By: Cynthia Shafer-Elliott
What did the ancient Israelites eat and how did they cook? Unfortunately, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t contain as much information on daily cooking and meals as one would like. The limited amount of information on food in the Hebrew Bible relates to the kosher dietary laws (Lev. 11), the sacrificial system (Lev. 1-7; Num.), or elite feasting or meals.
For example, 1 Kings 4:22-23 lists the daily provisions for King Solomon’s table: thirty cors of choice flour, sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl. These are daily provisions for the king and do not reflect what the average ancient Israelite man, woman, or child ate.
Meals in Biblical and Ancient Israel
Textual resources are an important source of information on any ancient society but their original purpose was to provide accounts of monumental people and events such as military conquests and the reigns of kings. Even the Hebrew Bible was written and edited by the literate elite and not the average Israelite man or woman, and as such it infrequently reflects the daily lives of the average person. It should come as no surprise that the Hebrew Bible isn’t especially concerned with what the average Israelite cooked and ate.
We must therefore turn to other sources to understand the daily preparation and consumption of food in Iron Age Israel, especially archaeology. Archaeological evidence related to cooking includes features like ovens and grinding installations, artifacts such as cooking pots and bowls, and plant and animal remains. Another essential resource is ethnoarchaeology, which observes traditional societies and how they prepare items related to food. Ethnoarchaeology provides insights into food preparation techniques and technologies used by ancient predecessors. A final resource is non-biblical texts that mention food and food preparation, including ancient Near Eastern recipes.
One particular dish is rarely included in discussions of ancient Israelite food and cooking. At the end of the day, the average Israelite meal consisted of a stew. Meat was not consumed on a regular basis by the average Israelite, so most stews were made from legumes and vegetables. This can be seen in the use of the Hebrew word nazid, which is used to describe stews (or pottage) of vegetables and/or legumes (Gen. 25:29, 34; 2 Kgs. 4:38–40; Hag. 2:12).
The Hebrew Bible seldom mentions vegetables (1 Kings 21:2), but many vegetables are native to the area and have been cultivated for millennia, including carrots, cucumbers, onions, garlic, and field greens. Legumes found in Israel include lentils, peas, chickpeas, broad beans, and bitter vetch. Legumes are a good source of vegetable protein, which was imperative in a society that ate little meat. Mesopotamian texts also exhibit the preference for stews in the ancient Near East. One Assyrian source mentions at least 100 different soups or stews. Babylonian recipes for stews are made from ingredients such as vegetables, legumes, and both fresh and not-so-fresh meats.
How Were Stews Prepared?
Stews were prepared in cooking pots placed in or on top of an oven, on or next to a hearth, or suspended over an open fire and could have been prepared in any type of cooking pots, depending on the size of the ingredients and the amount to be prepared.
The cooking vessel evolved throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and looked more like a bowl with a profiled rim and rounded base. With its open mouth, wide shape, and heat resistant ceramic ware the pot was used for several types of cooking, including steaming, frying, simmering, and boiling. The smallest cooking vessel was more of a jug than a pot and appeared with the arrival of the Philistines. The jug had a more closed mouth and one or two loop handles. The jug’s thin walls were useful for slow, low-heat cooking of liquid dishes and its flat base allowed it to rest directly on or near the heat source. An Iron Age hybrid version combined the rounded body and open mouth of the Bronze-Age pot with the handles and shape of the Philistine jug.
Excavated ovens uncovered are usually incomplete but ethnoarchaeological studies show that they resemble the modern tannur type used throughout the Middle East. A tannur is a conical or beehive-shaped clay oven that stands about one meter high. It has a large opening at its top that allows access to the inside. The opening is often covered with a lid to retain heat and as a cooking surface. Many modern examples include an opening at the bottom as a flue. Dough is slapped onto the interior walls to bake, while cooking pots could be placed inside, over the top opening, or on the lid. The term tannur is found in the Hebrew Bible 15 times, seven of which refer to an oven used to bake bread (Exod. 8:3; Lev. 2:4, 7:9, 11:35, 26:26; Hos. 7:4, 6–7).
Excavations of Iron Age houses find the remains of ovens both inside and outside the house. Indoor ovens are often found in the main living area where multiple household chores were performed, usually near an entryway. Outside ovens are located in adjacent courtyards. Having both indoor and outdoor ovens suggests that food (as well as other chores) were prepared inside the house during the rainy winter months and outside during the hot summer months. The central location of ovens also permitted other household tasks to be conducted while preparing food and for the sharing of ovens and fuel (Lev. 26:26).
Stews and the Israelite Household
Exploring various aspects of food preparation not only helps us understand the diet and meals of ancient Israel, but also the ancient Israelite household. In ancient societies like Israel, the household economy was an important part of daily life and operated on a subsistence level. The preference for stews made from vegetables and legumes supports the idea that the average Israelite household depended on herds and only occasionally ate meat. The household herd (primarily sheep and goats) provided secondary products, such as wool, milk, and dung for fuel.
Meat was reserved for special occasions, such as a wedding (Gen. 29:22; Judg. 14:10; see Tob. 7:13–14), or religious/agricultural feast (Deut. 16:1–17; Exod. 23:14–17; Lev. 23:4–25; Num. 10:10; Ps. 81:3; 2 Chr. 8:12–13; Hos. 2:11; Amos 8:5, and 1 Sam. 20: 5-6). Ethnoarchaeological studies show that traditional societies in the Middle East include meat in a daily meal if it was hunted wild game, from the household herd that needed to be culled, or if the household needed ready cash. It follows that the preference for stews in ancient Israel was a financial decision more than a culinary preference. We are all familiar with the biblical phrase “our daily bread”; in light of archaeological and textual sources, perhaps we should refine it to include “our daily bread and stew”?
Cynthia Shafer-Elliott is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at William Jessup University, California. She excavates at Tel Halif.
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For Further Reading
Altmann, Peter, and Janling Fu, eds. Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Bible and Ancient Near East. 2014. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
Ben-Shlomo, David, Itzhaq Shai, Alexander Zuckerman, and Aren M. Maeir. 2008. “Cooking Identities: Aegean-Style Cooking Jugs and Cultural Interaction in Iron Age Philistia and Neighbouring Regions.” AJA 112: 225–46.
Borowski, Oded. Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel. 1997. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Borowski, Oded. 2002. Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research.
Ebeling, Jennie, and M. Rogel. 2015. “The Tabun and its Misidentification in the Archaeological Record.” Levant, 47 no. 3: 328-349.
MacDonald, Nathan. 2008. The Diet of Ancient Israelites. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Shafer-Elliott, Cynthia. 2013a. Food in Ancient Judah: Domestic Cooking in the Time of the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen.