From Wheat to Bread…But Man Shall Not Live by Bread Alone!

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Excerpt Grain, oil and wine were so frequently mentioned in the Old Testament that they probably represented the most significant food sources in the Holy Land during that period. Together they would have been the most regularly accessible sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fats—essential to basic nutrition, let alone survival year by year. But, of the three, cereal grains were truly the “staff of life” for the Old Testament world. At least potentially, every family had the opportunity to grow sufficient amounts in their own fields annually—sufficient to survive another season, as well as provide seed for the following year. Continue reading

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Wheat: In the Field and at the House

Both wheat and barley were plentiful, listed among the seven major foods of the Holy Land (Dt 8:8; note also the oil and wine). But wheat was considered superior to the coarser barley—at least for human consumption. Barley was harvested first, a few weeks earlier, and probably regularly used as animal feed (1 Kgs 4:28).

woman harvesting wheat

Taken in the 1990’s at Khirbet el-Maqatir, ABR’s excavation in the West Bank, a local woman has just cut stalks of wheat and is creating a sheaf by wrapping a couple stalks around the rest. Photo by Mike Luddeni.

In the spring, grain was harvested from the fields by cutting the stalks so they could be bundled into sheaves and carried to the family or community open-air threshing floor nearby. Here grain was separated from the stalks and even the hulls (outer husks of the grain) were crushed to reveal the kernels.

After threshing, the kernels were gathered by the process of winnowing right there at the threshing floor and collected for storage by the family in their city or village. Completion of the wheat threshing process was the official end of the spring grain harvest and was a time of community celebration.

Threshing floor at Yad Hashmonah

A reconstructed threshing floor at Yad Hashmonah, Israel, which served as ABR’s Khirbet el-Maqatir dig headquarters for a decade. Located near the grain fields, ancient threshing floors were reasonably flat, smooth, outcroppings of bedrock. Sheaves of grain were brought here to be threshed, winnowed and collected for storage in the community. On the floor the grain was threshed (from an Old English word meaning “stomp or tread by foot”) and separated from extemporaneous material by winnowing (from an Old English word for “wind”). Winnowing forks and a threshing sled are seen on the wall surrounding the floor.

During the period of the Israelite kingdoms, there were large communal subterranean granaries—such as the eighth century BC Israelite granary at Megiddo. Grain kept here may have represented a communal “grain bank” for families to best secure their annual harvest in an urban setting. Or it may have simply been taxation in kind, where the grain could be used for government purposes or even sold as necessary.

granary at Megiddo

The subterranean public granary at Megiddo dating to the period of the Israelite kingdoms (probably eighth century BC). Circular, about 35 feet in diameter and 23 feet deep, it was stone-lined with two stone staircases leading from ground level to the base. While the granary was probably roofed, to insure grain was safe from rodents and moisture, it was probably stored here in jars. Courtesy

But, in the periods of the Settlement, Judges and Monarchy—before communal granaries—storage of a family’s annual harvest was in the home. Grain was frequently kept in jars sitting on the ground floor of the house, as evidenced by the frequent archaeological discovery of jars containing burned grain.

Jericho grain jar sketching Jericho grain jar

One of the most famous jars of burned grain in the Holy Land. Left, an artist sketches storage jars found in situ by Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho. ABR’s Dr. Bryant Wood has noted this is the stratum burned by Joshua and the Israelites as they entered into the Promised Land. The six bushels of grain found in Kenyon’s limited excavation area suggests this city was destroyed during the springtime, not long after the harvest—precisely when the Bible places the event. Photos by Bryant Wood.

But, regularly during this early period of Israelite history, grain was also stored in smaller subterranean pits (silos) dug into the dirt, regularly lined with stones and generally found associated with individual family homes. I excavated such a silo at Khirbet el-Maqatir, ABR’s excavation in Israel’s West Bank, during the 2014 dig season. It was part of a domestic complex during the period of the Judges (about 1200–1000 BC).

KEM storage silo

One of two subterranean stone-lined storage silos excavated by the author at Khirbet el-Maqatir. Bell-shaped with a flagstone base, it was over four feet deep and over five feet wide in diameter. Dug into the earth, it would have been used for food storage, most likely grain. Photo by Don McNeeley.

