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Not Bread AloneThe Uses of Food in the Old Testament$

Nathan MacDonald

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780199546527

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199546527.001.0001

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Milk and Honey: the Diet of the Israelites

Milk and Honey: the Diet of the Israelites

(p.47) 2 Milk and Honey: the Diet of the Israelites
Not Bread Alone

Nathan MacDonald (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Old Testament portrayal of Canaan as a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ has determined many assessments of the Israelite diet. These fail to take into account the literary and rhetorical nature of the biblical materials. They also fail to make critical use of the many available resources from archaeology, palaeopathology, archaeozoology, and comparative anthropology. The more realistic assessment of Israelite diet that is offered owes much to Peter Garnsey's studies of food issues in the classical world. Garnsey pioneered the utilization of nutritional anthropology in the study of Graeco-Roman diet and society convincingly demonstrating the frequency of food scarcity and the poor diet of most subjects of the Roman empire. A careful assessment of Israelite diet, taking into account all the information now available, suggests that most Israelites had a very poor diet which resulted in poor health status and low life expectancy.

Keywords:   diet, biblical archaeology, palaeopathology, archaeozoology, famine, meat consumption, nutritional anthropology

To appreciate aspects of the symbolic grammar of food in the books of the Old Testament it is valuable to have some understanding of Israelite diet. What can be known about the diet of the ancient Israelites? What were its mainstays, and what would have been considered a rare luxury? Did diet vary according to social class, geographical location, or historical period? Is it possible to assess the nutritional value of the Israelite diet? In recent years attempts have been made to assess the diet during the period of the Israelite monarchy and in later periods. We will examine these attempts and subject them to critical probing. I will argue that to gain a true assessment of Israelite diet a broad set of evidence needs to be taken into consideration. This includes archaeological evidence that has not previously been utilized in the discussion about Israelite diet, such as archaeozoology and palaeopathology.

Amongst the sources of information on Israelite diet is, of course, the Old Testament, since the Old Testament frequently touches upon the foods that the ancient Israelites ate. That the information the Old Testament provides needs to be treated with critical consideration should be clear, for the Old Testament at no point purports to provide us with an objective account of Israelite diet. Indeed, as we shall see, some of the descriptions of food in the Old Testament are rhetorically marked. In assessing Israelite diet, therefore, it is necessary to engage with the tension between historical and literary approaches that we observed in the previous chapter. In other words, the Old Testament provides useful information about the historical diet of the Israelites, but the text needs to be examined critically because that information is presented in a literary manner.


Models of the Israelite Rural Economy and Israelite Diet

How well did the Israelites eat? The conclusion of much biblical scholarship of the last centuries has been that the Israelite diet was, by modern standards, barely adequate. There were a limited array of foods, meat was rarely eaten (p.48) and there was the constant threat of famine. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible informs its readers that,

The Hebrews and early Christians did not enjoy as extensive a variety of foodstuffs as their modern descendants. Furthermore the danger of famine due to crop failure was much greater in ancient times.… In biblical times meat was not a regular part of the diet.1

Such views owed something to a careful reading of the biblical text, which makes occasional reference to famine, and to Robertson Smith's comparative work at the end of the nineteenth century. Smith had observed the occasional nature of meat in the nomadic diet.

Animal food3‐or at least the flesh of domestic animals, which are the only class of victims admitted among the Semites as ordinary and regular sacrifices3‐was not a common article of diet even among the nomad Arabs. The everyday food of the nomad consisted of milk, or game, when he could get it, and to a limited extent of dates and meal.… Flesh of domestic animals was eaten only as a luxury or in times of famine.2

Nomadism was, in Smith's time, taken to be the original social form of the Israelite tribes and their patriarchal ancestors. Smith's views, however, were slightly more nuanced than those expressed in the Interpreter's Dictionary, for whilst he held that, for later Israel, flesh was ordinarily consumed on feast days and holidays,3 he also noted that sacrifices began to be multiplied on trivial occasions, and that flesh became ‘a familiar luxury’.4 It was, though, his observations about the rarity of meat in nomadic diets that became the most influential characterization of Israelite diet for subsequent scholarship.

In recent years a number of Israeli archaeologists have sought to reassess the consensus within critical biblical scholarship. Thus, Shimon Dar observes that, ‘it used to be commonly thought that the inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean basin did not eat much meat in ancient times. But the most recent excavations do not support this theory.’ Instead, recent archaeological work ‘teaches us about the varied and satisfying diet which the inhabitants of Palestine enjoyed in ancient times. It appears that the calorific value did (p.49) not fall short of that of the present day.’5 Dar's confidence about the ancient Israelite diet is based upon the attempts by himself and others to model the agricultural economy, population and, consequently, the diet of Israelite villages using empirical data derived from excavations.

Such an approach to modelling the rural economy of ancient Palestine is Baruch Rosen's examination of the early Iron Age site at ‘Izbet Sartah.6 In an essay included with the excavation reports, Rosen used the capacity of the silos discovered at stratum II of ‘Izbet Sartah to calculate the amount of land under cultivation. At the same time, the number of families at the site allows the number of cattle available for ploughing to be estimated. Taken together with the animal proportions at the site known from faunal remains the pattern of animal husbandry can be modelled, and the contribution of milk and meat in the human diet determined.7 Rosen makes allowances for spoiling and the need to keep seed for sowing in the following year. Similarly for the herd numbers, Rosen assumes a cull pattern that would allow the herd to be maintained. With such assumptions Rosen finds that the majority of the calories needed by the population would have come from cereals, with protein supplied by legumes. The area under cultivation would have provided a harvest that exceeded the villagers’ needs, and the surplus could have been exchanged for olive oil, wine and other foodstuffs. The animal resources were less abundant. Nevertheless, Rosen concludes that this village of a hundred people could have owned around 22 cattle and 130 sheep or goats, and that the village's livestock would have supplied about 0.45 litres of milk and 44 grams of meat per person per day.8 The population at ‘Izbet Sartah, Rosen argues, enjoyed a diet that supplied all their calorie, protein and mineral needs. The only possible deficiency was a lack of vitamin C sources, which he speculates (p.50) could have been supplied from wild or cultivated greens.9 In a later essay, Rosen worked in the opposite direction. By estimating the population from the size of the buildings, the overall nutritional requirements of the villagers can be determined. With this information Rosen calculates the land under cultivation and the number of animals needed and determines whether such a local economy would have been feasible.10

