Introduction

And I will say to my soul,

“Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years;

take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”

Luke 12:19, King James Version

When we first set out to write a cookbook with a biblical theme, we never dreamed what a challenge it would be to make sense of thousands of years of food preparation. Our primary research confirmed what we already knew: the Judeo-Christian lifestyle, influenced by both Eastern and Western cultures, was centered around meals, primarily the noonday meal (what in some places is known today as “supper”) and the meal closest to sundown (“dinner”). That these terms in modern times are used interchangeably is just one indication of how blurred the lines have become between what were once two distinct events with their own unique, traditionally prescribed menus. And despite nutritionists' insistence that breakfast should be and is the most important meal of the day, the current gastronomical focus is centered on what is served at dinnertime; and in Western culture, if not elsewhere as well, it is at this meal, as in the biblical era, that we tend to gather our families and do most of our entertaining.

In biblical times, an invitation to dine, whether with family and friends or with complete strangers, was taken most seriously. The Middle Eastern code of ethics held strongly to a belief that good hospitality was the command of The Divine, and the offer to partake of a meal was sacred. In deference to and respect for God, the Jews of the biblical era began all meals with a ritual washing of hands (demonstrating an understanding of the connection to the sacrifices offered to God at the Temple) and with the asking of God's blessing over the food and drink that was about to be consumed. Strangers at a meal were a mitzvah (Hebrew for “blessing”), as acknowledged by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who imparts (13:2), “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Often, as at the Passover meal, an extra place was set at table and a portion set aside in anticipation of the arrival of one more for dinner.

The biblical landscape is peppered with meal stories that often describe a menu and, in a few instances, instructions on how the food is to be eaten. Oddly, despite a frequent penchant for detail, scriptural redactors provided no recipes for their repasts.1 This lack of information encouraged some food for thought on our part: namely, if one were to prepare the meals mentioned in the Bible, using materials and techniques available today, how might this be accomplished? Hence the premise for this book.

In Cooking with the Bible, we present eighteen meals found in the scriptures, along with complete menus. Our attempt is to provide the reader with all the ingredients necessary to better understand what is at stake in the text, while at the same moment allowing the hermeneutic to come into play (a discovery aid that tries to answer how the words of the Bible can be relevant to those encountering them today). Through this process we intend that the ancient text become more alive and vibrant through the preparation and cooking of a meal that relates to it. Cooking with the Bible has sixteen menus for dinner, one for the noontime meal (from the story of Ruth), and one breakfast ( Jesus cooking for the disciples on the shore of Lake Genessaret).

The ingredients of these varied menus could best be described as what one might expect, given the era and the location of the meal they comprise (which is to say that they are hardly exotic); yet they are, at close examination, certainly not foreign to any contemporary dining experience nor to our present-day mania for healthy eating. Most families described in the stories of the biblical era were undoubtedly vegetarian (as the Israelites, whether in nomadic mode or more settled, were the keepers of an agrarian lifestyle); so we have taken care to include a large variety of vegetables in our menus, whether they be specifically mentioned in the biblical passage or not, in full knowledge that a typical Middle Eastern meal included all types of vegetarian fare, especially beans, cucumbers, garlic, herbs, leeks, lentils, olives, onions, and grains with their byproducts (such as flour). We have also included menus with rice, eggplant, and tomatoes, all three of which, while not biblical, are common in the pantries of modern Middle Eastern kitchens.

Of equal importance in the diet of biblical diners were fruits (dried, fresh, or in liquid form) and nuts, especially grapes, apricots, pomegranates, melons, dates, figs, almonds, and pistachios. Many of the recipes of the following chapters include this shopping list, but in keeping with what can now be found in most markets of the Middle East, we have included a few other specimens that will spice up a meal.

Because Israel was known as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” we were generous in using milk and milk products (cheese, yogurt, curds, butter) and in substituting honey for granulated sugar (sugar cane was known, yet not processed in the ancient world) wherever we thought it made sense and would add to the flavor of the dish.

