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Holman Bible Dictionary
While the men in the family were at work, the women and children would, among their daily activities, prepare for the evening meal. Water for cooking was collected by the older girls who drew it from the well or spring at the beginning of the day before it began to get hot, and the goats were milked too. Water collection was quite a serious business as well water could be polluted by animal usage, and house run-off from mud roofs was not normally safe to drink. Water collected, the girls then went to the market to purchase food for the meal. Fresh vegetables were bought from traders who sat with their produce around them on the ground of the market place, and if needed, olive oil and seasoning. Some families collected bread from the village baker who owned a communal oven, returning the bread which each family had left as dough the night before (See Hosea 7:4-6 .) Other families got on with baking their own bread on their return home. The house had in the meantime been cleaned (Luke 11:25 ), and the washing done. Grain had been crushed in the handmill, and the fire fanned so that it was hot enough for baking bread. After the midday rest, the evening meal was prepared on the fire; a vegetable or lentil stew was made in the large cooking pot, herbs and salt being used to add to the flavor. Only on special occasions such as a sacrifice or festival day was any meat added to the stew, and only on very rare occasions was the meat roasted or game or fish eaten. When the time came for the meal, the pot was placed on a rug on the floor (Genesis 18:8 ), the whole family sitting round. A blessing or thanksgiving was made, and each member of the family used a piece of bread as a scoop to take up some of the contents of the pot because there was no cutlery. (Communal dipping into the pot made it essential that hands were washed before the meal). Later in history, a table and benches sometimes replaced the rug on the ground (1 Kings 13:20 ), but the communal pot was still at the center. At the close of the meal, fruit would be eaten; and everything washed down with wine.
Formal meals were always preceded by an invitation (which was politely refused as a matter of course). The host then insisted that people come until the invitations were accepted (Luke 14:1 : 16-24 ). When the guests arrived, their feet were washed by the most humble slaves, and their sandals were removed (John 13:1 : 3-11 ). This was to protect the carpeted floors from dirt as well as to make it more comfortable to sit on one's heels. Their heads were anointed with olive oil scented with spices. The oil was rubbed into the hair (Luke 7:36-50 ). Drinking water was then provided. In large houses the special guest moved to the “top table” in a room with a raised floor. He would sit on the right-hand side of the host. The second guest would sit on the host's left-hand side.
One did not so much “sit” at table as recline at table. Couches were drawn up to the tables, head towards the table and cushions provided so that guests could rest on their left arm and use the right to serve themselves from the table. Using this arrangement, it was possible for the servants to continue to wash the feet (Luke 7:1 : 46 ), but to make conversation persons had to turn almost on their backs and literally be “on the bosom” of the person to the left (John 13:1 : 23-25 ). In the time of Jesus, the triclinium or couch arranged around three sides of a table, was the height of fashion. The open side was used by servants so that they had access to the tables to bring in or to take away dishes of food.
The meal started with a drink of wine diluted with honey. The main dinner which followed was of three courses, beautifully arranged on trays. There were no forks, so guests ate with their fingers except when soup, eggs, or shellfish were served. Then spoons were used. Finally there was a dessert of pastry and fruit. During the meal the host provided entertainment of music, dancing (individual, expressive dances), and readings from poetry and other literature. Such an occasion was an important local event, and people of humbler means were able to look in from the darkness outside (Luke 7:1 : 37 ). When the meal was completed, there was a long period devoted to talking. Stories were related, and gossip was shared. Such festivities were always the envy of poorer people who tried to copy them in their own way. Martha was probably trying to do something of this sort at Bethany when Jesus reminded her “but one thing is needful” (Luke 10:1 : 42 ).
Whether such meals were formal or informal, abundant or scant, there were always food laws which had to be observed. Only animals which chewed the cud and had divided hoofs, fish which had fins and scales, and birds which did not eat carrion could be eaten (Leviticus 11:1-22 ), and the practice grew that soups should not be made with a mixture of vegetables (Deuteronomy 9:1 : 9 ) and meat and milk dishes were not to be taken together (See Ex. 23 : 19).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Food'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/f/food.html. 1991.