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The Story of Ruth: New Beginnings

But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Coming home

The small town of Bethlehem was abuzz—Naomi was back after more than ten years! But where was Elimelech? And Mahlon and Chilion? Who was the young foreigner walking beside her? Why did Naomi look so sad?

From the time she entered the gate[1] undoubtedly town elders and townspeople alike plied Naomi with questions. One can only imagine what went through Ruth’s mind, as she, too, encountered first one person and then another, aware of scrutinizing, and sometimes suspicious, eyes. While Israel was enjoying a period of detente with Moab, Ruth was most likely aware of the checkered relationship of their shared past[2] and all that entailed. Now, unfaltering in her pledge of undying devotion to Naomi, she was more resolved than ever to make a new life for herself—Moab, along with its gods and culture, was going to become a thing of the past.

She listened as her mother-in-law told and retold the pitiful story of her plight, lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me” (vv 20-21)? For reasons unstated in scripture, she believed her misfortunes were somehow punishments from her LORD. For that, Ruth could offer no solace.

New beginnings

The rules of hospitality[3] ensured that the two weary women had a place to stay at least temporarily until permanent arrangements could be made, so they probably found lodging with some of Naomi’s relatives or friends. It is assumed, though, that she quickly returned to her husband’s property, possibly a house that had been rented in the family’s absence or guarded by relatives who remained in the land. At least they would have shelter. Their means of support and sustenance was quite another matter.

They had arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth soon learned that Israel had provisions in place to care for the poor including widows, orphans and foreigners: the right to follow behind the reapers and glean the fields. It was hard work for all concerned, and for gleaners it likely represented a tenuous hold on survival. “Since prudent workers worked carefully, the gleaning of the fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to eke out survival today by recycling aluminum cans” (The Book of Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard, 1988, Google Books, p. 138). She wasted no time in gaining permission to work one of the fields, the owner of which, she learned, was a man named Boaz.

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: ...

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: Руфь и Вооз (Руфь 2:2-20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A day’s work

 At first light Ruth watched as reapers, men who were either hired laborers or slaves, established a time-worn rhythm, grasping the mature stalks with one hand, and using a sickle to cut off the grain with the other. When an armload of ear-laden stalks became unmanageable, the reaper laid them in rows by standing stalls where women waited to tie them into bundles eventually to be transported to the threshing floor. There threshers separated the grain from the chaff, and sealed it in jars for later use.

Ruth swiftly moved in behind the laborers, scooping up the precious grist as it fell, and before other gleaners, or avaricious birds could claim the prize. It was backbreaking work, and she did it willingly. Naomi was depending on her. What she did not know is that someone was observing her with keen interest.

  ***

 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers,‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered him,‘The LORD bless you!’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,‘Whose young woman is this?’ So the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered and said, ‘It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house” (Ruth 2:4-7).  

A man views his fields

Boaz[4] had come from Bethlehem to oversee his fields, already alive with harvest activity. He saw the usual familiar crews, but one stranger stood out among them—according to his foreman, she was Ruth, a Moabitess, the widow of Naomi’s son, Mahlon. Curious, he studied her as she swiftly cleaned between the rows, back and forth in the warm springtime sun. He had already heard of her widowhood, and her devotion to Naomi—it was the talk of Bethlehem. Now, seeing her in person, something about Ruth touched him, and he ordered his crew to see to it that she had plenty to glean by purposely dropping stalks along her way.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while Boaz sent for her; she came obediently, bowing her face to the ground, struck by the fact that he would take the time to speak to her, a lowly reaper, and a foreign woman at that. After his assurances for her safety, Ruth found herself invited to share the noon meal with the reapers under the shade of a make-shift shelter. She watched as the laborers deftly roasted ears of freshly harvested barley over a ready fire. Boaz himself quickly removed charred husks, and passed parched kernels to Ruth to eat her fill.[5] She must have marveled at his kindness—a man of such wealth and stature.

