The Bronze-Age Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe (ll. 80–85; Middle Kingdom, ca. 2000–1600 B.C.E.) paints a lush portrait of the provisions available in the southern Levant region of Israel–Palestine: “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 tree. Barley was there and emmer, and no end of cattle of all kinds.” Yet in spite of the similarly glowing description in Deuteronomy of the “land of milk and honey” (Deut 26:15, inter alia), the diet of Israel–Palestine was generally more modest and socially differentiated.

A snapshot of the Bronze- and Iron-Age diet in the southern Levant is provided by analyzing archaeological residue, West Semitic inscriptions and iconography in comparison with the broader ancient Near Eastern context, biblical texts, and comparative anthropological data. The use of textual and comparative data remains especially significant for several reasons: (1) microarchaeology has only begun analyzing residue that shines light on dietary questions, (2) the collection and systematic investigation of animal bones according to zooarchaeological practices has only begun to establish itself as a typical part of the archaeology of the Levant since the 1970s and 1980s, and (3) uncooked foods are unlikely to be preserved in the material record. However, the textual data emphasize certain parts of the diet while relegating others to the shadows. Highly valued foods such as meat are far more conspicuous in the biblical text than are staples of low esteem like chickpeas and lentils. Nonbiblical texts such as the Samaria Ostraca and Arad inscriptions focus exclusively on several easily conserved and transported staples, such as olive oil, wine, and bread. Using comparative texts, especially from Egypt and Mesopotamia, requires awareness of the lack of a well-developed elite culture in the southern Levant. Israel, Judah, and other states of the region (which does not extend to the northern Levantine Phoenician states) did not possess the same access to riches as did the vast empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Neither were they enriched by accumulation through the efforts of a wide trading network like Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos. The resources in Israel–Palestine tended to remain more limited.

Two basic observations should also be kept in mind. First, the diets in ancient Israel–Palestine were contingent upon various realities of the climate, soil, and geographic environment. Second, the technologies employed help to narrow in on the amount of effort necessary and on what kinds of output might be expected. This framework provides the foundation for constructing a picture of the social landscape for the various diets.

The material data and textual sources give a glimpse of the foods available as well as the social, political, religious, trade, and gender dynamics accompanying and influencing consumption. The question of “what” one ate relates closely to the questions of “how” and “with whom” one ate. These brief introductory observations lead to the conclusion that there was not one “diet” in ancient Israel–Palestine but rather a continuum based on various spatial and social factors. Not to be forgotten is the ubiquity of food shortages and the less common but more extreme appearance of famine, both of which not only were a result of the climate (i.e., Deut 28:23) and geography but also often arose from war and other human-induced factors (cf. 2 Kgs 6:24–29, 25:3). Hunger was a physical reality that gave rise to its frequent use as a literary symbol. Finally, it is unclear how many meals were typically eaten per day, though there is evidence in Mesopotamia that deities were served food four times daily.

Physical Environment.

The variegated landscape of the Levant in general and Israel–Palestine in particular gives rise to a number of different factors that influenced the food production and, therefore, diets in various regions. Moving successively eastward, the coastal region gives way to the hilly lowlands (Shephelah), then to the mountainous regions of Judah and Ephraim, then the steep drop through the arid terrain into the lush Jordan Valley and desolate Dead Sea. On the east side of the river the mountains rise again. The farther south one goes into the Negev, the less precipitation falls, making crop production increasingly difficult.

Unlike the surrounding cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, which had regular water supplies through the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers, Israel–Palestine depended on regular rains for agricultural production. This difference itself rendered some crops more difficult to raise (e.g., vegetables and melons). The rocky soil of the hills and mountains was, however, ideal for olive and grape production. The southern region of the Negev and the arid decline toward the Jordan Valley could sustain little farming, making way for herding. The hot, dry Jordan Valley supported date palms and sycamore figs.

Available Foods.

While the reality on the ground was rarely as luxurious as the rich spread of Deuteronomy 8:7–8, the seven species listed there give a relatively good overview of what was available in the region as whole—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The most prominent remaining foodstuffs include vegetables, legumes, and animal products (dairy and meat).

Grains and bread.

