Cooking in the Hebrew Bible

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By: Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, Ph.D., William Jessup University

It is an understatement to say that within US culture there is a keen interest in food. Turn on any TV and one will see entire channels dedicated to the cooking and eating of food, with chefs becoming minor celebrities. Our interest in food has spilled over into the academic realm where research into diet and the cooking of food in ancient societies has become a “hot” topic. Archaeological excavations of Iron Age Syro-Palestine houses typically find activity areas dedicated for baking and cooking located in the central indoor living space and the outdoor courtyard. These activity areas are recognized through the identification of food preparation technologies (such as ovens and cooking pots) and micro remains (such as carbonized cereals and animal bones with butchering marks). Furthermore, experimental archaeology, ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological studies have become invaluable sources of analogy. As a result of archaeological, textual, and ethnographic studies, more research into the types of meals and how they were prepared is available, consequently allowing us to learn more about the daily lives of the average ancient Israelite man, woman, and child.

Fig 1 Woman cooking bread on a saj. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Shafer-Elliott.

The most basic food staple to the majority of ancient societies was bread.  Indeed, bread was the foundation of ancient Israel’s diet so much so that the Hebrew word for bread, lechem, is synonymous with food. There were two types of bread dough: unleavened (matza) and leavened (chametz). Grain was ground daily into flour using grinding stones or pestles and mortars. In order to grind a large amount of grain, one large immobile stone or slab and a smaller stone were used, rubbing back and forth against the grain that was placed between them. Dough was kneaded on a wooden board or trough, which were placed on a bench or on the floor near the oven. Unleavened bread is a mixture of flour and water, plus a pinch of salt that is kneaded into dough. Unleavened bread could be prepared quickly since it did not need time to rise and was often made when guests suddenly arrived; on the other hand, it could not be stored for long. (Gen. 18:6; Jud. 6:19; I Sam. 28:4).

Leavened dough used the same basic recipe but a yeast product such as sourdough (derived from dough left out to ferment) or brewer’s yeast (derived from brewing beer) was added to the dough. Leavened dough was fuller, more filling, and kept longer than unleavened dough. Both types of bread were baked on hot stones or griddles over an open fire, like a saj (Lev. 7:9; Isa. 44:19) (see Fig 1) or in the tannur or tabun type oven (Lev. 26:26) (more on oven types below). There were varieties of bread depending upon: the type, quality, and color of flour used, the type and amount of kneading, the additives and flavors, baking methods, presentation, geographic origin and use. Some of the ingredients added to dough included ghee, dates, milk, cheese, fruits,and sesame oils. Loaves of bread might accompany the meal or be served as part of the main dish. For instance, dough was divided and arranged on platters to retain its shape, served with a meat or vegetable stew, or in the form of dumplings (II Sam. 13:8) (Borowski2002, 73; Bottero1995, 11-13; Curtis, 205; Ebeling and Yorke).

Fig 2 Bedouins making bread.

The Israelite diet was dependent upon cereals that were used for porridges as well as for bread. Porridge was an ideal morning meal since it was relatively fast, easy, and required small amounts of raw ingredients, making them quite economical (Prov. 31:15). In ancient Israel, porridge was made out of spelt/emmer, barley, lentils, and chickpeas that were ground using a stone pestle and mortar. People spent their day tending to their herds and fields; as a result of this, they may have had to travel some distance and were unlikely to return home for a midday meal. Rather lunch would have been a ‘picnic’ of bread, cheese, yogurt, dried fruit, parched grain, water, and seasonal vegetables and fruit (Ruth 2:14). Midday meals were raw and light even for those who were doing their daily activities at home. The main hot meal was consumed at the end of the workday and prepared by those whose activities were centered at home. The typical main hot meal was a soup or stew, which were mostly made from lentils, legumes and vegetables since meat was not consumed on a regular basis. The Hebrew word for stew, nazid, is used to describe stews of vegetables or lentils (Gen. 25:29, 34; 2 Kings 4:38-40; Hag. 2:12) (Bascom 1951, 125-37; Borowski2002, 73-74; Borowski2003, 66, 74, 91-96; Mulder-Heymans, 9-10).

Fig 3 Fallow deer, a typical example of wild game.

Stews were also made when meat or other animal parts, fresh or otherwise, were available. Meat was acquired by hunting wild game or, on the rare occasion, when an animal from the herd was slaughtered (Gen. 27:3-4; Gen. 18:7; Jud. 6:19; 1 Sam. 28:24). When an animal was butchered nothing went to waste; the entire animal was butchered, skinned, chopped and made into stews - the most economical of meat dishes. Ancient societies, like Israel, were reliant upon their herds for their secondary products (including wool, milk, and dung for fuel); thus they were unlikely to butcher animals (most likely goats or sheep) in order to eat meat, unless there was a special occasion like a wedding or hospitality feast. The inability to consume an entire animal before it spoiled encouraged reciprocal exchanges within households, extended families or entire settlements. Bread was regularly served with a stew, as bread cakes (‘uga in Gen. 18:6), or dumplings within the stew (lebibot in 2 Sam. 13:6, 8, 10). Roasted grain seeds that were soaked and preserved in a loaf or bread cake were often crumbled on top of the broth or stew to thicken it, and to provide it with a “burnt” flavor. On the occasion that a large quantity of meat or even an entire animal was prepared, roasting was the preferred and most simple mode of cooking. Pieces of meat were roasted on a plate, rack, or screen made of metal or clay, which was placed on top of the upper opening of the oven. If an entire animal was to be cooked and consumed because of hospitality or for special occasions such as feasts or festivals, it was likely roasted over an open fire or in a pit (Isa. 44: 16, 19) (Bottero2001, 57, 70; Shafer-Elliott, 129-31).