Ruth gleaned until evening, and had still more work to do—separating the grain from the chaff. By the time she finally returned to Naomi, she had enough barley to last them for several weeks.[6] Her mother-in-law was amazed, and upon further inquiry, learned that Ruth was gleaning in the field of a near kinsman of her husband’s.

Though Boaz’s benevolence continued to meet the widows’ short-term needs, Naomi knew it simply forestalled the inevitable. Unless something was done to ensure their future survival, very difficult times lay ahead. What they needed was a plan.

To be continued….

[1] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Bible Times, p. 21: “In settlements with no inns, local people were expected to invite out-of-towners into their homes. To be invited, out-of-towners would sit in the street or town square …and wait for an invitation by one of the locals (Judges 19:13). This was done probably by the entrance to the village, where people used to pass (Ruth 4:1)….Houses were so close to each other that people could tell when guests were visiting (v22). Further, the village population was small enough that the arrival of an outsider was noticed and quickly broadcast (Ruth 2:11).”

[2] See Numbers 22 and 25, and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 for the historical backdrop.

[3] The Woman’s Study Bible, Topic, “Hospitality: The Gift of Welcome,” p. 2071, comments, “For the people of the Bible, hospitality was not merely a matter of good manners but a necessity in the harsh desert regions. Hospitality was openly rewarded…(Joshua 2:12-14). Lack of hospitality was punished…(1 Samuel 25:2-39).”

See other posts relating to hospitality on this blog: https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/27/a-point-of-focus/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/;

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/29/the-hospitality-of-two-widows/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/pattern-for-hospitality-in-the-old-testament/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2013/07/21/a-hospitality-of-believers/

[4] Watching her was Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, probably a widower or perhaps one who never married—the Bible doesn’t say. There is no record of any children prior to his marriage to Ruth. Chances are he was older than Ruth—perhaps even by quite a bit—and the record indicates that he was successful—“a mighty man of wealth” of Elimelech’s clan (Ruth 2:1 KJV), making him related to Naomi by marriage.

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, comment on Ruth 2:14.

[6] Expositor’s estimates her gleanings measured about an ephah of barley—approximately one-half to two-thirds of a bushel, estimated to be from 29 to 50 pounds. (See comment on verse 17.)

 

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Wine and Beer in the Ancient Near East

Harvest celebration

 In ancient Israel the high point of grape harvesting was winemaking, “an activity which was carried out by the vinedresser and his family.”[1] The treading of grapes in the wine press was “accompanied by music.” Grape juice flowed into troughs and was later poured into large jars. Do you picture the vinedresser’s happy family—father, mother, and children—laughing, slipping and sliding on grape skins? It probably didn’t happen that way.

Ancient Wine Bottles

Ancient Wine Bottles (Photo credit: Ryan Opaz)

Production line

 From Egyptian drawings of winemaking, men did most of the work. Men are shown treading the grapes and carrying storage jars to cellars where the wine fermented. If the Egyptians and Israelites followed similar winemaking techniques, men and women picked grapes, but men carried the heavy baskets and treaded the press. Archeologists discovered several wine presses in the cities of Gibeon and Beth-shemesh, (also En-gedi, Samaria, Shiloh and Timnah) suggesting that these areas were centers for wine production in ancient Israel. “Jars discovered in the Gibeon were inscribed with names of winemakers, an indication that these jars were returnable.”[2]

The first wine—a fortuitous accident?

Where did wine come from? In researching the role of women in making and/or providing wine for their families, I was given an article entitled “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt.” The authors wondered if wine came into being by accident. Did ancient people come across wild grapes that had fermented on the vine? When they placed harvested clusters into leather bags, did some of the fruit crush and make juice that fermented at the bottom of the bags? Did the ancient people experiment with wild grapes and fortuitously come up with an intoxicating drink? Researchers can’t prove how wine was discovered, but they have tracked down the earliest evidence of winemaking.

The authors believe that when the ancient peoples moved from a nomadic existence and settled in cities, they became farmers and tillers. They learned how to grow and process food, including how to make wine and beer. The “best candidate for early wine making and viniculture”[3] is in eastern Turkey, somewhere in the region of the Taurus Mountains.  Archeologists found pottery jars there with traces of tartaric acid “which occurs in large amounts in nature only in grapes” and residues in the same jars of “terebinth tree resin,”[4] a preservative that would have extended the life of the wine.

