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The food of the Eastern peoples generally may be classified into four groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, and animal foods. Wheat, barley, millet, spelt, lentils, beans, cucumbers, onions, leeks, garlic, saltwort, pods of the carob tree referred to as “husks,” and wild gourds were all eaten. The corn referred to in the Bible (kjv) was wheat. The grain was often picked in the field, rubbed in the hands to separate it from the chaff, and eaten raw (Luke.6.1). Sometimes it was crushed with mortar and pestle and made into a porridge or cakes (Num.11.8; Prov.27.22). More often the grain was ground between two stones. The grinding was usually done by women (Matt.24.41) or by servants (Exod.11.5; Judg.16.21).

No meal was considered complete without bread. Edersheim points out that the blessing was spoken over the bread and was presumed to cover all of the food that followed. Bread was both leavened and unleavened. Sometimes honey and oil were mixed into the dough as it was being made in the kneading troughs or wooden bowls. In times of poverty bread was made from beans, millet, and spelt (Ezek.4.9). Bread was usually eaten warm and seldom by itself, but was served with sour wine or meat gravy (John.13.26; John.21.13).

Spices, used freely as flavors, consisted of cummin or dill, mustard or mint. Salt also became an important item in the diet of these people.

Fruits grew in great abundance in Palestine and consisted of grapes, figs, olives, mulberries, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, melons, dates, almonds, and walnuts. Grapes were eaten as fresh food and dried as raisins. They were the chief source of the wines, which were used both sweet and fermented. Olives were eaten as food as well as used to make olive oil. There were two kinds of figs, early (Isa.28.4) and late (Jer.8.13). The late figs were dried and pressed into cakes. Dates were used both raw and dried.

The bulk of the meat came from sheep, lambs, kids, and fatted calves. Pork was eaten, but not by the Hebrews. Some game such as the hart, gazelle, goat, antelope, and deer, as well as doves, turtledoves, and quails, formed part of the meat diet. Some eggs were used for food (Isa.10.14). Locusts and fish were also eaten. The Hebrews used milk from cattle and goats for drinking. From this they made cheese and butter. Arabs drank camels’ milk. Cheese was made from curdled milk, and after being salted and formed into small units was placed in the sun to dry. Some of this was later mixed with water to make a sour but cooling drink.

Knives, forks, and spoons were not used in eating. The hands were usually washed and a prayer was offered before the meal. Meat was cooked and placed with its gravy in a large dish on the table. The contents were taken either with the fingers or placed on bread and carried to the mouth. The Egyptians sat at a small round table for their meals. The early Hebrews sat, knelt, or squatted as they ate, but later they evidently reclined at meals. The custom of reclining, probably derived from the Persians, became the NT practice. Women were sometimes included and sometimes excluded at mealtime. Three generally lay on one couch, thus the head of one was on the bosom of another (John.13.23-John.13.25). They reclined at the three sides of a rectangular table leaving the fourth side free for the servants to use in serving.

Food was cooked in a variety of ways over a fire made from charcoal (Prov.26.21), sticks (1Kgs.17.10), thorns (Isa.33.12), or grass (Luke.12.28). Archaeology is throwing light increasingly on the variety of utensils used in preparing food.——HZC

MEALS. Time of eating, foods served, manner of eating, and treatment of guests are all important aspects of mealtime in the ancient Near E.


There are a number of words in the Bible to express the idea of meals and of eating:

3. עֵ֣ת אֹ֗כֶל (lit., time of eating), “mealtime” (Ruth 2:14).

4. אֲרֻחָה, H786, (“meal,” “allowance of food,” from word meaning wander, journey), “dinner” (Prov 15:17).

8. See also expressions such as “sit at table” (“at meat,” KJV).

Everyday meals

Time of eating.

Only two meals a day were usually eaten (Exod 16:12; 1 Kings 17:6). The laborer worked until midday before taking his first meal. The noon meal was not important, usually consisting of bread, olives, and sometimes fruit. The chief meal of the day (and prob. the only one for the poor) was served in the early evening, an hour or two before sunset when the duties of the day were over. It was a time of rest, refreshment, and family reunion. After the meal for an hour or two before bedtime the men sat around and talked (cf. Jer 15:17).

Place of eating.

At family meals in the earliest times the Hebrews usually sat on the ground on mats to eat. Men and women ate together (Ruth 2:14; Job 1:4) except at more formal gatherings (Gen 18:8-10). Later the Hebrews adopted the Canaanite practice of sitting on chairs or stools and eating from small leather stands. Ordinary homes did not have a room just for dining; at mealtime a broad circular mat or low tables were placed on the floor within reach of all who would dip from the common dish. Larger homes had dining rooms with one side open to the street with adjustable curtains. Passers-by stopped to look in to see who was being entertained and even talked with the guests. The table was a three-sided piece of furniture with open space left for servants to serve the meal. Guests reclined on couches which could accommodate three people. The wealthy homes had large dining halls. Amos denounced the dissolute rich reclining on their couches (Amos 6:4).