The potential weakness of Rosen's models lies in their estimation of the animal population. A plausible estimate of the human population can be made from the area of buildings excavated and an area survey can suggest the amount of land available to a population centre. The proportion of caprovines to bovines can be estimated from animal bone remains, but the number of animals kept by a community must be calculated from these other estimated figures. This is a significant weakness because livestock numbers affect the estimates of the amount of land that can be ploughed and the amount of meat in the diet. In order to address this methodological weakness Aharon Sasson has recently developed a model that incorporates ethnographical data from censuses of Palestine during the British mandate. Using the census figures, he calculates the average number of animals per inhabitant for a Palestinian village that is located close to the ancient site he is investigating. In this way calculations of human population also provide an estimate of the animal population. From the number of animals available to a community, Sasson is able to calculate the meat and milk provision per person, the potential area ploughed by the cattle and the level of grain production. Comparing the food production capabilities of a village to the nutritional requirements of its inhabitants can establish the basis of the agricultural economy. He concludes that the Iron Age villages of ‘Izbet Sartah and ‘Ai had high pastoral components and produced a surplus of grain. The village of Nahal Rephaim, on the other hand, had an economy based on orchards. The grain and animal products generated were for self‐consumption and had to be supplemented by trade. Sasson argues that none of the sites produced a surplus in animal products, although they do provide for each individual in the village between 30 and 77 grams of meat per day and between 149 and 224 millilitres of milk per day.11

The exercise of estimating the amount and type of food consumed in ancient Palestine is valuable, but the figures must be treated with considerable (p.51) caution, for such models are only as good as the assumptions they make. First, it is possible to develop different models and, consequently, to reach different results. This is most apparent in Rosen's development of two models for the same location. In Rosen's first model the herd of ‘Izbet Sartah is a relatively modest size. The villagers possess 120 caprovines and 22 cattle. In Rosen's second model, however, there are 300 caprovines and 12–15 cattle. In this second model about the same amount of land is used by the villagers, but a smaller area is devoted to crops.12 Second, all of the data used is estimated on the basis of archaeological finds or comparative evidence: the amount of land worked, the proportion devoted to arable, horticulture and pastoral use, crop yields, population and so forth. Not only could individual figures and estimates be disputed, but also each figure introduces a margin of error that must be taken into account when using these estimates. This is especially apparent with the estimations of animal numbers since these are calculated on the basis of estimations that already carry with them a margin of error. Third, Rosen and Sasson assume that sowing and ploughing are the principal inhibitors to more extensive cultivation. However, Halstead has argued that in the ancient Near East food production capacity was limited by harvesting and post‐harvest processing.13

Fourth, the estimation of animal numbers remains problematic even in Sasson's models. The modern Palestinian villages examined by Sasson are considerably larger than the ancient ones. Within these modern villages the number of animals per villager varies from 0.28 to 3.3, that is, by more than a factor of ten. There are numerous different ways in which animal herders can respond to their environment, and the difference in animal numbers for modern Palestinian villages is a demonstration of that. Fifth, the models of Rosen and Sasson assume that all the cattle are utilized maximally for traction. The potential for this to increase the calculated production of wheat is clear when the estimated wheat production per person of the Iron Age villages is compared to the figures for wheat production from the British censuses. Sasson estimates that ‘Izbet Sartah and ‘Ai produced 590 and 520 kgs of wheat per person, but the four twentieth‐century villages that Sasson examines could only produce between 50 and 175 kgs of wheat per person.

Sixth, the analyses undertaken by Rosen and Sasson assume that all meat is consumed within the village, and none of it is used in exchange for other commodities. This is a puzzling assumption when set alongside the idea that some villages aimed to generate a grain surplus that could be traded. Thus, the (p.52) models appear to be working with an idea of subsistence or trade in a manner that is not consistent or whose logic is unexplained. Animal remains from excavations are assumed to be representative of the diet consumed, with an identity between producers and consumers. However, when a surplus of crops is produced by the calculations it is assumed that they are traded out of the village population. It is possible, then, that the utilization of animal products, including important proteins, vitamins and minerals, within the villages has been overestimated. Sasson appears to assume that, since the animal protein needs of the community would only just be met by their own animals, they cannot have been traded outside. This assumes the priority of nutritional requirement over any political or economic need that may have existed to exchange. Additionally, it is more likely that animals will be marketed than grain, since cereals are difficult to transport and have a relatively low value. If cereals were traded it would only have been economically viable within a small area. Animals, however, are not only a valuable resource with their products highly prized, but are also easily driven to another district. Seventh, all models calculate the production capabilities of the whole village and then the figure per person. This assumes an equal division of fields, labour and animals, or an equitable distribution of agricultural produce. The latter two criticisms are particularly significant since what is assumed is a certain understanding of early Israelite society3‐essentially egalitarian and with very little trade between or within districts3‐that is not uncontested.14

What such models show at their best is the probable way in which land was utilized in different locations in Palestine in response to different environmental niches.15 We should not be surprised to discover that in an average year the Israelite villages had access to sufficient agricultural resources, and that for certain products the village could not only supply its own needs, but also produce a trading surplus. Dar, Rosen and Sasson show, as David Hopkins has argued elsewhere, that most villages in the Israelite highlands would have had a mixed farming strategy so minimalizing their risk.16 Sasson also shows that, because of the extensive nature of pastoralism, a significant pastoral factor could not have existed in the central Israelite highlands. What these models are not able to provide, it seems to me, is conclusive arguments about the nature and sufficiency of Israelite diet.

(p.53) Other Assessments of Israelite Diet

Whatever their methodological problems, the attempts to examine Israelite diet by Dar, Rosen and Sasson seek to be logical, rigorous and transparent. They also utilize a number of sources, especially archaeological ones. The assessment of the land of Israel and its productivity has not always been so dispassionate. The rhetorical assessment of Palestine's fecundity is found as early as the Middle Egyptian story ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’, where the land of ‘Yaa’ is described.

It was a good land called Yaa. Figs were in it and grapes. It had more wine than water. Abundant was its honey, plentiful its oil. All kinds of fruit were on its trees. Barley was there and emmer, and no end of cattle of all kinds.17

The Old Testament is no less glowing in its description of the land of Canaan:

YHWH your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in 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 where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you. (Deut. 8.7–10)

Most memorably, the land is described to the oppressed Israelite slaves as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exod. 3.8). For Ezekiel such descriptions are not sufficiently superlative. It is not only a land flowing with milk and honey, it is also ‘the most glorious of all lands’ (Ezek. 20.15).

The biblical descriptions have, quite understandably, been taken up by Jewish and Christian writers. It is hardly surprising that ancient Israelite and Jewish writers spoke of their homeland in exalted terms. Rarely did they have any experience of other lands, and when they did some of Israel's neighbours would have provided a favourable comparison. The rocky and arid hills of Edom, or the deserts of Sinai and Egypt, make Israel look like a veritable paradise. Still more influential was the ideological conviction that the land had been given by God, and could hardly be less than very good. For Christians too the abundance of the Promised Land confirmed the generosity of God and promised a more exalted spiritual inheritance to them. According to the early Christian historian Hegessipus,

The land is rich and grassy: it is adorned with every kind of crop, and dotted with trees. Indeed it would charm any one, and would attract even a lazy man to think about working on the land.… The ground is easy to work with implements, and fairly (p.54) soft, which makes it good for corn, and second to none for its fertility.… The region is wooded, and thus rich in cattle, flowing with milk, and there is positively no other place where cows have udders so full of milk. Fruit, whether wild or cultivated, is more abundant in this region than in any other.18

Some scholars have accepted such portrayals as essentially true. Oded Borowski, for example, begins his book‐length treatment of Israelite agriculture with the biblical idealizations, which he affirms as basically accurate.

