Festive Meals and Identity in Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy uses the image of the festive meal on display in the mythological and royal celebrations found in the Enuma Elish and Baal Cycle (to name two prominent examples) and transforms it into a feast provided by Yahweh. As God of Israel, Yahweh the divine host sets a rich table through the hands of multiple human heads of households. These human hosts effectively replace the typical human host—the king. Deuteronomy’s feasts therefore present Israel as a people under the divine kingship of Yahweh without any one human representative.

See Also: Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context (BZAW 424; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011)

By Peter Altmann
Theology Faculty
University of Zurich
February 2012

Is eating more than just food? Considering the festive meals portrayed in the texts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible from the viewpoints of various disciplines opens up rich layers of meaning. Unfortunately, these meals have until recently received little focused attention throughout the history of modern biblical interpretation in spite of their appearance in great number throughout the canonical material, perhaps due to the long-term search for “spiritual meanings” (that is, non-material) in the Bible.1 In my monograph Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context,2 I take the example of the Deuteronomic festive meals in Deut 12, 14, and 16 and interpret them in light of modern anthropology on food, zooarchaeology (the study of animal bones found during archaeological digs), and comparative ancient Near Eastern iconographic and literary portrayals of feasts. I attempt to keep these perspectives in conversation with the rich historical-critical scholarship on Deuteronomy.

Before turning to the discussion, I would like to make two notes on what I mean by festive meals: (1) a meal means more than simply eating or drinking food: there is a social aspect to it. The company one keeps—or lack thereof—while eating and drinking greatly influences a person’s identity (what I think of myself and what others think of me). (2) Generally speaking, celebratory meals both overlap with and stand apart from “normal,” mundane, everyday meals. This insight emerges from modern structural-anthropological discussions of meals in “Deciphering the Meal” by Mary Douglas.3 It must also be said that not every meal can be “special” or “sacred” because this would in turn lead to a situation in which no meal is sacred.

As a general overview, the celebratory special meals of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible fit broadly into several overlapping categories: regular religious (or cultic) festivals, harvest festivals, victorious military feasts, dedication celebrations, and guest-receiving hospitality. In Deuteronomy’s earliest version, likely arising in the middle of the seventh century B.C.E., the feasts are especially religious and harvest festivals, but they incorporate features typically found in other types of feasts as well.

1. Material Culture

In terms of actual material culture, all meals depicted in the OT/HB are best interpreted with the firm awareness that these meals are set in times when food and drink were treasured because famine was common, a reality resulting from everyday political exploitation, irregular if not uncommon military invasions, and periodic droughts. Understood accordingly, the visions of plenty (i.e., in Deut 6–11; 28:3–14) paint a utopia for audiences with frequently empty bellies.

The basic everyday meal in the ancient Levant—unsurprisingly—consisted mostly of some form of bread, variously complimented by oil, wine, and other vegetables and fruits that could be gathered together at that particular season and location (i.e., Ruth 2:14; Prov 15:17).

Festive meals build upon the elements this everyday eating yet are different both in terms of the amount and ingredients. One important side remark here in terms of the amounts is found from cross-cultural anthropological studies, which correct Western academic perspectives on feasts: it is quite possible and normal in some cultures to consume such a large percentage of food reserves during feasts that it becomes difficult to gather together enough to make it through the rest of the year.4 This insight means that in spite of—or perhaps as a result of—frequent hunger, most inhabitants took part in celebratory meals.

In terms of different ingredients, festive meals include both more wine and other alcoholic beverages and are far more likely to include portions of meat, a key element in Deut 12:13–19, where the key elements of the centralization of Israelite religion in the oldest version of Deuteronomy are generally accepted to be found. Meat appears not only more frequently in the festive meals of in biblical texts, but the leftover cattle, sheep, and goat bones found by archaeologists are one of the key indications of feasting in the material record.

The archaeological record also suggests key developments with regard to feasting during the Assyrian-dominated period of the seventh century in Israel. The kinds of animal bones found shows that the animals were raised increasingly for meat consumption, rather than for the production of wool or milk or for pulling plows. Archaeologists have been able to reach this conclusion by determining animals’ ages at the time of slaughter: they are slaughtered at different ages depending on their primary usage. Also, the greatest amount of evidence of feasting appears together with remains of Assyrian occupation, suggesting that the Assyrian army and overlords left little for the local population of the southern kingdom of Judah to enjoy themselves. As a result it would not be surprising if meat for feasts became especially desirable during this period: “Absence made the heart grow fonder.”

2. The Anthropology and Biology of Meals

Several further insights from the social and natural sciences enrich understanding of the festive meals in the HB/OT in general and Deuteronomy in particular. First, human memory operates differently with smell and taste than with other forms of experience in that memories of smell and taste work episodically. This means that they are tied to special experiences like celebrations and are recalled even subconsciously when those smells and tastes are encountered again. So special foods, in the case of ancient Israel and the HB/OT—meat, often take on definitive roles in terms of group and individual identity formation. The human brain remembers the foods we eat at festive meals especially well: because these foods are particularly desirable, taste and smell memory highlight central life experiences. It is these experiences that arise repeatedly in the HB/OT, especially in relation to sacred times like the various feasts of Deuteronomy.

Second, cultural anthropology has suggested the importance of ritual feasting as part of the re-organization of society. This is accomplished through the makeup of the host and guest list at the feast—these can go a long ways in determining and marking the hierarchical order of a society. The role of host has a special significance: only those with a claim to certain roles (in the HB/OT normally leadership) perform this task. Generally speaking, being left off the guest list, such as certain groups like the Moabites or Ammonites in Deut 23 or Solomon from Adonijah’s feast in 1 Kgs 1, underscore the adage that we determine our friends (and enemies) by those we chose to eat with. In the Deuteronomic feasts, the heads of household—those addressed in the commands to act—take on the role of human hosts, a role often reserved for royalty. For example:

Deut 16:9–11: “You shall count of seven weeks … Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks … You shall celebrate before the LORD your God with your son and your daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your gates, and the sojourner, the orphan, and the widow in your midst …”

Furthermore, the guest list—as also on display in the verses just quoted—attempts to comprise the whole people of Israel, regardless of economic or social standing.

