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BREAD. The “staff of life,” generally baked from dough made of wheat flour that has been leavened (raised by means of fermenting yeast) and made into loaves of various shapes and sizes. At the time of the Passover (Exod.12.1-Exod.12.51) the Israelites ate unleavened bread because of their haste, and ever afterward they memorialized this in their annual feast of unleavened bread (Exod.12.15-Exod.12.20). The poorer people usually used barley instead of wheat to make the bread for this feast, and in times of distress and of famine most of the people used barley. In Judg.7.13, the Midianite’s dream of a barley loaf, which was interpreted as “the sword of Gideon,” perhaps hinted at the poverty of Israel under Midianite oppression; and in John.6.9 the boy’s store of five barley loaves suggests that he came from a family or a region that could not afford the more delicious and nutritious wheat bread. Ezek.4.9-Ezek.4.17 gives a vivid picture of baking in famine times.

In the more primitive parts of Syria today there are several sorts of wheat bread. In some villages a barrel-shaped hole in the ground is used as an oven; the women adroitly knead the bread into large thin sheets that they lay on cushions and slap against the hot wall of the oven. Though dried dung mixed with straw is used as fuel to preheat the oven, the taste is not impaired. In other villages of Syria, a convex sheet of iron is placed over an open fire and the bread is similarly baked; but in the larger towns and cities there are bakeries to which the people bring their loaves for baking. The long stone oven is heated for hours, then the raised loaves, about eight to ten inches (twenty-one to twenty-six cm.) in diameter and one-fourth inch (about one cm.) thick, are placed inside by means of a long wooden paddle. The heat quickly bakes the surface, and gas forming inside splits the loaves, which are then turned and soon removed (Hos.7.8).

The word “bread,” depicting the most universal solid food, is often used figuratively for food in general. Gen.3.19, “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (kjv “bread”); Matt.6.11, “Give us today our daily bread,” and similar passages refer to all sustenance. The word “bread” is used by the Lord in a mystical but very true and precious sense in his discourse on “the bread of life” in John.6.43-John.6.59. As important as bread (i.e., solid food) is to our bodies, so necessary is the Lord to spiritual life. And so, in the “breaking of bread” at our “communion” services, some partake in a very real way of Christ, while others, not recognizing the body of the Lord, eat and drink judgment on themselves (1Cor.11.29). In the tabernacle and in the temple, the “bread of the Presence” indicated the presence of the Lord, the “bread of life” among his people.——ABF

Bread as ordinary daily food.

The NT emphasis is placed on the necessity of bread for the daily life, as seen in the ministry of Jesus when He quoted a portion of Deuteronomy 8:3 to Satan (Matt 4:4) and later showed concern for the food needs of the 5,000 (Matt 14:16-21; John 6:5-14) and of the 4,000 (Matt 15:33-38).

The amount of bread thought to be needed as an adequate daily supply is understood to include at least three loaves for a man, his family, and a guest according to Luke 11:5-8. Since the head of the house in this story made request of his friend at midnight, the three loaves desired were prob. for only one meal, since the man could purchase more on the next day. The prisoner in OT times, at least in time of distress, received one loaf of bread daily (Jer 37:21). Sometimes men were given just a piece or “morsel” of bread (1 Sam 2:36; 1 Kings 17:11; Prov 28:21), although such an expression as “a morsel of bread” could be used as a figure for a satisfying meal (Gen 18:5; Judg 19:5).

Bread was thought to be part of the divine provision for the physical needs of man (Matt 6:11; Luke 11:3), just as God supplied His Word for the spiritual nourishment of the human being (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4).

The nature of bread and its production.

The flour made from grain could be a coarse kind (“crushed new grain,” Lev 2:14, 16) produced by a mortar and pestle, or that of a finer quality (Lev 2:2; 6:15). Abraham and Sarah gave cakes of bread made of fine flour to their honored guests (Gen 18:6), which was used also for the bread of King Solomon’s court (1 Kings 4:22). The flour was not only prepared with the use of the mortar and pestle but also was produced by mills (Num 11:8) (cf. ANEP, No. 149).