Beginning or revival?

Getting back to the origin of wine, there is a school of thought which hypothesizes that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.

The Bible records that after the Flood, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. When Noah settled there, he planted a vineyard and made wine. Whether this was the actual beginning of winemaking, or perhaps a revival of pre-flood viticulture is not addressed by the Bible. [5] It is safe, however, to note that from that time on, wine production eventually spread throughout various existing cultures.

Home brew?

With grape-growing and winemaking an established industry in Palestine, did individuals plant grapes and make a little wine at home? I imagine some families planted grapes to eat as fresh fruit and raisins, to make vinegar and syrup and to press into dried fruit cakes. However, the quantity of grapes needed to make wine, the skill involved and the fermentation time, make it likely that men and women bought wine for the family from a vintner—perhaps in refillable jars?

Israelites also drank beer made from barley and wheat. To celebrate the annual Holy Days, the people set aside money to spend “for whatever your heart desires; for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink.” [6] The Hebrew word sikura or shekar translated similar drink or strong drink includes any number of intoxicating beverages made from apples, honey, dates, wheat and barley.

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on displ...

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. Barley beer is being brewed, with the men on the left mashing the yeast starter in a bowl for fermenting, while the ones on the right are bottling. The rightmost figure with a tablet tucked under his arm is a scribe, counting the bottles. RC 483 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was beer a significant beverage in Israel? Some scholars believe beer was as common in Israel as it was in other ancient countries; however, the word beer became associated with drunkenness in general, regardless of the beverage.

Israelites enjoyed a variety of drinks: wines fermented from fruit, some beer-like beverages fermented from grain; and non-alcoholic drinks such as sweet milk, soured milk and water. When used properly, wine had the additional benefits of making the heart glad and settling the stomach (Psalm 104:15, 1 Tim. 5:23).—Mary Hendren


[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 110

[2] Same source, p. 112

[3] “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt” (Patrick McGovern, Ulrich Hartung, Virginia R. Badler, Donald L. Glusker, and Lawrence J. Exner) p. 4

[4] Same source and page

[5] Is it possible that the origin went back even farther, and that God told Adam and Eve how to make wine? I’ve wondered about how God helped Adam and Eve learn to till the ground. Did He teach them how to support themselves by tilling the soil? The Bible doesn’t say. Later, when God cleaned up the corruption on earth, I’ve wondered if Noah took on board the ark plant material (grapes, wheat, fruit) for re-establishing staple crops? Again, the Bible doesn’t say how God took care of that.

[6] Deuteronomy 14:26

Achsah: The Daughter Who Asked for More

Caleb watched as distant figures, shimmering like a mirage from the arid Negeb, gradually assumed familiar shapes, and he waited. It was his lovely daughter, Achsah, with her new husband. She was no longer under his protective care in the family compound near Hebron. She now dwelled with the one who had won her hand by his acts of bravery and courage—Othneil, slayer of giants, conqueror of Debir. Caleb wondered why they were coming.

How it all began[1]

Over forty years before, Caleb, Joshua, and ten others, leaders all of Israel’s twelve tribes, embarked on a reconnaissance of the land of Canaan, one commissioned by the LORD through Moses. Their mission? Spy out the land, and its inhabitants. Were the Canaanites a people strong, or weak? Many, or few? Did they dwell in fortified strongholds, or tents? Was the land fertile? Were there ample forests for Israel’s needs?

English: Joshua and Caleb, as in Numbers 13

English: Joshua and Caleb, as in Numbers 13 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was around the month of Elul, the season for the first grape harvest. What better time to bring back samples of the ripening fruit of the land? Above all, Moses exhorted them to be of good courage. Much depended on their findings, as would soon become evident.

