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Food in the Bible and the Ancient Near East

27th October 2006

Ever feel like making our self a bowl of “red stuff” or wondering what the typical ancient Israelite or first century Jew ate for dinner? Haaretz.com has an article entitled “The land of milk … and molasses?” by Yahil Zaban that discusses food in Bible times.

The actual article draws from a book published a couple years ago: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Abingdon, 2004; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).

Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Food at the Time of the Bible” studies the various mentions of food in the Bible, the New Testament, the Mishnah and the Talmud, and offers readers a different perspective on the history of the Land of Israel. Author Miriam Feinberg Vamosh compares historical sources, looks at archaeological findings and tracks down communities that have preserved old culinary traditions that date back to antiquity. In so doing, she paints a tangible and human portrait of the past, dashing some of the myths we have grown up with, along the way.

….

That is probably why the author has provided an array of biblical-style recipes. Prepare “Jael’s Labane” and feel Sisera’s death on the tip of your tongue. Eat “Song of Songs Cake” (“before adding nuts, chop dates in a food processor”) and feel the refreshment in your belly. Anyone who wants to nibble the delicacies that graced King Solomon’s table is invited to whip up some “Solomon’s Chicken Kebabs” spiced with coriander, garlic and cumin. Most of the recipes are pseudo-biblical, of course, and you will need modern kitchen appliances to prepare them, but the spices and ingredients were all available in biblical Israel. Tomatoes and potatoes, which entered our lexicon after the discovery of America, are not on the menu.

The recipes in the book thus combine historical research and contemporary culinary know-how. Some of them are a little bizarre, like “Pharaoh’s Melokhia Soup” (taken from an inscription in an ancient Egyptian tomb), but most are characterized by the book’s sober approach to biblical cuisine. The author discusses the spiritual significance of food customs in the Bible, and delves deeply into the metaphoric use of cooking and eating terms. But the symbolism of food, in her view, is anchored in the reality of biblical life.

A case in point is Ezekiel 24, where the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem is described in culinary terms. The city is likened to a pot, and the sinning Israelites to chunks of meat. The grim prophecy alludes to the cooking customs of the time. God, in his anger, turns up the fire under the pot and orders Ezekiel to add some bones. The author overdoes it, perhaps, with her recipe for “Ezekiel’s Lamb Stew,” but with a little substitution – lamb, onions and carrots, instead of Israelites – readers can enjoy an old Jerusalem favorite.

This work appears to be a bit more popular than academic, though it look interesting.

I have long had an interest in ancient cuisine, which is probably due to the fact that I used to cook at a French restaurant and have always enjoyed cooking.

Food in the Ancient Near East

In this regard another book on this subject which includes a number of ancient recipes is Jean Bottéro, Texts culinaires Mésopotamiens / Mesopotamian Culinary Texts (Eisenbrauns, 1995; Buy from Eisenbrauns).

This volume provides reconstructions and translations of the Yale Culinary Tablets. Most of the book is in French, but there is one chapter in English that includes actual recipes. Recipes include “Gazelle broth,” “Goat’s kid broth,” “Green wheat in porridge” (they sure liked their broth!).

It should be noted that these Mesopotamian recipes do not reflect the typical meals of your average Joe or Jane Babylonian — they are “restricted to the kitchens of the mighty and, perhaps, to the kitchens of the gods” (Bottéro, 16). They are fascinating nonetheless.

I have been thinking for quite a while that I need to prepare one of these dishes and feed it to unsuspecting students. Hmmm… perhaps the “Spleen broth” would do the trick!


One Response to “Food in the Bible and the Ancient Near East”

  1. Duane Says:

    I believe I can say without the slightest fear of successful contradiction, that Spleen broth� would indeed do the trick! Of course, it all depends on what trick you want to do and exactly when you disclose that it is spleen broth. I would recommend not telling them until they are just about ready to put the third spoon full in their months.