Grains in various forms made up the majority of the diets. Studies have proposed somewhere between half and three-fourths of all calorie intake came from several kinds of wheat (usually חטה, ḥiṭṭah; rarely כסמת, kussemet, likely spelt or emmer wheat) and barley (שׂערים, śĕעōrîm). Grain was eaten in various forms—as the roasted kernels themselves (קלי, qālî in Ruth 2:14, 1 Sam 17:17), as porridge, and, of course, as several types of bread. Flat and unleavened bread is associated with settings where the meal is eaten while traveling or in a hurry (Exod 12:39), while leavened bread, needing time to rise, takes on connotations of a more settled atmosphere. Other forms, such as “cakes” (חלה, ḥallah) and “wafers” (רקיק, rāqîq), appear in special ritual or celebratory situations. Mesopotamian recipes explore many types of breads (mention is made of more than 200), listing variations according to special ingredients, baking techniques, and region of origin. While these recipes arise from elite contexts, they suggest some diversity in Israel–Palestine as well.

The appearance of only wheat flour in the sacrificial ordinances suggests its higher status (2 Kgs 7:16). The Judahite inscriptions from Arad (ca. 600 B.C.E.) about army rations differentiate flour of first quality (ראׁשן, riאšōn), also mentioning wheat and possibly referring to barley. Barley could be grown in harsher climates less suitable to wheat, likely contributing to wheat’s prestige. Grain’s function as the primary staple is also supported by its use for tax payments: the grain tax and grain offering (מנחה, minḥāh) becomes the basic word for “tribute.” The barley harvest also features in several biblical texts (i.e., Ruth 1:22—2:3) as a narrative harbinger for fulfillment.


The low amounts of precipitation and rocky soil of the hilly and mountainous regions of the southern Levant provide ideal conditions for olive trees and grape vines. Olives were usually crushed for their oil, and the uses of oil went beyond cooking: it was also used for perfumes, medicine, and fuel for lamps. Deliveries of oil are recorded in the Samarian Ostraca (ca. 780–760 B.C.E.), but the best example of its importance in the region is provided by the numerous pressing installations that sprang up during the Assyrian domination of the region during the seventh century B.C.E. Much of the oil was then exported, for example, to Mesopotamia or Egypt, where these plants struggled. It is unlikely that raw, unprocessed olives played much of a role in the diet at this time, given their bitterness. The techniques for processing them developed during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Wine and other beverages.

Wine is by far the most famous beverage of the ancient Levant, featured in the Arad and Lachish Ostraca, in numerous Ugaritic texts, and throughout the Bible. Wine cellars and accompanying jars storing wine are known from Iron Age–II Gibeon (eighth–seventh centuries B.C.E.), where the cellars are estimated to have had a capacity of around 100,000 liters. The so-called Canaanite jar (the early forerunner to the amphorae used to transport wine during the Hellenistic and Roman periods) found throughout the Bronze Age in Egypt shows that Egypt imported wine from the Levant. Several designations for wine are found in ancient Hebrew inscriptions and biblical texts: the general term (ןיי, yayin), “new” (שׁורית, tîrôš; similarly סיסע, עāsîs), and “fermenting” (חמר, ḥemer). Further descriptions include “mixed” or “spiced” (ממסך, mimsāk), likely with other sweeter liquids, and “old” (יׁשן, yašin), “dark” (כחל, perhaps vocalized kaḥil), and “red” (עדם, עĕdōm). During the Iron Age, it seems that wine was not usually mixed with water as it was later, given the derogatory implications of such a practice (Isa 1:22). The Ugaritic mythic text CTU 1.22 mentions a wider variety, though some of these types have not been adequately deciphered. In the end, wine is a necessary element for festive occasions in biblical and extrabiblical texts. Furthermore, it is the primary element used to signify a banquet in ancient Near Eastern iconography. Finally, wine served as a central offering as well, usually rendered “drink offering” (נסך, nesek). The symbolic value of wine—in addition to the effects associated with alcohol—arises in part from the fact that one must wait up to five years for the vines to mature before being able to make wine from them, meaning that they could become something of a family heirloom.

The extent to which the population of ancient Israel–Palestine consumed beer is difficult to establish. Beer, made from grain, was the most popular alcoholic beverage in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where grapes did not flourish. The nature of some Philistine jugs (with built-in strainer) may imply that they favored beer, but wine was also strained (Isa 25:6). The Hebrew word שׁכר, šēkār (e.g., Deut 14:26, Judg 13:4, Isa 5:11) is sometimes rendered “beer,” but it could simply be a general designation for “alcoholic beverage” or a further product of the grape such as grappa (which the NRSV translates as “strong drink”). Recent analysis at Ramat Rahel (near Jerusalem) has found traces of mead (an alcoholic beverage made of fermented honey) in jars that were likely brought as tax payments from the surrounding countryside. This may furnish one more possibility for שׁכר.