The twelve tribal emissaries set out immediately, and for forty days furtively scouted the land, covering some 300 miles[2] before returning to their launch point, Kadesh-barnea. En route they saw date palms, pomegranates, ripening grapes, all thriving in abundance. There was ample pasture for sheep and cattle, and fields suitable for growing barley and wheat. Olive and fruit trees dotted certain regions of countryside. The coastline provided fishing, and perhaps even dye works. Canaan, indeed, was full of resources and promise.

Its inhabitants, however, were an entirely different matter—especially the hulking sons of Anak!

An ill wind

 “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey,” the returning  spies reported to eager ears. “Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites—all formidable and well-armed—would have to be dealt with as well.

Anak! Apprehension swirled through the ranks of Israel. Caleb quieted the people, then exhorted them, saying, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.” The agitators would have none of it, and retorted, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. . . . The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”

With weeping and wailing, Israel turned on Moses and Aaron, demanding new leaders, and refusing to enter Canaan. Moses and Aaron, in shock and horror, fell on their faces before the unruly assembly, undoubtedly recognizing a grievous affront to the LORD, their Deliverer.

Only two of the twelve, Joshua and Caleb, confronted the growing spirit of revolt, warning the tribes not to rebel against the Lord. They implored them rather to trust that “if the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us . . . .” Those words only moved the mob to violence, and cries of, “Stone them! Stone them!” filled the air. Little did the tribes of Israel realize that their own fates were sealed in the wake of that murderous intent. The LORD had had enough!

And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. I the LORD have spoken this. I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die'”[3] 

To be continued…


[1] Please read Numbers 13 for the entire account.

[2] I estimate that the trip northward was roughly 150 miles based on an atlas scale. The envisioned round-trip could have covered approximately 300 miles using that scale.

Barley: the Grain of the Poor

Barley was the grain most commonly used to mak...

Barley was the grain most commonly used to make into flour for bread in Iron Age Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barley was a primary food grain in ancient Israel. The Israelites planted barley in the fall at the time of first rain. The seed over-wintered in the ground, sprouted in the spring and was harvested in March to April. Wheat was planted at the same time but it ripened in May to June. Barley could be grown in poor soil and be broadcast into unplowed ground. Barley was a dependable, disease-resistant crop, easier and less expensive to grow than wheat.

Concerning nutrition, barley surpasses wheat in a few ways: barley has twice as many fatty acids as wheat; it has 40% more fiber than wheat; it contains vitamin E (wheat has none); it contains more thiamine, riboflavin and lysine than wheat “giving barley a more balanced protein.”[1] Barley has less gluten than wheat, which makes it less desirable for making raised breads. The high gluten content of wheat, and the preference for raised bread, caused wheat to become the most important of the ancient grains.

Israel’s bread

Though wheat became the preferred grain in the ancient world, barley still played an important part in the diet of the Hebrews. Israelites ate barley and oats as porridge and flatbreads and fed both grains to their animals. Wheat was not used as animal food. Barley gradually became known as the grain of the poor. “Barley was cultivated in Palestine and Egypt and was fed to cattle and horses. Though the Egyptians used barley to feed animals, the Hebrews used it for bread, at least for the poor.”[2] Barley was fed to horses or mixed with ground lentils, beans and millet to enhance its taste.[3]

It is estimated that bread provided “50-70 % of the ordinary person’s calories, and the bread eaten until the end of the Israelite monarchy was mainly made from barley.”[4] The book of Ruth illustrates the importance of barley as a life sustaining grain for the poor.

Gleaning 

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields o...

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Boaz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Ruth and Naomi had no way of supporting themselves in Moab, so they returned to Israel as impoverished widows. (Ruth 1:20). They arrived at the time of the barley harvest, and found relief through laws established to help the poor (Ruth 1:22, Lev. 19:9, Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19).

When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; there I command you to do this thing.

 Gleaners were allowed into the fields after a farmer had harvested his crop, and farmers were subject to punishment if they frustrated those who wished to collect leftover crops. Ancient rabbinical rules stated that farmers were “not permitted to discriminate among the poor, nor to try to frighten them away with dogs or lions.”[5]

Ruth was blessed to glean in fields belonging to Boaz, a kind and generous man. His reapers purposefully dropped barley for Ruth to pick up, enabling her to gather more than would have been expected. In the evenings, she returned to Naomi with about half a bushel of barley.

