Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Bread in the Old Testament

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following article is adapted from “Bread in the Old Testament” by Thomas L. McDonald from 4th December 2012.


Bread was a staple food in ancient Palestine, made daily in every household.  It was such a commonplace item that we do not get details of types, production, and consumption in the Biblical texts.  If we look to the wider documents of the Ancient Near East, we find the same constant reference to “bread,” but again: few details.  

The use of “bread” in the Old Testament is complex, since the word “lechem: could have various meanings in Semitic languages, with the root representing any staple food.  Thus, in Arabic, one has “lahm”, “meat”; in Ethiopic “lahm”, “cow”; and in the South Arabic language of Soqothra “lehem”, “fish”.  In Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic lahm referred to bread specifically and food generally.  The highest number of references is grouped in Exodus, Leviticus, and 1 Samuel.   In the New Testament, it is a little simpler, with “artos”, “bread,” used pretty consistently.  The Gospels represent the most frequent usage of “bread,” with John having the most at twenty.

In one example amongst many, in the pyramids of Unis and Pepi I, Nefer-ka-Re from the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, 25th-24th centuries BC, we find the words, “O Osiris, King Nefer-ka-Re, take to thyself the Eye of Horus.  Lift thou it to thy face.”  The instruction then follows: “A lifting of bread and beer.”

This calls to mind the terumah, or “heave offering,” which is mentioned in the Bible more than seventy times, and usually rendered in English as “offering.”  This uplifting of an offering signifies that something is being aside for God, and fit only to be consumed by kohen, priests.  First fruits and tithes were offered in this way, including grains and breads.  Thus we see one simple connection between Egypt and Israel.  Throughout the documents of the Ancient Near East, these connections echo and re-echo, taking on new meanings in different cultural contexts.

Wheat and barley were the primary components of bread.  Wheat was preferred, but it was also more expensive that barley, and more scarce in hard times.

Exodus 29:2
2 And unleavened bread, and a cake without leaven, tempered with oil, wafers also unleavened, anointed with oil: you shall make them all of wheaten flour.

2 Kings 4:42
42 And a certain man came from Baalsalisa, bringing to the man of God, bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and new corn in his scrip.  And he said, “Give to the people, that they may eat.”



In the book if Ezekiel, we get a sense of his penitential privation when he is ordered to take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt and make bread to eat for the next 390 days while laying on his side.  This is considered siege food, made from bits of everything because there is not enough to make a single kind of loaf or cake.

Ezekiel 4:9
9 And take to you wheat and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make you bread thereof according to the number of the days that you shall lie upon your side: three hundred and ninety days shall you eat thereof.

There are references to different kinds of loaves throughout the scripture.  Particular types of bread include the following:

Swappihit, flat cake, wafer:

Exodus 16:31
31 And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste thereof like to flour with honey.

Niqqudim, hard biscuit or cake:

1 Kings 14:3
3 Take also with you ten loaves, and cracknels, and a pot of honey, and go to him: for he will tell you what will become of this child.

Kikkar, disk-shaped, round, thin, loaf of bread:

1 Samuel 2:36
36 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall remain in your house shall come that he may be prayed for, and shall offer a piece of silver, and a roll of bread, and shall say. “Put me, I beseech you, to somewhat of the priestly office, that I may eat a morsel of bread.”

Halla, ring-shaped bread:

2 Samuel 6:19
19 And he distributed to all the multitude of Israel, both men and women, to every one, a cake of bread, and a piece of roasted beef, and fine flour fried with oil: and all the people departed every one to his own house.

Raqiq, thin cake, wafer:

Exodus 29:23
23 And one roll of bread, a cake tempered with oil, a wafer out of the basket of unleavened bread, which is set in the sight of the Lord:

Lebiba, heart-shaped cake:

2 Samuel 13:6
6 So Ammon lay down, and made as if he were sick: and when the king came to visit him, Ammon said to the king, “I pray you let my sister Thamar come, and make in my sight two little messes, that I may eat at her hand.”

Uga, circular, flat bread cake:

Genesis 18:6
6 Abraham made haste into the tent to Sarah, and said to her, “Make haste, temper together three measures of flour, and make cakes upon the hearth.”

