Daily Life in Ancient Israel
It is somewhat difficult for the average modern Catholic to transport himself back, in imagination, to the life of the Jewish race as it must have been lived in Old Testament times. Following the universal tendency of men to think that things must always have been as they are now in our own lives, we can only too easily think that the people of the Old Testament differed from us only in the fact that they lived at an earlier time and in another part of the world. Actually, there was a considerable difference, as even a moment's thought on the question would lead us to believe.1
The biblical man's diet was quite simple. Wheat and barley were the current grains and were eaten cooked or parched on a hot plate, or ground into flour by crushing the grain between two pieces of stone. The common vegetables were lentils, coarse beans, and cucumbers; squash and pumpkin, tomato and potato were as yet unknown. Flavoring was supplied by onions, leeks, and garlic.
The basic fruits were figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and sycamore figs. Olives were used especially for their oil. Figs, raisins, and dates were dried for future use. Oranges and bananas were introduced only after the Arab conquest (7th century A.D.).
The Book of Samuel probably illustrates the typical ancient daily diet.2 Abigail brought to David's band, bread, wine, parched grain, raisins, and figcakes. The text mentions also five sheep, but for ordinary people meat was reserved for special occasions and was not part of ordinary meals.
The chief domesticated animals were sheep, goats, cattle and donkeys. Poultry and eggs seem to have been introduced in Palestine only after the exile; eggs were commonly used as food at the time of Our Lord.3 Oxen, calves, heifers figured prominently in Old Testament sacrifices.
Sheep were of the fat-tail variety. The tail of these sheep often weighs more than ten pounds and its fat was considered a great delicacy, even as it is today among Arab peasants.4 The flesh of the sheep is still the main meat in Bible lands and their wool serves for clothing. Goat's meat was also eaten, and their hair woven into cloth which was used for tents5 and also for cheaper clothes.6 Goats' skins were used as containers for wine.7 The chief value of goats, in Bible times even as today among the Arabs, was as producers of milk, of which they were the chief source. Arabs prefer goats' milk to that of cows.
Leban, a sort of yoghurt made from soured milk, is one of the oldest and best loved foods of Bible lands. When a bit of leban is added to fresh milk to make it ferment, the mixture when shaken, e.g. in a goatskin bag, turns to butter and buttermilk. The latter is put into little cloth sacks and the water squeezed out of it; and the cheese-like leban when rolled into balls keeps indefinitely. All sorts of cheeses were prized, especially those made from camel's milk. The Bedouins often dry their cheese on their tents.
Fish was eaten and was plentiful along the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee. Phoenician merchants shipped seafood to Jerusalem markets where it was sold near the Fish Gate.8 Fish products from Galilee were salted and dried and sent great distances.
Salt was secured in the Biblical period as now, by evaporation in beds or pans from waters along the rim of the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. It was also mined from cliffs along the Dead Sea.9
Sugar was unknown but honey was extensively produced in the highland apiaries and shipped abroad. Candies made of dates, honey and nuts were so plentiful and excellent that they were exported to Tyre (Ez. 27:17). In Bible times as now, sticky sweetmeats, of which the people are very fond, were always available in the bazaars.
Bread and Breadmaking
Bread in Bible lands was the basic nourishment.10 It was made of wheat or more frequently barley which may be called the bread of the poor.11 The grain was ground with mortar and pestle,12 or between two revolving stones,13 or between the miller's larger stones.14 Kneading in an Egyptian painting is done by foot.
People frequently ate their bread unleavened and not only for the Passover. The leaven when used was a piece of dough left over from a preceding batch.15 Bread in Palestine is still usually cooked on a simple metal plate and takes the form of a large round flat pancake. Hence an Arab proverb saying that a hypocrite is two-faced like a loaf of bread. Hence also the custom of breaking bread rather than cutting it. The round pancake-like loaves were so pliable that they could be bent spoon-shape for dipping up gravies and juices. Palestinian bread loaves were also baked in the shape of stones in the wilderness.16 Three such loaves, about 3,500 years old, were found at Thebes and are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Bread was an important element in Old Testament sacrifices. It also naturally found its way into many Hebrew proverbs.17 Christ climaxed all proverbial wisdom concerning bread when he said, "Man shall not live by bread alone,"18 and he made the Eucharistic bread the sacramental sign of his presence and action in the Church.
The soil of Palestine has always been favorable to the cultivation of the vine. Grapes were eaten fresh and dried into cakes, but most of the crop was pressed into juice for wine. Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs show clearly the operation of wine presses. The grapes were trodden by singing servants who, to prevent themselves from slipping into the juicy mash, clung to ropes suspended from a framework.
