Because the Bible portrays ordinary people in the round of daily life, bread is a common word in its pages from the beginning of Genesis (3.19). Every day was baking day in the homes of Palestine. Barley or wheat flour was mixed with water and salt, then baked in simple ovens. The loaves produced were such a staple of the diet that bread and food are sometimes interchangeable terms (e.g., Gen. 37.25; Judg. 13.16; Prov. 27.27). When in judgment God threatened to break the people's “staff of bread” (Lev. 26.26), it was the very basis of their life that was imperiled. Conversely, when God promised them “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity” (Deut. 8.9), it was the promise of life itself. This virtual identification of bread with existence led biblical authors to speak metaphorically about the bread of anxious toil (Ps. 127.2), of wickedness (Prov. 4.17), of idleness (Prov. 31.27), and of tears (Ps. 80.5).
Bread also occupied a significant place in biblical religion. The sacrificial system included cereal offerings (Lev. 2.4). Both tabernacle and Temple required the permanent display of showbread, or “bread of the Presence” (Exod. 25.30; 1 Chron. 28.16). The festival of unleavened bread lay at the heart of Israel's remembrance of the Exodus (see Feasts and Festivals; Passover). Equally linked with God's protective and providential activity was the provision of manna, the “bread from heaven” (Exod. 16.4), which sustained Israel's life in the wilderness.
According to the Gospels, Jesus acknowledged the importance of bread by quoting Deuteronomy 8.3, “one does not live by bread alone” (see Matt. 4.4; Luke 4.4), and then by identifying himself as the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world (John 6.33). At the Last Supper, he interpreted the breaking of the unleavened bread of Passover as symbolizing the offering of himself; this was commemorated by early Christians in the ceremony of the “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2.42; see Lord's Supper, The).
James I. Cook