The Israelite Diet: What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?
The pages of the Bible are filled with references to food of various kinds. Have you ever wondered, what the ancient Israelite diet consisted of? Or how healthy it was? In What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?, Nathan MacDonald provides some interesting and thought-provoking answers. In recent times a popular genre of books have sought to promote a “biblical” diet, selling it as the healthiest of all diets. MacDonald’s book takes a scholarly look at the available evidence and presents a “well-balanced” view.
How Can We Determine What the Ancient Israelites Ate?
The Bible is the obvious starting point for determining the ancient Israelite diet, but what other resources might prove helpful? MacDonald identifies five main sorts of evidence relevant to examining the ancient Israelite diet. They include:
- The Bible
- Archeological remains (including paleopathology, and zooarchaeology)
- Comparative evidence of diet from related cultures in the ancient Near East (e.g., Egypt, Mesopotamia)
- Modern anthropological research of nonindustrialized societies
- Scientific knowledge on food production and consumption. This category includes considering geography, meteorology, soil science and archaeobotanical work.
Variable Factors in the Ancient Israelite Diet
As Macdonald points out, it is a misnomer to speak of the “ancient Israelite diet,” as if we could lay out a menu that described the cuisine of every Israelite. At the same time MacDonald writes, “We should not speak of Israelite diets, which would suggest a greater diversity within the Israelite diet” (p. 92). A number of variable factors must be considered in determining what was on the dinner table of an ancient Israelite.
Geography and Meteorology
The landscape of ancient Israel was (and still is) very diverse, ranging from the coastal plain, to the foothills, to the central mountainous region, to the Rift Valley and desert area (see map at left). Climate and geography determine what kind of crops can be grown and whether a certain area is agricultural or more pastoral. For example, living near a water source would increase the likelihood of fish being a regular meal fixture. Those living in the Negev (southern region), a drier area would lead a more pastoral life and would thus have greater availability of animal products such as milk, cheese, and the occasional meat dish.
Economic and Social Status
As in any society, the rich always eat better (in terms of quality and variety) than the poor. Royalty and wealthy elites naturally had more access when it came to traded foodstuffs. “Feasting like a king”, was not just an idiom, it was a social reality (1 Sam. 25:36). MacDonald notes that a few passages seem to suggest that the head of the family had the right to determine how food was distributed among family members (e.g., 1 Sam. 1:5; also see, Gen. 43:34). Therefore, he concludes, “It seems likely that prestigious foods, such as meat, would have been distributed with preference given to the family head and his male children” (78). MacDonald also notes that the male, priestly elite would have had more access to meat than the average Israelite. Thus gender and social status played a role in who ate what and how much.
Famine and Enemy Attacks
Ancient, as well as modern Israel, is susceptible to drought, which, when prolonged can lead to famine (E.g., Gen. 12:10; Ruth 1:1). MacDonald states that a genuine famine may occur only once or twice in the lifetime of an Israelite (p. 58). That seems quite enough for me! However, while famines were more rare, an ancient Israelite might experience food shortages a little more frequently, especially those among the poorer ranks of society.
Judges 6:3-6 is perhaps the clearest statement of how an enemy could devastate the food supply. In Judges 6 we read of the Midianites raiding Israel year after year (for seven years) and not only taking their crops, but their animals as well. The devastation was so complete that Judges 6:5 uses the metaphor of locusts to describe the Midianites.
In the modern Western world we are pretty used to getting whatever product we want whenever we want it. But throughout most of history, and certainly in ancient Israel, foods were seasonal. This would not only be true of fruits and vegetables, but also animal products. The main source of milk for the ancient Israelite was not the cow, but the goat. This milk would only have been available for five months out of the year. Sheep milk was available for even less time–only three months out of the year. Thus, what ended up on your plate depended a lot of the time of year.
So What Foods Were Available for the Ancient Israelite?
First and foremost, the Mediterranean Triad of bread, oil, and wine provides the foundation of the ancient Israelite diet. MacDonald states, “The staple food for ancient Israel was bread, as indeed it was for her ancient Near Eastern neighbors and the rest of the Mediterranean world” (p. 19).MacDonald also points out what I have noted many times in my personal reading of the Hebrew Bible: the word for bread in Hebrew (lechem) also means “food.” Oil from olives had many uses, including being a steady part of the diet, while grapes supplied the main beverage for the ancient Israelite. MacDonald, citing Shimon Dar, states that the average Israelite would consume about one liter of wine per day. Water was not always plentiful and not always suitable for drinking.
Without laboriously listing the other types of food available, the above chart gives a good indication of what might be included in an ancient Israelite diet. It is interesting that vegetables are on the bottom of the food chart. According to MacDonald vegetables were not thought of as highly as other foods. He cites Proverbs 15:17 as evidence: “Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.” MacDonald also notes that vegetables are hard to trace in the archaeological record since they easily perish and leave no evidence behind. Therefore, it is difficult to know how important vegetables were to the ancient Israelite diet. At least one Israelite king thought so highly of having a vegetable garden that he was willing to murder for it (1 Kings 21)! Although meat is found in the column next to the bottom, this does not speak of its low value, but rather, of its availabilty. MacDonald does correct a 20th century scholarly misconception about meat in the Israelite diet. He notes that meat consumption was more frequent than previously thought. However, this does not mean it was a daily occurrence for most Israelites. And, as noted above, there was probably an uneven distribution of meat (p. 92).
How Healthy Was An Ancient Israelite?
Answering this question would, once again, involve taking into consideration various factors such as social status, gender, and location. However, based on the available evidence obtained through the examination of ancient skeletons, MacDonald states, “There are good grounds for believing . . . that malnourishment was something that many Israelites would have experienced at some point during their lives” (p. 57). MacDonald notes that this was especially true of Iron Age Israel (1200 B.C. – 586 B.C.), the period of the Judges and Monarchy. While much research remains to be done, “. . . currently the evidence suggests that the population of ancient Israel did not enjoy good health (pp. 86-87). This is a surprising reversal of the modern attitude that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest of all diets. Perhaps there is some truth to this, I’m not a nutritionist, but, regarding ancient Israel, this assertion fails to take into account the many variables pointed out by MacDonald.
Conclusion: The Israelite Diet
Studying the ancient Israelite diet is more fascinating than I imagined. Hopefully, for those interested, this article has provided some basic information. For those seeking a more in-depth treatment I would highly recommend MacDonald’s book, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?. Wikipedia also has a very informative article at Ancient Israelite Cuisine, which delves much deeper into the foods available for the ancient Israelite than I did.