Fruits and nuts.

In addition to crushing grapes for wine, grapes were eaten dried (Num 6:3, 1 Sam 25:18). Several other fruits also appear in the textual and material record, especially pomegranates, dates, and figs. Sycamore figs, watermelon, and date palms were found in the Late Bronze–Age tomb of Tutankhamen (r. ca. 1361–1352 B.C.E.). The cultivated melon was also known in Bronze-Age Egypt and Mesopotamia, as attested in tombs and perhaps a biblical reference (Num 11:5). However, because melons require significant irrigation, Israel–Palestine does not provide the ideal climate for their cultivation. Depictions of pomegranates appear on cultic garments (Exod 28:33), and evidence of their cultivation was found in Early Bronze–Age Jericho. They were especially connected to fertility (Song 4:13), a setting in which drinking its juice also occurs (Song 8:2). Apples were known in the prominent third-millennium city of Ur, where they were part of cultic offerings, but could not have been grown there. There is evidence that they were grown in Kadesh-Barnea in southern Judah near the Sinai in the tenth century B.C.E., supporting the traditional identification of tappuach (Song 2:5) as an apple (though this identification caught on only with the Vulgate’s wordplay in Gen 3 of malum, “evil,” with malus, “apple”). Their importance only increased in the Hellenistic period, however. Citron (אתרוג, אetrôg), one of the “four kinds” necessary according to Second Temple and rabbinical Judaism for the celebration of Sukkot (Feast of Booths; Lev 23:40: עץ חדר, עṣḥdr, is later interpreted as the citron), has been found at Ramat Rahel from around 500 B.C.E. This fruit was native to the Indus valley, which was part of the Persian Empire, along with the Levant, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.

Pistachios, almonds, and walnuts were also known. Almonds were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb and, along with pistachios, are depicted as valuables brought from Israel–Palestine by Joseph’s brothers to Egypt (Gen 43:11). The walnut may appear in Song of Songs 6:11 (the NRSV has “nut orchard”), and there are also indications of walnut pollen from the garden of the palace at Ramat Rahel; evidence in Turkey for walnuts dates to the mid-second millennium. Taken together, this evidence points to the high value placed upon nuts: they were fit for kings like the pharaoh and the representatives of foreign rulers in Judah at Ramat Rahel.


Quite the opposite is true of vegetables, which the biblical texts place on the bottom rung in terms of desirability. They were consumed as part of a diet of fasting (Dan 1) and appear as a negative comparison to meat (Prov 15:17). The necessity of watering vegetables regularly might have played a role in their low profile (Deut 11:10–11), and they were associated with the irrigation-watered fields of Egypt (Num 11:5). Leeks, onions, and garlic were well known in Late-Bronze Egypt and Mesopotamia but appear only once in the Bible (Num 11:5).

Pulses and legumes.

Given the small amount of meat consumption, this category was in reality quite important for covering nutritional needs. Lentils have been found as early as the seventh millennium in the Levant. Peas, chickpeas, and other legumes are also extant from a very early date. Paleobotanical analysis at Early Bronze–Age Jericho and Iron Age–II Tell Madaba (modern Jordan, ancient Moab) shows a relatively high concentration of lentils, chickpeas, grass peas, beans, and vetch. This result is somewhat surprising when compared to the relative absence of these foods in biblical and nonbiblical texts. Except for Jacob’s red lentil (עדשׁה, עădāšāh) stew (cf. 2 Sam 17:28 and Ezek 4:9, which also includes fava beans [פול, pôl]), these ingredients generally go missing. Their cultivation is referred to once (2 Sam 23:11) but only as the site of a battle. From this meager textual basis, one can conclude that lentils and other legumes were not desirable, yet they still played an important role in the ancient diet.


Milk is characterized as one component in the glowing description of “the Promised Land” in Deuteronomy, and it is also attributed high value when Abraham serves it to his divine guests (Gen 18:8), perhaps keeping with his status as a pastoral nomad. This aligns with the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, in which the Egyptian traveler receives water and boiled milk as tokens of hospitality from a tribal chief in Canaan. Typically consumed dairy products included yogurt, soured milk, ghee, and cheese; fresh milk would have been consumed rarely, given how quickly it sours. Cow milk and its products, while known from early Mesopotamian iconography, likely played only a secondary role in the ancient Levant when compared to goat milk: cattle were used primarily for plowing. Goats produce milk for approximately 6 months of the year, which would limit consumption of fresher dairy to this period. Cheese and ghee, both processed dairy products, were portable and thus transported with ease (1 Sam 17:18).