Threshing

Each village had a threshing floor that the farmers shared. A threshing floor made of paving stone or hard-packed dirt was located in flat, windy areas. Farmers piled their sheaves on the threshing floor and cattle trampled over the grain to break up the straw. At some threshing floors, farmers hooked oxen to threshing boards embedded with obsidian chips or to spiked rollers. Both mechanical devices were pulled across the sheaves to break the grain heads free of the straw. Because Ruth gleaned a small amount of grain each day, it is likely she threshed by beating the grain with a hinged tool called a flail.

A threshing flail Français : Fléau ‪Norsk (bok...

A threshing flail Français : Fléau ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Slegel (nn), sliul (nn/nb), sloge (nn), tust (nn/nb) Svenska: Slaga Română: Îmblăciu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Farmers tossed the threshed grain into the air with winnowing forks, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff. Women winnowed by tossing and catching the grain in flat baskets. Ruth likely winnowed her grain in a flat basket, keeping her part separate from the harvest.

Grinding

In the evening Naomi and Ruth divided the grain into portions: what would be used immediately, what would be stored and what would be sold for other commodities. They parched grain and ate it warm. They parboiled it for porridge or stew.  They ground most of it into flour for bread.

I imagine that Naomi took care of the grain that Ruth brought home. The most arduous of her duties was grinding. Grinding “was a difficult and time-consuming task…it is estimated that it required at least three hours of daily effort to produce enough flour to make sufficient bread for a family of five. The earliest milling was performed with a pestle and mortar, or a stone quern consisting of a lower stone that held the grain and a smooth upper stone that was moved back and forth over the grains.”[6] Working with a quern or pestle and mortar, it may have taken Naomi an hour or more of grinding to make enough flour for their daily bread.

Busy hands reap bountiful blessings

Ruth and Naomi worked to support themselves. They were grateful for the opportunity to work. Ruth came to the attention of Boaz because she had worked (Ruth 2:11).

It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before.

 God blessed Ruth because she continued to work (Ruth 2:12, 4:13-17).

The LORD repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge. ♦ Mary Hendren

 


[1] AAOOB Storable Foods, Grain Information, “Barley ”

[2] Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, Packer and Tenny, Editors, p. 468

[3] Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob, pp. 35, 163

[4] Wikipedia, “Ancient Israelite Cuisine

[5] Wikipedia, “Gleaning”

[6] Wikipedia, “Ancient Israelite Cuisine”

Bread

The first Biblical reference to a woman doing specific work (other than childbirth) refers to a task done four thousand years ago. Abraham entertained unexpected guests, and Sarah made cakes for them.

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal, knead it and make cakes.”

 Women made cakes from meal, or fine meal (flour), and “roasted the dough in the ashes” or “under the coals” or on hot stones.[1] The ancient people used four kinds of grain to make meal: millet, oats, barley and wheat. Sarah could have made cakes from any of the grains, although barley and wheat were preferred. Barley meal made healthful roasted flatbread and became a symbol of Israel’s strength.

“Nowhere—not even in Homer—is there written so forcible a tribute to barley as in the Book of Judges, where an Israelite dreams of a cake of barley bread tumbling into the Midianites’ camp and destroying all of Israel’s enemies.”[2]

Barley

Barley (Photo credit: freefotouk)

While barley, millet and oats make satisfying flatbreads, these grains have little or no gluten, which is necessary for making raised bread. Millet is gluten-free; oats contain a little gluten; and barley has less gluten than wheat. Because of its high gluten content, wheat flour makes exceptional raised bread. Kneading dough made from wheat flour develops strands of gluten. Gluten is stretchy and traps the gas generated during leavening. It enables bread to rise and hold its structure. Raised bread can be made with other grains if they are combined with wheat flour or another gluten source. Because of wheat’s baking qualities, it “became the king of grains—and remains so to this day.”[3]

Sarah’s Cakes

Did Sarah know how to make raised bread from air-borne yeast? She might have. Historians believe that Egyptians “invented” raised bread about 500 years before the time of Abraham.

