Cooking in the Hebrew Bible

When an animal was butchered, the entire animal was utilized and nothing went to waste. Ancient Israel was a society reliant upon its herds for their secondary products (including wool, milk, and dung for fuel) and people were unlikely to butcher animals (most likely goat or sheep) in order to eat meat, unless for a special occasion like a wedding or hospitality feast. In ancient societies like Israel, economy was an important part of daily life and is reflected in the usage of the entire animal.

See Also: Food in Ancient Judah: Domestic Cooking in the Time of the Hebrew Bible (Equinox/Acumen, 2013).

By Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, Ph.D.
William Jessup University
May 2013

In today’s society, it is common to hear someone refer to himself or herself as a “foodie.” Food plays such a major role in our lives that there are entire TV channels dedicated to the preparation and consumption of meals. In fact, our obsession with food has created what some refer to as an “obesity epidemic.” On the positive side, this interest in food has spilled over into the academic realm where research into diet and the cooking of food in ancient societies has become a topic of great interest. Understanding what meals were cooked and how helps our understanding of daily life in ancient societies, including ancient Israel.

Bread was the foundation of ancient Israel’s diet. The Hebrew word for bread, lechem, is synonymous with food. Baking and cooking in ancient Israel occurred within the home: in the indoor kitchen and the outdoor courtyard. Meals were prepared using a few types of ovens (the saj or large rock, the tannur, the tabun, and the hearth) and cooking pots (the traditional pot, the Philistine jug, and the hybrid pot).

The simplest type of oven was the saj, which technically isn’t an oven but rather a rounded metal disk placed over an open fire, usually resting on two or three rocks. Once the dough is made, it is floured and flattened on a breadboard and then thrown from side to side until thinned into a flap of dough, which is then placed onto the saj and browned on each side. The thinness of the dough allows the bread to bake quickly. An ancient ancestor to the saj could have been a hot stone that was placed directly in the fire (Isa. 44:19) or rested on rocks above it, or perhaps the ancient griddle or baking tray (machavat) (Lev. 2:9, 6:21, 7:9; Ezek. 4:3) (Daviau 1993, 79; van der Steen 1991, 135-153; Watson 1979, 161, 205).

A new cooking installation, the hearth, was introduced with the arrival of the Philistines. Cooking pots and bread dough were placed directly on the hearth or at its side. Within the Hebrew Bible, several words for hearth are used albeit mostly in cultic or religious contexts (moqeda in Lev. 6:9; yequd in Isa. 30:14; ‘ari’el in Ezek. 43:15-6).

The two most common oven types were the tannur and tabun. A tannur is a beehive-shaped clay oven, while the tabun is a dome-shaped oven made of clay. To use either of these types of oven, a fire fueled by kindling and animal dung was built on the floor and the ashes raked out. Dough was slapped onto the interior walls or even the floor of the oven to bake. Platters were also placed on top of the upper opening and used for cooking or baking (McQuitty 1984b, 261; McQuitty 1984a, 56; van der Steen 1991, 135). The term tannur is found in the Hebrew Bible fifteen times, seven of which refer to an oven used to bake bread (Ex. 8:3; Lev. 2:4, 7:9; 11:35; 26:26; Hos. 7:4, 6-7).

