GRAINS AND BREAD
Everyday staple foods in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were grains (wheat
and barley) and legumes--particularly lentils--supplemented by a variety of vegetables
and fruits. This diet would have been nutritious and balanced, providing proper proportions of carbohydrate and protein, as well as healthily low in fat.
Wild cereal grasses such as einkorn, emmer wheat, and barley are thought to have been
gathered by nomads in Northern Palestine as early as 9000 years ago. Wild einkorn
wheat, which still grows in the Middle East and Asia Minor is very high in protein
compared to modern hard red winter wheat (22.83% vs. 14.5% respectively).1
In Abraham's day, cultivation of wheat, barley, lentils, peas, and chickpeas had been
established for about 5,000 years. Grain was eaten in several ways--the simplest
being to grab some heads of grain in a field--anybody's field, since such was not
considered stealing if it was done by hand.
"When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour,
then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou
shalt not move a sickle into thy neighbour's standing corn,"
(Deuteronomy 23: 25)
This practice was still common in Jesus's time, and His disciples were known to eat
grain in this manner:
"At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the corn; and
his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn,
and to eat." (Matthew 12: 1)
Raw grain was hard to digest, so under normal circumstances grain was cut (by its
owner) when ripe and threshed by trampling it with large animals or beating it with
sticks. The food kernels could then be stored until they were needed. Grain would
not be ground until just before it was required for baking--a practice nutritionally superior
to modern bulk milling. Whole wheat kernels keep very well, but once they have been
cracked, ground, or milled, oxygen and light cause the unprotected oils in the kernel contents to quickly become rancid.
In Bible times, grinding was done by hand using a special bowl (or "mull") and millstone.
Every family had their own grinding apparatus, and its vital importance was recognized
in the law--which made it illegal to take a millstone as collateral against a loan.
"No man shall take the nether or upper millstone to pledge: for
he taketh a man's life to pledge." (Deuteronomy 24: 6)
Grinding grain and making bread was considered to be woman's work, and was done early
in the morning before the general household arose. The good wife, according to Proverbs:
"...riseth also while it is yet night,
and giveth food to her household
Various means of cooking were employed. The crudest method was to mix flour with oil
and/or water to make batter; form a cake or flat, round loaf; and place it directly
in the fire's hot ashes.
"For I have eaten ashes like bread,
and have mingled my drink like weeping.
(Psalms 102: 9)
As if this were not enough to deter the fastidious eater, fires in those days were
not always kindled with wood. "Droppings" from cattle, sheep, and other animals were
widely used as fuel. This posed a problem foe Ezekiel when he was commanded by God
to lay on his side for three hundred ninety days (representing years of punishment for
Israel) and subsist on cakes made from wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and
spelt--all ground into flour. These cakes were to be cooked in a fire as outlined
"And thou shalt eat it as barley ashes, and thou shalt bake it in their sight with
dung that cometh out of man." (Ezekiel 4: 12)
Ezekiel, not surprisingly, objected:
"Ah, Lord God, behold my soul hath not been polluted; for from
my youth even up until now have I not eaten of that which dieth
of itself, or is torn in pieces; neither came there abominable flesh
into my mouth." (Ezekiel 4: 14)
The Lord relented (sort of):
"Lo, I have given thee cow's dung for man's dung, and thou shalt
prepare thy bread therewith." (Ezekiel 4: 15)
Cooking bread directly in the fire was still practiced in Jesus's time:
"As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there,
and fish laid thereon, and bread. (John 21: 9)
A more satisfactory, better tasting, and in the case of dung fires--more sanitary
cooking method was to place the bread dough on hot stones by the fire rather than
actually in it:
The Hebrews ate bread both leavened (homity) and unleavened (matzoh). Although the
Egyptians probably had cooking yeast by about 1,500 BC, bread in Abraham's day would
have been leavened, if at all, by sourdough starter kept from a previous batch. Leaven
was not permitted in meal ,offerings to the Lord. (Leviticus 2: 11)
Grain was not always ground into flour. It was also eaten "parched." a process accomplished
by toasting ripe ears of grain over a fire for a short time (Leviticus 2: 14), or
