Home Cooking: Old Testament Israelite Style

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Excerpt As a guy who is terribly equipped to do much in the kitchen, except start and stop the microwave oven, it’s almost hypocritical for me to discuss cooking in the ancient world! Continue reading

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But my long-time research into how people lived in the biblical world and my years in the field excavating the cities where they lived gives me a reason to offer an opinion! So, here is a bit of insight about how ancient people lived – from both the Bible and archaeology.

This 8th century BC (The Israelite Period) cook pot as it was found (in situ) in a domestic context at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan.

What They Ate

The most famous phrase suggesting what the ancient Israelites ate in the Promised Land indicated it was a place “flowing with milk and honey,” first mentioned in Exodus 3:8. It suggests the Holy Land as a place of flocks and herds as well as agricultural produce. The “honey” might represent bee honey or could well be one of the syrupy products made from the Promised Land’s summer fruits – date or fig “honey.”

The “milk” of the region suggests it was an appropriate place for flocks and herds which would thus provide the widely–used dairy products of that day. Such a phrase suggests what the rest of the Bible and excavations also indicate – these domesticated animals were much more valuable to the typical family on the hoof (alive) than on a plate (as dinner).   

Sheep and goats no doubt greatly outnumbered cows for the Israelites living in the Promised Land. They are mentioned much more frequently in the Bible and theirs are the most frequently found bones in excavations. Consequently, sheep and goat’s milk would have been much more common than cow’s milk in the region at that time.

Yet the shelf-life of unpasteurized milk was so minimal, it would not have been the desired end product to be consumed. Instead, the milk would be turned into a dairy product with a much longer shelf-life – fermented into yogurt or kefir, curdled it into cheese, churned into butter and even heated to create samnah (ghee).

But beyond this most famous phrase describing the Promised Land, God also describes it as a land of seven specific agricultural products (Dt 8:8). They are wheat, barley, figs, vines (grapes), oil (olives), pomegranates, and honey (maybe bee honey, very possibly dates).

Wheat and barley were the most widely used cereal grains in the Promised Land, the most mentioned in the Bible and most frequently found in excavation. They were also the key crops when “harvest” is mentioned in the Bible, with wheat the standard grain used in making bread.

Of course, the raw grain would need to be stored to make their “daily bread” throughout the year and as well as the seed to plant next year’s crop. But parching the kernels preserved them for later consumption and barley was probably reduced to beer.

Figs, grapes, pomegranates and dates were summer fruit growing throughout the Promised Land. It appears figs and grapes were the most widely available and consumed – both fresh and processed for storage and consumption later in the year. Dried and pressed raisin, fig and date cakes were often mentioned (1Sa 25:18; 30:12; 2Sa 6:19; 16:1, 3). The same could also be turned into wine or “honey.”  

Olive trees were apparently widespread throughout the Promised Land. While olives were probably not eaten during most of the Old Testament period, they were highly prized for their oil used in daily food preparation and consumption.

But other foods not mentioned in these two famous passages were also common in the Promised Land, especially vegetables (Pr 15:17; also Da 1:11-15). Two mentioned in the Bible and found in excavation were lentils and broad (fava) beans (2Sa 17:28). Both would have been eaten in season as well as dried for storage. Others would include squash, leeks, garlic, onions, black radishes and melons.

The fruit and vegetables of the Promised Land were eaten in season, as they ripened and before they spoiled. But to maximize every harvest, there was the regular commitment to waste nothing and store as much of the annual harvest as possible for use later that year. It was essential for a typical family’s survival from one year to the next.

What They Cooked Before They Ate

While much of what the average family consumed daily was not processed by fire, cooking and baking were essential to provide appropriate calories and nutrition throughout the year. It also made many foods much tastier.

Another typical 8th century BC (Israelite period) cook pot from a house at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan.

Wheat was the grain of preference to be ground for baking bread (but also barley; Ez 4:11-13). Wheat and barley could also be ground for cooking as gruel or fried as cakes (see Lv 7:9; Ju 7:13; 2Sa 6:19; 1Kgs17:12; Jer 7:18; 44:19). In addition, raw kernels were also roasted or parched (Lv 2:14, 23:14; Jo 5:11; Ru 2:14; 1Sa 17:28; 2Sa 17:17, 25:18).