The process of making the bread included taking the measures of meal, getting it ground, mixing it with liquid, and then kneading the dough. For this purpose the Israelites at the time of the Exodus used “kneading bowls” (Exod 8:3; 12:34), prob. something like the old Egyp. kneading trough (ANEP, No. 152). It was in the stage of making the dough that, if used, leaven was added (12:34), and the mixed batch was set aside until the dough was completely leavened (Matt 13:33; Luke 13:21).

Persons responsible for the making of bread included the wife of the family (in the case of Sarah, Gen 18:6), daughters in a family (as Tamar in David’s family, 2 Sam 13:8), and in the monarchy, women, in general, were called to serve as bakers to supply bread for the king’s court and prob. also for those in his military and civil service (1 Sam 8:13). Various members of the family could be involved in the baking process according to description in Jeremiah 7:18, where “the children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes....” Of course, women generally would be involved in breadmaking and cooking (cf. 1 Sam 28:24). In ancient life man could be the baker (Gen 40:16, 17), which tells of the chief baker in the Egyp. pharaoh’s service, which picture is also attested in the Egyp. archeological records (ANEP, No. 152-154; cf. G. A. F. Knight, Nile and Jordan [1921], 109). It has been suggested that the baker alluded to in an illustration given in Hosea 7:4 might have been a professional one.

Bread normally was made at home (Gen 18:6; 1 Kings 17:10-16), but at least in later times there was some sort of commercial or royal bakery according to Jeremiah, where daily bread supplied to Jeremiah came “from the bakers’ street” in Jerusalem. This bakery area might possibly have been in the same general region that later in the time of Nehemiah (3:11) was called the Tower of the Ovens.

In the time of the NT, the purchase of large quantities of bread could be contemplated, as the 200 denarii worth of bread, or normally about thirty-six dollars worth, what was considered necessary for each of the 5,000 people to have a small amount (Mark 6:37; John 6:7), but from this evidence alone it is difficult to determine just how much each loaf was worth.

The use of bread in ancient society.

It was customary in the ancient home for the father of the household to open a meal by taking a loaf of bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and distributing it to the members present (cf. Billerbeck IV, 620ff.). Evidences of this can be seen in the service of the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper when “Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples” (Matt 26:26), which procedure was taught by Paul in his statements about the communion service (1 Cor 11:23, 24). This pattern was followed when Jesus fed the 5,000 (John 6:11).

Bread used as a general term for food.

The term bread used in a figurative sense.

Figuratively the Bible uses the concept of bread to indicate a living made by acts of wickedness (Prov 4:17); an unearned living (31:27); a figure for an enemy who can be consumed (Num 14:9); good deeds done for needy men (Eccl 11:1); a figure for being a guest in a person’s house (John 13:18; Ps 41:9); and as a symbol of the spiritual blessings in salvation (Luke 14:15).


R. A. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer II (1912), 42, 43; J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1955); J. P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, 5th ed., rev. (1956), 76; W. Foerster,” TDNT, II, 590-599; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, IV (1965), 620-622.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(lechem; artos):



1. Barley

2. Wheat

3. Three Kinds of Flour


1. Grinding

2. Kneading

3. Baking

(1) Hot Stones

(2) Baking Pans

4. Ovens

(1) The Bowl-Oven

(2) The Jar-Oven

(3) The Pit-Oven

5. Forms of Baked Bread

6. Work for Women


1. Sanctity

2. Symbolism


The art of bread-making is very ancient. It was even known to the Egyptians at a very early day (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians), to the Hebrews of the Exodus (Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebr. Archaologie) and, of course, to the Greeks and Romans of a later day. Bread played a large part in the vocabulary and in the life of the ancient Hebrews.

I. Dietary Preeminence.

(1) In the East bread is primary, other articles of food merely accessory; while in the West meat and other things chiefly constitute the meal, and bread is merely secondary. Accordingly "bread" in the Old Testament, from Ge 3:19 onward, stands for food in general.

(2) Moreover in ancient times, as now, most probably, when the peasant, carpenter, blacksmith or mason left home for the day’s work, or when the muleteer or messenger set out on a journey, he wrapped other articles of food, if there were any, in the thin loaves of bread, and thus kept them ready for his use as needed.