Eretz Israel was regarded by the OT as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exod 3:8). A more detailed description of its agricultural richness and mineral resources is presented to the Israelites with the words [of Deut 8:7–9].… Although some of the details in this description are idealized, the portrayal of the agricultural versatility of Palestine is accurate.19

The accuracy of the biblical account is ‘evident from historical documents and archaeological discoveries’. The overlap between the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ and Deuteronomy 8, for example, appears to be more than happy coincidence. When Borowski discusses the diet of the ancient Israelites in his account of daily life in biblical times, he is similarly positive.

It is assumed that the ancient Mediterranean diet was a healthy one, and many modern references are made to this effect. Although there is evidence that some of the ancient inhabitants of the region were not slim and trim, most of the available information suggests that most people were not overweight, due to their diet and the strenuous physical activities in which they were engaged.20

The extent to which we can we draw conclusions from the rhetorical biblical descriptions of the land of Canaan must be questioned. It is immediately apparent that the biblical texts do not purport to provide a scientific account of Israelite diet. Some descriptions of the produce of the land in the Old Testament are undoubtedly representative. Deuteronomy's repeated references to the so‐called Mediterranean triad of ‘grain, wine and oil’ maps accurately to the three main Israelite crops. On the other hand, the description of the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ is a rhetorical creation.21 The exact significance of the two foodstuffs is debated, but, if a comparison with Isa. 7.22 is apt, it (p.55) may be a reference to the land's natural fecundity and not to its agricultural production.22 One characteristic of the expression deserves particular notice, and that is its teleological function. The use of ‘the land flowing with milk and honey’ always anticipates the reality of a land not yet experienced. Most uses of the expression are to be found in the Pentateuch, and even those in the prophets are part of projections back to Israel's wilderness experience. We should also observe that Borowski's account lacks any references to the other side of the biblical portrayal of food and diet. There are frequent references in the Bible and later literature to the periodic famines that were experienced in Palestine.

If the use of biblical references is problematic in Borowski's account, so is his reference to the ‘Mediterranean diet’. The virtues of the Mediterranean diet have been widely publicized in the media, especially in contrast to the consumption patterns of Western societies. The low incidence of heart disease and cancer in the peoples of southern Europe is generally attributed to their healthy diet. Since the basic elements of the diet are unchanged3‐cereals, oil and wine3‐it is tempting to draw similar conclusions about the healthiness of the ancient Mediterranean diet. However, there are good grounds, as the classical scholar Peter Garnsey has argued, for hesitancy at this point.23 For one thing the Mediterranean diet has not remained static. Tomatoes, potatoes and many other fruit and vegetables have been introduced over the centuries. As the diet has diversified so the dominance of the ‘Mediterranean triad’ has diminished. The narrowness of the ancient diet must be reckoned with, and it is now widely recognized that only a varied diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals that humans need.

If citing biblical rhetoric about the fecundity of the Promised Land is an exercise vulnerable to serious misunderstanding so also is listing the potential foodstuffs available to the Israelites. Borowski employs such an approach in his book on Daily Life in Biblical Times. King and Stager do likewise in their Life in Biblical Israel, alongside biblical and Egyptian accounts of the land's fecundity and diverse produce.24 On the one hand, such lists make a clear contribution as a form of responsible lexicography and have a long academic heritage.25 The Old Testament presents a bewildering array of flora and fauna (p.56) that the Israelites consumed. Many of these items are of uncertain meaning, and by listing them and discussing their possible meanings a valuable service is rendered to the reader of the Bible. On the other hand, it easily becomes an extension of the rhetoric of Deuteronomy 8; it provides the fullest possible listing of items that were on the Israelite menu. The impression is easily given that each of the foods listed were available to the average Israelite and potentially contributed to their diet. In reality the weekly menu of the average Israelite covered a narrow range of foods, and many of the items mentioned in the Old Testament may never have passed their lips. Variety is not the only issue, for access to food is also significant. We cannot assume that all Israelites, especially the poor, were able to obtain a varied diet. A diet may contribute sufficient calories for survival, but be deficient in vitamins and minerals with serious consequences for human health. Indeed, as we shall see, a diet consisting of grain, legumes and olive oil has significant deficiencies.


Our critical analysis of the work by Borowski, Rosen and Sasson has begun to reveal how complex and multi‐faceted any investigation into the Israelite diet must be. The different writers begin from different places and utilize different sources and data in attempting to assess Israelite diet. For an account of Israelite diet to be compelling it must be comprehensive and integrate the various sources of knowledge about life in ancient Palestine. Thus, Robertson Smith's comparison of Israelite diet with Bedouin diet raises a number of issues that merit critical probing, but the use of comparative anthropology has a place in a critical consideration of Israelite diet. Dar's rejection of an earlier consensus about the place of meat in Israelite diet replaces one source of knowledge with another, but without justification or explanation of that choice. Additionally, as we will see, there are important sources of information about Israelite diet that none of these writers incorporate into their work.

The first set of sources for our understanding of the diet of the ancient Israelites is the surviving written documents from the period. This means primarily, but not exclusively, the documents that constitute what is known as either the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. The problems of using the Old Testament as a source of any form of historical information are well known and the consumption of food by the Israelites is no exception. A basic issue in the case of diet is the security of our lexicographical knowledge. There are numerous foodstuffs that are mentioned in the Old Testament, not all of (p.57) which can be identified with confidence. Comparative Semitics, the translation instincts of the early versions, a knowledge of the ecological possibilities in ancient Palestine might all contribute to our knowledge in what is often a difficult field.26

A problem that attends any historical work on the Old Testament is the compositional complexity of the biblical texts. The issues can hardly be understated, and the present text reflects not only oral traditions but a lengthy process of composition and redacting. As a great deal of recent scholarship has emphasized, most of the books in their final form are the result of the activities of a scribal elite based in Jerusalem in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. We should expect the books to bear the impress of their values and judgements, but also to some degree those of their literary predecessors.