Hot rocks or sajtannur and tabun-type ovens were used to bake bread daily in ancient Israel. There were two types of bread dough: unleavened (matza) and leavened (chametz). Grain was ground daily into flour using grinding stones. In order to grind a large amount of grain, one large immobile stone or slab and a smaller stone were used, rubbing back and forth against the grain that was placed between the two stones. Unleavened bread is a mixture of flour and water, plus a pinch of salt, which is kneaded into dough. When baked, the flat unleavened bread could not be stored for long. Unleavened bread could be prepared quickly since it did not need time to rise and was often made when guests suddenly arrived (Gen. 18:6; Jud. 6:19; I Sam. 28:4). Leavened dough uses the same basic recipe but a yeast product such as sourdough (derived dough left out to ferment) or brewer’s yeast (derived from brewing beer) is added to the dough. Leavened dough was fuller, more filling, and kept longer than unleavened dough. Dough was kneaded on a wooden board or trough placed on a bench or on the floor near the oven. Both types of bread were baked on hot stones or griddles over an open fire, like a saj (Lev. 7:9; Isa. 44:19) or in the tannur or tabun (Lev. 26:26) (Borowski 2002, 73; Curtis 2001, 205). The location of ovens and food preparation objects indicates that cooking and baking took place in a centralized location within the home, either inside the dwelling or in the courtyard. There were varieties of bread, depending upon: the type, quality, and color of flour used, the type and amount of kneading, the additives and flavors, baking methods, presentation, geographic origin and use. Some of the ingredients added to dough include ghee, dates, milk, cheese, fruits and sesame oils. Loaves of bread might accompany the meal or be served as part of the main dish. Dough was divided and arranged on platters to retain its shape, served with a meat or vegetable stew, or in the form of dumplings (II Sam. 13:8) (Bottero 1995, 11-13; Curtis 2001, 205).

Most meals were prepared in cooking vessels that evolved throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and were heavily influenced by the arrival of the Philistines. In the Hebrew Bible, words for cooking pots include parur (Num. 11:8; Judg. 6:19; 1 Sam. 2:14); sir (Ex. 16:3; 2 Kings 4:38-41; Jer. 1:13; Ezek. 11:3, 7, 11; Mic. 3:3; Zech. 14:20-21); qallachat (1 Sam. 2:14; Micah 3:3); and dud (2 Sam. 2:14) Simply put, cooking vessels can be categorized into three basic forms: the Bronze Age or traditional “Canaanite” pot or bowl, the Philistine jug, and the hybrid pot.

The cooking pots found within Bronze Age Canaan and later in Israel evolved from a simple and common bowl-shaped vessel. The typical pot of the Bronze Age was a large, handless, open-mouthed pot that allowed the pot to be used for several types of cooking, including steaming, frying, simmering, and boiling. It served, as well, for cooking larger food items like meat and for serving larger groups of people. The round base of the pot was not conducive to balancing on a flat surface while cooking; rather, they were placed inside the tabun/tannur, over its upper opening or against the stones of hearth. Those with handles could be suspended over an open fire (Killebrew 1999; 84, 92-95, 106-109).

A new type of cooking vessel appeared with the arrival of the Philistines, in the Late Bronze and Early Iron I Age. Generally speaking, the shape of the new vessel was less like a bowl and more like a jug. The size and shape of the cooking jug did not allow for multiple types of cooking and was probably used for the simmering of low-heat liquid dishes. Soot marks on the sides of the jugs indicate that they were placed directly over an open fire or leaned on a hearth. Its small size also dictates the amount of cereals or vegetables cooked within it, indicating smaller portions and consumption by fewer people (Ben Shlomo et al 2008, 225-246; Gur-Arieh et al 2011, 349-55; Killebrew 1999, 93-95, 107).

During the end of the Iron Age I and into Iron Age II, a different type of cooking pot came to be widely used. The Bronze Age pot and Philistine jug merged to create a hybrid cooking pot, with slightly varying forms. The most functional features of the pot and jug were combined: the rounded body and open mouth of the Bronze Age pot, and the handles and shape of the Philistine jug. The hybrid pot, depending on the type of cooking ware used, could be used for slow, low heat cooking as well as for rapid, high temperature cooking. The size of the pot determined whether it was used for small or large items or quantities of food. A hybrid pot could be suspended over a fire if it had handles, or placed in a fire pit, next to or on top of a hearth, inside a tannur, and, according to some reconstructions, covering its upper opening (Ben Shlomo et al. 2008, 225-246; Killebrew 1999; 93-95, 107).

Cooking. Daily activities for the average Israelite consisted of chores of agriculture and animal husbandry. A quick, easy meal of porridge or gruel would be prepared for breakfast. People spent their day tending to their herds and their fields, consequently, they may have had long distances to travel and were unlikely to return home for a midday meal. Instead, lunch would have been ‘picnic’ style and included bread, cheese, yogurt, dried fruit, parched grain, water, and seasonal vegetables and fruit (Ruth 2:14). Midday meals were raw and light even for those who were doing their daily activities at home. The main hot meal was prepared at the end of the workday by those whose activities were centered at home (Borowski 2003, 73-74).