(3) Often the thin, glutinous loaf, puffed out with air, is seen today, opened on one side and used so as to form a natural pouch, in which meat, cheese, raisins and olives are enclosed to be eaten with the bread (see Mackie in DCG, article "Bread"). The loaf of bread is thus made to include everything and, for this reason also, it may fitly be spoken of as synonymous with food in general. To the disciples of Jesus, no doubt, "Give us this day our daily bread" would naturally be a petition for all needed food, and in the case of the miraculous feeding of the multitude it was enough to provide them with "bread" (Mt 14:15 ff).

II. Materials.

1. Barley:

Barley was in early times, as it is today, the main bread-stuff of the Palestine peasantry (see Jud 7:13; where "the cake of barley bread" is said to be "the sword of Gideon"), and of the poorer classes of the East in general (see Joh 6:13, where the multitude were fed on the miraculous increase of the "five barley loaves," and compare Josephus, BJ, V, x, 2).

2. Wheat:

But wheat, also, was widely used as a breadstuff then, as it is now, the wheat of the Syrian plains and uplands being remarkable for its nutritious and keeping qualities.

3. Three Kinds of Flour:

Three kinds, or qualities, of flour, are distinguished, according to the way of making:

(1) a coarser sort, rudely made by the use of pestle and mortar, the "beaten corn" of Le 2:14,16 (the Revised Version (British and American) "bruised");

(2) the "flour" or "meal" of ordinary use (Ex 29:2; Le 2:2; 6:15), and

(3) the "fine meal" for honored guests (see Ge 18:6, where Abraham commands Sarah to "make ready .... three measures of fine meal") with which we may compare the "fine flour" for the king’s kitchen (1Ki 4:22) and the "fine flour" required for the ritual meal offering, as in Le 2:1; 5:11; 7:12; 14:10; 23:13; 24:5; etc.

III. Bread-Making.

1. Grinding:

After thoroughly sifting and cleaning the grain, the first step in the process was to reduce it to "meal" or "flour" by rubbing, pounding, or grinding. (In Nu 11:8 it is said of the manna "The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars.") It has been shown that by a process, which is not yet extinct in Egypt, it was customary to rub the grain between two the "corn-rubbers" or "corn grinders," of which many specimens have been found by Petrie, Bliss, Macalister and others, at Lachish, Gezer and elsewhere (PEFS, 1902, 326; 1903, 118; compare Erman, Egypt, 180, for illustrations of actual use). For detailed descriptions of the other processes, see Mortar; Mill.

2. Kneading:

The "flour" was then ordinarily mixed simply with water, kneaded in a wooden basin or kneading-trough (Ex 8:3) and, in case of urgency, at once made into "cakes" and baked. (See Ex 12:34, "And the people took their dough before it was leavened.") The Hebrews called such cakes matstsoth, and they were the only kind allowed for use on the altar during Passover, and immediately following the Feast of Unleavened Bread (also called Matstsoth). Commonly however the process was as follows: a lump of leavened dough of yesterday’s baking, preserved for the purpose, was broken up and mixed with the day’s "batch," and the whole was then set aside and left standing until it was thoroughly leavened (see Leaven).

3. Baking:

We find in the Old Testament, as in the practice of the East today, three modes of firing or baking bread:

(1) Hot Stones:

That represented by Elijah’s cake baked on the hot stones (1Ki 19:6 the Revised Version, margin; compare "the cakes upon the hearth," Ge 18:6 the King James Version, and see Robinson, Researches, II, 406). The stones were laid together and a fire was lighted upon them. When the stones were well heated the cinders were raked off, and the cakes laid on the stones and covered with ashes. After a while the ashes were again removed and the cake was turned (see Ho 7:8) and once more covered with the glowing ashes. It was thus cooked on both sides evenly and made ready for eating (compare the Vulgate, Panis subcineraris, and DeLagarde, Symmicta, II, 188, where egkouthia, is referred to as "the hiding" of the cakes under the ashes). Out of these primitive usages of the pastoral tribes and peasants grew other improved forms of baking.

(2) Baking Pans:

An ancient method of baking, prevalent still among the Bedouin of Syria and Arabia, is to employ a heated convex iron plate, or griddle, what we would call a frying pan, in lieu of the heated sand or stones. The Hebrew "baking-pan" (machabhath, Le 2:5; 7:9; compare Eze 4:3) must have been of this species of "griddle." The reference in 1Ch 9:31 is probably to bread baked in this way. There it is said that one of the sons of the priests "had the office of trust over the things that were baked in pans."

