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 ‘To everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food,’ and thus it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good (Genesis 1:30-31).

 Commentators state that the word herb is not limited to plants like sage, rosemary and thyme. The phrase every green herb includes leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and grains. All foods that God created for man are good, not just flavorful greens. He didn’t intend for us to become sick as a result of eating food.  And there’s no evidence that the diseases people suffered in ancient Israel were food-related. (See past posts on the diseases of first century Palestine, posted on 11/05/12 and 11/07/12.)

A Problem with Wheat Today

Wheat was one of the grains God said shall make the young men thrive (Zech. 9:17). Almost all biblical references to grain, bread, wheat and flour are positive. Bread made from wheat was a staple in Israel. Fine flour, raised bread and unleavened bread played important roles in Israel’s worship and holyday observances. Jesus referred to Himself as the living bread that came down from heaven—the bread of life (John 6:35, 51). On two occasions, He fed thousands of followers with a few loaves of bread (Matt.16:8-10). Jesus compared the outcome of His death to the fruit borne of a single grain of wheat that dies (John 12:24).

But wheat in the 21st century has been linked to health problems.[1] A number of doctors and nutritionists believe that wheat shouldn’t play such a starring role in the today’s diet. They question what’s happened to wheat in the last fifty years and how it’s different from wheat grown 3,000 years ago. They speculate that commercial milling may affect human digestion of wheat.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

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

A Step Back in Time

Considering these questions in a biblical setting takes us to the book of Ruth, a romance set in the grain fields of ancient Israel.  As the narrator tells the story of a young widow and her devoted benefactor, readers get a sense of how grain was grown and harvested during the time of the Judges.

Ruth supported herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of Boaz, her relative. Six times in reference to his property, the narrator used the word “field” (singular), and once the phrase, “part of the field belonging to Boaz” (Ruth 2). A wealthy man like Boaz may have owned only one field or parts of a field. Boaz called his reapers “my young women” and “my young men, suggesting that his grain business was small enough to manage with workers he knew.  He supervised the fieldwork, ate meals with the workers and joined in the harvest activities. Reaping and gathering were done by hand with the assistance of ox carts to carry bundles to the threshing floor.[2] Ruth carried her own grain to the threshing area and beat out the kernels with a rod. For an owner’s larger harvest, oxen pulled heavy sledges or a millstone over the stalks to separate the seed heads. Using pitchforks and baskets, workers winnowed the seed from the chaff. If Ruth were dropped into a Kansas wheat field today, she wouldn’t recognize uniform stalks bred for mechanical harvesting. It would amaze Boaz to watch high-tech harvesters mowing, threshing, winnowing, and separating grain in one continuous operation.

Left: Hulled wheat (einkorn), with spikelets. ...

Left: Hulled wheat (einkorn), with spikelets. Right: Free-threshing wheat (common wheat). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wheat grown 3-4000 years ago was domesticated wild grass, probably emmer or einkorn wheat. Both emmer and einkorn have different genetic structures than the wheat grown today.[3] Dr. William Davis states that wheat today “is not the same grain our forebears ground into their daily bread.”[4] He adds that from the original strains of wild grass such as emmer and einkorn, “wheat has exploded to more than 25,000 varieties, virtually all of them the result of human intervention.”[5]  As part of a worldwide effort to reduce hunger, “wheat strains have been hybridized and crossbred…to make the wheat plant resistant to environmental conditions, such as drought, or pathogens such as fungi…and to increase yield per acre.”[6]

Storage and Milling

Grain stored as kernels keeps indefinitely without spoiling. Ruth would have stored her barley and wheat as kernels and ground them into porridge or flour when it was time for a meal.

Author Sarah Ruszkowski explains that each wheat grain is “made up the endosperm, the bran, the fiber, and the wheat germ. The milling process grinds all these parts together to create a flour. However, the wheat germ is very oily and can become rancid rather quickly when broken and exposed to air. Flour manufacturers must remove the wheat germ for preservation and longer shelf life.”[7] In short, commercial milling sacrifices some nutritional benefit to produce flour with a long shelf life.

