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Ancient Jerusalem’s Rural Food Basket

The Daily Stew? Everyday Meals in Ancient Israel

By Cynthia Shafer-Elliott

Introduction

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 corsof 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.

Meals

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).

 
Three types of lentils
Cooked broadbeans
Old Babylonian stew recipes. Yale Babylonian Collection 4644.
Philistine style cooking jugs from Tel Miqne and Tel es-Safi. From D. Ben Shlomo et al. Cooking Identities: Aegean-Style Cooking Jugs in the Southern Levant, and Cultural Interaction between the Philistines and Their Neighbors during the Iron Age, American Journal of Archaeology 112 (2008): 225-246, Figure 3.
Experimental archaeology: making a tannur and baking bread in it. Tel Halif, 2015. Photo courtesy of Seung Ho Bang.

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