one significant difference from the Western approach. Smith probably narrates this most directly: first the flour, water and milk are mixed, then it is kneaded with the hands (or feet in Egypt!) in a kneading trough until it became dough. Then, if there was time, leaven was added and the dough left for a period[3] prior to baking - if no time was available then the dough was baked without adding leaven. Exodus 12:34 shows in one verse how important the kneading trough was, that leaven was added late in the process, and also that the kneading trough was highly portable:

Exo 12:34 So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, with their kneading troughs bound up in their clothing on their shoulders. (NET)

The final step in bread preparation was the baking and again we see a great variety of methods reflecting the 'needs driven' nature of the situation. Here are some examples of what is described:

  1. (Wight, Easton, ISBE, Fausset) Simply laying the dough upon hot stones - the method used by Elijah in 1Kings 19:6. ISBE suggests that in addition to being laid upon the fire-stones ashes were laid on top of the dough to 'cook both sides'; the bread also being flipped halfway through the cooking process.
  2. (Wight) Creating a fire-pit five foot deep and three foot in diameter. One the pit is very hot bread will bake almost instantly when attached to the sides of the pit.
  3. (Wight, ISBE, Smith, Fausset) A great stone pitcher had flint placed within it and a fire kindled within it. Once the fire had abated cakes of fine flour could be baked inside the pitcher and loaves baked on the outside. The outside baking method was sometimes achieved using an earthenware jar rather than a stone pitcher. ISBE states that the inside method could also be done with an earthenware jar. Smith believes that this oven was sometimes of metal.
  4. (Wight, ISBE) some towns had a public oven; an earthenware tube some three feet in diameter and five feet in length sunk into the ground. Often this is situated inside a hut. The tube is then filled with fuel to create a fire and once hot enough the women can bake their bread on the sides of the tube[4]. Wight suggests that Malachi was thinking of this scene when he described: 'the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven'
  5. (Wight) an alternate public oven was a half-cylinder of stone laid horizontally with a fire kindled within the cylinder. This had the advantage of making the cleaning (or taking!) of the embers much easier.
  6. (Wight, Easton, Fausset) all mention that there were public bakers (Hos 7:4) and that Jerusalem had an entire street devoted to the profession (Jer 37:21). Even post-exile the 'Tower of the Ovens' was a notable landmark (Neh 3:11,12:38)
  7. (ISBE) a frying pan or griddle heated above a fire and used in the manner of 'a'
  8. (ISBE) the 'bowl-oven' - a set of stones are placed upon the ground and the dough placed upon the stones. A large bowl is then placed over the stones and dried dung is placed upon the bowl which is then ignited to provide heat.
  9. (Fausset) Layers of dung were built one upon another and between the layers the dough was placed. The dung was then ignited and when it had finished burning the bread was cooked.

Once cooked the bread remained to be eaten. Wight spends considerable time detailing the sacred nature of bread in Palestinian thought. He suggests that a guest arriving at a house would not be greeted if bread was being broken at the time. He is also of the opinion that the habit of breaking bread arose because it was viewed that taking a knife to bread would be 'absolutely wicked'. The other lexicographers do not mention any such superstition; declaring rather that 'breaking' suited the texture and shape of the food.

Whilst bread is the commonest and probably preferred method of consuming grain in the East it is certainly not the only method. By far the simplest was simply to consume the grain raw. There was specific provision in the Law for someone walking through a field of grain to eat as they went and we read of the disciples doing the same thing[5]. Grain which was still unripe could be rendered palatable by parching; the process involved roasting the grain in a skillet. It was food of this type that David took to his brothers and that Abigail later gave to David.

The type of grain used would again be needs driven. Those with the resources would use wheat and the poorer, which were the majority, would use barley. When time permitted this would be ground into meal; for special occasions 'fine flour' could be rendered. At the other end of the scale 'beaten corn' was the result of having ground the grain using pestle and mortar.

Having devoted much space to the Palestinian view of Bread it is perhaps useful to remember that whilst Bread was the most important and prevalent form of food it was not necessarily the most palatable or the most popular. We know that during the wilderness years the Jews ate bread made from manna; but this did not stop them fondly remembering leeks, onions and garlic. It is also noteworthy that the 'Promised Land' was described as a land flowing with milk and honey; not one that was particularly good for growing grain[6]!

Naturally, as one would expect, the Israelites would supplement their diet as they were able. Lentils are used to form a wholesome stew; it was such a dish that Esau sold his birthright for. Isaiah mentions a garden of cucumbers (Isa 1:8) and we know of at least two occasions when Gourds are mentioned (Jonah 4:6-10 & 2Kings 4:39). Palestine is also famous for certain fruit including Olives and Olive oil, figs, grapes and pomegranates.

It is probably in the use of animal products that the Israelites differed most markedly from American practice. For instance the domestic fowl was not introduced until after the time of Elijah; so egg based products and white-meat would not have been common. Milk from sheep, goats and cows is drunk; but rather than our pre-occupation with freshness they rather prefer to warm the milk with yeast to create 'curds' which are then referred to as 'leben'. Left even longer suspended in a sack and regularly beaten it forms a thicker, oil substance similar to our butter. The diary product we are most likely to recognized and appreciate is cheese which is very similar to our own.

Beyond the preceding it is almost certainly the absence of meat which would strike the westerner as odd. As Smith points out, between poverty, the severe problems of keeping meat fresh and the strict code of the Law of Moses it is entirely impractical to eat meat on anything other than special festive occasions. Even then slaughtering an entire ox would be deemed highly wasteful. Rather it was the 'kid of the goats' that was generally turned to; the sheep being reserved to display the highest possible levels of hospitality.

To a Westerner, the forgoing presented as an overview of Palestinian food may be viewed as unbalanced. Almost three quarters of the space devoted to one narrow food group with the remainder presented as a list of ancillary items. As someone used to entering a supermarket with over two dozen isles every one of which presents at least a hundred items from a different food-group it seems strange to me too. This is, however, the effect I was aiming to achieve. Middle Eastern food means bread and 'bread' in the Bible very often means 'food'. Other additions were welcome and sought after but essentially the Jews were the 'bread they ate'.

Thus when Jesus declared Himself the Bread of Life he was not asking to be treated as a 'wrapping' to layer over the 'meat' of everyday life. Rather He was asking to be the root and basis of our existence; may we not be like the Jews hankering after the leeks and onions of Egypt.


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