A quite different problem, that is just as fundamental, is that the Old Testament does not address the questions of diet that we wish to pose to it. In other words, it does not provide an objective, statistical account of the diet of a variety of Israelites from different periods, places and social groups. References to food, when they occur in the Old Testament, serve to further the various intentions of the authors and editors. On many occasions the Old Testament writers may unconsciously reflect valuations of food that were held in Israelite society. Vegetables, for example, were not regarded highly, and this is reflected in Prov. 15.17: ‘Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.’27 Pulses, too, which may have had an important place in the Israelite diet, are hardly mentioned at all. Other unconscious biases are likely to be towards male, elite, urban diets, and we have little sense of how this may have differed from the diet of women and children, the poor, and rural inhabitants.

Written documents other than the Old Testament that touch upon diet in ancient Israel are limited in number. The meagre epigraphic finds from ancient Palestine do include ostraca from Samaria and Arad, which describe the distribution of flour, bread, wine and oil. Unlike the Old Testament there are no problems of a complex editorial history. Such material, however, is not without its own interpretative challenges. For example, to what extent are such snapshots representative of conditions during the Israelite monarchy?

(p.58) The second group of sources for reconstructing the Israelite diet are archaeological remains discovered during excavations. Dar, Rosen and Sasson make particular use of many of the results of traditional archaeological research. Population numbers are estimated from the size of buildings used for human occupation. The remains of agricultural installations and storage facilities provide evidence of land use and can give some idea of the level of food production.

In their models Rosen and Sasson also make some use of animal bones, which provide evidence not only of meat consumption, but also of the nature of the economy. The ratio of sheep to cattle can indicate whether a community was pastoral or agricultural, since cattle were primarily kept for traction. There are, however, other ways that the evidence of animal bones can shed light on the ancient Israelite diet. It is now possible for archaeozoologists to determine the age of mortality. Cull patterns can suggest how herds were used. Unfortunately, although this specialized area of archaeology has produced an impressive array of results from a number of archaeological sites across Israel, there have been little more than a few ad hoc attempts at synthesis. The abundance of faunal remains contrasts strongly with the poverty of floral remains. Interesting results from the studies of plants are frequently the result of chance findings due to carbonization or dessication. However, where palaeobotanical remains, such as seeds or wood, exist, they can give important information about plant cultivation. Unfortunately, such results are not frequently utilized in surveys of Israelite diet. Also under‐utilized is the study of human remains, palaeopathology, which has much promise for the reconstruction of ancient diet, since bones and teeth can provide evidence of environmental stress.

The discoveries of archaeologists need critical interpretation no less than ancient texts. A few detailed examples are sufficient to illustrate specific issues related to the question of the Israelite diet. The discovery of animal bones (such as camel bones) need not imply consumption, and some remains that are difficult to detect, such as fish bones, have been missed in earlier excavations. We cannot determine what quantity of meat was consumed by individuals, although the ratio of one animal to another may indicate proportional contribution to diet. Cereal and fruit seeds and wood from fruit trees have been found frequently at archaeological sites, but vegetables almost never. Absence from the archaeological record does not imply absence from the Israelite diet.

Our third set of sources is comparative evidence of diet in other related cultures. There is a great deal of epigraphic and archaeological information available for many of Israel's ancient Near Eastern neighbours. These include the Egyptian empire and the various empires that dominated Mesopotamia. (p.59) Sharing similar geographical and climatic constraints, there are Israel's immediate neighbours, such as the Syrian kingdoms and evidence from states such as Ugarit. Chronologically proximate are the Bronze Age and the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Recent scholarship has shown that the boundaries between these historical periods should not be overemphasized, and that in each case there was significant material and cultural continuity. This is especially the case with food, for whilst new foodstuffs were introduced at various points the dietary mainstays remained fairly constant. Nevertheless, the same critical judgements that are necessary in analysing the written and archaeological evidence for the Israelite period also apply to other historical periods.

Comparative evidence of a quite different sort is provided by modern anthropological research into non‐industrialized societies. The diet and nutrition of contemporary pastoralists, for example, can provide a useful comparison to some sections of Israelite society. The problems attending the critical use of modern anthropological models and data are now well known. Chronological and spatial distance require careful handling. Anthropological research on modern communities in Palestine is useful for observing responsiveness to similar ecological constraints, but the relationship between man and his environment is not unidirectional. The environment of ancient Israel had been managed/mismanaged by the time of the settlement and has continued to change under human use to the present. Another important problem concerns the models that explicitly or implicitly inform reconstructions. Thus, for example, Robertson Smith's assumption of the nomadic origins of Israel and the relevance of a comparison with nineteenth‐century Palestinian Bedouin is questionable and requires reformulation. Moving further afield, other primitive societies potentially provide evidence of societal structure, patterns of exchange, food distribution and the use and generation of surpluses.

A fourth set of sources that must be brought into the dialogue is scientific knowledge on food production and consumption. A number of different areas of scientific study are relevant to our investigation. First, food production is made possible and constrained by the environment of Israel. The various branches of geography3‐meteorology, geology, soil science3‐contribute to our understanding of agricultural possibility. Second, nutritional science aids in considering the effect of individual food items in the diet and the overall healthiness of a diet.

There are, then, a number of sources that can help in our reconstruction of the diet of the ancient Israelites and our assessment of its nutritional value. Since we do not have direct access to data about the consumption of the Israelites, it is necessary to make use of all these sources, giving careful consideration to their strengths and weaknesses, and, consequently, the weight they (p.60) can bear. Even where this is done, we are likely to find that the evidence for the Israelite diet is fragmentary, and it will be necessary to accept the uncertainties that exist.


To adequately consider Israelite diet, doing justice to all the relevant sources, would require a treatment far larger than this chapter.28 Nevertheless, in shorter compass, it is possible to sketch out a critically reconstructed diet of the ancient Israelites which utilizes the various sources of information already outlined. This includes sources that have been under‐utilized and provide new perspectives on, and pose fresh questions about, the diet of the ancient Israelites.

The Components of the Israelite Diet

The main components of the ancient Israelite diet were certainly the so‐called ‘Mediterranean triad’. Not only do biblical texts refer to ‘the grain, the wine and the oil’ (for example Hos. 2.8), but its importance can be seen in non‐biblical texts, such as the Arad inscriptions,29 and in the agricultural installations, such as olive and wine presses, discovered in archaeological excavations. Probably the vast majority of Israelite land under cultivation was given over to the Mediterranean triad.

