The Bible is not just a religious text but also a treasure trove of historical and cultural information. Within its pages, we can discover a variety of insights into ancient lifestyles, including the foods that were integral to the daily lives of people in biblical times. From the lush gardens of Eden to the arid landscapes of the Holy Land, the Bible offers glimpses of the unique culinary traditions that shaped the diets and beliefs of its inhabitants. In this article, we will explore the seven prominent foods mentioned in the Bible and understand their significance in the context of the times.
The geographical conditions of the Fertile Crescent, a region extending from Egypt through the Zagros Mountains to Mesopotamia, were ideal for domesticating plants and animals. As a result of the Neolithic Revolution, there was a shift in the way people obtained food. They transitioned from hunting and gathering to cultivating plants, leading to settled communities and the development of human societies. The Bible contains various references to the economic life, diets, and religious practices of ancient Middle Eastern peoples (Exodus 23:14-16, Deuteronomy 16:9-10, Deuteronomy 16:13-14), mentioning numerous plants and their uses. However, special significance is given to seven plant species that were essential for sustenance and had medicinal purposes. Among them are two varieties of grains (wheat and barley), the grapevine, the fig tree, the pomegranate tree, the olive tree, and the date palm, which yielded dates utilized in the production of honey. The biblical description of the Promised Land prepared for the Israelites emphasizes the vital importance of these seven plant species: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9). These seven species are a crucial part of biblical gardens, established worldwide since 1940 to popularize biblical content by showcasing plants mentioned in the Bible.
The oldest evidence of wild wheat grains, dating back approximately 23 thousand years, was discovered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the Ohalo II site. In ancient times, wild emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccoides) was gathered in its natural habitat, where its ripe grains would naturally scatter due to its brittle rachis. The conscious cultivation of wheat is credited to the Natufian tribes, who lived during the Upper Paleolithic period (10,000-8000 BC). The domestication process involved selecting genetic mutants with a non-brittle rachis, allowing the mature ear of grain to remain intact until threshing, enabling controlled harvesting by humans.
Emmer wheat (Triticum diccocum), one of the earliest domesticated wheat species, also possessed a non-brittle rachis. However, it had tightly adherent glumes, which were not separated during threshing. Emmer wheat was undoubtedly cultivated in biblical times in regions like Israel and Egypt, with evidence dating back to at least 7000 BC. Archaeological excavations near Petra and Jericho have confirmed the presence of emmer wheat seeds, with dates ranging from 2500 BC to earlier periods. The flour produced from emmer wheat was coarse due to both the grain and glumes being ground together. Over time, emmer wheat’s significance declined during the Bronze Age (around 5000 BC) and was gradually replaced by free-threshing varieties such as durum wheat (Triticum durum) and bread wheat (Triticum aestivum). These newer wheat species had “naked grains,” which could be easily separated from the chaff during threshing, resulting in higher-quality flour.
According to Zohary, durum wheat was the primary wheat species cultivated during biblical times. Hepper supports this claim and adds that durum wheat, along with bread wheat, was cultivated in biblical Palestine. It is believed that bread wheat gained more significance during the later period, particularly after Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish in 701 BC. Around 90% of the grain samples discovered during this period in Lachish were identified as Triticum aestivum.
The cultivation of barley originated in southeast Asia around 9000 BC. Evidence of this can be seen in the discovery of barley grains in Netiv Hagdud, an ancient Neolithic settlement in Israel dating back to around 9970-9400 BC. Barley was known for its higher drought resistance compared to wheat, making it suitable for cultivation even on the fringes of deserts. Two species of barley, Hordeum distichum and Hordeum hexastichum, were cultivated. Similar to emmer wheat, barley had hulled grains.
During biblical times, both wheat and barley flour were used for various purposes. Wheat flour was regarded as a luxurious commodity (Judges 7:13; 2 Kings 4:24), whereas barley flour was commonly consumed by those with fewer financial means (John 6:9). Grain flour was often mixed with milled broad beans and lentils (Ezekiel 4:12; Hosea 7:8). Furthermore, barley was employed in the brewing of beer. Cereal grains, including wheat and barley, could also be consumed raw or roasted (Ruth 2:14; Leviticus 2:14; 1 Samuel 17:17; 2 Samuel 17:28). Roasting was done on a hot stove, either on a flat piece of iron or a convex sheet of tin. This roasted grain was often stored for extended periods and used as provisions during travel (1 Samuel 25:18). The roasting process helped separate the chaff from hulled cereal grains like emmer wheat and barley, resulting in whiter and softer flour. Wheat grains were sometimes cooked with honey, pomegranate seeds, or almonds.
Cereal grains were primarily cultivated to obtain flour, which was then used for bread baking and preparing various meals. Stone milling techniques of the time often resulted in flour containing high amounts of grit, which could cause dental abrasion. There are preserved examples of bread found in Egyptian tombs that even glittered due to the significant grit content. Bread dough was kneaded in a shallow trough made of wood or pottery. During ancient times in Israel, two types of bread were frequently baked: unleavened bread (macca) and sourdough bread (Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16). The latter required a leavening agent for preparation. Bread loaves were typically round and not too thick, often featuring a hole in the middle, allowing them to be threaded on a stick referred to as the staff of the bread (Ezekiel 14:13). The shape of the bread was adapted to the manner of eating it; small pieces were torn off and dipped in sauce or used with other types of food.
