A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Eat Like an Israelite?

This summer has not been kind to my backyard garden.  After a few weeks of prolific production, my squash and cucumber plants succumbed to powdery mildew.  Now, just as they are supposed to ripen in full glory, my tomatoes (the bread and butter of my garden) are waging war with late blight.  It’s been too wet here in south central Pennsylvania.  Not hot enough.


My 2009 garden hasn’t been a failure.  I’ve eaten fresh sugar snap peas and romaine.  We’ve grilled zucchini and yellow squash.  I’ve frozen spinach, kale, green beans, squash, and jalapenos.  Before the onslaught of the mildew, I got enough cucumbers to dip in hummus and make up a few jars of refrigerator pickles.



This week I canned salsa, and tomatoes are still coming, if slowly.  The jalapenos continue to produce, and I hold fast to the hope that the bell peppers eventually will turn red.  The fall crop I planted a few weeks ago (Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, and romaine) is starting to emerge.

But this summer pales in comparison to last summer, when I canned over 100 pints of assorted tomato recipes.   It was my first time canning, so I tried it all—tomato sauce, tomato juice, salsa.  But the simple crushed tomatoes became the most treasured jars in the pantry, the foundation for my throw-all-available-vegetables-into-a-pot soup that makes February marginably bearable. What if this year I don’t get enough these red jewels  to fill the soup pots of 2010?  What if I have to (gasp!) buy canned tomatoes?


Of course, I don’t worry that I won’t be able to make soup in February.  Unless the world changes drastically between now and then, there will be fresh vegetables at my local grocery store, along with bread and milk and meat.  My gardening produces food, but I wouldn’t starve without it.  Its function in my life is primarily therapeutic, something that takes me away from the computer and allows me to wax nostalgic about visiting my grandparents’ farm when I was a child.  My gardening has little in common with grandparents’ economic dependence on crop success.  It has even less in common with the realities of eating in the biblical world.

The contemporary marketing of cereals claims that the Bible touts a healthy Mediterranean diet:  whole grains, olive oil, legumes, and red wine. Eat like an Israelite and prosper!   If you want to be thin and live long, follow God’s diet!  The Bible is the only diet book you ever need!


Nathan MacDonald’s What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times dismantles such claims.  MacDonald synthesizes wide-ranging research and paints a convincing picture of chronic malnutrition in ancient Israel. Skeletal remains reveal widespread deficiencies in vitamins D and C; iodine; iron; protein; and trace elements. They also present evidence of excess dietary fluorine and dental pathologies.

Famine was one cause of ancient poor health. Most people would have experienced genuine famine once or twice in a lifetime, as well as more frequent food shortages.  Chronic malnutrition, however, can be attributed to additional factors.

(1) Lack of dietary variety. “The weekly menu of the average Israelite covered a narrow range of foods, and many of the items mentioned in the Old Testament rarely or never have passed the average Israelite’s lips” (p. 9).  Vegetables, for example, were considered the food of animals, while humans properly ate cereals and fruits (see the description of human and animal food in Genesis 1).

(2)   The commodification of desirable food. MacDonald outlines the food-trading networks of the ancient world and shows that many farmers never consumed what they grew or raised.  Wine was heavily exported to Egypt and Mesopotamia, especially during the Assyrian and Babylonian periods. Olive oil was also a popular export.   Animals were raised primarily for secondary products (milk and wool), with the meat often sold to others. “Even in the premonarchic period the best food resources were being diverted toward elite males” (78).

(3) Technologies available for food processing. MacDonald offers fascinating examples of how ancient food processing techniques reduced the nutritional value of available food.  A prime case is that of grain, a staple in the ancient diet.  Heavy consumption of sticky foods like gruels and porridges promoted tooth decay, and the grinding of grain with a stone introduced sand and grit into flour, which in turn lead to dental erosion.