Meat of various kinds represented a small portion of the actual diet but exercised a comparatively prominent role in the symbolic imagination. The higher one’s social status, the more regularly one consumed meat. Fish also played an important symbolic role. The most prominent kinds of meat consumed were beef, mutton, and goat. This is because these were the animals kept by farmers and herders for other purposes. Cattle were employed in traction—the pulling of plows. Sheep were raised for their wool. Goats were the primary dairy providers; less selective in terms of diet, they were easier to maintain. These various uses meant that these animals could be employed for other tasks until the opportune time for their slaughter and consumption, which most often took place in connection with religious, political, and family feasts.

Wild animals, particularly deer and gazelles, continued to play a role in the human diet into the Iron Age. However, as time went on, their populations declined and remains of hunted game become less prominent in the archaeological record. Furthermore, while only the meat of domesticated animals appears in the lists of sacrificial offerings (Lev 1:1–3; Deut 12:7, 17; cf. Deut 12:15–17, 20–22), fallow deer bones have been found in connection with the Early Iron–Age Mount Ebal cultic site near Nablus, biblical Shechem (cf. Deut 27:4–7, Josh 8:30–33). Consumption of wild game (צידה, ṣêdāh) is rare in the Bible but appears to have been quite desirable (Gen 27:3).

Significant discussion over the consumption of especially pig but also dog meat as markers of ethnic identity (usually “Israelite” versus “Philistine”) is based in scholarship on the faunal remains from archaeological sites. Some archaeologists even go so far as to base the identification of a site as “Israelite” in part on the lack of pig bones (e.g., not found at Khirbet Qeiyafa but found at the Philistine sites of Ekron and Gath). The evidence points to a general lack of pig consumption in areas associated with the Israelite settlements in the highlands of Judah and Ephraim during the Early Iron Age. In contrast, pig bones are more prevalent in the areas associated with Philistine settlement in the lowlands (Shephelah) and on the coast. However, pig bones, most prevalent in the twelfth century B.C.E., when the Philistines and other “Sea Peoples” arrived in the region, become rarer even in Philistine regions as time progresses, pointing to the likelihood that economic reasons played an important role in this development, perhaps alongside the cultural–religious one. A similar development takes place in Bronze-Age Sidon as well. The economic argument relates to pigs’ need for shade and other conditions more accessible in the coastal and lowland regions than in the Israelite highlands. Wild pigs were also more abundant in the northern Jezreel Valley and are prominent there in Early Bronze–Age En Shadud (but also in the Rephaim Valley near Jerusalem in the Early Bronze Age).

The “fatted fowl” of King Solomon’s table (1 Kgs 4:23) was likely goose, domesticated in ancient Egypt. Chicken was not established as a significant part of the diet in the region until the Roman period, but it does appear in the eighth-century B.C.E. Aramaic treaty of Sefire (KAI 200 A 24; בכתה, bkth), and some bones have recently been found in Late Bronze–Age Shiloh and Early Iron–Age Jerusalem. However, because consumption patterns usually changed radically once chicken gained a foothold in a community’s diet, it was likely to have been relatively unknown before the Roman period. Raising the turtledoves found in the sacrificial lists may have taken place during the Iron Age, but later, during the Hellenistic period, they became quite widespread as an alternative to more expensive sheep, goat, and cattle sacrifices. Also found in the Bible are quail (Num 11:31, Exod 16:13; שֹלו, śĕlāw), which were caught in the wild and are attested from Persian-period Ramat Rahel (ca. 500 B.C.E.), where they appear to have been ritually consumed.

One of the most surprising finds in archaeological surveys of animal remains has been the discovery of fish bones from species native to the Nile and not to Israel–Palestine. Though inland, fish remains were found in the highlands, likely brought as trade items. This accords with the “Fish Gate” of Jerusalem mentioned in Nehemiah 3:3 (cf. 13:16), where they may have been traded. Fish are associated with Egypt in Numbers 11:5. The archaeological record leads to two nonexclusive explanations for the consumption of fish, especially imported fish. The first is social status—elites had more access to fish. The second is that consumption of fish was logically limited by access to the coast, meaning more fish in periods when the highlands were better connected to the coast (i.e., more fish in Lachish during Egyptian domination of the Late Bronze Age than the time of the Judahite monarchy of Iron Age II).