The Israelite diet was dependent upon cereals that provided grain for porridges and gruel as well as for bread. Gruel was an ideal morning meal since it was relatively fast and easy (Prov. 31:15). Gruel and porridge required small amounts of raw ingredients, which were stretched a long way, making them quite economical. In ancient Israel, porridge or gruel was made out of spelt/emmer, barley, lentils, and chickpeas. The grains were ground using a stone pestle and mortar. Both porridges and gruel could be prepared in any of the three types of cooking pots, but since the cereals were small, they were more likely prepared in one of the smaller pots such as the Philistine jug or small hybrid pot (Bascom 1951, 125-37; Borowski 2003, 66, 74).

The main hot meal, eaten in the evening, was a soup or stew. In ancient Israel, meat was not consumed on a regular basis and most stews were made from lentils, legumes and vegetables. The Hebrew word for stew, nazid, is used to describe stews of vegetables or lentils (Gen. 25:29, 34; 2 Kings 4:38-40; Hag. 2:12). If these food items were scarce due to famine, war, drought or economic difficulties, then porridge was served again, as the main meal. (Mulder-Heymans 2002, 9-10; Borowski 2003, 91-96; Borowski 2002, 73).

When meat or other animal parts, fresh or other, were available, stews were also made. Meat was acquired by hunting wild game or, on the rare occasion, when an animal from the herd was slaughtered (Gen. 27:3-4; Gen. 18:7; Jud. 6:19; 1 Sam. 28:24). When an animal was butchered, the entire animal was utilized and nothing went to waste. Ancient Israel was a society reliant upon its herds for their secondary products (including wool, milk, and dung for fuel) and people were unlikely to butcher animals (most likely goat or sheep) in order to eat meat, unless for a special occasion like a wedding or hospitality feast. In ancient societies like Israel, economy was an important part of daily life and is reflected in the usage of the entire animal. Most households were unable to consume an entire animal before it spoiled and therefore reciprocal exchanges occurred within households, extended families or entire settlements. When an animal was killed, the entire animal was butchered, skinned and chopped; bones, cartilage, and meat were turned into stews, the most economical of meat dishes. Meat prepared for stews could be roasted or braised and rinsed before being added to the stew pot. The meat would be added to the rest of the stew and, more often than not, served with bread. Bread was either served alone or as bread cakes (‘uga in Gen. 18:6) or dumplings within the stew (lebibot in 2 Sam. 13:6, 8, 10). Roasted grain seeds that were soaked and preserved in a loaf or bread cake were often crumbled on top of the broth or stew to thicken it, and to provide it with a “burnt” flavor (Bottero 2001, 57, 70; Shafer-Elliott 2012, 129-31).

On the occasion that a large quantity of meat or even an entire animal was prepared, roasting was the preferred, and most simple, mode of cooking. Pieces of meat were roasted on a plate, rack, or screen made of metal or clay, which was placed on top of the upper opening of tannur. Meat could also be placed on skewers that rested on top of the oven or inside it. Pieces of meat were also roasted briefly before being placed in the pot with broth. Only small pieces of meat would fit inside or over an oven. If an entire animal was to be cooked and consumed because of hospitality or for special occasions such as feasts or festivals, it was likely roasted over an open fire or in a pit, perhaps similar to the methods used by modern-day Samaritans at Passover (Isa. 44: 16, 19).

Food and its preparation played a major role in the daily chores of ancient Israelites: from the planting, tending, and harvesting of crops, to the caring of the herds; to the grinding of grain for daily bread, to butchering a goat for a wedding feast – food was as much apart of their consciousness as it is for us today (if not more so).


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Comments (1)

What differences do we detect between the importance of food and the methods of its preparation in ancient Israel and in ancient societies generally? If we substituted 'ancient Palestine' for 'ancient Israel' would much of the information need to be changed?

#1 - Martin - 05/15/2013 - 15:25

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