The unrefined cereals were high in phytates, which inhibit zinc absorption.  Israelites prior to the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE probably did not eat olives, either.  “The fruit is bitter and needs to be be pickled or salted to be eaten.  These processing techniques were not introduced into Palestine until the Hellenistic or Roman period.” (23)  Olives were used primarily for oil, and, as mentioned above, olive oil was heavily exported.

(4) class and gender. Throughout the book, MacDonald demonstrates the role that class and gender play in access to healthy and desirable food.  Poor farmers may have raised good crops but rarely ate them—trading them to elites and eating inferior survival food.  Olive oil consumption varied by social class. Both skeletal remains and the biblical record itself suggest that men may have received more food (especially meat) than women.   The average height of an ancient woman was 152 cm (close to 5 ft), while the height of an ancient man was 171 cm (5 ft 7 in).  The “portions” given to Elkanah’s two wives in 1 Samuel 1 are likely food allocations.


The more I learn about food the more I am convinced of two things:  that for a society to be just it must distribute healthy food justly, rather than pacifying the poor with full, malnourished bellies; and that food is a gift, not to be taken for granted. I knew that last summer when I wrote this poem.  I know it even more this summer.


The First Time I Ate From a Jar of Food I Canned

Julia M. O’Brien       August 30, 2007

It doesn’t seem like much,

this eating the food that I grew in my garden and canned myself.

Thousands and thousands of nameless women have done it before me,

seeking no praise but the survival of their families.

But for me, who lives in suburbia and ponders Hebrew grammar for a living,

it is a miracle.

I know that my husband and I dug the ground,

that I did the planting and the watering and the picking

and the peeling and the timing of the hot water bath,

but what I taste now is a miracle, a gift from something, perhaps someone,

beyond myself.

This jar is sacrament.

And if I don’t die of botulism, that will be a gift as well.

2 Responses to Eat Like an Israelite?

  • First, let me say that you’re poetry is wonderful. I love it.
    Second, I think this post echoes what you’d developed in the post regarding the Visionary Daughters… how can one pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow? Eat like the Bible says, treat women like the Bible says, forge war like the Bible says, love like the Bible says… for many, the Bible seems always to be the final authority on almost everything. I’m not saying that the Bible is without good message, or even intention, I just think, as with the Constitution, we modern people should be wary of throwing ourselves fully into something that may not be completely applicable to our current situation. What was right for may parents isn’t necessarily right for me. What was right for my grandparents certainly isn’t right for me. How can people learn to grow with a source without throwing it away altogether?

  • One of the ongoing challenges in teaching was trying to get my students to imagine themselves into the stories when the particulars of all of our lives are so far removed from the people of ancient Israel. It is an occasion to take a bath or have oil to use as a body lotion/conditioner/soap. It is uncommon to eat meat. Feasts are sacred events. Survival is no given. Hard, constant work is.
    One of the most fruitful exercises I found was having students read Oded Borowski’s “a day in the life of the Ahuzam family” from his Daily Life in Biblical Times book, and then have students compare/contrast the different spheres of daily life (food, work, social life, family, gender roles, etc.) with their own. It was the time that I most saw them having some awareness of the gap between ancient life and their own. The kids with farming backgrounds often had the easiest time imagining what was described. But certainly all of us are pretty far removed from this.
    I wonder how to get students beyond the facile “shows you how fortunate you are to be an American” sentiment. How can we think about simplicity yet not romanticize poverty or shame people for wanting the comforts and good things that are reasonable and human to want?
    I love especially your comment that justice is about giving everyone enough GOOD food–not just fulfilling a quota of calories and saying we’ve done our duty. Makes me think again about the need for supermarkets and community gardens in cities, where most poor neighborhoods’ primary access to affordable food takes the form of convenience store twinkies and fast food grease. Of course, getting people to buy, grow and eat good food is a matter of education as well as availability, but we need to start somewhere.
    I wonder what scholars researching 20th-21st C. remains would say about our society a millenia from now?

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