Many of our menus include fish. Though rarely mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, our research determined that fish was a goodly part of the Middle Eastern diet and that it was actively traded, as evidenced by the mention of the selling of fish outside of Jerusalem in the books of Nehemiah (13:16) and Zephaniah (1:10). In the Christian New Testament, a few of the disciples of Jesus were fishermen, and Jesus himself prepares them a fish meal in the Gospel of John (21:9ff.). Because some of the biblical meals take place in Egypt, and given evidence that the Israelites were actively bartering with seafaring peoples from other lands, we have written recipes for fish that were known to be available at market, either from the Nile, the River Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, or the Mediterranean itself.

It is a well–known fact that all kinds of “meat” were prepared and eaten in biblical times, everything from venison to goat, from lamb to oxen and kine (cows), and from quail and duck to pigeons, sparrows, doves, and geese. Most of these meats were reserved for religious or festive occasions (such as the arrival of a guest or a wedding celebration); yet, as always, the rich and royal feasted much better and more often on these domesticated or hunted animals. Chicken was not unknown (having made its way, some say, from or through Persia), so we have included it as well, in full knowledge that the peoples of the Bible must have learned some new recipes from their captors and those who ruled over them in Egypt, after the fall of what remained of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel in the 6th century b.c.e., and under Roman occupation.

As Jewish law forbids adherents to eat animals that were considered “unclean,” we have refrained from recipes that use “forbidden foods,” such as pork, rabbit, birds of prey, and fish without scales (such as shellfish, catfish, and eels). We have included yogurt made from camel's milk (kefir), yet no recipes using the flesh of the camel (also forbidden), although Bedouins and other nomads now (and then) have used it as a form of sustenance.

It was customary to serve bread and red wine (or some liquid product of the fruit of the vine) with every meal.2 The menus in this book include both at times, specifically (but not always) if one or the other is mentioned in the biblical passage that is the focus of the chapter. The cook, or whoever is planning the menu, should feel free to include bread and wine in the meal as being representative of the era and authentic to the experience of Middle Eastern gastronomy.

A major difference between scripturally based meals and the more Western dining experience is in the order of the meal and in what constitutes “dessert.” Most likely, bread and wine were first on the menu of most biblical meals, as they were blessed when the meal began. A typical meal continued with something pickled in brine or vinegar, because it was thought that such stimulated the appetite. What one might consider “appetizers,” such as cheese, raw vegetables, soups, and salads, were usually served next along with the main meat or vegetable course. Dessert, which often consisted of dried or fresh fruits, puddings, or “dainties' (delicacies that were sweet), came last (if indeed it were part of the meal at all). The concept of sweet baked goods as a dessert, e.g., cakes or cookies, is a fairly new occurrence at Middle Eastern meals.

In an attempt to bridge the old with the new, we have provided recipes for more modern delectables at the end of each menu, often with ingredients that play to the theme of the chapter—e.g., Angel Food Cake for the story of the angels' visit to Abraham and Sarah; Abigail Fritters for the story of Abigail's encounter with King David; and Governor's Cake in the chapter on Nehemiah's gubernatorial reign. We do so “tongue-in-cheek” we know, and we are confident that the reader is also aware, that these recipes are not biblical; still we thought, and we hope the audience you are cooking for will appreciate too, that a few such recipes might add a bit of levity to the presentation of the meal (“presentation is everything”), while serving to highlight a central theme of the story.

A major portion of Cooking with the Bible has been given over to a historical overview of the list of ingredients used in the meals we have created. We've attempted to describe every foodstuff that is mentioned in the recipes, providing the reader with etymological, botanical, culinary, practical, and folkloric information for each biblical entry; we have provided similar descriptions for all nonscriptural items as well. In many ways, this has been the most fascinating aspect of our work: the research into the properties of the foods about which we were writing encouraged us time and again to experiment with interesting combinations of ingredients that complemented one another in nontraditional but savory ways.

