Syro–Palestinian archaeology and biblical studies have traditionally focused on places and people of prestige, such as temples, palaces, fortifications, and the communities associated with them. This concentration has unearthed some remarkable finds and information; however, the preoccupation with the macroelements of the past (i.e., significant people, places, and things) has inevitably led to the neglect of the micro (i.e., the “insignificant,” less-known people, places, and things). Fortunately, there has been a shift toward the micro within Syrian–Palestinian archaeology and biblical studies. This shift attempts to better understand the daily lives of the average Israelite in both urban and rural environments. Many microelements of daily life in ancient Israel have been the subject of research: farmsteads, weaving, wine production, and households, to name a few.

A further element of daily life has come under the proverbial research lens: food. Within various subdisciplines of archaeology, feasting in elite contexts has been a popular subject of inquiry, as has the sacrificial system and, within biblical studies, kosher dietary laws. As more researchers turn their attention to daily life, other aspects within the study of food have come to the table, so to speak, including agriculture, animal husbandry, diet, and nutrition. Furthermore, as science continues to contribute to archaeology, other dimensions of food preparation, such as the technology and use of Philistine hearths and microscopic food residue, are being researched. Finally, another element of food is picking up steam: cooking. Understanding the techniques and technologies of cooking (i.e., how food was cooked and which utensils were used), both archaeologically and textually (i.e., the Hebrew Bible), helps to illuminate our understanding of how everyday food was prepared in ancient Israel.

Cooking Ovens.

Bread was a mainstay in the diet of ancient Israel, as is evident from the many references to it in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts. The Hebrew word for bread, לֶחֶם, is synonymous with food. Baking and cooking in ancient Israel were generally conducted in areas dedicated to food preparation within the home, such as the indoor kitchen and the outdoor courtyard. Excavated dwellings have revealed various cooking installations used for baking and cooking. Unfortunately, they are often found fragmented or incomplete; and it is, therefore, difficult to determine their exact shape and function. A few types of ovens used during the Bronze and Iron Ages have been documented. They are the saj, or large rock; the tannur; the tabun; and the hearth. These ovens are still in use in twenty-first-century traditional societies, such as those of the Bedouin and Druze, and in other Middle Eastern villages. Ethnographic researchers have observed many of these societies, and their research into daily activities has proven to be a valuable asset as it spotlights cooking and baking techniques employed by ancient Israel’s modern counterparts. The information gleaned from these communities helps researchers to reconstruct how daily food was prepared in antiquity.

The saj is technically not an oven but rather a rounded metal disk placed over an open fire, usually resting on two or three rocks. Once the dough is made, it is floured and flattened on a breadboard and then thrown from side to side until thinned into a flap. The flap of dough is placed onto the saj and browned on each side. The thinness of the dough allows the bread to bake quickly. An ancient ancestor to the saj could have been a hot stone that was placed directly in the fire (Isa 44:19) or rested on rocks above it or perhaps the ancient griddle or baking tray, which has been documented, although not to the extent of bread ovens (Lev 2:9, 6:21, 7:9; Ezek 4:3).

The tannur (plural tannaneer) is a conical or beehive-shaped clay oven, sometimes packed on the outside with pieces of broken pottery, to retain heat (Tel Hadar and Tel Rehov). Modern tannaneer usually stand about 3.3 ft (1 m) high and have two openings: one at the top that allows access inside the oven, often covered with a metal lid, and one at the bottom that serves as a flue. Modern tannaneer have been found either dug into or sitting on top of the ground, as a single structure or as part of a group. To use a tannur, a fire was built on the floor of the oven and the ashes were raked out from the flue at the bottom. Dough was slapped onto the interior or exterior walls of the tannur to bake. Platters were also placed on top of the upper opening of the tannur and used for cooking or baking. The term tannur is found in the Hebrew Bible 15 times, seven of which refer to an oven used to bake bread (Exod 8:3; Lev 2:4, 7:9, 11:35, 26:26; Hos 7:4, 6–7).