in iron cooking pans. Toasted grain is used today in macrobiotic cooking, prepared much the same way. Parched grain is mentioned in the story of Ruth, when she and
Boaz do lunch:
"And Boaz said unto her, at mealtime come thou hither, and eat
of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar. And she sat beside
the reapers: and he reached her parched corn, and she did eat,
and was sufficed, and left." (Ruth 2: 14)
It is also mentioned in the chronicles of David:
"And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an
ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the
camp of thy brethren." (1 Samuel 17: 17)
"Then Abigail made haste, and took two hundred loaves, and two
bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of
parched corn, and an hundred chusters of raisins, and two hundred
cakes of figs, and laid them on asses." (1 Samuel 25: 18)
In all of these references bread is mentioned, so it appears that grain was eaten
in both forms. Another way of preparing wheat was as parboiled and cracked grain
or "bulgur." Cracked grain is mentioned in Proverbs 27: 22 and Leviticus 2: 14. When
Absalom was on the run from David during his abortive rebellion, he hid in a dry well under
a pile of bulgur:
"And the woman took and spread the covering over the well's mouth and spread bruised
grain theron, and the nothing was known." (2 Samuel 17: 19)
When the Lord promised the land of Canaan to the Hebrews returning out of Egypt, one
of the main attractions was its agricultural potential:
"a land of wheat and barley..." (Deuteronomy 8: 8)
The Canaanites were skillful farmers, and the Israelites quickly adopted their methods.
The children of Israel came to highly regard the art of cultivation, and Isaiah 28:
26 refers to the Lord God Himself as the founder and teacher of farming methods.
Both wheat and barley were grown, but while wheat was preferred because of its superior
flavour and ability to rise when leavened, barley was more often sown since it was
easier to grow in Palestine's poor soil and dry climate. Therefore, barley was traditionally more plentiful and cheaper tan wheat, and it became the grain of the poorer
classes, while wealthier folk ate wheat. The price disparity of the two grains is
noted in the Bible:
"Thus saith the Lord; Tomorrow about this time shall a measure
of fine flour be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the
gate of Samaria." (2 Kings 7: 1)
"A measure of wheat for a shilling and three measures of barley
for a shilling." (Revelation 6: 6)
It was from a boy's five barley loaves that Jesus fed the five thousand. (John 6:
The Levitical code decreed that corners of a field must not be harvested, nor should
any dropped or forgotten sheaves of grain be retrieved, but rather left for the poor
and for travelers:
"And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of
the corners of thy field when thou reapest,
neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou
shalt leave then unto the poor, and to the stranger: I AM the
Lord your God." (Leviticus 23: 22, cf: 19: 9)
"When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast
forgotten a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it:
it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow:
that the Lord thy God may bless the in all the work of thine hands."
(Deuteronomy 24: 19)
Taking advantage of this early welfare program (or "income tax") was called "gleaning,"
and it provided a background setting for the beautiful story of Naomi, Ruth, and
Boaz in the Book of Ruth. Just one of many Bible accounts where food, or the difficulty of obtaining it, plays a pivotal role in the saga of the Jewish people.
Ancient Palestine was often in the grip of famine, due to its thin, unproductive soil
and undependable rainfall. Crops were also semi-regularly damaged by hordes of locusts
and frequent wars. Neighbouring Egypt, on the other hand, had the Nile and used extensive crop irrigation. Consequently, grain production was much more reliable there.
Jacob's son Joseph, whose jealous brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery (Genesis
37), gained Pharaoh's favour by accurately interpreting the sovereign's dream as
a prediction of famine (Genesis 41). This same famine was felt in Palestine, and
brought Joseph's brothers to Egypt (where ample preparation for lean times was made in heed
of Joseph's dream interpretation) on a grain-buying expedition that resulted in a
Jesus often used grain and bread metaphorically in parables. His analogy of wheat
and "tares" in Matthew 13 was based on the existence of a weed--Labium temulentum--that
looked identical to wheat in the early stages of growth, but was subject to horrible-tasting and somewhat poisonous fungus infestations. These weeds, called tares in the
Bible, could only be distinguished from wheat after they had ripened and turned yellow.
