1. Primitive Habits

2. Cereals

3. Leguminous Plants

4. Food of Trees



In a previous article (see BREAD) it has been shown that in the Bible "bread" usually stands for food in general and how this came to be so. In a complementary article on MEALS the methods of preparing and serving food will be dealt with. This article is devoted specifically to the foodstuffs of the Orient, more especially to articles of food in use among the Hebrews in Bible times. These are divisible into two main classes.

See a list of verses on FOOD in the Bible.

I. Vegetable Foods.

1. Primitive Habits:

See the definition of food in the KJV Dictionary

Orientals in general are vegetarians, rather than flesh eaters. There is some reason to believe that primitive man was a vegetarian (see Ge 2:16; 3:2,6). It would seem, indeed, from a comparison of Ge 1:29 f with Ge 9:3 f that Divine permission to eat the flesh of animals was first given to Noah after the Deluge, and then only on condition of drawing off the blood in a prescribed way (compare the kosher (kasher) meat of the Jews of today).

2. Cereals:

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

The chief place among the foodstuffs of Orientals must be accorded to the cereals, included in the American Standard Revised Version under the generic term "grain," in the King James Version and the English Revised Version "corn." The two most important of these in the nearer East are wheat (chiTTah) and barley (se`orim). The most primitive way of using the wheat as food was to pluck the fresh ears (Le 23:14; 2Ki 4:42), remove the husks by rubbing in the hands (De 23:25; Mt 12:1), and eat the grains raw. A common practice in all lands and periods, observed by the fellaheen of Syria today, has been to parch or roast the ears and eat the grain not ground. This is the parched corn (the American Standard Revised Version "'grain") so often mentioned in the Old Testament, which with bread and vinegar (sour wine) constituted the meal of the reapers to which Boaz invited Ruth (Ru 2:14).

Later it became customary to grind the wheat into flour (kemach), and, by bolting it with a fine sieve, to obtain the "fine flour" (coleth) of our English Versions of the Bible, which, of course, was then made into "bread" (which see), either without leaven (matstsah) or with (lechem chamets Le 7:13).

Meal, both of wheat and of barley, was prepared in very early times by means of the primitive rubbing-stones, which excavations at Lachish, Gezer and elsewhere show survived the introduction of the hand-mill (see MILL; ComparePEFS , 1902, 326). Barley (se`orim) has always furnished the principal food of the poorer classes, and, like wheat, has been made into bread (Jg 7:13; Joh 6:9,13). Less frequently millet (Eze 4:9) and spelt (kuccemeth; see FITCHES) were so used. (For details of baking, bread-making, etc., see BREAD. III, 1,2,3.)

3. Leguminous Plants:

Vegetable foods of the pulse family (leguminosae) are represented in the Old Testament chiefly by lentils and beans. The pulse of Da 1:12 (zero`im) denotes edible "herbs" in general (Revised Version margin, compare Isa 61:11, "things that are sown"). The lentils (`adhashim) were and are considered very toothsome and nutritious. It was of "red lentils" that Jacob brewed his fateful pottage (Ge 25:29,34), a stew, probably, in which the lentils were flavored with onions and other ingredients, as we find it done in Syria today. Lentils, beans, cereals, etc., were sometimes ground and mixed and made into bread (Eze 4:9). I found them at Gaza roasted also, and eaten with oil and salt, like parched corn.

The children of Israel, when in the wilderness, are said to have looked back wistfully on the "cucumbers .... melons .... leeks .... onions, and the garlic" of Egypt (Nu 11:5). All these things we find later were grown in Palestine. In addition, at least four varieties of the bean, the chickpea, various species of chickory and endive, the bitter herbs of the Passover ritual (Ex 12:8), mustard (Mt 13:31) and many other things available for food, are mentioned in the Mishna, our richest source of information on this subject. Cucumbers (qishshu'im) were then, as now, much used. The oriental variety is much less fibrous and more succulent. and digestible than ours, and supplies the thirsty traveler often with a fine substitute for water where water is scarce or bad. The poor in such cities as Cairo, Beirut and Damascus live largely on bread and cucumbers or melons. The cucumbers are eaten raw, with or without salt, between meals, but also often stuffed and cooked and eaten at meal time. Onions (betsalim), garlic (shummim) and leeks (chatsir) are still much used in Palestine as in Egypt. They are usually eaten raw with bread, though also used for flavoring in cooking, and, like cucumbers, pickled and eaten as a relish with meat (ZDPV, IX, 14). Men in utter extremity sometimes "plucked saltwort" (malluah) and ate the leaves, either raw or boiled, and made "the roots of the broom" their food (Job 30:4).