The tabun (plural tawabeen) is a dome-shaped oven made of clay, with a height of ca. 12 in (30 cm). Like the tannur, the modern tabun also has two openings: one at the top, to allow easy access to the interior, and one at the bottom that acts as a flue. The floor of the tabun is made of clay, pebbles, or pottery sherds. After the fire has heated the floor and walls, the coals and ashes are cleared out and the dough is placed on the bottom or on the inner or outer walls. Often, either during or after baking, the tabun is covered with dung cakes, smoldering oil pulp, or chaff in order to conserve heat. Like the tannur, the upper opening of the tabun could be covered with a lid in order to cook other foodstuffs.

Both the tannur and the tabun are descendents of the ovens used in ancient Israel. Ovens found in archaeological excavations resemble these types of ovens; however, most excavations find ovens that are more like tannaneer, even though they tend to be classified as tawabeen. One significant difference between modern ovens and their ancient counterparts is the presence of a side opening or flue. The modern tannur or tabun has a side opening that acts as a flue, but side openings are rarely found in ovens excavated in Syria–Palestine. The majority of excavated ovens have a solid foundation with closed rings of clay forming the base; however, very few complete ovens have been excavated. Tannaneer with a second opening were excavated at Tell Deir Alla in Jordan and possibly at Middle Bronze–Age Jericho; other ovens with a second opening are shown to have been smelting surfaces and not cooking ovens. Ovens were fueled by kindling and animal dung.

During the end of the Late Bronze and into the early Iron Age I, a new cooking installation, the hearth, was introduced with the arrival of the Philistines. Two types of hearths are found at Philistine sites (Tel Miqne/Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Qasile, and Tell es-Safi/Gath): the rectangular hearth set on a brick platform and lined with broken pieces of pottery and the round hearth set into the floor and lined with pebbles. Cooking vessels and bread dough were placed directly on the hearth or at its side. The use of hearths did not continue into Iron Age–II Philistia, which may indicate that the hearth was not as efficient as other types of ovens and therefore no longer used. Within the Hebrew Bible, several words for hearth are used, albeit mostly in cultic contexts: הדָקְֺומ in Leviticus 6:9, דוֺקיְ in Isaiah 30:14, and לאֵרְהַ in Ezekiel 43:15–16.


Hot rocks or saj, tannur-, and tabun-type ovens were used to bake bread daily in ancient Israel (at sites including Tel DeirאAlla, Tel Rehov, Tel Hadar, Tell Masos, Tell el-Farאah [N], Jericho, and Megiddo). There were two types of bread dough: unleavened (הצָּמַ) and leavened (ץמֵחָ) grain was ground daily into flour using grinding stones, which consisted of one large, immobile stone or slab and a smaller stone for rubbing back and forth against the grain that was placed between the two stones. Unleavened bread is a mixture of flour and water, plus a pinch of salt, which is kneaded into dough. When baked, the flat unleavened bread could not be stored for long. Unleavened bread could be prepared quickly since it did not need time to rise and was often made when guests suddenly arrived (Gen 18:6, Judg 6:19, 1 Sam 28:24). Leavened dough uses the same basic recipe, but a yeast product such as sourdough (derived dough left out to ferment) or brewer’s yeast (derived from brewing beer) is added to the dough. Leavened dough was fuller, more filling, and kept longer than unleavened dough. Dough was kneaded on a wooden board or trough placed on a bench or on the floor near the oven. Both types of bread were baked on hot stones or griddles over an open fire, like a saj (Lev 7:9, Isa 44:19) or in the tannur or tabun (Lev 26:26). The location of ovens and food preparation objects indicates that cooking and baking took place in a centralized area within the home, either inside the dwelling near an entryway or in an adjacent courtyard. Ethnographic studies show that women primarily carried out the tasks of preparing the household meals, in part because of their reproductive roles, such as pregnancy and breast-feeding, which dictated that they work near the home. The central location of ovens permitted women to conduct other household tasks while preparing food. Centralized ovens also allowed for the sharing of ovens (and fuel) with other women, which facilitated social relationships and cohesion among the group (Lev 26:26).