The most common way to prepare meat, according to the biblical texts, was to boil it, which is implied in the basic term for a meat sacrifice that was meant to be consumed by the human participants (זבח, zebaḥ; 1 Sam 2:13). Stews were also common in the recipes of Mesopotamia; stewing was the most economical technique for preparing meat because none of it would be wasted. While difficult to determine, it is also likely that the inhabitants of Israel–Palestine dried or smoked some of their meat, as is known from comparative Egyptian evidence.

Sweeteners and condiments.

Little mention is made of sweets in the textual data, beyond that of honey (דבׁש, dĕbaš; נפת, nōpet; and יער, yaעar). Yaעar is often rendered “honeycomb,” while dĕbaš would be the honey; but dĕbaš can also be used for “fruit syrup.” Only recently, in a ninth-century B.C.E. context at Tell Reḥov, was evidence of pre-Hellenistic apiculture found. Previously, only wild honey had been associated with Bronze- and Iron-Age Israel–Palestine (cf. 1 Sam 14:25–29, Judg 14:8–9, 18). The appearance of mead residue in jars of Ramat Rahel also supports a thriving apiculture industry.

Salt (מלח, melaḥ) was also an important seasoning (Job 6:6). It was, of course, available from the Dead Sea; though in periods when less trade with this region took place, it may have been out of reach for many. Nonetheless, it appears as part of the cultic sacrifices (Exod 30:35, Lev 2:13) and is referred to in the “covenant of salt” (Num 18:19) and in eating the royal salt (Ezra 4:14). Other local and therefore widely consumed condiments were coriander (גד, gad; Exod 16:31, Num 11:7), dill (קצח, qeṣaḥ; Isa 28:25), and cumin (ןכמ, kammōn, Isa 28:25, 27). Saffron and cinnamon (כרכם, karkōm, and קנמון, qinnāmôn; Song 4:14) were imported, and therefore, they were available only to the elite and in small quantities.

Social Influences.

A simple list of the foodstuffs available for consumption in a particular region does not adequately describe the diet of a particular group of people. Societal factors often play decisive roles in terms of what foods and beverages are determined more desirable, who receives which portions, and why some food sources are typically ignored. The following section discusses three categories relating to these sociological factors: feasting, shortage, and taboos.


Central to a determination of the actual diets of various persons during the Bronze and Iron Ages in Israel–Palestine is an awareness of their social standing, particularly their closeness to royal, cultic, and military leaders. This proximity was often expressed through communal feasting events and through location in rural or urban settings.

The prime biblical example of the rich menu afforded to those close to the king or political leaders appears in 1 Kings 4:22–27, which offers details of Solomon’s regular rations. This text highlights various cuts of meat shared by his entourage as an example of his imperial magnificence. A similar, although more limited, spread appears in Nehemiah’s description of his daily provision for 150 people of three kinds of meat and wine—special mention is made of the Jews, the officials, and visitors from the surrounding peoples (Neh 5:17–18). The contrast with the poverty earlier in Nehemiah 5 displays the influence social standing has on diet.

The Amarna correspondence between the Egyptian pharaoh and kings of various city-states under his influence during the reign of Akhenaten (r. ca. 1379–1362 B.C.E.) relates that various vassal kings prepare grain, oil, oxen, sheep, goats, and strong drink for the arrival of pharaoh’s army. The provision of the military with preferential foodstuffs, such as more extensive portions of meat, appears in the seventh-century B.C.E. zooarchaeological finds among ruins linked with the Assyrian army at the Philistine city Ekron (Tel Miqne). The richer diet of a military force can also be seen in Saul’s army gorging on raw meat after a victory (1 Sam 14:32) and the common appropriation of vanquished people’s animals, as often portrayed, for example, in Neo-Assyrian iconography (Josh 11:14).

A victory parade by a conquering army could result in a celebratory feast for the victor’s city, as seen in 2 Samuel 6, where military victory, religious procession, and a feast for the city of Jerusalem are combined. The Babylonian myth Enuma Elish records a similar feast in celebration of multiple accomplishments: the completion of a temple, a military victory, and Marduk’s ascension to the throne.