4. Ovens:

(compare Arabic), no doubt were used by the Hebrews, when they settled in Palestine, as they were used by the settled populations of the Orient in general, more and more as they approached civilized conditions. These "ovens" were of various kinds:

(1) The Bowl-Oven:

The simplest used by the ancients were hardly more primitive than the kind quite commonly used in Palestine today. It may be called the "bowl-oven." It consists of a large clay-bowl, which is provided with a movable lid. This bowl is placed inverted upon small stones and then heated with a fuel distinctly oriental, consisting of dried dung heaped over and around it. The bread is baked on the stones, then covered by the inverted oven, which is heated by the firing of the fuel of dung on the outside of the cover.

(2) The Jar-Oven:

The jar-oven is another form of oven found in use there today. This is a large earthen-ware jar that is heated by fuel of grass (Mt 6:30), stubble (Mal 4:1), dry twigs or thorns (1Ki 17:12) and the like, which are placed within the jar for firing. When the jar is thus heated the cakes are stuck upon the hot inside walls.

(3) The Pit-Oven:

The pit-oven was doubtless a development from this type. It was formed partly in the ground and partly built up of clay and plastered throughout, narrowing toward the top. The ancient Egyptians, as the monuments and mural paintings show, laid the cakes upon the outside of the oven (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians); but in Palestine, in general, if the customs of today are conclusive, the fire was kindled in the inside of the pit-oven. Great numbers of such ovens have been unearthed in recent excavations, and we may well believe them to be exact counterparts of the oven of the professional bakers in the street named after them in Jerusalem "the bakers’ street" (Jer 37:21). The largest and most developed form of oven is still the public oven of the town or city of this sort; but the primitive rural types still survive, and the fuel of thorns, and of the grass, "which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven," are still in evidence.

5. Forms of Baked Bread:

(1) The large pone or thick, light loaf of the West is unknown in the East. The common oriental cake or loaf is proverbially thin. The thin home-made bread is really named both in Hebrew and Arabic from its thinness as is reflected in the translation "wafer" in Ex 16:31; 29:23; Le 8:26; Nu 6:19; 1Ch 23:29. Such bread was called in Hebrew raqiq (raqiq; compare modern Arabic warkuk, from warak = "foliage," "paper").

(2) It is still significantly customary at a Syrian meal to take a piece of such bread and, with the ease and skill of long habit, to fold it over at the end held in the hand so as to make a sort of spoon of it, which then is eaten along with whatever is lifted by it out of the common dish (compare Mt 26:23). But this "dipping in the common dish" is so accomplished as not to allow the contents of the dish to be touched by the fingers, or by anything that has been in contact with the lips of those who sit at meat (compare Mackie, DCG, article "Bread").

(3) Such "loaves" are generally today about 7 inches in diameter and from half an inch to an inch thick. Such, probably, were the lad’s "barley loaves" brought to Christ at the time of the feeding of the 5,000 (Joh 6:9,13). Even thinner cakes, of both leavened and unleavened bread, are sometimes made now, as of old, especially at times of religious festivals. Often they are coated on the upper surface with olive oil and take on a glossy brown color in cooking; and sometimes they are sprinkled over with aromatic seeds, which adhere and impart a spicy flavor. They may well recall to us the "oiled bread" of Le 8:26 and "the wafers anointed with oil" of Ex 29:2 and Le 2:4.

(4) Sometimes large discs of dough about 1 inch thick and 8 inches in diameter are prepared and laid in rows on long, thin boards like canoe paddles, and thus inserted into the oven; then, by a quick, deft jerk of the hand, they are slipped off upon the hot pavement and baked. These are so made and baked that when done they are soft and flexible, and for this reason are preferred by many to the thinner cakes which are cooked stiff and brown.

(5) The precise nature of the cracknels of 1Ki 14:3 (the American Standard Revised Version "cakes") is not known. A variety of bakemeats (Ge 40:17, literally "food, the work of the baker") are met with in the Old Testament, but only in a few cases is it possible or important to identify their nature or forms (see Encyclopedia Bibl, coll. 460 f). A cake used for ritual purposes (Ex 29:2 and often) seems, from its name, to have been pierced with holes, like the modern Passover cakes (compare Kennedy, 1-vol HDB, article " Bread").