Abraham served his guests outdoors (Gen 18:8). Gideon served an angel under a tree (Judg 6:19). Shepherds and laborers ate their meals where they worked. The disciples of Jesus picked ripe grain and ate it one Sabbath as they passed through the fields (Mark 2:23). Jesus fed the multitude on a hillside (John 6:1-14) and His disciples on a beach after His Resurrection (John 21:9-13).

Foods served.

The harvester’s fare consisted of bread dipped in vinegar and parched grain (Ruth 2:14). The shepherd carried with him a meal of bread, sometimes fruit and cheese, which he ate at noon while the sheep rested. A soldier’s ration consisted of parched grain, bread, and cheese (1 Sam 17:17, 18; cf. 25:18).

The wayfarer’s meals.

Guests at meals

Duties of host.

Serving of food.


The king’s table.

Ancient Oriental rulers gave banquets that are still unmatched for opulence. A tiny lapis-lazuli cylinder seal carved before 3000 b.c. shows a banquet of Queen Shub-ad with guests seated on little stools, receiving from servants goblets of wine while other servants are fanning to keep them cool. Akhenaton of Egypt served in a spacious dining hall with garlands hanging from pillars while slaves cooled the air with fans. He had a summer dining room in a garden on a tiny island on an artificial lake. Egyptians did not eat at the same table with foreigners (Gen 43:32).

Taboos and restrictions.

Ritual meals


The Mesopotamians emphasized that sacrifice was a meal provided for the god, and Ras Shamra texts show that the Canaanites believed that the gods needed food. Babylonians offered wild and domestic animals; they offered cakes of meal, dotted with incense, before their gods as food offerings. Ugaritic worshipers in N Syria used food offerings in their worship. Jeremiah denounced the people for offering cakes to the queen of heaven (Jer 7:18). Offerings of food for the dead were common in Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures. The Greeks offered animal sacrifices, and even the Eleusinian mysteries included the offering of sheaves of grain. The Romans sacrificed great numbers of animals. Gifts of food were brought to the gods at mealtime on special occasions (such as a birthday, wedding, or safe return from a journey).



The NT ritual of the Lord’s Supper is a ritual meal derived from the Jewish Passover and instituted by Jesus (1 Cor 11:23-26). It is observed as a memorial reminder of the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of men. Paul warned that the Corinthian Christians were making a mockery of the sacred meal (11:20-22).

Symbolic use of meals in the Bible.


A. C. Bouquet, Everyday Life in NT Times (1953), 69-79; M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1955), 299-319; E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in OT Times (1956); L. Köhler, Hebrew Man (1956), 86, 87; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 10, 122, 468-517.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

melz: Bread materials, bread-making and baking in the Orient are dealt with under BREAD (which see). For food-stuffs in use among the Hebrews in Bible times more specifically see Food. This article aims to be complementary, dealing especially with the methods of preparing and serving food and times of meals among the ancient Hebrews.

The Book of Judges gives a fair picture of the early formative period of the Hebrew people and their ways of living. It is a picture of semi-savagery--of the life and customs of free desert tribes. In 1 Samuel we note a distinct step forward, but the domestic and cultural life is still low and crude. When they are settled in Palestine and come in contact with the most cultured people of the day, the case is different. Most that raised these Semitic invaders above the dull, crude existence of fellahin, in point of civilization, was due to the people for whom the land was named (Macalister, Hist of Civilization in Pal). From that time on various foreign influences played their several parts in modification of Hebrew life and customs. A sharp contrast illustrative of the primitive beginnings and the growth of luxury in Israel in the preparation and use of foods may be seen by a comparison of 2Sa 17:28 f with 1Ki 4:22 f.

I. Methods of Preparing Food.

1. Cereals:

See Leaven.

Another simple way of preparing the grain was to soak it in water, or boil it slightly, and then, after drying and crushing it, to serve it as the dish called "groats" is served among western peoples.

The kneading of the dough preparatory to baking was done doubtless, as it is now in the East, by pressing it between the hands or by passing it from hand to hand; except that in Egypt, as the monuments show, it was put in "baskets" and trodden with the feet, as grapes in the wine press. (This is done in Paris bakeries to this day.)

See Bread; Food.