In the Amarna correspondence, a typical context for elite feasting is the treaty feast between rival vassal rulers, which consisted of bread and beer. The Bible also displays festive eating as the context for creating lasting political and familial bonds, most widely known as a covenant feast, either between humans and God (Exod 24:11) or between reconciled enemies, such as Jacob and Laban (Gen 31:54; cf. the eighteenth-century B.C.E. Mari letters).

Other occasions that are often celebrated by large community feasts are the completion of a temple (third-millennium Sumerian Gudea Cylinder; 1 Kgs 8) or a city (Calah, in the Assyrian record of Assurnasirpal, 883–859 B.C.E.). The recorded feasts could last for up to a week for close to 70,000 people, with their primary dishes consisting of normal as well as rarer and more prized portions of meat. Family feasts were also quite well known, such as those of Elkanah’s family in 1 Samuel 1, David’s clan in 1 Samuel 20:29 (החפשׁמ חבז, zebaḥ mišpāḥāh), or the one portrayed in the KTMW stela from Zinjirli (Syria, eighth century B.C.E.). These meals provided the opportunity for consumption of meat and overlap with the category of sacrificial feasts.

These sacrificial, or religious, contexts played perhaps the most significant role in the regular feasting experiences of the larger populace. Religious festivals, in the Bible often viewed as three major pilgrimages per year (Passover/Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Booths), provided the setting for the slaughtering of animals that were otherwise important for wool, milk, or plowing. These events could comprise the consumption of a good-sized portion of the yearly harvest (Deut 14:22–27) and generally coincided with the completion of various portions of the harvest (Unleavened Bread, when barley ripened; Weeks, for the wheat harvest; and especially Booths, when the entire harvest for the year, including the grapes and olives, was finished; cf. Exod 23:14–19, Isa 9:3). The Late Bronze–Age yearly and septennial citywide zukru festival in the Syrian city of Emar likewise brought together the entire population of the city for a ritual festival in honor of the high god Dagan, and it was accompanied by gifts of food for the people.

An important corollary to the people’s feast was the portion accorded to the priests and other cultic personnel. Despite an indication that they were not always well provided for (Mal 3:8–10), comparative evidence from Neo-Assyria suggests that the close connection between the Jerusalem and Bethel priesthoods and the monarchies secured them a well-stocked pantry. Animal bones from areas near the Iron-II sanctuary of Tel Dan (cf. Judg 17–18, 1 Kgs 12:29) include numerous signs of cultic feasting. Cut marks on small cattle bones and the relatively high concentration of bones from the left side of the animals in one area and the right side in another (implying priestly consumption) show that feasters chose certain portions of meat over others, likely for ritual reasons, and indicate social rank according to specific cuts (1 Sam 9:23–24).

A final setting for the feast was the entertainment of travelers, especially important given the lack of infrastructure (i.e., hotels) available. A parade example from the Bible is Genesis 18:6–8, in which travelers are urged to stop for a piece of bread yet are served veal, cakes, and curds.

Food provision and shortage.

Two related corollaries, food provision and, opposite to feasting, food shortage, have often been overlooked when considering the diet of ancient Israel–Palestine. Especially the biblical record (Gen 12:10, 26:1, 41:54; Ruth 1:1; 2 Sam 21:1; 1 Kgs 18:1–2; 2 Kgs 8:1; Amos 4:6; Jer 14) but also other ancient texts point to the ongoing struggle for sufficient nutrition. Studies of the Greek world in the classical period (fifth–fourth centuries B.C.E.) support the conclusion that food shortages were common, while famine—widespread starvation—was relatively infrequent. Calculations on how often crops would fail in Israel–Palestine are an important, but not necessarily the decisive, factor in whether the population had enough to eat.

The causes of food shortages were multiple, and climate was likely only rarely the direct cause. The prominence of grain pits for storage makes obvious the steps that communities in Israel–Palestine took in order to overcome seasonal deprivation. Nonetheless, the important role of divine favor or divine anger understood as experienced in regular and timely rains points to the sense of dependence on outside help (cf. Deut 28, 1 Kgs 18). Described in quite elaborate fashion, Joseph’s provision of all Egypt for seven years of failed harvests (Gen 41—47) implies the possibility of a centralized response to crop failures.