Third, ritual feasts with special foods—in line with my point about the episodic memory functions of smell and taste—solidify group belonging. The pentateuchal ordinances on celebrating regular feasts three times a year (Exod 23; 34; Deut 16) correspond to this anthropological conclusion. And the extravagant and detailed menu appears in the Deuteronomic tithe of 14:22–27, describing how households can choose their favorite foods and drinks. This element of desire intensities both the imagery and presumably also the people’s hopes of enjoying such a celebration.

3. Comparisons from the Surrounding Ancient Near Eastern Cultures

The contexts and contents of festive meals in the cultures surrounding ancient Israel provide much illumination for the biblical depictions. Visual and literary traditions stretching back to Third Millennium Sumerian Mesopotamia portray festal celebrations of temple and city construction (cf. the Gudea Cylinder, ca. 2100 B.C.E.), royal coronations (cf. Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I’s successor, ca. 1200 B.C.E.), and military victories (iconographically on the 25th-century B.C.E. Standard of Ur). Much closer both in time and cultural contact with Deuteronomy’s feasts are the banquet depictions from the Neo-Assyrian period, both in the art found in Neo-Assyrian palaces of Mesopotamia and in seal impressions found in the Levant as well.

These traditions often concern the feasting of deities on regular cultic offerings. A second conception is of meals for large groups, like the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II’s seven-day feast for thousands of guests upon completion of his royal city Calah, and Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple (1 Kgs 8). There are of course also smaller family gatherings like David’s clan celebration in 1 Sam 20.5

Deities also partake in symbolically freighted feasting events. For example, both the Akkadian Enuma Elish and the Ugaritic Baal Cycle narrate feasts hosted by conquering deities (Marduk and Baal respectively) for the rest of the gods after defeating their enemies. In fact, one particular appropriation by the Neo-Assyrian king Sennacherib (at the beginning of the seventh century) of the Babylonian version of the akitu festival (New Year’s—arguably the most important festival of the Mesopotamian year) was to remodel the temple of the god Assur in order accommodate a large feast. This point emphasizes the importance of festive meals in the very period when Deuteronomy was first written.

Finally, while royalty and ruling deities often play leading roles in the imagination of feasts in the ancient Near East and the Bible, a contrary tradition appears in texts such as the annual Emar zukru ritual texts, which detail the a city-wide feast for this Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400 B.C.E.) Syrian town on the edge of the Hittite empire. These texts tell of a local tradition that—despite the presence of foreign rituals from the imperial superpower—brought together the entire city residents and its deity (Dagan) outside the boundaries of the city. The result was likely an enhanced sense of belonging, all without a necessary role for a royal leader.6

I argue that these traditions provide key insights to Deuteronomy’s feasts. In the face of domination by the Neo-Assyrian empire, Deuteronomy uses the image of the festive meal on display in the mythological and royal celebrations found in the Enuma Elish and Baal Cycle (to name two prominent examples) and transforms it into a feast provided by Yahweh. As God of Israel, Yahweh the divine host sets a rich table through the hands of multiple human heads of households. These human hosts effectively replace the typical human host—the king. Deuteronomy’s feasts therefore present Israel as a people under the divine kingship of Yahweh without any one human representative. This use of an important cultural symbol parallels Deuteronomy’s use of the Neo-Assyrian loyalty-oath (covenant) treaties: Yahweh takes the place of the Neo-Assyrian king as Israel’s overlord. The lack of human royal host for Deuteronomy’s feasts also contrasts with the Assyrian picture of the king as the divinely appointed leader.

4. Conclusion

The various perspectives I examine work together to show the importance of festive meals in the Neo-Assyrian period when Deuteronomy originally took shape. The cultures of the ancient Near East often linked festive meals with important political, social, and theological events throughout the millennia and all over the Eastern Mediterranean. Central elements included the victory and city/temple dedication feasts as well as regular religious-political celebrations. Deuteronomy incorporates these traditions, taking over the rich array of foods while omitting associations with a human monarch. These texts highlight Yahweh’s beneficence and strength through a willingness to provide the community of Israelites who accept his claim to covenantal kingship with rich concrete blessings in the form of plentiful feasts, especially at the central sanctuary, but also in their local villages.


1 I should note that various essays by Georg Braulik stand as an exception in the past decades and the past several years have seen a large increase in publications.

2 BZAW 424; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011.

3 In Myth, Symbol, and Culture (ed. C. Geertz; New York: Nortand and Co, 1971), 61–81.

4 Michael Dietler, “Theorizing the Feast: Rituals of Consumption, Commensal Politics, and Power in African Contexts,” in Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power (ed. M. Dietler and B. Hayden; Smithsonian Series in Archaeological Inquiry; Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 80-82 and Festive Meals in Ancient Israel, 234–35.

5 There are the cultic family meals with the dead from the Syro-Hittite traditions that tend to portray more solitary feasting, like that in the recently discovered KTMW stela at Zincirli, ancient Sam’al.

6 It is quite intriguing that the older version of this festival does not mention the local king while the later version—which is much more pompous—often mentions the local king as the provider of most of the animals for food.

Comments (1)

Thank you, Peter, for your interesting contribution. I can't see Deuteronomy as early as the Neo-Assyrian period but that dating doesn't change your argument's substance.

#1 - Jim West - 02/21/2012 - 18:25

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