2. Vegetables:

Lentils, several kinds of beans, and a profusion of vegetables, wild and cultivated, were prepared and eaten in various ways. The lentils were sometimes roasted, as they are today, and eaten like "parched corn." They were sometimes stewed like beans, and flavored with onions and other ingredients, no doubt, as we find done in Syria today (compare Ge 25:29,34), and sometimes ground and made into bread (Eze 4:9; compare Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palastina-Vereins, IX, 4). The wandering Israelites in the wilderness looked back wistfully on the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt (Nu 11:5), and later we find all of these used for food in Palestine How many other things were prepared and used for food by them may be gathered from the Mishna, our richest source of knowledge on the subject.

3. Meat:

The flesh of animals--permission to eat which it would seem was first given to Noah after the deluge (Ge 1:29 f; 9:3 f)--was likewise prepared and used in various ways:

(a) Roasting was much in vogue, indeed was probably the oldest of all methods of preparing such food. At first raw meat was laid upon hot stones from which the embers had been removed, as in the case of the "cake baken on the hot stones" (1Ki 19:6 the Revised Version margin; compare Ho 7:8, "a cake not turned"), and sometimes underneath with a covering of ashes. The fish that the disciples found prepared for them by the Sea of Galilee (Joh 21:9) was, in exception to this rule, cooked on the live coals themselves. A more advanced mode of roasting was by means of a spit of green wood or iron (for baking in ovens, see Food).

(c) The Hebrew housewives, we may be sure, were in such matters in no way behind their modern kinswomen of the desert, of whom Doughty tells: "The Arab housewives make savory messes of any grain, seething it and putting thereto only a little salt and samn (clarified butter)."

4. Oil:

Olive oil was extensively and variously used by the ancient Hebrews, as by most eastern peoples then, as it is now.

(a) Oriental cooking diverges here more than at any other point from that of the northern and western peoples, oil serving many of the purposes of butter and lard among ourselves.

(b) Oil was used in cooking vegetables as we use bacon and other animal fats, and in cooking fish and eggs, as sJso in the finer sorts of baking. See Bread; Food; OIL.

(c) They even mixed oil with the flour, shaped it into cakes and then baked it (Le 2:4). The "little oil" of the poor widow of Zerephath was clearly not intended for the lamps, but to bake her pitiful "handful of meal" (1Ki 17:12).

(d) Again the cake of unmixed flour might be baked till almost done, then smeared with oil, sprinkled with anise seed, and brought by further baking to a glossy brown. A species of thin flat cakes of this kind are "the wafers anointed with oil" of Ex 29:2, etc.

(e) Oil and honey constituted, as now in the East, a mixture used as we use butter and honey, and are found also mixed in the making of sweet cakes (Eze 16:13,19). The taste of the manna is said in Ex 16:31 to be like that of "wafers made with honey," and in Nu 11:8 to be like "the taste of cakes baked with oil" (Revised Version margin).

II. Meals, Meal-Time, etc.

(1) It was customary among the ancient Hebrews, as among their contemporaries in the East in classical lands, to have but two meals a day. The "morning morsel" or "early snack," as it is called in the Talmud, taken with some relish like olives, oil or melted butter, might be used by peasants, fishermen, or even artisans, to "break their fast" (see the one reference to it in the New Testament in Joh 21:12,15), but this was not a true meal. It was rather ariston proinon (Robinson, BRP, II, 18), though some think it the ariston, of the New Testament (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, 205, note 3; compare Plummer, International Critical Commentary, on Lu 11:37). To "eat a meal," i.e. a full meal, in the morning was a matter for grave reproach (Ec 10:16), as early drinking was unusual and a sign of degradation (of Ac 2:15).

(2) The first meal (of "meal-time," literally, "the time of eating," Ru 2:14; Ge 43:16), according to general usage, was taken at or about noon when the climate and immemorial custom demanded a rest from labor. Peter’s intended meal at Joppa, interrupted by the messengers of Cornelius, was at "the sixth hour," i.e. 12 M. It corresponded somewhat to our modern "luncheon," but the hour varied according to rank and occupation (Shabbath 10a). The Bedawi take it about 9 or 10 o’clock (Burckhardt, Notes, I, 69). It is described somewhat fully by Lane in Modern Egyptians. To abstain from this meal was accounted "fasting" (Jud 20:26; 1Sa 14:24). Drummond (Tropical Africa) says his Negro bearers began the day’s work without food.

See Banquet.

III. Customs at Meals.


Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; O. Holtzmann, Eine Untersuchung zum Leben Jesu, English translation, 206; B. Weiss, The Life of Christ, II, 125, note 2; Plummer, International Critical Commentary, "Luke," 159 f; Farrar, Life of Christ; Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes), Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, the 1-volume Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible; Encyclopedia Biblica; Jewish Encyclopedia, etc.

George B. Eager