Meals were prepared using a few types of ovens and cooking pots. Ethnographic and ethnoarchaological studies show that the simplest type of oven is the saj, which technically isn’t an oven but rather a rounded metal disk resting on rocks over an open fire. The thin flaps of dough were placed onto the saj and quickly browned on each side. An ancient ancestor to the saj could have been a hot stone that was placed directly in the fire (Isa. 44:19) or rested on rocks above it, or perhaps the ancient griddle or baking tray (machavat) (Lev. 2:9, 6:21, 7:9; Ezek. 4:3) The arrival of the Philistines introduced a new cooking installation, the stone-made hearth, where cooking pots and bread dough were placed directly on it or at its side. Within the Hebrew Bible, several words for hearth are used albeit mostly in cultic or religious contexts (moqeda in Lev. 6:9; yequd in Isa. 30:14; ‘ari’el in Ezek. 43:15-6) (Daviau 1993, 79; Gur-Arieh et al, 349-55, van der Steen 1991, 135-153; Watson 1979, 161, 205).

Fig 4 An Iraqi woman making flat bread in a tabun style oven.

The two most common oven types were the tabun and tannur. A tabun is a dome-shaped oven made of clay, while a tannur is a beehive-shaped clay oven. Ethnoarchaeological studies show that a fire fueled by kindling and animal dung was built on the floor of the tannur or tabun and the ashes raked out of a secondary opening, before the dough was slapped onto the interior walls or even the floor to bake. Platters and cooking pots were also placed on top of the upper opening and used for baking or cooking respectively. Although most archaeological reports refer to household ovens as a tabun, they are more like the tannur type of oven. The term tannur is found in the Hebrew Bible fifteen times, seven of which refer to an oven used to bake bread (Ex. 8:3; Lev. 2:4, 7:9; 11:35; 26:26; Hos. 7:4, 6-7) (McQuitty1984b, 261; McQuitty1984a, 56; van der Steen 1991, 135).

Most meals were prepared in cooking vessels that evolved throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and were heavily influenced by the arrival of the Philistines. In the Hebrew Bible, words for cooking pots include parur (Num. 11:8; Judg. 6:19; 1 Sam. 2:14); sir (Ex. 16:3; 2 Kings 4:38-41; Jer. 1:13; Ezek. 11:3, 7, 11; Mic. 3:3; Zech. 14:20-21); qallachat (1 Sam. 2:14; Micah 3:3); and dud (2 Sam. 2:14).  Simply put, cooking vessels can be categorized into three basic forms: the Bronze Age or traditional pot or bowl, the Philistine jug, and the hybrid pot.

The cooking pots found within Bronze Age Canaan and later Israel evolved from a simple and common bowl-shaped vessel. The typical pot of the Bronze Age was a large, handless, open-mouthed pot that allowed the pot to be used for several types of cooking, including steaming, frying, simmering, and boiling.  It also was used for cooking larger food items like meat and for serving larger groups of people. The traditional pots were placed either inside the tabun/tannur, covering its upper opening, or against the stones of hearth, while those with handles could be suspended over an open fire (Killebrew 1999; 84, 92-95, 106-109).

Fig 5 Bronze Age style cooking pots. Photo courtesy of Prof. Aren Maeir, Director, the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

At the end of the late Bronze Age and into the early Iron I Age, a new type of cooking vessel appeared with the arrival of the Philistines. Generally speaking, the shape of the new vessel was less like a bowl and more like a small jug, which prohibited multiple types of cooking and was most likely used for the simmering of low-heat liquid dishes. Soot marks on the sides of the jugs suggest that they were placed directly over an open fire or leaned on a hearth. The typical small size of the jug also dictates the amount of cereals or vegetables cooked within it, indicating smaller portions and consumption by fewer people (Ben Shlomo et al, 225-246; Gur-Arieh et al, 349-55; Killebrew 1999, 93-95, 107).

A different type of cooking pot came to be widely used during the end of the Iron Age I and into Iron Age II. The Bronze Age pot and Philistine jug merged to create a hybrid cooking pot, with slightly varying forms. The most practical features of the pot and jug were combined: the rounded body and open mouth of the Bronze Age pot, with the handles and shape of the Philistine jug. Depending on the type of cooking ware used, the hybrid pot could have been used for rapid, high temperature cooking as well as for slow, low heat cooking. The size of the pot dictated whether it was used for small or large foodstuffs, and the quantity of ingredients. A hybrid pot could have been placed in a fire pit, suspended over a fire if it had handles, next to or on top of a hearth, inside a tannur/tabun, and, according to some reconstructions, covering the upper opening of the tannur/tabun (Ben Shlomo et al., 225-246; Killebrew 1999; 93-95, 107).

The daily activities of the average ancient Israelites were mainly concerned with surviving off the land. The household economy was a perilous one; one that was dependent upon the participation of each member of the household regardless of sex and age. Many of the household activities focused on the production, preparation, distribution, and consumption of foodstuffs. The technologies and techniques of cooking in ancient Israel reflect the concerns of the household economy - the lack of meat consumption, the dependency upon crops of availability like cereals and lentils, and the preparation of cost-effective stews, just to name a few. It is my hope that the current interest in food and drink in the ancient Near East will continue. The benefits of this trend are wide reaching, including the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the daily activities of the average man, woman, and child in ancient Israel.

Cynthia Shafer-Elliott is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at William Jessup University, Rocklin, California.


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1 Comments for : Cooking in the Hebrew Bible
    • July 5

    It is anachronistic to use the term Palestine before 135 CE.