corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

food :

I. Vegetable Foods

1. Primitive Habits

2. Cereals

3. Leguminous Plants

4. Food of Trees

II. Animal Food


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.

I. Vegetable Foods

1. Primitive Habits

Orientals in general are vegetarians, rather than flesh eaters. There is some reason to believe that primitive man was a vegetarian (see Genesis 2:16 ; Genesis 3:2 , Genesis 3:6 ). It would seem, indeed, from a comparison of Genesis 1:29 f with Genesis 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 (kāshēr ) meat of the Jews of today).

2. Cereals

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 ( hīṭṭāh ) and barley ( se‛ōrı̄m ). The most primitive way of using the wheat as food was to pluck the fresh ears (Leviticus 23:14 ; 2 Kings 4:42 ), remove the husks by rubbing in the hands (Deuteronomy 23:25 ; Matthew 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 (Rth 2:14).

Later it became customary to grind the wheat into flour (kemaḥ ), and, by bolting it with a fine sieve, to obtain the "fine flour" ( ṣōleth ) of our English Versions of the Bible, which, of course, was then made into "bread" (which see), either without leaven (maccāh ) or with (leḥem ḥāmēc Leviticus 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 ; Compare PEFS , 1902, 326). Barley ( se‛ōrı̄m ) has always furnished the principal food of the poorer classes, and, like wheat, has been made into bread (Judges 7:13 ; John 6:9 , John 6:13 ). Less frequently millet ( Ezekiel 4:9 ) and spelt ( ה , kuṣṣemeth ; 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 Daniel 1:12 ( zerō‛ı̄m ) denotes edible "herbs" in general (Revised Version margin, compare Isaiah 61:11 , "things that are sown"). The lentils ( ‛ădhāshı̄m ) were and are considered very toothsome and nutritious. It was of "red lentils" that Jacob brewed his fateful pottage (Genesis 25:29 , Genesis 25:34 ), 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 (Ezekiel 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 (Numbers 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 ( Exodus 12:8 ), mustard (Matthew 13:31 ) and many other things available for food, are mentioned in the Mishna, our richest source of information on this subject. Cucumbers ( kīshshu'ı̄m ) 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, Beirût 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 ( becālı̄m ), garlic ( shummı̄m ) and leeks ( ḥācı̄r ) 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" (mallūah ) 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 Leviticus 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 ( Judges 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 Exodus 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'ēnāh , in the New Testament sukḗ ), whose "sweetness" is praised in the parable (Judges 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 (Deuteronomy 8:8 ; Judges 9:10 ; 1 Kings 4:25 ; Micah 4:4 ; Zechariah 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" (bikkūrāh , Isaiah 28:4 ; Jeremiah 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'ēnı̄m ) 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" ( debhēlāh ) mentioned in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 25:18 ; 1 Chronicles 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 (Isaiah 38:21 ; compare 2 Kings 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" (Mark 11:12 f; compare Isaiah 28:4 ; Jeremiah 24:2 ; Hosea 9:10 ; Nahum 3:12 ; Matthew 21:19 ; Luke 13:7 ).

Grapes ( ‛ănābhı̄m ), often called "the fruit of the vine" (Matthew 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," 1 Kings 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 (Genesis 49:11 , Genesis 49:12 ). 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 Numbers 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 (Psalm 105:33 ; Jeremiah 5:17 ; Hosea 2:12 ; Joel 1:7 ). Grapes, like figs, were both enjoyed in their natural state, and by exposure to the sun dried into raisins ( cimmūḳı̄m ), the "dried grapes" of Numbers 6:3 . In this form they were especially well suited to the use of travelers and soldiers (1 Samuel 25:18 ; 1 Chronicles 12:40 ). The meaning of the word rendered "raisin-cake," the American Standard Revised Version "a cake of raisins" (2 Samuel 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 Genesis 43:11 ; Ezekiel 27:17 ; and see HONEY ).

Less prominent was the fruit of the mulberry figtree (or sycomore) (shiḳmāh ), of the date-palm (tāmār ), 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 (tappūaḥ ), the "apple" of the King James Version (see APPLE ), or quinch , according to others; the husks (Luke 15:16 ), i.e. the pods of the carob tree kerátion ), are treated elsewhere. Certain nuts were favorite articles of food - pistachio nuts (boṭnı̄m ), almonds (sheḳēdhı̄m ) and walnuts ('ĕghōz ); and certain spices and vegetables were much used for seasoning: cummin (kammōn ), anise, dill (the King James Version) (ḳecaḥ ), mint (ἡδύοσμον ) and MUSTARD (σίναπι ), which see. Salt ( melaḥ ), 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 (Ezra 4:14 ), and a "covenant of salt" was held inviolable (Numbers 18:19 ; 2 Chronicles 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 Leviticus 11:2 , Leviticus 11:3 ; Dt 14:4-20, domestic animals and game (see Driver on Dt 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 (ḥaggı̄m ), the entertainment of an honored guest (Genesis 18:7 ; 2 Samuel 12:4 ), and the sacrificial meal at the local sanctuary.