4. Food of Trees:

In Le 19:23 f it is implied that, when Israel came into the land to possess it, they should "plant all manner of trees for food." They doubtless found such trees in the goodly land in abundance, but in the natural course of things needed to plant more. Many olive trees remain fruitful to extreme old age, as for example those shown the tourist in the garden of Gethsemane, but many more require replanting. Then the olive after planting requires ten or fifteen years to fruit, and trees of a quicker growth, like the fig, are planted beside them and depended on for fruit in the meantime. It is significant that Jotham in his parable makes the olive the first choice of the trees to be their king (Jg 9:9), and the olive tree to respond, "Should I leave my fatness, which God and man honor in me, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?" (American Revised Version margin). The berries of the olive (zayith) were doubtless eaten, then as now, though nowhere in Scripture is it expressly so stated. The chief use of the berries, now as ever, is in furnishing "oil" (which see), but they are eaten in the fresh state, as also after being soaked in brine, by rich and poor alike, and are shipped in great quantities. Olive trees are still more or less abundant in Palestine, especially around Bethlehem and Hebron, on the borders of the rich plains of Esdraelon, Phoenicia, Sharon and Philistia, in the vale of Shechem, the plain of Moreh, and in the trans-Jordanic regions of Gilead and Bashan. They are esteemed as among the best possessions of the towns, and the culture of them is being revived around Jerusalem, in the Jordan valley and elsewhere throughout the land. They are beautiful to behold in all stages of their growth, but especially in spring. Then they bear an amazing wealth of blossoms, which in the breeze fall in showers like snowflakes, a fact that gives point to Job's words, "He shall cast off his flower as the olive-tree" (Job 15:33). The mode of gathering the fruit is still about what it was in ancient times (compare Ex 27:20).

Next in rank to the olive, according to Jotham's order, though first as an article of food, is the fig (in the Old Testament te'enah, in the New Testament suke), whose "sweetness" is praised in the parable (Jg 9:11). It is the principal shade and fruit tree of Palestine, growing in all parts, in many spontaneously, and is the emblem of peace and prosperity (De 8:8; Jg 9:10; 1Ki 4:25; Mic 4:4; Zec 3:10; 1 Macc 14:12). The best fig and olive orchards are carefully plowed, first in the spring when the buds are swelling, sometimes again when the second crop is sprouting, and again after the first rains in the autumn. The "first-ripe fig" (bikkurah, Isa 28:4; Jer 24:2), i.e. the early fig which grows on last year's wood, was and is esteemed as a great delicacy, and is often eaten while it is young and green. The late fig (te'enim) is the kind dried in the sun and put up in quantities for use out of season. Among the Greeks and the Romans, as well as among the Hebrews, dried figs were most extensively used. When pressed in a mold they formed the "cakes of figs" (debhelah) mentioned in the Old Testament (1Sa 25:18; 1Ch 12:40), doubtless about such as are found today in Syria and Smyrna, put up for home use and for shipment. It was such a fig-cake that was presented as a poultice (the King James Version "plaster") for Hezekiah's boil (Isa 38:21; compare 2Ki 20:7). As the fruit-buds of the fig appear before the leaves, a tree full of leaves and without fruit would be counted "barren" (Mr 11:12 f; compare Isa 28:4; Jer 24:2; Ho 9:10; Na 3:12; Mt 21:19; Lu 13:7).

Grapes ('anabhim), often called "the fruit of the vine" (Mt 26:29), have always been a much-prized article of food in the Orient. They are closely associated in the Bible with the fig (compare "every man under his vine and under his fig-tree," 1Ki 4:25). Like the olive, the fig, and the date-palm, grapes are indigenous to Syria, the soil and climate being most favorable to their growth and perfection. Southern Palestine especially yields a rich abundance of choice grapes, somewhat as in patriarchal times (Ge 49:11-12). J. T. Haddad, a native Syrian, for many years in the employment of the Turkish government, tells of a variety in the famous valley of Eshcol near Hebron, a bunch from which has been known to weigh twenty-eight pounds (compare Nu 13:23). Of the grapevine there is nothing wasted; the young leaves are used as a green vegetable, and the old are fed to sheep and goats. The branches cut off in pruning, as well as the dead trunk, are used to make charcoal, or for firewood. The failure of such a fruit was naturally regarded as a judgment from Yahweh (Ps 105:33; Jer 5:17; Ho 2:12; Joe 1:7). Grapes, like figs, were both enjoyed in their natural state, and by exposure to the sun dried into raisins (tsimmuqim), the "dried grapes" of Nu 6:3. In this form they were especially well suited to the use of travelers and soldiers (1Sa 25:18; 1Ch 12:40). The meaning of the word rendered "raisin-cake," the American Standard Revised Version "a cake of raisins" (2Sa 6:19 and elsewhere), is uncertain. In Bible times the bulk of the grape product of the land went to the making of wine (which see). Some doubt if the Hebrews knew grape-syrup, but the fact that the Aramaic dibs, corresponding to Hebrew debhash, is used to denote both the natural and artificial honey (grape-syrup), seems to indicate that they knew the latter (compare Ge 43:11; Eze 27:17; and see HONEY).