This text—along with Ruth 1, Genesis 12:10–20, and many others—indicates that migration was a well-known approach to overcoming shortages. While some displacements were to rather distant locations, the many environmental niches within the Levant suggest that crop failure could often be limited to quite specific areas. Comparative evidence from ancient Greece shows that farmers planted on different slopes and elevations as a method of diversifying their risk.

Textual evidence about food shortages in the Late Bronze Age can be gleaned from the Amarna correspondence. An unsurprising cause for food shortages arose from enemy rulers plundering grain and animals, forcing inhabitants to abandon their cities to search for food. A similar situation is portrayed in Judges 6:3–6, where Israel’s enemies invade after the harvest was sown in order to destroy crops so that Israel would be reduced to servitude through hunger. David’s band claims to have protected Nabal’s flocks from such plundering (1 Sam 25:5–8).

Economic oppression, another cause of food shortages, is documented in Nehemiah 5: the heavy tax burden, which in Persian period Yehud was paid in kind, led to a situation in which subsistence farmers had to sell their children to fulfill their tax obligations. Comparisons for this situation, though from a somewhat different context, can be drawn from the economic situation in Babylon during the same period, as evidenced in the Murašu archive, which details the leasing and subleasing of tracts of land.

Generally, in times of food shortages, extreme measures were taken. The Bible offers several scenarios, most graphically 2 Kings 6:25–30, which first mentions an inordinate price for a donkey’s head and “doves’ dung” and then goes on to portray the ultimate situation of women eating their own children because of their extreme hunger. These depictions intend to show that the situation was as bad as could be because these were actions no person would contemplate under normal circumstances.

Dietary laws and taboos.

Perhaps the most common focus and intractable issue in terms of the diet of ancient Israel–Palestine has been the dietary laws and those animals whose meat was considered taboo according to the lists found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. The great interest in these laws results from their later importance in Judaism, an interest that, outside these two chapters of the Pentateuch, became prominent in texts from the Maccabean period, such as Judith, Greek Esther, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

While a completely satisfying analysis of the food laws remains elusive, several observations are in order. First, every culture differentiates between those edible substances that are available and what it views as “food.” Second, there is little support for some notion of a logic of medical health underlying the system of laws. Third, the biblical dietary stipulations fit into a larger cultural worldview that includes conceptions of original creation (Gen 1) as the result of the separation of various spheres and of the world as ideally a nonviolent place. This perspective undergirds the general preference for animals that “fit” with their surroundings, such as sea creatures with fins and animals of the field that chew the cud. Likewise, the ethical concern for nonviolence is important for the consumption of herbivores and the prohibitions on eating the blood of an animal (Gen 9:4–6, Lev 17:10–15, Deut 12:16) or the meat of a discovered (rather than slaughtered) dead animal (Deut 14:21).

As mentioned, the archaeological record shows differentiation between Israelite and Philistine sites in terms of pig and dog bones. (The Philistines also appear to have introduced a special lentil from the Aegean, Lathyrus sativus, which has to be soaked to get rid of toxins.) However, these data are limited to Iron Age I. Beyond the prohibitions of Deuteronomy 14:8 and Leviticus 11:7, pig consumption appears only in a list of despised animals (that also includes vermin and rodents), which are connected to religious rituals that take place in gardens, in the very late texts of Isaiah 65:4 and 66:17. Taboos on pig meat also take on importance in the deuterocanonical books of Maccabees (1 Macc 1:47; 2 Macc 6:18, 7:1) as part of attempts by some Jews to differentiate their identity from that of the broader Hellenistic world. The lack of attention to pig consumption—it is also simply in the middle of the Deuteronomy and Leviticus lists—suggests that it is not of primary importance among the various food laws.

Ezekiel 4 provides something of a different scenario. First, it records a hesitation on Ezekiel’s behalf that is not documented in the Pentateuchal dietary laws. Second, the situation depicts symbolically the circumstances of food shortage during a siege.

A final note applies to abstinence from a particular item, often wine, as religious or other ritual expression. The Nazirites were to avoid alcohol and grape products entirely as a sign of religious devotion (Num 6, cf. Judg 13–16, 1 Sam 1). Fasting occurred as a regular sign of mourning (1 Sam 31:13, cf. Neh 8:10) and as a sign of repentance (1 Sam 7:6, 1 Kgs 21:9, Jon 3:5) or petition (Ezra 8:21, Esther 4:3).