Apparently grain was generally stored in bulk within these subterranean silos. While loose grain might seem more vulnerable to damage, the top would have been sealed with a layer of valley clay covered by a layer of stones on the ground surface. The silos probably represented long-term storage – seed for planting next year’s crop. Grain stored in the jars on the house floor was probably short-term storage, used in the near term for sustenance.

To Eat or Not to Eat—That Was the Question

This stored grain would then be portioned out for a variety of purposes. Some kernels were roasted or parched on a griddle which tended to preserve them for longer-term storage. Insects were more interested in the raw kernel and moisture getting into the stored grain would have damaged it for planting or grinding into bread.

Yet, heating the kernels killed the germ inside, making it of no value for planting nor useable to grind into bread. Still, it was a strategy to guarantee the grain’s nutritional value could be consumed during the next year.

Other kernels were used in the fermentation process with sugars and water to create an ancient form of beer, a different means of longer-term storage. But the largest amount of kernels were kept raw and used for two specific purposes.

One was the raw seed for planting the next year’s crop. The other was raw grain for daily food. While there may have been a regular batch of porridge (“cream of wheat”), the general use went for making their “daily bread.”

Flour in the Mill

Most of us are probably familiar with the image of the small bowl ("mortar") and accompanying slender crushing tool ("pestle"). Something placed inside the mortar would be ground by the pestle using a vertical motion.

modern mortar-pestle ancient mortar-pestle

Modern and ancient mortars and pestles. Courtesy;

But “milling” (Old English for “grinding”) stones used to grind grain in the Old Testament were quite different tools. Also used in pairs, a larger lower stone (“mortar”) was stationary on the ground and a smaller upper stone ("pestle") was moved across it in a horizontal motion—creating the grinding action.

Together, these two stone tools represented a simple domestic hand mill for grinding. In much of the world today, they’re known by their Spanish names—metate (lower grinding stone) and manos (the upper grinding stone). From the Spanish word for “hand,” manos perfectly describes this tool which was designed to fit human hands for the grinding process.

Old Testament Saddle Querns

The Old Testament term for a hand mill, rechayim (translated “millstones” with a plural ending) represented both the upper and lower grinding stones as a unit. From archaeology and ancient Egyptian depictions, we know this mortar was generally large and stationary on the ground—frequently called today a “saddle quern.”

“Saddle” because it took that shape, both from its manufacture as well as by its regular use and “quern” from an old European word describing small domestic hand mills. The biblical term is pelach tachit (“section/under”) indicating its position as the lower mill stone.

basalt grinding stones

Example of typical basalt upper (pestle/manos) and lower (mortar/metate/quern) grinding stones as used by Israelites throughout the Old Testament period. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The pestle/manos was smaller, mobile and used by hand—really both hands together. All the pestle/manos stones I’ve excavated were half-moon in profile with the flat part serving as the grinder. The biblical phrase is pelach rekab (literally “section/millstone”), probably indicative of its diminutive size.

lower grinding stone

A lower grinding stone (quern) from Tall el-Hammam, Jordan. Found in a heavy burn layer, evidenced on the top, it had been broken into four pieces. Reconstructed with all but the top left corner, its black basalt and measures 14x7x1 inches. Excavated in the site’s upper city, this quern comes from a stratum in the Bronze Age—before the Israelites entered the Promised Land under Joshua. Photo by Gary Byers.

broken upper grinding stone

The underside of a broken upper grinding stone, manos (Spanish “hand”).Seeing how well the stone fits a human hand helps appreciate that Spanish name, although a complete manos would have been used with two hands pushing away from the body in top of a lower saddle quern grinding stone. Courtesy Luke Chandler,

With the grinding of grain being done at home, it was generally woman’s work. In the numerous Egyptian images of women using this Old Testament domestic hand-mill, they’re seen kneeling on the ground at the long end of the quern, using the pestle/manos stone with two hands. Probably not a fun task and pretty messy work (note the personal preparations for grinding suggested in Isa 47:2), these Egyptian depictions probably represent servants doing the job (as noted in Ex 11:5).

Egyptian woman grinding grain

Small (11x18 inches) limestone statue found at Gaza, Egypt and dating to 2400 BC, depicting an Egyptian woman grinding grain. Kneeling over a lower quern grinding stone, she’s using both hands on an upper grinding stone. Courtesy Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition.