Wine was in common use in Palestine but it would be a mistake to suppose that it was the invariable accompaniment of a meal, especially for poor people who usually had to be satisfied with water.19 It was, however, a necessary item for any festive occasion, especially weddings.
The Jews like the Romans and the Greeks generally drank their wine liberally mixed with water.20 To drink unmixed wine was regarded as a sign of great intemperance.
Jesus in his parables used many figures drawn from the vineyard and at the Last Supper changed the Passover wine to the sacramental new wine of our Christian communion. Along with wine we frequently find mention of sekar which is probably beer, a very well known beverage in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.21
Most of the clothing worn in biblical Palestine was made of wool or linen. Articles of apparel included a loincloth; a tunic reaching to the ankles and close-fitting at the neck; and a mantle22 or outer garment useful as a storm garment or a covering at night during journeys. People of the better class also wore a sort of undershirt. The garments for women were much the same as those worn by men.
Shoes were usually very crude, simple pieces of hide drawn together with thongs or cords with no right or left. Indoors, sandals were removed. Travelers often carried their shoes to save them until they entered cities, as Bedouins do today.
The headdress developed in the form of a folded square cloth worn as a veil for protection against the sun, or wrapped as a turban.
Hair and beards were worn long by Hebrew men of Bible times; they abhorred baldness. Women also wore their hair long and already practiced artificial curling.
The ancient Egyptian to whom cleanliness and coolness were important wore hair very short or shaved, using elaborate wigs for women and men in public appearances. Kings and some queens, like Hatshepsut, wore ceremonial beards held on by straps. Private individuals had a small beard scarcely two inches long; that of a king was of considerable length, square at the bottom; and the figures of gods were distinguished by its turning up at the end. After death it was permitted to afix a divine beard on the statues of kings and all other persons who were judged worthy of admittance to the Elysium of futurity.
Babylonians and Assyrians gave meticulous attention to the grooming of their long black hair and well-set curly beards, as clearly shown in excavated bas-reliefs. They were fond of intricate croquinole curling designs.
Games though not mentioned in Scripture are known by archeological evidence to have been popular in Bible lands since 5000 B.C. In ancient Bible times, as today, people of the Middle East spent much time playing checkers, backgammon, and chess. In almost every excavation of ancient sites gaming boards have been found, often of limestone, divided into squares. Pebbles, small conical stones, bones or pieces of clay were used as gaming pieces. Dice, often of precious materials, were also used.
Perhaps the most eloquent gaming board found in Palestine is the one scratched on the stone pavement of Pilate's Jerusalem praetorium23 seen today in the crypt of the church of the Dames de Sion. It could well be that the Roman guard played there during Our Lord's trial.
Since stadia, amphitheaters, and gymnasia had been introduced in Judaea by Antiochus Epiphanes and Herod, both Jesus and Paul must have been familiar with the favorite Greco-Roman athletic contests which included wrestling, running, and discus throwing. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the comparison of children in the streets playing at wedding and funeral.24 Baby rattles and clay horses were found in the excavations at Gezer.
Conversation and storytelling was clearly the favorite pastime of Biblical people and the Hebrew had raised the exercise to an art in which they excelled.
Ernest Lussier, S.S.S.
1 In regard to the material treated in this article, cf.: H. T. Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities (New York: American Book Company); A. G. Barrois, Manuel d'archeologie biblique, 2 vols (Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1939, 1953); Everyday Life in Ancient Times (Washington, D. C.: National Geographic Society, 1951); M. S. and J. L. Miller, Harper's Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Bros., 1952); J. J. Von Allmen, Vocabulaire biblique (Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1954); James B. Pritchard, The Ancient New East in Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954); W. Corswant, Dictionnaire d'archeologie biblique (Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1954); G. Ernest Wright, Bililical Archeology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957).
2 I Sam. 25 :18.
3 Luke 11:12.
4 Exod. 29:22; I Sam. 9:24.
5 Exod. 35:6, 23, 26; Num. 31:20.
6 Heb. 11:37.
7 Josue 9:4.
8 Neh. 3:3; 13:16.
9 Soph. 2:9.
10 Is. 3:1.
11 John 6:9.
12 Num. 11:8
13 Matt. 24:41.
14 Judges 16:21; Matt. 18:6.
15 Matt. 13:33.
16 Matt. 4:3.
17 Prov. 20:17; 28:19.
18 Matt. 4:4.
19 Is. 3:1.
20 II Mach. 15:39.
21 I Sam. 1:15; Is. 28:7; Luke 1:15.
22 Luke 6:29.
23 John 18:19.
24 Matt. 11:17.
© The American Ecclesiastical Review, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.
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