The most important of the triad in terms of its contribution to diet was grain. For the typical Israelite, bread or other grain‐based foods such as porridge probably contributed over half their calorific intake, with estimates varying between 53 and 75 per cent.30 In the North the main grain crop was (p.61) wheat, whilst in the drier South it was barley. In Israel, as in many other parts of the ancient world, wheat was valued higher than barley.31 Wine is ubiquitous in the Old Testament and the vine or its fruit was often used as a symbol of Israel by the prophets. The frequent references to wine in the Old Testament suggest that it was the principal drink. Whether it was usually watered down before consumption, as was the practice of the Greeks and Romans,32 or drunk undiluted is uncertain. Isaiah's disparaging comparison of Judah's righteousness as ‘wine mixed with water’ (1.22) might suggest that there was a preference for undiluted wine. Olive oil had a number of uses, including as a dietary component. It was part of the mishnaic food basket that the rabbinic sages required to be provided for an estranged wife, where it contributed11 per cent of the overall calories.33 The Old Testament, though, says little of it as a foodstuff. In the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath the oil is mixed with flour to make a cake (1 Kgs. 17.12–13). Other uses suggest it was a valuable product associated with good eating (Ezek. 16.13, 19; Isa. 25.6).

Breads and porridges were probably supplemented ordinarily by vegetables, pulses and fruit. To what extent is unclear as these foodstuffs rarely leave a trace in the archaeological record. In addition, their appearance in the Old Testament may not be representative; a low value was placed on vegetables, but fruit was highly esteemed. Those who ate vegetables in significant amounts may have been at the extremes of Israelite society: the few who could afford to set aside land for a vegetable garden (cf. 1 Kings 21), and the poor who may have used wild vegetation and other foods to supplement their diet: leafy plants, bulbs, wild fruits and nuts, roots, mushrooms.34 In the Iron (p.62) Age significant parts of Palestine were still covered by thick forests, especially in the north of the country. These forests would have provided ideal environments for foraging for wild vegetation. Various pulses are mentioned in the Old Testament, including the lentil and broad bean, and others have been found in archaeological excavations. It is possible that they played a more substantial role in Israelite diets than the Old Testament or archaeology might lead us to suspect.35 The Israelites were familiar with a number of fruits, the most important of which were grapes, the fig and the pomegranate (cf. Deut. 8.8–9). Fruits are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, but may have played a relatively minor role in Israelite diet. The exception is the fig, which is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament, particularly alongside other staples in food assemblages (e.g. 1 Sam. 25.18; 30.12; 2 Sam. 16.1–2).36

Assessing the place of animal products in the ancient Israelite diet is an area fraught with controversy, especially in relation to meat. As we have seen, critical Old Testament scholarship has maintained that meat was consumed only on rare occasions, though this has been challenged in some recent scholarship. (p.63) Nevertheless, as we have seen, there are a number of difficulties with the models proposed by Dar, Rosen and Sasson.

One of the most important and under‐utilized sources of information on ancient Israelite diet is archaeozoology, the scientific examination of animal bones recovered from archaeological excavations. Archaeozoology provides not only evidence of the proportion of animals kept at a site, but also the age at which animals were culled. The cull profile of a herd can suggest how the animals were primarily used: as sources of meat, or for their secondary products3‐milk, wool or traction. Over the last thirty years a valuable and nuanced picture of meat consumption and animal husbandry practices in ancient Israel has been built up.37

The archaeozoological evidence suggests that the main animals consumed were the four domesticated animals3‐cows, pigs, sheep and goats. In the north of Israel wild animals were occasionally killed and eaten. Although there is evidence of some pig consumption in Iron Age Palestine this was unusual outside of early Iron Age Philistia. Sheep and goats were more common than cows, but since one cow provides a large amount of meat, in areas where cows were kept more beef was consumed than sheep or goat meat. Cull data suggests that animals were frequently kept for secondary products, such as milk and wool, rather than as sources of meat. Nevertheless, animals do have to be culled and at those points make meat available for consumption within the community or for the market.

There is evidence for changing cull patterns and, together with what we know about Israel's social and historical development, this suggests changing patterns of animal consumption. In early tribal Israel animals were kept primarily for their secondary products, but the lack of significant social stratification meant that when they were culled the meat was probably distributed within the community and in a relatively equitable manner. The development of Israelite society during the monarchy sees a slight shift towards animals being butchered at prime ages. Greater social stratification means that probably an elite enjoyed this greater consumption of meat more than the average Israelite. With the rise of Assyrian empire, however, it has been suggested that the Assyrians may have exploited the animal economy in Palestine. Prime age animals were exported to Mesopotamia.38 This is certainly likely as we have evidence of the exploitation of Palestine's horticultural resources (p.64) through industrial‐scale wine and olive oil production facilities discovered in Ashkelon, Gibeon and Ekron during this period.39 If this were the case, then meat would have become far less common for most Israelites during this period.

Unfortunately, animal remains cannot inform us about how much meat was consumed per capita over a given period of time. Dar is probably right to question the assumption that the Israelites rarely ate meat, for animals have to be culled to maximize the flock's productivity. The models employed by Dar, Rosen and Sasson suggest that not insignificant quantities of meat may have been available. Yet, the possibility of Assyrian exploitation during one period of Palestinian history highlights the fact that factors of distribution as well as production must be considered.40 We have no evidence for how socio‐economic status would have affected the amount of meat consumed in ancient Israel, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that it played a role and that males and elites had greater access to food resources. Thus, whilst we should hesitate to assume meat was rarely eaten, it would be unwise to regard it as a regular part of the average Israelite's diet.

Domesticated animals were important not only for providing a supply of meat, but also for the secondary products that they provide. Goats and, to a lesser extent, sheep were particularly valuable because they provided fresh milk for part of the year. Since milk quickly soured in the heat, it was often processed into ghee or ‘cheese’. Since a mixed farming economy was pursued in many parts of Palestine dairy products were probably an important part of many Israelites’ diets, but especially so for pastoralists in the south and east of Palestine.

Our assessment of the place of fish in the ancient Israelite diet also needs to take into account recent archaeological finds. One of the most surprising discoveries of recent excavations is the extensive evidence for the consumption of fish. It has often been assumed that, with no direct access to the sea during their history and very few perennial rivers, ancient Israelites rarely ate fish, particularly in the early periods. Further justification for this argument appeared to be provided by the absence of fish from the Israelite sacrificial regulations. The discovery of fish remains from almost every recent excavation requires these conclusions to be abandoned. The fish include not only freshwater fish from the Sea of Galilee or the few perennial rivers in Palestine, but also (p.65) freshwater fish from the Nile and marine fish from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The discovery of fish that originated in the Nile or the Red Sea suggests that there existed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean an extensive trading network in fish, to which even inland Israelite cities belonged.41 As the Iron Age progressed fish appears to have become readily available, but it was probably expensive and restricted to urban elites and to those who lived along the Jordan valley or other major rivers.

The Healthiness of the Israelite Diet

Our critical description of dietary components has shown that different items made varying contributions to the Israelite diet. The ancient Israelites were not presented with a choice of foods from which they could choose as they wished. For the vast majority of Israelites food was determined by availability. Probably only a small elite was able to make limited choices about its diet, and even for them the principal component would still have been grain‐based. We have also seen that diet was not fixed, but varied over time. In addition, diet varied according to location. The diet in the south and east where there was a larger pastoral component to the economy would have been significantly different from the hills and valleys of the north where crops and fruit trees were cultivated. Finally, diet would have varied according to social location, varying not only between the extremes of wealthy elite and the landless poor, but probably also between males and females. Thus, diet varied according to axes of time, place and social location, such that we can only speak of Israelite diet to the extent that we recognize this dietary variation.

