Lentils were the most popular legume in Bible times, no doubt due to their happy ability
to thrive in dry, poor quality soil. Lentils grew wild in Moab and Edom (east of
the Dead Sea in present day Jordan), but by Abraham's time they were also extensively cultivated. Palestinian lentils were red. Bedouin nomads in the Middle East and North
Africa still eat red lentil soup--Jacob's "pottage" in the story of Jacob and Esau.
There are some interesting semantic parallels. "Edom" means "red," and probably the
land south of Moab got its name from the red legumes that grow there. Esau's other
name was Edom (Genesis 25: 25-30), although it is unclear whether he received it
at birth because of his red hair--o as a derisive nickname after he sold his birthright for
a meal of red lentil soup.
In the Genesis account, Esau the mighty hunter arrives home empty-handed one day with
a bad case of the hungries, to find his younger brother Jacob stirring the celebrated
soup pot. Clearly a man of the moment and not given to deferred gratification, Esau short-sightedly agrees to sell Jacob his rights as elder sibling in return for a
bowl of lentils and some bread (Genesis 25: 29-34)--the latter being an important
side-dish to any semi-liquid meal in those days, due to a lack of spoons, forks,
Act two of this transaction takes place several years later, when Isaac, the brothers'
father, having become old and blind, decided the time has arrived to bestow his blessing
on his eldest son. Isaac had always favoured Esau the hunter, at least partly due to a weakness for stewed venison. Still in possession of a healthy appetite despite
his infirmity, Isaac summons Esau and bids him to go kill some game and then prepare
a savory meal for his father before receiving his blessing.
Isaac's wife Rebekah, who favours Jacob, overhears this exchange and immediately recognizes
a golden opportunity for the younger (fraternal) twin to complete his coup and usurp
his brother's remaining status as the elder. Rebekah instructs Jacob to go quickly and kill a couple of goats so that she can prepare a facsimile of the flavourful
game dish Isaac relishes. Jacob sensibly voices misgivings about her scheme to pass
him off as Esau, but Rebekah assures him that she will take the heat herself if the
plot backfires. Jacob finally agrees to go along with the plan.
While the meat is cooking, Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau's best clothes, and fastens
hides from the recently dispatched goats around his arms and neck, covering his smooth
skin where Esau is hairy. When he is disguised to her satisfaction, she hands him
the meat and some bread, and hustles him off to his father's tent.
We may easily sympathize with Jacob;s reluctance to participate in this unlikely exercise.
Isaac is no dunce, and indeed he is immediately suspicious about the short time it
has taken to fulfill his request. He reasons that Esau must have stumbled on a deer in the back yard to have it dressed and cooked this fast. In point of fact, the
"deer" really has come from the back yard, but not quite as Isaac imagines.
Answering his father's query, Jacob, in too deep to back out now, shamelessly allows
that "The Lord thy God helped me to find it." Isaac also thinks the voice he hears
talking sounds an awful lot like Jacob;s, but after feeling the goat-skin on his
son;s neck and arms, he reluctantly buys the scam and gives the blessing.
Esau is understandably upset upon learning that he has been cheated out of his blessing.
Jacob is obliged to leave town on short notice in the interest of his continued good
health. He has many adventures as a sojourner, is eventually re-named Israel by God, and goes on to sire a great nation.
Lentils are mentioned several times in the chronicles of David, and also in Ezekiel's
bread recipe. Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans) were also grown in Palestine in Bible times
as they still are today, and beans--probably fava beans--are mentioned a few times
including, again, in the recipe for Ezekiel's bread. Peas were also cultivated in the
middle east from about 7,000 BC on.