Less prominent was the fruit of the mulberry figtree (or sycomore) (shiqmah), of the date-palm (tamar), the dates of which, according to the Mishna, were both eaten as they came from the tree, and dried in clusters and pressed into cakes for transport; the pomegranate (tappuach), the "apple" of the King James Version (see APPLE), or quinch, according to others; the husks (Lu 15:16), i.e. the pods of the carob tree keration), are treated elsewhere. Certain nuts were favorite articles of food--pistachio nuts (boTnim), almonds (sheqedhim) and walnuts ('eghoz); and certain spices and vegetables were much used for seasoning: cummin (kammon), anise, dill (the King James Version) qetsach), mint (heduosmon) and mustard (sinapi), which see. Salt (melach), of course, played an important part, then as now, in the cooking and in the life of the Orientals. To "eat the salt" of a person was synonymous with eating his bread (Ezr 4:14), and a "covenant of salt" was held inviolable (Nu 18:19; 2Ch 13:5).

II. Animal Food.

Anciently, even more than now in the East, flesh food was much less used than among western peoples. In the first place, in Israel and among other Semitic peoples, it was confined by law to the use of such animals and birds as were regarded as "clean" (see CLEAN; UNCLEANNESS), or speaking according to the categories of Le 11:2-3; De 14:4-20, domestic animals and game (see Driver on De 14:4-20). Then the poverty of the peasantry from time immemorial has tended to limit the use of meat to special occasions, such as family festivals (chaggim), the entertainment of an honored guest (Ge 18:7; 2Sa 12:4), and the sacrificial meal at the local sanctuary.

The goat (`ez, etc.), especially the "kid of the goats" (Le 4:23,18 the King James Version), was more prized for food by the ancient Hebrews than by modern Orientals, by whom goats are kept chiefly for their milk--most of which they supply (compare Pr 27:27). For this reason they are still among the most valued possessions of rich and poor (compare Ge 30:33; 32:14 with 1Sa 25:2). A kid, as less valuable than a lamb, was naturally the readier victim when meat was required (compare Lu 15:29).

The sheep of Palestine, as of Egypt, are mainly of the fat-tailed species (Ovis aries), the tail of which was forbidden as ordinary food and had to be offered with certain other portions of the fat (Ex 29:22; Le 3:9). To kill a lamb in honor of a gue st is one of the highest acts of Bedouin hospitality. As a rule only the lambs are killed for meat, and they only in honor of some guest or festive occasion (compare 1Sa 25:18; 1Ki 1:19). Likewise the "calves of the herd" supplied the daintiest food of the kind, though the flesh of the neat cattle, male and female, was eaten. The "fatted calf" of Lu 15:23 will be recalled, as also the "fatlings" and the "stalled" (stall-fed) ox of the Old Testament (Pr 15:17). Asharp contrast suggestive of the growth of luxury in Israel is seen by a comparison of 2Sa 17:28 f with 1Ki 4:22 f. The food furnished David and his hardy followers at Mahanaim was "wheat, and barley, and meal, and parched grain, and beans, and lentils, and parched pulse, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of the herd," while the daily provision for Solomon's table was "thirty measures of fine flour, and threescore measures of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty oxen out of the pastures, and a hundred sheep, besides harts, and gazelles, and roebucks, and fatted fowl." Nehemiah's daily portion is given as "one ox and six choice sheep" (Ne 5:18).

Milk of large and small animals was a staple article of food (De 32:14; Pr 27:27). It was usually kept in skins, as among the Syrian peasants it is today (Jg 4:19). We find a generic term often used (chem'ah) which covers also cream, clabber and cheese (Pr 30:33). The proper designation of cheese is gebhinah (Job 10:10), but chalabh also is used both for ordinary milk and for a cheese made directly from sweet milk (compare 1Sa 17:18, charitse hechalabh, and our "cottage cheese").


Honey (debhash, nopheth ha-tsuphim), so often mentioned with milk, is ordinary bees' honey (see HONEY). The expression "honey" in the combination debhash wechalabh, for which Palestine was praised, most likely means debhash temarim, i.e. "date-juice." It was much prized and relished (Ps 19:10; Pr 16:24), and seems to have been a favorite food for children (Isa 7:15).