Mesopotamian recipes and encyclopedias show that baking bread was not as predictable and prosaic in antiquity as one might imagine. For instance, there were some 200 to 300 varieties of bread, depending upon the type, quality, and color of flour used; the type and amount of kneading; the additives and flavors; and the baking methods, presentation, geographic origin, and use. Some of the ingredients added to dough include ghee, dates, milk, cheese, fruits, and sesame oil. Loaves of bread might accompany the meal or be served as part of the main dish. Dough was divided and arranged on platters to retain its shape, served with meat or stew or in the form of dumplings (2 Sam 13:8).

Cooking Pots.

Most meals were prepared in cooking vessels that evolved throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and were heavily influenced by the arrival of the Philistines. In the Hebrew Bible, words for cooking pots include רוּרפָּ (Num 11:8, Judg 6:19, 1 Sam 2:14), ריסִ (Exod 16:3; 2 Kgs 4:38–41; Jer 1:13; Ezek 11:3, 7, 11; Mic 3:3; Zech 14:20–21), תחַלַּקַ (S1 Sam 2:14; Mic 3:3), and דוּדּ (S1 Sam 2:14). Simply put, cooking vessels can be categorized into three basic forms: the Bronze-Age or “Canaanite” pot or bowl, the Philistine jug, and the hybrid pot.

The Bronze-Age “Canaanite” pot.

The cooking pots found within Bronze-Age Canaan and later in Israel evolved from a simple and common bowl-shaped vessel. The typical pot of the Bronze Age was a large, handless, open-mouthed pot with an everted rim, round base, and carinated body, which gives the impression of a large bowl. The Late Bronze–Age pots maintained the general shape of their Middle Bronze–Age predecessors but with some variations in size and an increasingly carinated shape. During the Late Bronze Age II, cooking pots added a folded-over, everted rim with a triangular flange. The diameter of the mouth averaged 9.8 to 15.7 in (25–40 cm) and the height 5.9 to 7.8 in (15–20 cm). Its open mouth, wide shape, and special cooking ware allowed the pot to be used for several types of cooking, including steaming, frying, simmering, and boiling. It served as well for cooking larger food items like meat and for serving larger groups of people. The round base of the pot was not conducive to balancing on a flat surface while cooking; rather, Canaanite pots were placed inside the tabun or tannur, over its upper opening or against the stones of the hearth. Those with handles could be suspended over an open fire. This type of pot is familiar in Late Bronze–Age Canaan and in Israel, with variations continuing to the end of the Iron Age.

The Philistine jug.

A new type of cooking vessel appeared with the arrival of the Philistines, in the Late Bronze and Early Iron I Ages. It resembled Cypriot and Aegean cooking jugs of the Late Cypriot IIC and IIIA and Late Helladic IIIC periods. Generally speaking, the shape of the new vessel was less like a bowl and more like a jug, with a closed mouth, a globular to ovoid shape, and one or two loop handles from the rim to its shoulder. Its rim, either simple or slightly thickened, was everted. Philistine jugs were typically uniform in size, with a volume of about one-half to three-fourths of a gallon (2–3 liters), a maximum height of ca. 7.8 in (20 cm), a maximum body diameter of ca. 7 in (18 cm), and a diameter at the mouth of 3.5 to 4.7 in (9–12 cm).

A range of variations of this cooking jug evolved throughout the Iron Age. The cooking jug nearly replaced the “Canaanite” or traditional cooking pot at sites designated as Philistine on the southern coastal plain, which is why it is called the “Philistine jug.” Less commonly, the Philistine jug is found at sites outside Philistia. The size and shape of the cooking jug does not allow for multiple types of cooking, unlike the traditional Bronze-Age cooking pot. The cooking jug was probably used for simmering: its thin walls were useful for slow, low-heat cooking of liquid dishes; its flat base allowed it to rest directly on or near the heat source; and its handle allowed for easy removal. Soot marks on the sides of the jugs indicate that they were placed directly over an open fire or leaned on a hearth. Its small size also dictated the amount of cereals or vegetables cooked within it, indicating smaller portions and consumption by fewer people.