According to botanists, the first instances of grapevine cultivation (Vitis vinifera) were believed to have occurred in mountainous regions of Armenia and territories near the Caspian Sea. The Nabateans were known to have cultivated the grapevine as well. In the Holy Land, the oldest remains of vine cultivation in Jericho have been dated back to 3000 years BC. In Egypt, grapevine plantations existed even earlier, as evidenced by seals depicting a grape bunch from the period of the First Dynasty (c. 2960-2770 BC). The presence of numerous winepresses and labeled jars in the areas of biblical Gibeon and Gezer indicated that these places were centers for winemaking. The Talmud mentioned approximately 60 varieties of wine, with red wine being more popular than white wine during biblical times.
Wine served various purposes in ancient times. It was used as medicine and a disinfectant for wounds (Luke 10:34; Timothy 5:23). People consumed it during holidays (Nehemiah 8:10) and wedding parties (John 2:3). Adding wine to water for storage helped prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms. Drinking diluted wine (2 Maccabees 15:39) was recommended for its healing properties (1 Timothy 5:23). Additionally, grape wine could be converted into wine vinegar, which was used as a refreshing drink or for dipping bread (Ruth 2:14).
Dried grapes, known as raisins, were a high-calorie product consumed throughout the year and served as excellent food for travelers and those living in desert regions (1 Samuel 25:18; 1 Samuel 30:12; 1 Chronicles 12:41). Before sun-drying, the fruits were placed in boiling water containing a mixture of wood ash and olive oil. Raisins were eaten directly (1 Samuel 30:12) or in the form of compressed cakes (Isaiah 16:7). Raisin cakes were greatly favored (2 Samuel 6:19; Song of Songs 2:5; Hosea 3:1), and specific locations, such as Kirhareseth, were famous for their production (Isaiah 16:7).
The oldest evidence of common figs (Ficus carica) was found in Jericho, dating back to the Neolithic period around 7000 BC, and in Gezer, dating to approximately 5000 BC. It is believed that figs were already cultivated around the Mediterranean and Caspian basins during the Bronze Age, or possibly even earlier. The cultivation of figs during the Iron Age was confirmed by discoveries in Beit Shemesh, where fig seeds were found along with pressed fig fruit mixed with lentils and stored in jars. Fig trees were also depicted on bas-reliefs found in Nineveh (now on display at the British Museum), which showed the siege of Lachish by Sennacherib in 701 BC (2 Kings 18:13), providing further evidence of their cultivation during the Iron Age. Historical sources also mention figs as one of the fruits imported into Egypt, along with olives, nuts, and honey, around 2700 BC.
The first early fig crop, harvested in June, was considered a delicacy and often consumed raw (Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1; Nahum 3:12; Jeremiah 24:2). The second harvest, ripening between August and September (Isaiah 16:9; Jeremiah 48:32), was stored for winter or used as travel provisions (2 Samuel 16:1-2). Dried figs were stored either loosely or threaded on strings, and they could also be mashed into cakes (1 Samuel 30:12; 2 Kings 20:7). Dried fig cakes were known for their high sugar content. Figs were also used to enhance the aroma of wine when added to it. Dioscorides mentioned that juice from fig leaves or sprouts was added to milk to aid in coagulation. For cheese production, milk was mixed using a freshly cut fig tree shoot from which milk juice leaked. Fig fruits were also used for medicinal purposes. Ancient Egyptians prepared a drink consisting of figs, milk, and beer to alleviate stomach disorders, as well as an extract of figs, acacia leaves, honey, and ochre for heart and lung diseases. In Coptic medicine, remedies based on fig fruits were used to treat various skin conditions. One such case is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (38:21) and the Second Book of Kings (20:7), where Hezekiah is treated by applying a cake of figs to a boil.
The pomegranate tree (Punica granatum) originates in the southern area near the Caspian Sea, but its cultivation started in the Mediterranean region. Evidence of pomegranate cultivation in Canaan was found during excavations in Jericho, where a wooden bowl shaped like a pomegranate fruit and actual pomegranates dating back to around 1650 BC were discovered. Remains of these fruits, dated to the Bronze Age, were also found in Gezer, along with whole dried fruits in caves near En-Gedi. The Israelites likely became familiar with pomegranate cultivation during their time in Egypt, as they lamented the absence of grains, figs, grapes, and pomegranates while wandering in the desert (Numbers 20:5). According to certain sources, pomegranate cultivation in Egypt is believed to have commenced during the eighteenth dynasty (1550 BC) and likely originated from Palestine. Wall sculptures and various artifacts depicting pomegranate plants found in Egyptian tombs date back to that period and subsequent eras.