Vegetables were probably regularly cooked in soup, stew or pottage (like Gn 25:29-34). They could be fried raw or ground and formed into oil cakes. Raw vegetables could have also been roasted or parched (lentils and beans; 2Sa 17:28).

Olive oil was essential in food preparation and consumption. It would have been used to create the dough for bread and in the actual baking process (Ex29:2; Lv2:4). Oil was probably also regularly used as a condiment with bread. Obviously essential in the frying process for vegetables, olive oil may also have been part of the recipe in creating some soups, stews, pottages or gruel.

Most people probably ate meat only a few times a year, generally when animals were slaughtered for religious sacrifices, tribal meetings, visits from important guests, weddings or other special family celebrations or visits. However literal, the Bible suggests the king’s table had meat every day (1 Kg 4:27; Da 1:5).

Archaeology has demonstrated what the Bible states, that the ancient Israelites followed the Mosaic laws of clean and unclean meats. Both also indicate that the meat they did eat was generally domesticated sheep or goats (but see beef – “the fatted calf”; Gn 18; Am 6:4). Domesticated or wild birds or eggs and wild game (most often gazelle or deer; Gn 27:3-4; Dt 14:5) were also eaten on occasion.  

While meat might be roasted over an open flame on the hearth (like at Passover Ex 12:8), most meat eaten by a family was probably cooked as part of a stew or pottage (Ju 6:19-20; Ez 24:4-5). Potentially fish or fowl also could be dried, smoked and salted over the open hearth for long-term storage.

Where They Prepared and Consumed What They Ate

Houses of Old Testament times did not have kitchens as we think of them today. While not mentioned in the Bible, archeological research suggests the largest, main, and generally central room of the house – the “living room” – was typically also the place where food was prepared or consumed.

The author and dig team standing in their excavation square at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan. Less than a foot below modern ground level they found themselves in the “living room” of a Bronze Age Canaanite house. In the ash in the right hand corner of the square was the slightest circular remains of an ancient oven.  Just in front of that is a flat stone “table” probably used for food preparation. Behind the author (the man in the middle of the photo) they found a ceramic “bread seal.” Note the small stone circle in the middle of the square. It was not a fire circle, no evidence of burning there at all.

Like a good CSI investigation, careful excavation of features like fire pits, hearths and cisterns help us to understand where and how Biblical people prepared and consumed their meals. Artifacts like basalt grinding stones, flint blades, other implements and tools, as well as ceramic vessels like cooking pots, jars and bowls indicate what domestic activities took place where.

While every house was slightly different, archaeologists have identified a general plan and type that began in the central hills of Canaan during the time of the Judges and proliferated throughout the Holy Land over the next 600 years. This reconstruction of that standard plan, drawn by archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer, included one room across the back with three adjacent perpendicular long rooms. The central room was generally a courtyard with the doorway opposite the rear room. This courtyard was the place where food was generally prepared and consumed.

Every family would have made daily use of both open-fire hearths and ovens. Almost assuredly there was an open-fire hearth within the confines of every nuclear family home. But it appears, sometimes, ovens were located in an area probably accessed by an extended family living together.

While not entirely typical, this circular clay structure was probably an oven, excavated at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan. There was slight additional evidence of the clay superstructure in the dirt above it. Unique because of its clay base sitting on a stone “foundation,” at present, we can only place it in the Old Testament period.

Of course, the oven was used primarily for baking bread on a very regular basis. Constructed of clay it was regularly fueled at its base by animal dung and was thus known by the phrase “dung oven.”

Two different styles of these clay ovens are known from excavations. Called by their modern Arabic names tabun and tannur, both are also still found and used in Middle Eastern villages. Generally the dough baked after being “slapped” upon the clay side of the oven (sometimes interior and sometimes exterior).

