The Daily Stew? Everyday Meals in Ancient Israel
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 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.
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).