She adds, “Unfortunately, the wheat germ is the most nutritious part of the wheat berry. By removing the wheat berry, fiber, and bran twenty-eight of the thirty known vitamins and minerals in a single wheat berry are lost leaving only the endosperm,”[8] although millers do add four vitamins back into the flour to enrich it. The fresh flour Ruth made by grinding wheat berries as needed contained all 28 vitamins (especially the B vitamins, vitamins A and E) thought to be important for proper digestion of wheat.

The Future

The work of Norman Borlaug in the 1940’s and 50’s introduced a variety of short, high-yield wheat that revolutionized feeding the world. But changing the genetic code of wheat might have its downside.  It’s not likely that scientists can further the green revolution and simultaneously eliminate any resultant side effects.

A time is coming when things will balance. God will return all things to how they should be, a Divine reset that restores the creation to proper functioning. God, man and the land will relate in what Isaiah envisions as marriage.

But you will be called, “My delight is in her,” And your land, “Married;” For the LORD delights in you, And to Him your land will be married (Isa.62:4).

by Mary Hendren


[1] William Davis, “Wheat Belly,” Rodale Press, 2011; David Perlmutter, “Grain Brain,” Little, Brown and Company

[2] Oded Borowski, “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” pp. 59-60

[3] Same source, pp. 88-89

[4] William Davis, “Wheat Belly,” Rodale Inc., 2011, p. 14

[5] Same source, p. 16

[6] Same source, p. 14

[7] Sarah Ruszkowski, Yahoo! Voices, “Health Benefits of Grinding Whole Wheat Flour at Home”

[8] Same source.

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.


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.


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.


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”


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 (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], “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

The Staff of Life

For thousands of years bread has been a basic staple worldwide. In the past “most of the world has gotten most of its calories from bread” (Oman Tribune On-line, “Bread the Giver of Life”). The roots of the phrase “bread is the staff of life” may be the Bible. Bread is mentioned often in scripture as an important essential for life and hospitality. The verse that relates bread and the staff of life is Ezekiel 4:16. Here God warns Jerusalem about coming punishment.

Barley grain

Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem.

Earlier God gave Ezekiel an intriguing list of grains and legumes that he was to make into bread.

Also take for yourself wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread of them for yourself (Ezekiel 4:9).

Today’s artisan bread makers appreciate the nutritional value of Ezekiel’s grains. Peter Reinhardt notes that the whole grain movement of the 1960s led to improved bread in the United States. “Whole grains became the symbol of a healthful, holistic way of life that had fallen by the wayside” (Artisan Bread Every Day, Peter Reinhardt, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, p.1). He adds that “part of the problem was most of the whole grains of that era, while nutritionally superior, weren’t particularly delicious (or even palatable), so they came to be labeled ‘health food’ breads, not fit for general consumption” (same source, p.1).

The Food for Life Baking Company in California aims to make whole grain breads that are both nutritious and delicious. On their website, Food for Life states that the inspiration for their version of Ezekiel Bread is Holy Scripture. They add, “We discovered when these six grains and legumes (wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt) are sprouted and combined, an amazing thing happens. A complete protein is created that closely parallels the protein found in milk and eggs.”

The company states that bread made from sprouted grain and baked at a lower temperature (as Ezekiel would have done) is less likely to aggravate allergies and gluten sensitivities. On the FAQ page, they qualify: “Many individuals with mild gluten sensitivities use sprouted grains with no adverse affect or allergic reaction…but every individual’s constitution is different.”

Author Suzanne Robin reminds readers, “Nowhere in book of Ezekiel does God suggest that everyone eat Ezekiel’s bread or that it has any particular health benefits. To obtain all the nutrients in a recommended 2000-a-er-day diet, you would have to consume 25 slices a day” (, “Ezekiel Diet”). That’s a lot of bread!

It brings up the question of why God gave Ezekiel a recipe of grains and legumes with which to make bread? Was it to improve his strength? Was it to set an example of eating healthfully? Most Bible commentators agree that God’s purpose was not to promote health and nutrition.

Gill’s commentary states that most bread was made of wheat, and only in times of poverty did the bread include barley. The other grains God proscribed were primarily used for cattle feed. Only in a time of adversity would flour be stretched out with inferior ingredients. Henry’s commentary, Clarke’s commentary, and the Geneva commentary agree that Ezekiel ate a bread of mixed grains, not for health, but to enact a time of famine.