The goat ( ‛ēz , etc.), especially the "kid of the goats" (Leviticus 4:23 , Leviticus 4:18 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 Proverbs 27:27 ). For this reason they are still among the most valued possessions of rich and poor (compare Genesis 30:33 ; Genesis 32:14 with 1 Samuel 25:2 ). A kid, as less valuable than a lamb, was naturally the readier victim when meat was required (compare Luke 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 (Exodus 29:22 ; Leviticus 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 1 Samuel 25:18 ; 1 Kings 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 Luke 15:23 will be recalled, as also the "fatlings" and the "stalled" (stall-fed) ox of the Old Testament ( Proverbs 15:17 ). Asharp contrast suggestive of the growth of luxury in Israel is seen by a comparison of 2 Samuel 17:28 f with 1 Kings 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" ( Nehemiah 5:18 ).

Milk of large and small animals was a staple article of food ( Deuteronomy 32:14 ; Proverbs 27:27 ). It was usually kept in skins, as among the Syrian peasants it is today (Judges 4:19 ). We find a generic term often used (ḥem'āh ) which covers also cream, clabber and cheese (Proverbs 30:33 ). The proper designation of cheese is gebhı̄nāh (Job 10:10 ), but ḥālābh also is used both for ordinary milk and for a cheese made directly from sweet milk (compare 1 Samuel 17:18 , ḥărı̄cē heḥālābh , and our "cottage cheese"). See MILK .

Honey ( debhāsh , nōpheth ha -cūphı̄m ), so often mentioned with milk, is ordinary bees' honey (see HONEY ). The expression "honey" in the combination debhash weḥālābh , for which Palestine was praised, most likely means debhash temārı̄m , i.e. "date-juice." It was much prized and relished (Psalm 19:10 ; Proverbs 16:24 ), and seems to have been a favorite food for children (Isaiah 7:15 ).

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

Of fish as food little is said in the Old Testament (see Numbers 11:5 ; Jeremiah 16:16 ; Ezekiel 47:10 ; Ecclesiastes 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" (Numbers 11:5 ) had their successors in Canaan (Kennedy). Trade in cured fish was carried on by Tyrian merchants with Jerusalem in Nehemiah's day (Nehemiah 13:16 ), and there must have been a fish market at or near the fish gate (Nehemiah 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 Kings 7:1 , 2 Kings 7:16 we learn that one ṣe'āh of fine flour, and two of barley, sold for a shekel (compare Matthew 10:29 ). For birds allowed as food see Deuteronomy 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; Matthew 23:37 ; Matthew 26:34 , etc.). It is thought that the fatted fowl of Solomon's table ( 1 Kings 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 Nehemiah 5:18 ) the partridge and the quail are prominent, and the humble sparrow comes in for his share of mention ( Matthew 10:29 ; Luke 12:6 ). Then, as now, the eggs of domestic fowls and of all "clean" birds were favorite articles of food ( Deuteronomy 22:6 ; Isaiah 10:14 ; Luke 11:12 ).

Edible insects (Leviticus 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 (Matthew 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 ( Ecclesiastes 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 ( Matthew 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 (Daniel 1:8 ), Judas Maccabeus (2 Macc 5:27), Josephus (Vita , III), and their compatriots (see also Acts 15:20 , Acts 15:29 ; 1 Corinthians 8:1-10 ; 1 Corinthians 10:19 , 1 Corinthians 10:28 ). As to sources of food supply and traffic in food stuffs , for primitive usages see Genesis 18:7 ; Genesis 27:9 ; 1 Kings 21:2 . As to articles and customs of commerce adopted when men became dwellers in cities, see Jeremiah 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 Nehemiah 13:15 f, and by specific mention of the "fish gate" ( Nehemiah 3:3 ) and the "sheep gate" (Nehemiah 3:1 ), so named evidently because of their nearby markets. In John's Gospel (John 4:8 ; John 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 (Matthew 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," 1 Corinthians 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.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain and were generously provided by the folks at WordSearch Software.

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Food'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
the Second Week after Epiphany
Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

Prev Entry
Next Entry
Fool; Folly
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology