What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times by Nathan MacDonald

After reading the whole book (including endnotes), I realized how important understanding food, famine, and feasting factor into the formation of people groups since time immemorial, and particularly the Israelites.

The book itself is written in an approachable style, perhaps as a response to MacDonald’s thought expressed on page 131, that books about Biblical food may be written by lay people for lay people in “protest against the perceived priorities of the ordained profession.” If so, he has done a serviceable job of conveying the latest research in ways that do not challenge faith in God while still challenging false presuppositions about the experience of God’s people in the land.

MacDonald outlines early on the five areas of food research he concentrated on,

  1. Production
  2. Distribution
  3. Preparation
  4. Consumption
  5. disposal

and five research resources he drew from:

  1. Biblical text
  2. Archaeological date
  3. Comparative evidence from the ancient world
  4. Comparative evidence from modern research in the field of anthropology
  5. Modern scientific knowledge, particularly in geography and nutrition.

It was difficult to let go of the idea of Israel truly being a land “flowing with milk and honey,” (though it was in certain time periods). Mainly, the people of antiquity in this region ate what has been termed the Mediterranean triad of bread, wine, and olive oil. In fact, bread was such a daily staple that the word for “bread” – lechem in Hebrew – came to mean all food. As MacDonald points out, their menu was actually quite narrow, and many foods mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures were more luxuries than regular fare.

My own presuppositions—based on an unmindful reading of the Bible—were a mixed bag of false, true, and otherwise overly simplistic. Though I was familiar with all the foods mentioned, I did not realize malnutrition and sustained hunger were so prevalent throughout the time period represented by the books of Joshua, Judges, and the early years of the kings. I was right in viewing ancient Israel as largely agrarian, pastoral, and fairly egalitarian in the 10th century (Chapter 12), and the introduction of monarchy was actually pretty hard on the people. But, I had not thought about how different all the econiches were, and what a varied experience the people would have had.

Several categories I had spent little to no time thinking about:

  • How taxing the simple act of grinding grain would be. Largely a woman’s work, women had to dedicate hours daily to grind enough grain for their families, and the toll on their bodies is seen in their skeletal remains.
  • How the Levitical descriptions of sacrifices did not accurately represent how seldom people ate meat.
  • The sheer time and resource consumption growing and preparing food would take.
  • That wine and oil may have flowed more plentifully than either milk or honey.
  • That “honey” may far more often have been a substance made from boiling dates than the honey taken from hives.

I had not considered how devastating the levies and taxes on the people would have been, particularly when colonizing and/or imperial nations were involved, or how the stress of warfare and famine would physically affect generations of people.

I was not prepared to view the Israelites as a slowly starving people, dying in their forties. Psalm 90:10 speaks of living to seventy or eighty years. That was my impression of the average lifespan for people living in the Ancient Near East.

Chapters 3-6 on the actual food eaten were appreciated, giving a sense of what was available, and for whom.

Research for this video came out of MacDonald’s book

Chapter 7 needed to rely on anachronistic data, so I appreciated the tentative language, while still gaining from the model presented.

Chapters 8-9, dealing with microenvirnoments and the distinction of food shortage and famine helped me see the more complex situation. Drought was not the only – or even chief – reason people experienced long-term hunger and malnutrition. Social pressures and political conflicts, particularly warfare, applied stressors to subsistence living. Armies plundering food; burning and salting enemy fields; destroying orchards, flocks, and herds; laying siege to walled cities; and cutting off water supply starved nations into submission.

Chapter 10 taught me that Israelites used sheep and goat milk, and seldom ate or milked their cattle. 

I was still fighting the notion that Israelites were malnourished, in Chapter 13, but after more extensive research I have had to reluctantly and very sadly accept the truth of how grim survival was. The people lived at a subsistence level with such little margin that even one year of drought would press many into starvation.

The Biblical diets chapter was fascinating and underscores the importance of academics making their knowledge accessible to the people in the pews. To that end, including how a typical agrarian and pastoral year flowed would be helpful, as well as the time and effort it took to produce and store food.

There were some fascinating tidbits along the way, however. For example, the land of Israel was uniquely capable of providing salt for themselves and for export because of the dead Sea, as well as the Mediterranean coastline. Macdonald also relates in his section on wine that Nebuchadnezzar exempted vinedressers from exile, as documented in in the Bible.

But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.

2 Kings 25:12 (NRSV)

More than likely, though the nation of Israel was no more, the region was still retained as a wine-production colony to serve the Assyrian and Babylonian royal courts.

Towards the end of his book, MacDonald shows the Jubilee Laws outlined in Leviticus 17-26 were as much about ecological health of the land as they were about faith in God. God is as interested in care of the earth as the Lord is interested in caring for God’s people.

For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. 

But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys watered by rain from the sky, a land that the Lord your God looks after.

The eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

Deuteronomy 11:10-12 (NRSV)

That felt especially validating to me as one deeply and passionately committed to the health and wise care of the earth. I have long seen this as both God’s mandate to all humankind, and God’s call specifically to those who have put their faith in the Lord. MacDonald helped me to see it has been God’s point of view from the beginning.

Leave a Reply