Of game seven species are mentioned (De 14:5). The gazelle and the hart were the typical animals of the chase, much prized for their flesh (De 12:15), and doubtless supplied the venison of Esau's "savory meat" (Ge 25:28; 27:4).

Of fish as food little is said in the Old Testament (see Nu 11:5; Jer 16:16; Eze 47:10; Ec 9:12). No particular species is named, although thirty-six species are said to be found in the waters of the Jordan valley alone. But we may be sure that the fish which the Hebrews enjoyed in Egypt "for nought" (Nu 11:5) had their successors in Canaan (Kennedy). Trade in cured fish was carried on by Tyrian merchants with Jerusalem in Nehemiah's day (Ne 13:16), and there must have been a fish market at or near the fish gate (Ne 3:3). The Sea of Galilee in later times was the center of a great fish industry, as is made clear by the Gospels and by Josephus In the market of Tiberias today fresh fish are sold in great quantities, and a thriving trade in salt fish is carried on. The "small fishes" of our Lord's two great miracles of feeding were doubtless of this kind, as at all times they have been a favorite form of provision for a journey in hot countries.

As to the exact price of food in ancient times little is known. From 2 Ki 7:1,16 we learn that one ce'ah of fine flour, and two of barley, sold for a shekel (compare Mt 10:29). For birds allowed as food see De 14:11 and articles on CLEAN; UNCLEANNESS.

Pigeons and turtle doves find a place in the ritual of various sacrifices, and so are to be reckoned as "clean" for ordinary uses as well. The species of domestic fowl found there today seem to have been introduced during the Persian period (compare 2 Esdras 1:30; Mt 23:37; 26:34, etc.). It is thought that the fatted fowl of Solomon's table (1Ki 4:23) were geese (see Mish). Fatted goose is a favorite food with Jews today, as it was with the ancient Egyptians.

Of game birds used for food (see Ne 5:18) the partridge and the quail are prominent, and the humble sparrow comes in for his share of mention (Mt 10:29; Lu 12:6). Then, as now, the eggs of domestic fowls and of all "clean" birds were favorite articles of food (De 22:6; Isa 10:14; Lu 11:12).

Edible insects (Le 11:22 f) are usually classed with animal foods. In general they are of the locust family (see LOCUST). They formed part of the food of John the Baptist (Mt 3:4, etc.), were regarded by the Assyrians as delicacies, and are a favorite food of the Arabs today. They are prepared and served in various ways, the one most common being to remove the head, legs and wings, to drop it in meal, and then fry it in oil or butter. It then tastes a little like fried frogs' legs. In the diet of the Baptist, locusts were associated with wild honey (see HONEY).

As to condiments (see separate articles on SALT; CORIANDER, etc.) it needs only to be said here that the caperberry (Ec 12:5 margin) was eaten before meals as an appetizer and, strictly speaking, was not a condiment. Mustard was valued for the leaves, not for the seed (Mt 13:31). Pepper, though not mentioned in Scripture, is mentioned margin the Mishna as among the condiments. Before it came into use, spicy seeds like cummin, the coriander, etc., played a more important role than since.

The abhorrence of the Hebrews for all food prepared or handled by the heathen (see ABOMINATION) is to be attributed primarily to the intimate association in early times between flesh food and sacrifices to the gods. This finds conspicuous illustration in the case of Daniel (Da 1:8), Judas Maccabeus (2 Macc 5:27), Josephus (Vita, III), and their compatriots (see also Ac 15:20,29; 1Co 8:1-10; 10:19,28). As to sources of food supply and traffic in food stuffs, for primitive usages see Ge 18:7; 27:9; 1Ki 21:2. As to articles and customs of commerce adopted when men became dwellers in cities, see Jer 37:21, where bakers were numerous enough in Jerusalem to give their name to a street or bazaar, where doubtless, as today, they baked and sold bread to the public (compare Mishna,passim). Extensive trade in "victuals" in Nehemiah's day is attested by Ne 13:15 f, and by specific mention of the "fish gate" (Ne 3:3) and the "sheep gate" (Ne 3:1), so named evidently because of their nearby markets. In John's Gospel (Joh 4:8; 13:29) we have incidental evidence that the disciples were accustomed to buy food as they journeyed through the land. In Jerusalem, cheese was clearly to be bought in the cheesemakers' valley (Tyropoeon), oil of the oil merchants (Mt 25:9), and so on; and Corinth, we may be sure, was not the only city of Paul's day that had a provision market ("shambles," 1Co 10:25 the Revised Version (British and American)).


Mishna B.M. i. 1,2 and passim; Josephus, Vita and BJ; Robinson's Researches, II, 416, etc.; and Biblical Dictionaries, articles on "Food," etc.

George B. Eager

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

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