This process turned the raw kernels of grain into flour. Admittedly, it wasn’t a perfect system and small bits of the grinding stones inevitably wound up in the flour and, eventually, the bread. In fact, today we can get a sense of how important bread was to the diet of different ancient people groups by comparing the impact of those stone bits. The more bread they ate, the more wear showed on their teeth!

Don’t Take It, Don’t Throw It!

This grinding of grain was so important for daily life in the ancient world that the Mosaic Law noted “Do not take a pair of millstones—not even the upper one—as security for a debt, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security” (Dt 24:6). Such importance may be reflected in the numerous images of Egyptian women grinding grain<—it was central to family survival.

There’s also a unique Old Testament reference to a grinding stone being used for another purpose. During the period of the Judges, Abimelech the son of Gideon was an opportunist and bully who murdered his 70 step-brothers and intimidated his way to power.

During his siege of the Transjordanian city of Thebez, as he was taking the city, “a certain woman threw an upper-millstone on Abimelech’s head, and crushed his skull” (Judges 9:53 NRSV). Mortally wounded, he called for his armor-bearer to stab and kill him—so it wouldn’t be said that mighty Abimelech was killed by a woman!

Ignite This!

In the Holy Land, both of these upper and lower grinding stone tools were typically manufactured from igneous rocks. Derived from the Latin word ignis meaning “fire” (note the English word “ignite”), these rocks were formed through the cooling and solidification process of volcanic magma.

Basalt is such a volcanic rock and was the material of choice for grinding stones in the biblical world. But other igneous rocks—rhyolite and granite—were also used for grinders in the Old Testament world.

Sandstone (sedimentary rock) was another material used for grind stones. It’s still regularly used today for grinding and polishing. In 25 seasons of excavation, I’ve found upper and lower grinding stones manufactured from each of these materials.

Our Daily Bread

Once ground, the flour could be mixed with water and baked into bread. While there aren’t specific references saying the ancients baked bread every day, it was probably done multiple times weekly in the biblical world. Presumably flour was ground in conjunction with each baking process.

Throughout the Old Testament period, but especially during the Israelite period (1200–586 BC) the large number of flint blades, storage vessels and grinding stones indicate the priority of agricultural activity in antiquity. Among remains of the numerous domestic structures throughout the Old Testament period I’ve excavated, it’s clear the ancients did substantial grain storage and processing in and around their homes.

Family cultivation of wheat was virtually universal in ancient Israel and wheat was the grain of choice for their “daily bread.” It’s extremely unlikely a family could have survived without a strategy for cereal grain planting, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, milling and baking of bread. Even a single year’s drought or famine could have caused a family to leave their home for survival.

Man Shall Not Live By…Give Us This Day…I Am The…

Consequently, we should not be surprised that Jesus used “bread” as an analogy to communicate key spiritual truths. I’m certain those who heard it found meaning in Jesus’ analogy, “Man shall not live by Bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4 quoting Dt 8:3). Just as bread was the one thing most people ate every day, Jesus noted they would need God’s Word to sustain themselves day after day, as well.

And since every family baked bread regularly—multiple times each week—and ate it every day, they knew exactly what Jesus meant when He taught them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). It’s our righteven responsibility—to ask God each day for our daily sustenance and nourishment, physically and spiritually.

In fact, I’ll suggest the LORD obligates Himself to give us what we need—but not necessarily what we want. So it will tend to be bread, not chocolate cake! But He’ll get it to us when we need it—one day at a time. And His will always be both fresh and nourishing!

While some did struggle with His words, those who were open and receptive appreciated what Jesus meant when He announced three times in one chapter, “I am the Bread of Life” (Jn 6:36, 48, 51). Bread being the everyday staple of both the Old Testament Israelites and New Testament Jews, Jesus indicated He was all any of them really needed each day!

Many of us have found that to be true! We need Him daily and He does sustain us through it all. Jesus offered it—and is able to deliver—any and all of us can have “life to the full” (Jn 10:10).

Further Reading

Borowski, Oded
1987 Agriculture in Iron Age Israel; see chapters 5-8. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.   

Byers, Gary A.
2013 Home Cooking: Old Testament Israelite Style.

Dever, William G.
2012 The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel; see chapter 6. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

King, Philip J. and Stager, Lawrence
2001 Life In Biblical Israel; see chapter 3. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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