6. Work for Women:

(a) Every oriental household of importance seems to have had its own oven, and bread-making for the most part was in the hands of the women. Even when and where baking, as under advancing civilization, became a recognized public industry, and men were the professional bakers, a large part of the baker’s work, as is true today, was to fire the bread prepared and in a sense pre-baked by the women at home.

(b) The women of the East are often now seen taking a hand in sowing, harvesting and winnowing the grain, as well as in the processes of "grinding" (Ec 12:3; Mt 24:41; Lu 17:35), "kneading" (Ge 18:6; 1Sa 28:24; 2Sa 13:8; Jer 7:18) and "baking" (1Sa 8:13), and doubtless it was so in ancient times to an equal extent.

IV. Sanctity and Symbolism of Bread.

1. Sanctity:

It would seem that the sanctity of bread remains as unchanged in the Orient as the sanctity of shrines and graves (compare Mackie, DCG, article "Bread," and Robinson’s Researches). As in Egypt everything depended for life on the Nile, and as the Nile was considered "sacred," so in Palestine, as everything depended upon the wheat and barley harvest, "bread" was in a peculiar sense "sacred." The psychology of the matter seems to be about this: all life was seen to be dependent upon the grain harvest, this in turn depended upon rain in its season, and so bread, the product at bottom of these Divine processes, was regarded as peculiarly "a gift of God," a daily reminder of his continual and often undeserved care (Mt 5:45 ff; consider in this connection the Lord's Prayer|Lord’s Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," Mt 6:11; compare Lu 11:11). Travelers generally note as a special characteristic of the Oriental of today that, seeing a scrap of bread on the roadside, he will pick it up and throw it to a street dog, or place it in a crevice of the wall, or on a tree-branch where the birds may get it. One thing is settled with him, it must not be trodden under foot in the common dust, for, in the estimat ion of all, it has in it an element of mystery and sacredness as coming from the Giver of all good.

2. Symbolism:

(a) In partaking of the hospitality of the primitive peasants of Palestine today, east and west of the Jordan, one sees what a sign and symbol of hospitality and friendship the giving and receiving of bread is. Among the Arabs, indeed, it has become a proverb, which may be put into English thus: "Eat salt together, be friends forever." Once let the Arab break bread with you and you are safe. You may find the bread the poorest barley loaf, still marked by the indentations of the pebbles, with small patches of the gray ash of the hearth, and here and there an inlaid bit of singed grass or charred thorn, the result of their primitive process of baking; but it is bread, the best that the poor man can give you, "a gift of God," indeed, and it is offered by the wildest Arab, with some sense of its sacredness and with somewhat of the gladness and dignity of the high duty of hospitality. No wonder, therefore, that it is considered the height of discourtesy, yea, a violation of the sacred law of hospitality, to decline it or to set it aside as unfit for use.

(b) Christ must have been influenced by His knowledge of some such feeling and law as this when, on sending forth His disciples, He charged them to "take no bread with them" (Mr 6:8). Not to have expected such hospitality, and not to have used what would thus be freely offered to them by the people, would have been a rudeness, not to say an offense, on the part of the disciples, which would have hindered the reception of the good tidings of the Kingdom.

(c) It has well been pointed out that God’s gift of natural food to His people enters in for the praises of the Magnificat (Lu 1:53), and that when Christ called Himself "the bread of life" (Joh 6:35) He really appealed to all these endeared and indissoluble associations connected in the eastern mind with the meaning and use of bread. Most naturally and appropriately in the inauguration of the New Covenant Christ adopted as His memorial, not a monument of stone or brass, but this humble yet sacred article of food, familiar and accessible to all, to become, with the "wine" of common use, in the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper, the perpetual symbol among His disciples of the communion of saints.


Wilkinson. Ancient Egypt, 1878, II, 34; Erman, Aegypten und aegyptisches Leben, 1885, 191 ff; Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebr. Archaologie, 1894; Maimonides, Yadh, Temidhin U-Mucaphin, v, 6-8; Bacher, Monats-schrift, 1901, 299; Mishna B. M., II, 1, 2; Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine, II, 416; Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, I, 131; Josephus, BJ; and Bible Dicts. on "Bread," "Dietary Laws": "Matstsoth," "Challah," etc.

George B. Eager

See also

  • Holy Communion