Ma’apeh, “thing baked”:

Leviticus 2:4
4 But when you offer a sacrifice baked in the oven of flour, to wit, loaves without leaven, tempered with oil, and unleavened wafers, anointed with oil:

Maswswa. unleavened bread, or cake:

Leviticus 2:5
5 If your oblation be from the frying pan, of flour tempered with oil, and without leaven:

Hamesw, “that which is leavened”:

Exodus 12:15
15 Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread: in the first day there shall be no leaven in your houses; whosoever shall eat anything leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall perish out of Israel.

When God needed to Chastise the Israelites, He would Threaten to break their “staff of bread”, which was the very source of their survival.

Leviticus 26:26
26 “After I shall have Broken the staff of your bread: so, that ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and give it out by weight: and you shall eat, and shall not be filled …”

He might Send the “bread of adversity” or the “bread of tears”.

Isaiah 30:20
20 And the Lord will Give you spare bread, and short water: and will not cause your teacher to flee away from you anymore, and your eyes shall see your teacher.

Psalms 80:5
5 O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry against the prayer of your servant?

One way the Book of Proverbs expresses disapproval of certain behaviour is to suggest they get their daily bread by dishonourable means.  This is the bread of idleness:

Proverbs 31:27
27 She has looked well on the paths of her house, and has not eaten her bread idle.

Then there is the bread of deception

Proverbs 20:17
17 The bread of lying is sweet to a man: but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.

And there is the bread of wickedness.

Proverbs 4:17.
17 They eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of iniquity.

Cannibalistic images find a home in bread idioms, with oppression suggested by “eating people like bread.”

Psalms 14:4
4 Shall not all they know that work iniquity, who devour my people as they eat bread?

In Numbers, we read:

Numbers 14:9
9 Be not rebellious against the Lord: and fear not the people of this land, for we are able to eat them up as bread.  All aid has gone from them: the Lord is with us, fear not.

On the other hand, when God Promised:

Deuteronomy 8:9
9 Where without any want you shall eat your bread, and enjoy abundance of all things: where the stones are iron, and out of its hills are dug mines of brass:

He was Offering them life.

The importance of bread extended to the religious life of the Jews.  Cereal offerings were part of the sacrificial system, as we see in Leviticus.

Leviticus 2:4.
4 But when you offer a sacrifice baked in the oven of flour, to wit, loaves without leaven, tempered with oil, and unleavened wafers, anointed with oil:

Showbread, or the “bread of the presence,” was on permanent display in tabernacle and in the temple, as we see in Exodus.

Exodus 25:30
30 And you shall set upon the table loaves of proposition in My Sight always.

And, of course, bread plays a central role at Passover.  When Melchizedek mysteriously appears in Genesis, we are told the following:

Genesis 14:18-20
18 But Melchisedech, the king of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the Most High God, 19 Blessed him, and said: Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Who Created Heaven and Carth.  20 And Blessed be the Most High God, by Whose Protection, the enemies are in your hands.  And He Gave him the tithes of all.

In Exodus, God Feeds his people on manna.

Exodus 16:4
4 And the Lord Said to Moses, “Behold I will Rain bread from heaven for you; let the people go forth, and gather what is sufficient for every day: that I may Prove them whether they will walk in my law, or not.”

This bread was a miracle: food is provided where no food could be found.  The amount provided was just sufficient: after it was collected from the ground, no one had more or less than they needed.  Yet this bread was perishable.  If it is left uncollected, it turned foul or melted away.

Exodus 16:16-21
16 This is the Word that the Lord has Commanded: “Let everyone gather of it as much as is enough to eat; a gomor for every man, according to the number of your souls that dwell in a tent, so shall you take of it.”  17 And the Children of Israel did so: and they gathered, one more, another less.  18 And they measured by the measure of a gomor: neither had he more that had gathered more; nor did he find less that had provided less: but everyone had gathered, according to what they were able to eat.  19 And Moses said to them, “Let no man leave thereof until the morning.”  20 And they hearkened not to him, but some of them left until the morning, and it began to be full of worms, and it putrefied, and Moses was angry with them.  21 Now every one of them gathered in the morning, as much as might suffice to eat: and after the sun grew hot, it melted.

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