A ceramic “bread seal” (see Jeremiah 44:19) found within the ”living room” of a Bronze Age Canaanite house. This was in the author’s excavation square at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan (right)

After the bread had been baked in the oven, the coals would have no doubt been used for some additional cooking purposes. Either within the opening at the top of the oven or directly above the coals food could be cooked in ceramic cooking pots or “frying” pans.

The family hearth would have also been used for food preparation. Vegetables and meat could be cooked, fried, roasted, parched or even smoked above coals of the hearth. In particular, ceramic cook pots and “frying” pans would have set on the coals.

A typical cook pot dating to the earlier 9th century BC (Israelite period), from another house at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan.

The main cooking vessels were ceramic pots and pans. Round-based, wide-mouthed cook pots are well known in every settlement. They were used for soups, stews or pottages. Wide flat-based ceramic pans would have been used for “frying” vegetable in olive oil.       

When They Ate

Since most families actively grew their own food, it would have been normal to rise with the sun and head out to work their fields or care for their flocks and herds. Completing difficult field work before the hot mid-day Palestinian sun would have been a daily priority, so presumably there would have been a light early morning “snack” of bread (maybe cheese?) along with water or a little diluted wine (or beer?) as workers headed out (Pr 31:15).

A late morning break in the workday would include a light meal with something like bread dipped in olive oil or vinegar or roasted grain, along with appropriate dried or cooked fruit or vegetables (see Ru 2:14). Of course, water or diluted wine/beer would have been necessary, as well.

The real meal for Old Testament families was at home in the evening. Overwhelmingly prepared by the women of the house, it was the only “hot meal” consumed by the typical family in a normal day. Their staple bread was probably eaten by dipping into a soup or stew of vegetables or legumes – possibly out of a common pot. Maybe cheese or another dairy product and seasonally-fresh or dried fruit or honey. Of course water or wine or beer (diluted?) would have been necessary.  

This meal was no doubt served within the confines of the family home, either in the enclosed but open-to-the-sky courtyard or within the house’s “living room.” Arrangements would have been upon a mat on the floor, probably in close proximity to an open-to-the-sky hearth or enclosed oven where the meal was prepared.

The Bronze Age Canaanite community at Tall el-Hammam, Jordan did not use the typical round-based cooking pots that are known from later periods throughout the Holy Land. Instead, here they used flat-based, hole-mouthed cooking jars. Presumably they were set on a rock with fire built around their base.

Food may well have been served from the same vessels in which it was prepared. Or small bowls may have been used for either eating or drinking.

 

Conclusion

It appears that the average Old Testament family typically consumed bread and some sort of dairy product on a daily basis. But there would have been other regular food items, as well. Hosea (8:2: see also Dt 7:13; 1Kgs 18:32) noted grain (for bread), grapes (for wine) and olives (for oil) – an apt description of the big three agricultural products on the Holy Land in Old Testament times.

Legumes like lentils, broad beans and gourds, as well as summer fruit (figs, dates and pomegranates) would have been eaten as often as possible – fresh or cooked while in season. Of course dried fruit and roasted grain could be preserved and eaten throughout the year, but it was probably not a daily staple out of season.

There is no indication from the Bible, other ancient texts or archaeology that the average ancient Israelite ate meat on any kind of regular basis. So, taken together, theirs was an overwhelmingly consistent and basic vegetarian diet. They continued to eat that way for centuries and it was not significantly different from most Mediterranean diets during the same period.

Thankfully in the Promised Land “man did not live by bread alone” (Dt 8:3). Of course, key to a good balanced diet was not the other food on the menu. Instead, it was paying attention to “every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” After all, even a house full of feasting can’t beat a dry crust with peace and quiet (Pr 17:1).

All photos courtesy of Mike Luddeni.

References:

Borowski, O.

1987 Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

2004 Daily Life in Biblical Times. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Byers, G.

2013 "Living Like A Judge," Bible and Spade, 26.4: 94-97.

Franz, G.

2004 "Asher Shall Dip His Foot in Oil...Petroleum Oil, or Something Else?" ABR Electronic Newsletter, April 2004.

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