God measured the amount of bread Ezekiel could eat each day, and it was “the least a man could be kept alive with” (Henry’s Commentary, Ezekiel 4:9). Mixed grains indicated a scarcity in the necessities of life, a condition in which people “would be glad to eat whatever they could get” (Geneva Commentary, Ezekiel 4:9).

Although Ezekiel’s bread has some health-giving benefits and many people choose to incorporate it as part of their diet, Ezekiel did not eat it by choice. God sustained his life at a level of near starvation. He ate the bread of adversity in obedience to God for the purpose of enacting a coming famine in Jerusalem. ♦ Mary Hendren

A Typical Day for a New Testament Woman

If there is a constant throughout history it is the need for food and water for survival. And generally speaking women have been at least partially responsible for making sure the family has both. In the 21st Century, this is a much easier task for most areas of the developed world. Water is piped into the house, and food is as near as the closest grocery. Not so for village women in New Testament times, as we shall see.


Sun-up signals the time for daily household tasks to begin. A wife and her daughters are responsible for providing fresh water for the home. So they make daily trips to the village well in the early morning and in the evenings, carrying pitchers of water on their heads or shoulders. If larger quantities of water are needed, men use large sheep or goat skins to carry the supply.

Fred H. Wight, in his Manners and Customs of the Bible (1953), says “each woman who comes for water brings with her, in addition to the pitcher…a hard leather portable bucket with a rope, in order to let it down to the level of the water” (page 90). (See John 4:5-13.)


Then they busy themselves with food preparation for the day: grinding grain; baking bread; milking the goats; and making cheese and curds. (Mary Hendren will explain more about bread in her posts, “Breaking Bread,” and “The Staff of Life.”)

“Most families ate two meals. Breakfasts were likely to be light and were carried to the fields…and eaten at mid-morning or midday” (Reader’s Digest: Jesus and His Times, page 97). Supper was relaxation time after a hard day’s labor and the meal was substantial: “vegetables, eggs, cheese, bread, butter, wine, nuts, and fruit, with occasional chicken or wild fowl.”


In warm weather cooking is done in the courtyard, but during inclement weather the cook resorts to using a portable clay stove inside. Since there is no chimney, smoke and cooking odors permeate the small house.

Most foods other than bread are boiled or stewed in a big pot and seasoned with salt and onions, garlic, mint, dill, cumin, coriander, rue, or mustard.


Wight writes that the only dishes at a meal are those containing the food, such as a pot for stew. There are no plates for individuals, or silverware. Bread is used to scoop food from the common pot, and meat is eaten with the fingers (pages 58-60). (See Matthew 26:23; Mark 14:20.)

Washing hands

The rules of the  culture require that hands be washed before and after a meal. This is done by pouring water over the hands into a basin and then discarding it appropriately. Wealthier family have servants who assist in this activity.

At day’s end

After a full day of work for the entire family, mattresses are pulled out, and mother, father and children settle in together for a night’s rest. At daybreak, the cycle begins again.

What’s for dinner?

Next week’s posts examine a timeless topic: food and cooking. Three of the most challenging words for me are, “What’s for dinner?”  When we had a growing family, that was a common, and sometimes aggravating query. Now I find I ask myself that same question often. I have so many choices that just deciding a menu can be a challenge. I certainly have no excuse for serving dull and boring meals (though that sometimes happens).

While I have the luxury of having access to numerous varieties of produce, not just seasonally, but all year around, I wonder about shoppers in New Testament times. We’ll take a look at markets in Jerusalem, and visit rural areas as well.

And when I survey my kitchen with its gas stove and oven regulated by a thermostat, hot and cold running water, a refrigerator and freezer, cabinets stocked with everything to fill my cooking needs, I wonder what a well-equipped “kitchen” during the time of Martha and Mary might have looked like.

Have you wondered about cookbooks? I have two shelves filled with them. You might be surprised how far they date back. And what recipes are still used today.

Mary Hendren is researching the food that has been a staple from the beginning of time—bread. I love the smell of bread right out of the oven, especially if there is butter and honey handy. What a treat!

Bread in a traditional oven

Bread in a traditional oven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well I hope that is enough of an “appetizer” to make you want to enjoy the “full course” next week.
Before I go, how about another Memory Checker: How many fruits and nuts can you list from the Bible? I have eleven so far.

Thanks for stopping by. This journey of discovery is much nicer in the company of friends!

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