How healthy was the diet of the ancient Israelites? As we have seen, models of the agricultural capacity of Israelite settlements suggest that the land under cultivation could have provided sufficient calories for their populations. Yet there are other constraints that the environment of Palestine imposes, not least a variable climate. The pages of the Old Testament make frequent reference to the regularity of famine induced by low rainfall, and modern records show that rainfall in the Levant is highly variable.42 David Hopkins notes that ‘for Jerusalem… three years out of ten will experience accumulation of rainfall about 16 percent less than the mean and that one or two of these years will (p.66) experience more than 25 percent less’.43 In addition, the timing of the rains3‐Deuteronomy 11's ‘early’ and ‘later’ rains3‐is also essential. It is likely that only in the most extreme cases a pattern of poor years would lead to catastrophic famine with starvation, but lean years could result in poor nutrition, a perilous situation for the particularly vulnerable3‐especially young children and lactating mothers.44

Nutrition means more than calorific intake. The possibility that ancient diets, dominated by cereal consumption, might give rise to nutritional deficiencies was first raised by Rosemary Ellison in relation to Mesopotamian diet.45 Assuming that the diet of workers who received barley rations was not supplemented with any other food, she concluded that ‘the most obvious nutritional deficiencies in the barley rations were those of vitamin C and vitamin A’.46 Good sources of vitamin A are dairy products, animal livers and the green leaves of plants; vitamin C is found in fruit and vegetables as well as fresh meat. In the ancient Near East, where diets may well have been low in animal foods, fruit and vegetables, serious deficiencies could occur. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with a variety of eye diseases, including night‐blindness, xerophthalmia and blindness.47 Vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy, though occurrences of scurvy may well have been seasonal.48 As Peter Garnsey notes in his study of Roman diets, another possible nutritional deficiency in diets with a high cereal content is iron deficiency anaemia. Bran has a very high content of phytate, which inhibits iron absorption.49 In ancient Israel cereals were probably frequently consumed as chapattis made from flour with a high extraction rate (under‐sieved) and thus the bran and phytate intake of ancient Israelites would have been high. Consequently iron deficiency anaemia may have been common, particularly among children and pregnant women. Iron deficiency affects brain function and the immune system and can reduce working capacity. Even in the present, it is the most common nutritional deficiency disorder, and is particularly prevalent in non‐industrialized countries.50

(p.67) Critical reconstruction of Israelite diets and comparison with contemporary pre‐industrialized diets provides some basis for suspecting that the nutritional status of ancient Israel's population may have fallen short of the ideal. A degree of substantiation can be provided by palaeopathology, the scientific study of human skeletal remains. Modern advances in palaeopathology mean that skeletal remains can provide evidence of a limited number of nutritional diseases and deficiencies.

Unfortunately there have been relatively few findings of human remains from Iron Age Palestine and only some of these have been submitted to palaeopathological investigation. For Iron Age Israel the most important study undertaken was upon the skeletal remains of 60 individuals found in Jerusalem and dated to the seventh century BC.51 In this group there were 17 examples of a condition known as cribra orbitalia (31.5 per cent). Cribra orbitalia and the closely related porotic hyperostosis are pathologies of the cranium that have often been discussed as possible indicators of iron deficiency. Both terms are used to describe lesions on different parts of the skull.52 The condition occurs in childhood and results from iron‐deficiency anaemia: a reduction below normal in the concentration of haemoglobin or red blood cells.53 It has been common to associate this condition with an inadequate diet, though caution must be exercised here, for there are a number of possible causes of iron‐deficiency anaemia. In particular, it has been suggested that iron deficiency is part of the body's defence against infection, and consequently is better judged as evidence of a high exposure to infectious diseases.54 It may not be necessary to choose between inadequate diet and high exposure to infection. Vulnerability to disease and poor nutritional status have a symbiotic relationship. Thus evidence of chronic iron deficiency may still provide indirect evidence of poor nutrition.55 The (p.68) occurrence of cribra orbitalia in the Iron Age population of Jerusalem is in no way unusual for historical Palestine. Similar levels are found in other historical periods.

Together with the evidence for iron‐deficiency anaemia we should also note that life expectancy at Iron Age sites in Palestine is markedly lower than in the Bronze Age or the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Only further discoveries will confirm whether or not these sites are representative, but such evidence would again suggest the population did not enjoy a good health status. These demographic patterns are consistent with those from many other pre‐modern agricultural communities. They suggest that most people had a short life, with a high level of infant mortality, and few adults surviving beyond the age of fifty.56 This cannot be attributed to nutrition alone, but there are good grounds for thinking that poor nutrition played a contributory role.


The discussion of the realiaof Israelite diet has revealed that an apparently simple subject is extremely complex. A comprehensive account of Israelite diet is extremely difficult, but a number of different sources of information do provide important evidence of its nature. I have argued that we cannot (p.69) afford to ignore or marginalize any of these sources of information. If we do we may gain a view of Israelite diet that is unrepresentative of the historical reality. The variety of different sources that need to be taken into consideration demonstrate the importance of the pluralistic methodology outlined in the previous chapter. It is only by giving attention to all our potential sources of knowledge3‐textual, archaeological and comparative3‐that a nuanced and critical account of Israelite diet can be reached.


(1) J. F. Ross, ‘Food’, in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962–76), 2: 304–8.

(2) Smith, Religion of the Semites, First Series, 222–3. Cf. Wellhausen: ‘the life of which the blood was regarded as the substance (2 Samuel xxiii.17) had for the ancient Semites something mysterious and divine about it; they felt a certain religious scruple about destroying it. With them flesh was an uncommon luxury, and they ate it with quite different feelings from those with which they partook of fruits or of milk’ (J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885), 63).

(3) Smith, Religion of the Semites, First Series, 238.

(4) Ibid., 346.

(5) S. Dar, ‘Food and Archaeology in Romano-Byzantine Palestine’, in J. Wilkins, D. Harvey and E. Dobson (eds.), Food in Antiquity (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), 326–36, here 333.

(6) Dar's own attempt at modelling was with Qarawat bene Hassa, a significant regional centre of Samaria in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Dar's model shows a community with cereal crops sufficient for local consumption, but with a wine and oil production capacity that far exceeded local needs, with the excess sold at market. A few observations are merited. First, it may be questioned whether a significant rural regional centre provides a sufficient basis from which to make claims about the diet of ancient Palestine. Second, Dar assumes that the community of Qarawat bene Hassa would have enjoyed the benefits of the generated surpluses. The question of who owned the land and labour and would receive the fruits of that labour is not addressed. There are good grounds for thinking that in the Roman-Byzantine economy a small urban-based elite would have benefited from any rural profitability. (S. Dar, Landscape and Pattern: An Archaeological Survey of Samaria, 800 BCE-636 CE, 2 vols. (Oxford: BAR, 1986)).