In ancient times, pomegranates were cultivated for their juicy flesh. The hard shell of the fruit made it easy to store and transport during travels. Pomegranate juice served as an effective thirst quencher and was also used to produce wine through fermentation (Song of Songs 8:2). The soft, fresh pomegranate seeds were enjoyed as sweets, either soaked in honey or dried. The bark, roots, and fruit rind were utilized to produce ink. The rind of unripe pomegranate fruit and its flowers contained a red pigment that was used to dye leather. An extract from the pomegranate fruit was used as a remedy for various ailments such as diarrhea, dysentery, stomach issues, and parasites. The curative properties of pomegranate tree bark, used to treat tapeworm infections, had been known in Egypt since the time of the pharaohs, as evident in medical papyri from the early New Kingdom period. Quintus Gargilius Martialis, a third-century Roman writer, in De pomis seu Medicina ex pomis, mentions the use of dry ground bark to produce an extract for dental treatments and swollen gums, while flowers ground with honey were used for wound care. Even today, pomegranate juice is used in folk medicine as a remedy for heart-related ailments.
6. Olive Trees
The oldest remains of olive plants (Olea europaea) were discovered in ancient Palestine, particularly in Chalcolithic settlements around 4300-3500 BC in Tulalat al-Ghassul, Nahal Mishmar (from 3500-3300 BC), and in Arad during the Bronze Age. Olive stones were also found in Lachish, an ancient Canaanite city (present-day Tell ed-Duweir), dating back to the end of the early Bronze Age and the beginning of its middle period (third/second millennium BC). Excavations in caves near the Dead Sea unearthed olive stones, grain seeds, date stones, and legume plant seeds from the period between 3700-3500 BC.
Fresh olives were typically consumed in various ways, such as being salted, pickled in vinegar, cooked, or dried. To reduce their bitterness, they were soaked in a hot alkaline solution and then salted. However, the primary use of olives was for producing olive oil. Unlike grapes, olives are hard and contain sharp stones, so oil pressing required two stages. Initially, the fruits were crushed using a stone wheel, and subsequently, a continuous pressure was exerted for a prolonged time in an olive press. In ancient Palestine, olive oil was produced and exported to Egypt, as mentioned in the anonymous chronicle “The Tale of Sinuhe” around 1800 BC.
During the time of kings David and Solomon, olive cultivation was further developed. King Solomon exported olives to Egypt (Hosea 12:2) and exchanged them with King Hiram of Tyre for timber and construction services during the tenth century BC (1 Kings 5:24; 2 Chronicles 2:14-15). Olive oil was a fundamental component of the diet for both the wealthy and the poor (Isaiah 1:6; Ezekiel 16:13; 1 Kings 17:23; 2 Kings 4:2). The story of the poor widow from Sarepta illustrates her having “only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug” (1 Kings 17:12). Olive oil was used to make aromatic balms and ointments by boiling medicinal plants in it, and aromatic oils were obtained by soaking flowers in olive oil. An Egyptian tomb dating back to around 1400 BC contained two jars of a balm made from linden flowers and olive oil. The medicinal use of olive oil for washing wounds is attested in biblical references (Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:34), and the Epistle of James (James 5:14-15) mentions its potential healing properties in response to prayers by the faithful. Olive oil was also employed in rituals for cleansing individuals with defiling skin diseases (Leviticus 14:15-18).
7. Date Palm
The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is one of the longest cultivated trees, and its earliest cultivation in Mesopotamia began in the Middle East around 4000 years BC. The remarkable knowledge of date palm cultivation is evident from archaeological findings, such as an Assyrian bas-relief from around 3000 BC, which depicts artificial cross-pollination of the date palm. The Hebrews were well acquainted with this plant and highly valued it, primarily for its use as a food source. In the writings of Aristeas, an officer of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (277-270 BC), it was reported that the Israelites took great pleasure in cultivating the land, which included an abundance of olive trees, grains, vineyards, and countless date palms. Similar to fig trees, bas-reliefs found in Nineveh portraying the siege of Lachish by Sennacherib in 701 BC also depict date palm trees.
Dates, being high-energy fruits, were consumed fresh, dried, or in the form of pressed cakes. Various types of drinks were made from the date palm. Date honey, a very sweet syrup similar to honey, was obtained from pressed ripe dates and is known as “dibs” in Arabic. In Egypt, honey produced from dates was used to make beer. A different kind of syrup was acquired by puncturing the spathe surrounding the young date inflorescence, releasing the juice, which, when left to ferment, produced a potent alcoholic beverage known as “sycera” in Hebrew (Micah 2:11, Leviticus 10:9, Luke 1:15). This drink was distinct from wine made from ripe date fruits. Date stones, whether ground, soaked, or buried in the ground for several days, were used as feed for camels, cows, and sheep, as they were more nutritious than barley.
The seven plant species mentioned in the Bible symbolize the richness and fertility of the Promised Land. These plants include wheat, barley, the grapevine, the fig tree, the pomegranate tree, the olive tree, and the date palm, all of which were among the earliest domesticated plants in the Middle East. These plants provided essential sustenance throughout the year due to their ability to be easily stored. Additionally, olive oil, wine, and fig fruit were also utilized for medicinal purposes. Modern understanding affirms the remarkable nutritional value and health benefits associated with these seven species.