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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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