(7) B. Rosen, ‘Subsistence Economy of Stratum II’, in I. Finkelstein (ed.), 'Izbet Ṣarṭah, BAR International, 299 (Oxford: BAR, 1986), 156–85.

(8) Ibid.

(9) B. Rosen, ‘Subsistence Economy in Iron Age I’, in I. Finkelstein and N. Na'aman (eds.), From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Ancient Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994), 339–51.

(10) Ibid.

(11) A. Sasson, ‘The Pastoral Component in the Economy of Hill Country Sites in the Intermediate Bronze and Iron Ages: Archaeo-Ethnographic Case Studies’, Tel Aviv 25 (1998), 3–51.

(12) Rosen, ‘Subsistence Economy in Iron Age I’, 347–9.

(13) P. Halstead, ‘Plough and Power: The Economic and Social Significance of Cultivation with the Ox-drawn Ard in the Mediterranean’, Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture 8 (1995), 11–22.

(14) See, e.g., R. B. Coote and K. W. Whitelam, The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective, SWBA, 5 (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1987).

(15) For a recent detailed description of the environmental niches in the central highlands, see R. D. Miller II, Chieftains of the Highland Clans: A History of Israel in the Twelfth and Eleventh Centuries B.C.(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 52–63.

(16) D. C. Hopkins, The Highlands of Canaan: Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age, SWBA, 3 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985).

(17) M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, vol. 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 226–7.

(18) J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims: Before the Crusades, 2nd edn. (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 2002), 94–8, 216–30.

(19) O. Borowski, Agriculture in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1987), 3.

(20) O. Borowski, Daily Life in Biblical Times (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 63. The implication that the Israelites might have been overweight had it not been for their many physical activities cannot be supported. As with other ancient populations, the true risk was under-nourishment.

(21) Lohfink writes: ‘one problem is that the well-being and wealth is painted in colors that really do not fit the land of Israel’ (N. Lohfink, ‘“I am Yahweh, Your Physician” (Exodus 15:26): God, Society and Human Health in a Postexilic Revision of the Pentateuch (Exod. 15:2b, 26)’, in Theology of the Pentateuch: Themes of the Priestly Narrative and Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 35–95, here 84 n. 137).

(22) This makes Borowski's appeal to it, in a book on Agriculture in Ancient Israel, somewhat inapt.

(23) Garnsey, Food and Society, 12–21.

(24) P. J. King and L. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 85–107.

(25) A. Macalister, ‘Food’, in A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. J. Hastings (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1899), 2: 27–43.

(26) For the latter, see especially J. M. Renfrew, Palaeoethnobotany: The Prehistoric Food Plants of the Near East and Europe (London: Methuen, 1973); D. Zohary and M. Hopf, Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

(27) The low opinion of vegetables continues to be found in some rabbinic texts. In b. Pes. 42a coarse bread, new beer and raw vegetables are considered unhealthy, whilst sifted bread, fat meat and old wine are considered beneficial (M. J. Geller, ‘Diet and Regimen in the Babylonian Diet’, in C. Grottanelli and L. Milano (eds.), Food and Identity in the Ancient World, History of the Ancient Near East Studies, 9 (Padua: Sargon, 2004), 217–42).

(28) For a more thorough examination of the diet of the ancient Israelites, see MacDonald, What Did the Ancient Israelites.

(29) Y. Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), 11–118, 141–51; A. F. Rainey, ‘Three Additional Texts’, in Y. Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), 122–5; J. Naveh, ‘The Aramaic Ostraca from Tel Arad’, in Y. Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), 153–76; G. A. Reisner, C. S. Fisher and D. G. Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria, 1908–1910, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 227–46; B. Rosen, ‘Wine and Oil Allocations in the Samaria Ostraca’, Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–7), 39–45.

(30) It is impossible to provide exact quantities for ancient societies, and this is especially the case for ancient Israel. It is worth outlining some of the comparative evidence that may inform our understanding of the role of cereals in Israelite diet. The ration lists from Egypt and Mesopotamia consistently indicate the prominence of cereals (see, for example, R. Ellison, ‘Diet in Mesopotamia: The Evidence of the Barley Ration Texts (c. 3000–1400 B.C.)’, Iraq 43 (1981), 35–45). For the diet of Roman Palestine, Magen Broshi takes the food basket that the Mishnah required be given to an estranged wife as representative. On this basis he calculates that ‘bread supplied half the daily calories (53–55 per cent)’. This compares favourably with the proportions consumed by the modern Arab population in Israel and Palestine (M. Broshi, ‘The Diet of Palestine in the Roman Period: Introductory Notes’, in Bread, Wine, Walls and Scrolls, JSPSup, 36 (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 121–43, here 123). On the other hand, Foxhall and Forbes suggest a figure of 70–75 per cent for the Roman empire (L. Foxhall and H. A. Forbes, ‘Sitometreia: The Role of Grain as a Staple Food in Classical Antiquity’, Chiron 12 (1982), 41–90). Either figure is far higher than the bread consumption in modern Western economies.

(31) See 1 Kgs. 4.28; 2 Kgs. 7.16; cf. m. Ket.5.8 (Broshi, ‘Diet of Palestine’, 124).

(32) Broshi assumes the wine was diluted in the Roman period. M. Broshi, ‘Wine in Ancient Palestine: Introductory Notes’, in Bread, Wine, Water and Scrolls, JSPSup, 36 (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 144–72, here 161–2).

(33) Broshi, ‘Diet of Palestine’, 122. The amount of oil to be provided depends on the conversion rate used for a ‘log’ of olive oil.

(34) Rosen notes that ‘there is occasional evidence of the use of wild plants in the Iron Age. Traces of Malva sp. in Beer-Sheba attest to their role as contributors of calories and vitamins to the nutritional intake of the contemporary peasant’ (Rosen, ‘Subsistence Economy in Iron Age I’, 342).

On the Roman period, Broshi observes that, ‘a considerable number of the vegetables consumed in our period …were wild (as they are for the modern Palestinian Arab peasant) …a close reading of the Talmudic literature and of modern ethnobotanical literature reveals the important contribution of wild vegetables to the diet’ (Broshi, ‘Diet of Palestine’, 131; cf. J. M. Frayn, Subsistence Farming in Roman Italy (London: Centaur Press, 1979)). To a large degree the use of wild plants by the Israelites to supplement their diet is a matter of critical conjecture because of the limitations of our sources. For another ancient society for which there is greater literary evidence, see J. M. Frayn, ‘Wild and Cultivated Plants: A Note on the Peasant Economy of Roman Italy’, Journal of Roman Studies 65 (1975), 32–9.