The hybrid pot.

During the end of Iron Age I and into Iron Age II, a different type of cooking pot came to be widely used. The Bronze-Age “Canaanite pot” and “Philistine jug” merged to create a hybrid cooking pot, with slightly varying forms. The most functional features of the pot and jug were combined: the rounded body and open mouth of the Bronze-Age pot and the handles and shape of the Philistine jug. The hybrid pot, depending on the type of cooking ware used, could be used for slow, low-heat cooking as well as for rapid, high-temperature cooking. The size of the pot determined whether it was used for small or large items or quantities of food. Hybrid pots were used alongside the more traditional Bronze-Age pot, indicating that a variety of cooking methods were used in tandem. The hybrid pot was more user-friendly than the jug but was as not as conducive to cooking large types or amounts of food as the Bronze-Age pot. Consequently, the hybrid pot might have been used to cook liquid dishes, like soups, as well as heartier dishes, like stews and porridges. If meat was prepared in a stew, a traditional Bronze-Age pot or larger hybrid pot would have been ideal, depending on the size of the meat and the number of people to be fed.

A hybrid pot could be suspended over a fire if it had handles or placed in a fire pit, next to or on top of a hearth, inside a tannur, and, according to some reconstructions, covering its upper opening. However, it is debatable whether or not the upper opening of these ovens would have been able to withstand the weight of cooking vessels or whether the vessels were of the right size to even fit within the opening. This suggests that the cooking vessels were placed on a hearth (in Philistia) or inside an oven rather than over its opening.


The majority of households spent their days tending to chores of agriculture and animal husbandry. Certain times of year, planting and harvest, demanded the participation of all physically able members of the household. A quick, easy meal of porridge or gruel would be prepared for breakfast. People who tended their herds had long distances to travel and were unlikely to return home for a midday meal. Likewise, those in the fields may not have been able to return home. Instead, they took a “picnic” lunch with them, which might include bread, cheese, yogurt, dried fruit, parched grain, water, and seasonal vegetables and fruit (Ruth 2:14). Regardless of the daily activities, midday meals were raw and light. The main hot meal was prepared at the end of the workday by those whose activities were centered at home.

The average Israelite seldom ate meat. The availability of cereals provided grain for porridges and gruel as well as for bread. There is a distinction between porridge and gruel. Mesopotamian recipes and ethnographic studies indicate that gruel is thinner and was eaten primarily in the morning, while porridge is thicker and was eaten as a side dish, together with stews, at the evening meal. In elite contexts porridge may not have been much more than a side dish, but for the average person porridge or gruel was a mainstay, a meal in itself. Gruel was an ideal morning meal since it was relatively fast and easy to make (Prov 31:15). Gruel and porridge required small amounts of raw ingredients, which were stretched a long way, making them economical. In ancient Israel, porridge or gruel was made out of spelt or emmer, barley, lentils, and chickpeas. The grains were ground using a pestle and mortar, usually stone. Both porridges and gruel could be prepared in any of the three types of cooking pots, but since the cereals were small, they were more likely prepared in one of the smaller pots such as the Philistine jug or a small hybrid pot. In one Mesopotamian recipe, the cook is directed to take cooked birds out of the cauldron, to put them on top of the porridge that is in a platter, and to then put it back over the oven’s upper opening.

The main hot meal, eaten in the evening, was a soup or stew. The preference for stews in the ancient Near East is evident in Mesopotamian sources. One Assyrian “encyclopedia” mentions not only 300 kinds of bread but also 20 varieties of cheese and at least 100 different soups or stews.