Egyptian Bowl with Bread

Egyptian Bowl with Bread (Photo credit: feministjulie)

 “Around 2,500 B.C. the Egyptians learned how to exploit the gluten in wheat flour making the first raised breads from yeast. This discovery alone pushed wheat to the forefront ahead of the other prized grains of the day, oats, millet, rice and barley. The Egyptians grew huge amounts of wheat. They eventually started exporting wheat to other parts of the new world.”[4]

The Egyptians “made an enormous contribution to civilization” by setting aside their dough until it fermented, and “were known as the bread eaters…[because it was] the principal good of all Egyptians.”[5]

How the Egyptians first discovered the activity of invisible air-borne yeast is not known. Was an Egyptian woman called away from mixing her dough long enough that yeasts began to ferment it? When she returned and found a slightly bubbly mess, did she throw up her hands and say, “I’ll have to bake it anyway.” It’s lost to us.

Learned skill

 It is likely that the Israelites learned to make raised bread while they were slaves in Egypt. At the time of Moses, Egyptians already had brick ovens and were capable of making raised breads in various shapes, a skill attested to by Egyptian tomb paintings.  Earlier Hebrews, nomadic peoples like Abraham who lived in tents and followed their herds, “could not be bothered transporting such ovens through the land…either they parched the grain, like the reapers in the Book of Ruth, or they set flat cakes to bake” on a hearth or under coals.[6]

Adam Clarke states that Sarah made cakes on a hearth as was common among the Bedouin tribes. “When the hearth is strongly heated by the fired kindled on it, they remove the coals, sweep off the ashes, lay on the bread, and then cover it with hot cinders.”[7] Commentators John Gill and Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agree with Clarke that Sarah made cakes from sifted meal and cooked them on a hot surface under embers.

Time to Rise

It is stated on some Jewish websites that flour made from any of five basic grains (wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt) and mixed with water begins to be leavened by natural yeasts in 18 minutes. Orthodox Jews, who seek to avoid any chance of dough beginning to ferment, bake their Passover matzohs quickly. Wild yeast will begin fermenting sugar when it settles on hydrated flour. But it takes more than 18 minutes of yeast activity to achieve dough sufficiently strong for baking a sizable raised loaf.

Peter Reinhart in The Baker’s Apprentice describes preparing an initial “seed culture” of wild yeast, flour and water over a period of one to four days. A small portion of this starter culture is mixed into a measure of flour and water to make a loaf of sourdough bread. After the dough is kneaded to develop gluten, it rests two to four hours as the yeast works. After resting, the dough is shaped and rises a final time before being baked.[8]

No Time to Rise

Ancient Israel had to leave Egypt quickly. After God administered the tenth plague, He wanted Israel out in a hurry. They couldn’t wait the hours to leaven, knead, shape, rise and bake their dough in Egyptian ovens. As stated in Exodus 12:33-34, the Israelites left with unused kneading bowls on their shoulders. Their daily bread was leavened but they didn’t have time to prepare it.

And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, having their kneading bowls bound up in their clothes on their shoulders.”

 A remarkable sign

Israel learned to make leavened bread in Egypt. Women baked it every day. It was a staple of their diet.

It was a remarkable sign for the Israelites to leave the land of “bread eaters,” the people who “invented” raised bread, who built brick ovens, who made fanciful shaped loaves, who baked bread for their gods and ancestors—to depart without any of the bread of Egypt.—Mary Hendren

 


[1] Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob, p.35.

[2] Same source, p. 15.

[3] Same source, p. 15.

[4] http://www.aaoobfoods.com, “Grain Information”

[5] Six Thousand Years of Bread History, pp. 26, 31

[6] Ibid, p. 35

[7] Adam Clarke’s Commentary, note on Gen.18:6, p. 42

[8] The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Peter Reinhart, pp. 227-235

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