(35) First, in societies where meat is a rarity, pulses are an important source of protein. ‘In traditional agricultural communities pulses served—and still serve—as a main meat substitute’ (Zohary and Hopf, Domestication of Plants, 86). Second, legume rotation could have played an important role agriculturally. Wheat and barley quickly exhaust the soil's fertility and its supply of nitrogen. Leguminous crops utilize nitrogen from the air and ultimately return it to the soil. This form of crop rotation was certainly employed extensively during the Roman empire (K. D. White, Roman Farming: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), 113, 121–3). The question is whether the same is true of Iron Age Palestine. Hopkins suggests that the possibility of legume rotation should remain open, though the Old Testament only makes mention of fields left fully fallow (Hopkins,Highlands of Canaan). Third, in Roman Palestine there is evidence that pulses played a significant role in the diet (Broshi, ‘Diet of Palestine’, 122; Y. Feliks, ‘Jewish Agriculture in the Period of the Mishnah’, in Z. Baras (ed.), Eretz Israel from the Destruction of the Second Temple to the Muslim Conquests (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 1982), 419–41), and this may have been true for earlier periods.

(36) Borowski notes that ‘the importance of the fig tree as one of the mainstays of biblical economy cannot be overemphasized’ (Borowski, Agriculture, 114). The fig was also part of the mishnaic food basket (Broshi, ‘Diet of Palestine’).

(37) Unfortunately this data has been scattered in technical archaeological reports and has only rarely been brought together to provide a comprehensive picture. For my own attempt see MacDonald, What Did the Ancient Israelites.

(38) P. Wapnish, ‘Archaeozoology: The Integration of Faunal Data with Biblical Archaeology’, in A. Biran and J. Aviram (eds.), Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993), 426–42.

(39) L. E. Stager, ‘Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction: Kislev 604 BCE’, Eretz Israel 25 (1996), 61–74; J. B. Pritchard, Winery, Defenses and Soundings at Gibeon (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Museum, 1964).

(40) Goody, Cooking, Cuisine and Class.

(41) See W. Van Neer et al., ‘Fish Remains from Archaeological Sites as Indicators of Former Trade Connections in the Eastern Mediterranean’, Paléorient 30 (2004), 101–48.

(42) Aharoni writes, ‘years of drought and famine run like a scarlet thread through the ancient history of Palestine’ (Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, 2nd edn. (London: Burns & Oates, 1979), 14).

(43) Hopkins, Highlands of Canaan, 89. See also J. Neumann, ‘On the Incidence of Dry and Wet Years’, IEJ 5 (1955), 137–53.

(44) For famine and nutrition in the Graeco-Roman world note Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply.

(45) Ellison, ‘Diet in Mesopotamia’; R. Ellison, ‘Some Thoughts on the Diet of Mesopotamia from c. 3000–600 B.C. ’, Iraq 45 (1983), 146–50.

(46) Ellison, ‘Some Thoughts on the Diet of Mesopotamia’, 149.

(47) D. S. McLaren et al., ‘Fat-Soluble Vitamins’, in J. S. Garrow and W. P. T. James (eds.), Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 9th edn. (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1993), 208–38, here 212.

(48) Ellison, ‘Some Thoughts on the Diet of Mesopotamia’, 149.

(49) Garnsey, Food and Society, 20–1.

(50) L. Hallberg, B. Sandström and P. J. Aggett, ‘Iron, Zinc and Other Trace Elements’, in J. S. Garrow and W. P. T. James (eds.), Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 9th edn. (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1993), 174–207, here 182.

(51) The remains were unearthed from a burial cave on the western slopes of Mount Zion. The date and location of the remains would strongly suggest these were Judahite burials, as also do the other archaeological finds (B. Arensberg and Y. Rak, ‘Jewish Skeletal Remains from the Period of the Kings of Judaea’, PEQ 117 (1985), 30–4).

(52) ‘These lesions are characterized by pitting of the compact bone, usually associated with an increase in the thickness of the adjacent diploic bone. The lesions can vary in size from less than 1mm in diameter to large, coalescing apertures, and are found on the orbital roof and skull vault, particularly the frontal, parietal, and occipital bones’ (P. L. Stuart-Macadam, ‘Nutritional Deficiency Diseases: A Survey of Scurvy, Rickets and Iron-Deficiency Anemia’, in M. Y. IsÇan and K. A. R. Kennedy (eds.), Reconstruction of Life from the Skeleton (New York: Liss, 1989), 201–22, here 217).

(53) Ibid., 212.

(54) Ibid. For a statement about the current state of knowledge, see A. C. Aufderheide and C. Rodriguez-Martin, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Human Palaepathology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1–10, 348–51.

(55) Stuart-Macadam, ‘Nutritional Deficiency Diseases’, 219–20; Garnsey, Food and Society, 43–61; N. Scrimshaw, C. E. Taylor and J. E. Gordon, Interactions of Nutrition and Infection (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1968). Stuart-Macadam concludes her article on nutritional deficiency diseases in the following manner. ‘It is true that nutrition is an important aspect of the relationship between a population and its environment. However, a comprehensive survey of scurvy, rickets, and iron-deficiency anemia illustrates the importance of other culturally and environmentally determined factors involved in this relationship. There are complex adaptations between the human body, its nutrient requirements, and its environment. It is vital to have an appreciation of these complexities in any consideration of a “nutritional deficiency” disease’ (Stuart-Macadam, ‘Nutritional Deficiency Diseases’, 220).

(56) Pat Smith notes that ‘most adults from all the archaeological sites appear to die before 50 years of age. The Iron Age seems to be the lowest and the Hellenistic the highest, from the point of view of percentage of older adults.’ For the Iron Age period less than 20 per cent of adults survived beyond the age of fifty. Smith notes further that ‘even the data for the Hellenistic period differ markedly from that calculated from death registries for a 20th century rural district in Egypt (nearly 60% surviving beyond 50), while WHO statistics for England report over 85% surviving beyond 50 years of age. Either conditions in the Hellenistic period were incomparably worse than those of rural Egypt at the present time, or our data are too incomplete to provide an accurate assessment of longevity’ (P. Smith and L. Kolska-Horowitz, ‘Culture, Environment and Disease: Palaeo-Anthropological Findings for the Southern Levant’, in C. L. Greenblatt (ed.), Digging for Pathogenes (Rehovot: Balaban, 1998), 201–39, here 226–7; cf. P. Smith, ‘An Approach to the Palaeodemographic Analysis of Human Skeletal Remains from Archaeological Sites’, in A. Biran and J. Aviram (eds.), Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993), 2–13).