Hence the Lord's advice that if an enemy sowed tares in your wheatfield (corresponding to a fifth-column of unbelievers infiltrating the Church), it was best to leave
them alone until the harvest when they could be easily culled out and cast into the
fire. (Matthew 13: 25-52)
Jesus included bread in his exemplar of proper prayer:
"Give us this day our daily bread" (Luke 11: 3)
It is also interesting to note that Jesus's birthplace, Bethlehem, means "House of
Bread." Jesus called Himself "the living bread" -- the true manna, in discourse with
the crowd on the day He fed the five thousand:
"Moses gave you not that bread from heaven: but my Father
giveth you the true bread from heaven.
For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven,
and giveth life to the world.
Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh
to me will never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall
never thirst." (John 6: 32-35)
"I am that bread of life.
Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.
This is the bread that cometh down from heaven, that a man
may eat thereof, and not die.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man
eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will
give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
(John 6: 48-51)
The reference is continued at the Last Supper, and ever since in the Holy Eucharist:
"And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it and gave it to
them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in
remembrance of me." (Luke 22: 19)
Bread is also significant in the prophesy of Judas's betrayal. Psalm 41: 8 says:
"Yea mine own familiar friend whom I trusted
Who did eat of my bread
Hath lifted up his heel against me."
"I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be
fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me." (John
Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to the small amount of leaven that leavens the
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took,
and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened."
(Matthew 13: 33)
St. Paul used the same analogy in his letter to the Church at Corinth:
"Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new
lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is
sacrificed for us:
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither
with the leaven of malice and wickedness: but with the
unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
(1 Corinthians 5: 6-8)
As St Paul implies, there is bad as well as good leaven. Jesus warned:
"Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."
(Luke 12: 1)
Jesus compared the kingdom of God to growing grain:
"For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade
then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear."
(Mark 4: 28)
He also likened His death and resurrection to planting a grain seed that grows into
a beautiful plant:
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into
the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth
forth much fruit." (John 12: 24)
While wheat and barley were the principal grains cultivated in Palestine, they were
not the only ones. As noted in the story of Ezekiel, millet and spelt were also grown
(Ezekiel 4:9). This is the only reference to millet in the Bible, but the ancient
Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484- c.424 BC) wrote of millet that grew six feet high
in the hanging gardens of Babylon. Some scholars believe the "millet" referred to
in Ezekiel was actually sorghum--a millet-like grain that is still a staple food
in parts of Africa.
Spelt is mentioned in Exodus 9: 32 as being a later crop (along with wheat) which
escaped a ruinous hailstorm in Egypt that had destroyed earlier-maturing barley and
flax. In Isaiah 28: 25 it is noted that spelt was sown at the border of fields, outside
the barley and wheat. The Hebrew word "kussemet," used in these two references, plus
one in Ezekiel, was translated as "rye" in the King James Authorized Version of the
Bible, but it is now known that rye was not grown in Palestine in Bible times. "Kussemet" is not thought to have referred to emmer wheat, which would be consistent with the
Exodus account which had it ripening at the same time as other wheat. 2
Spelt had been "re-discovered" by the modern macrobiotic and natural foods movements.
It is similar to wheat in appearance an taste, but has larger kernels or "berries."
Spelt is better tolerated by allergic individuals than is wheat, and it contains
more protein, fat, fibre, as well as monopolysaccharide carbohydrates which are thought
to stimulate the body's immune system.
Rice is not mentioned in the Bible, but it was imported to Palestine in Jesus's time.
First Century Jewish farmers grew enough rice that it became an export crop. Our
word "rice" derives from the Aramaic (the language of Jesus) word "ourouzza"--probably
dating from the Babylonian captivity. The Hebrew people may have been introduced to
rice in Babylon.