Traditional bread oven (tannur). John D. Whiting Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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A Babylonian resource includes recipes, mostly for stews made from ingredients such as vegetables, lentils, and meats. In ancient Israel, meat was not consumed on a regular basis, and most stews were made from lentils, legumes, and vegetables. The Hebrew word for stew, דיזִנָ, is used to describe stews of vegetables or legumes (Gen 25:29, 34; 2 Kgs 4:38–40; Hag 2:12). If these food items were scarce due to famine, war, drought, or economic difficulties, then porridge was served again, as the main meal. In an ethnoarchaeological experiment with Druze villagers in Syria, a tabun and cooking pot were constructed and a meal of bread and lentil stew was prepared. Inside the cooking pot, onions were sautéed in olive oil, water and lentils were added and brought to a boil, and the stew was served with bread an hour later.

When meat or other animal parts, fresh or other, were available, stews were also made. Meat was acquired by hunting wild game or when an animal from the herd was slaughtered (Gen 18:7, 27:3–4; Judg 6:19; 1 Sam 28:24). When an animal was butchered, the entire animal was utilized and nothing went to waste. Ancient Israel was a society reliant upon its herds for their secondary products (including wool, milk, and dung for fuel), and people were not likely to butcher animals (most likely goat or sheep) in order to eat meat, unless for a special occasion like a wedding or hospitality feast. In ancient societies like Israel, economy was an important part of daily life and is reflected in the usage of the entire animal. Most households were unable to consume an entire animal before it spoiled, and therefore, reciprocal exchanges occurred within households, extended families, or entire settlements.

Regardless of the socioeconomic status of the consumers, when an animal was killed the entire animal was butchered, skinned, and chopped; bones, cartilage, and meat were turned into stews, the most economical of meat dishes. Meat prepared for stews could be roasted or braised and rinsed before being added to the stew pot. “Rinsing” meat before stewing was done for several reasons: (1) warm water was used to help pluck fowl; (2) rinsing or soaking raw meat in cold water increased the firmness of the meat, therefore enhancing its texture; (3) there may have been a concern with cleanliness; and (4) it may be related to the method of cooking. When meat was browned, juices from it were drawn out into the vessel, leaving both with an undesirable residue or film that needed to be washed off. Once the meat was rinsed, it would be added to the rest of the stew and, more often than not, served with bread. Bread was served either alone or as bread cakes (הגָʾֻ in Gen 18:6) or dumplings within the stew (תוֹבְבִלְ in 2 Sam 13:6, 8, 10). Roasted grain seeds that were soaked and preserved in a loaf or bread cake were often crumbled on top of the broth or stew to thicken it and to provide it with a “burned” flavor.

On the occasion that a household prepared a large quantity of meat or even an entire animal, roasting was the preferred, and most simple, mode of cooking. Pieces of meat were roasted on a plate, rack, or screen made of metal or clay, which was placed on top of the upper opening of the tannur. Meat could also be placed on skewers that rested on top of the oven or inside it. Pieces of meat were also roasted briefly before being placed in the pot with broth. Only small pieces of meat would fit inside or over an oven. If an entire animal was to be cooked and consumed in consideration of hospitality norms or for special occasions such as feasts or festivals, it was likely roasted over an open fire or in a pit, perhaps similar to the methods used by modern-day Samaritans at Passover (Isa 44:16, 19). Roasting pits are generally not identified in archaeological reports.


Shifting the focus from temples, palaces, and battlefields to the home, the center of everyday life, provides a better understanding of how average Israelites lived. Research into everyday domestic activities through Syrian–Palestinian archaeology, ethnography, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology, and biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts has expanded our comprehension of daily life in ancient Israel. Our understanding of domestic cooking has increased, although much work remains to be done. Techniques and technologies for cooking evolved throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, through the use of various cooking pots and ovens. Breads, porridges and gruels, soups, and stews made from vegetables, lentils, legumes, and occasionally meat were the main dishes prepared by ancient Israelites. As further research into daily food preparation, diet, feasts, agriculture, and animal husbandry is carried out, our understanding of the daily lives of ancient Israelites will be further clarified.



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Cynthia Shafer-Elliott