So as to further understand the sitz im leben (historical setting) of the biblical passage, we have provided maps of the places cited in each story that will provide the reader with insight into the distances traveled between places, as well as their proximity to water sources, neighboring kingdoms, and Jerusalem itself, the capital focus of many of the Bible stories presented.

A table listing biblical weights and measures and their equivalents is also included for the more mathematical cooks amongst us. By nature, we see ourselves as intuitive in our approach to cooking; but we have learned the hard way, especially in the making of certain breads, that when an exact amount is required, nothing more or less will do!

With regard to cooking methods, an attempt has been made to cover all bases. Though most biblical fare was parboiled in cauldrons or cooked in clay pots hanging over an open fire, fried on hot stones or hard earth with coals set on top of the food, or sometimes baked in makeshift ovens, the truth is that there is not a whole lot of archaeological or written evidence about how food was cooked in biblical times. Fish and meats were often hung out raw, then smoked or buried until used, or else they were preserved by sun drying, often in salt. No further cooking was required in these instances. Utensils were used to aid in cooking, but not for eating. Biblical diners ate with their fingers, often using bread to scoop or sop up what was not easily handled. The meals we have put together presume the use of knife, fork, spoon, and other utensils, yet this does not preclude using one's hands, especially if good bread is available and tasty juices are left on the plate! To make cooking easier, and assuming that most cooks do not have industrial kitchens at their beck and call, we have varied the food-preparation methods in our recipes to include use of an oven, a charcoal or gas grill (or outdoor fire), electric frying pan, pots on the stove, microwave, refrigerator, toaster oven, blender, hand mixer, bread machine, food processor, and even a fondue pot! We have also taken into account that some foods might be easier to locate in frozen form, and many of our recipes call for dried herbs and spices at times when fresh varieties might not be readily available.

The chapters that follow are arranged in a standard format. At the start of each chapter is the biblical text. We have not employed one sole translation of the Bible for our work here. A variety of English translations have been used, from one of the oldest (King James Version, or KJV) to one of the newest (The Message), choosing the one that best elucidated the ingredients of the meal described therein. We cannot sufficiently underscore the value of the text to speak for itself (in whatever translation), and so we have given each excerpt its own special place, using as much of the passage as clearly conveys the story. We recommend that you provide a copy of the text (or read it) to those you've invited to the meal, as it wonderfully sets the stage for all that has been prepared and is about to be enjoyed.

As some of the texts are a bit obscure or lesser-known to even the most ardent readers of the scriptures, a commentary accompanies each biblical passage. Portions of their content are exegetical in nature, so they include word studies, as well as literary, critical, sociological, and historical background material—all of which are intended to further illuminate what has sadly been lost in translation from the original languages of our forebears who passed these stories down to us. This framework also seeks to establish a place on the map and on the timeline for the story at hand, regardless of the mythic elements that often surround it. (In other words, one does not have to believe that every aspect of what the story relates actually happened in order to learn something from it.)

The menu and the recipes are last, but not least. After all, this is a cookbook! You should know that no fancy test kitchens were used to test these recipes. All the meals can be created in a home kitchen without any special equipment. Hopefully, you will come to an understanding of the Middle Eastern way of cooking, a gastronomical exercise that has its own unique preparation and taste and presentation, rich in tradition but adaptable to its surroundings and joyous in its expression of the earthly bounty and its culinary inheritance. In the Middle East, eating is not only for daily sustenance—it is a way of life!

Notes

1. That is to say, unless one counts the instructions from God regarding the Passover meal, in which the Israelites are told to roast the lamb shank (versus the usual boiling method); or the mixed grain and pulse bread of Ezekiel 4:9, which gives a list of ingredients but no specifics of quantity.
2. Regarding other beverages, although we do include coffee or tea in some of our recipes, coffee may have been unknown in the Middle East during biblical times. Cooks of that era might have understood the nature of creating infusions (such as mint or some other herb) or adding citrus to heated water to create a kind of “tea” but we have no evidence that it was a common beverage choice.