Drawing together the scholarship on the diet of Bronze- and Iron‐Age Israel–Palestine reveals several important developments. First, there has been a subtle shift in focus from the dietary laws that were especially important in the Second Temple period and in subsequent historical questions of Jewish identity. Second, archaeological methods have carefully tracked the faunal remains, allowing for insight into the feasting patterns associated with meat consumption. Third, the residue analysis of microbiology, while an emerging approach, has already led to discoveries about the kinds of plant foods consumed. Fourth and finally, taking into account the socially differentiated nature of the diet in ancient Israel–Palestine has allowed for a more variegated picture of the diets consumed by different groups based on their geographic and social locations. For some, Israel–Palestine may truly have been a land of milk and honey, while others experienced a far different and more treacherous reality.



  • Altmann, Peter. Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context. BZAW 424. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011. Explores food and meals in Deuteronomy of the Assyrian period. Includes discussion of related Ugaritic and Akkadian texts and iconography.
  • Altmann, Peter. “Food and Food Production.” Oxford Bibliographies Online. obo-9780199846535-0022.xml?rskey=kAlxTM&result=21&q=. Includes titles and annotations for both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
  • Borowski, Oded. Agriculture in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983. Takes a conservative view of texts and blends them into a unified picture of life in Iron-Age Israel–Judah.
  • Borowski, Oded. Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira, 1998. Good synthesis of iconographic, archaeological, biblical, and comparative ethnological data.
  • Bottéro, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Provides recipes from the Old Babylonian period.
  • Chahoud, Jwana, and Emmanuella Vila. “The Role of Animals in Ancient Sidon: An Overview of Ongoing Zooarchaeological Studies.” Archaeology and History in the Lebanon 34–35 (2011–2012): 258–284. Shows animal usage and diet in the northern Levant of the Bronze Age, highlighting the drop in pig and wild animal consumption.
  • Dalman, Gustaf. Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina. 8 vols. Beiträge zur Förderung Chrlistlicher Theologie 2/33. Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann, 1935. Classic discussion, in German, of agricultural life and customs: compares early twentieth-century Middle Eastern life with biblical texts. See especially volume 4 on grain and other crops and volume 6 on animal husbandry.
  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge, 1966. This work, from a structuralist perspective, set the foundation for discussion of the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 in subsequent scholarship.
  • Drury, Mark. “Available Foods.” Achaemenid Persia: A History Resource. Good, popular overview of what was on offer in a marginally later empire.
  • Garnsey, Peter. Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco–Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Best treatment of the role that food shortage plays as a background for diets.
  • Greer, Jonathan S. “Cultic Practices at Tel Dan—Was the Northern Kingdom Deviant?” Biblical Archaeology Review 38, no. 2 (2012). Overview of how this one site might fit with sacrificial practice as envisioned in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Greer, Jonathan S. Dinner at Dan: An Exegetical and Archaeological Exploration of Sacred Feasting at Iron Age II Tel Dan. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East Series. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012. Detailed zooarchaeological study of two feasting settings including the animal bones and pottery.
  • Houston, Walter. Purity and Monotheism: Clean and Unclean Animals in Biblical Law. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 140. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1993. Detailed treatment of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 from anthropological, zooarchaeological, and theological perspectives.
  • Lev-Tov, Justin, and Kevin McGeough. “Examining Feasting in Late Bronze Age Syro-Palestine through Ancient Texts and Bones.” In The Archaeology of Food and Identity, edited by Katheryn C. Twiss, pp. 85–111. Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Paper 34. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. Attempts to relate Late-Bronze Hazor to ritual texts from Emar in Syria to understand the dynamics of feasting.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973–1980.
  • MacDonald, Nathan. Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Literary studies of food and meals.
  • MacDonald, Nathan. What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008. Best monograph-length study of diet, bringing together the archaeology available at that time.
  • Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Rosen, Baruch. “Subsistence Economy in Iron Age I.” In From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel, edited by Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Naאaman, pp. 339–351. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1994. Attempt to use rural archaeology to come up with a model for agricultural subsistence and the related diet in the highlands.
  • Shafer-Elliott, Cynthia. Food in Ancient Judah: Domestic Cooking in the Time of the Hebrew Bible. London: Equinox, 2012. Uses cross-cultural modern ethnography, archaeological, and biblical data to construct an overview of techniques. Addresses regional and sociological (rural–urban) differences.
  • Struble, Eudora J., and Virginia Hermann. “An Eternal Feast at Samאal: The New Iron Age Mortuary Stele from Zincirli in Context.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 356 (2009): 15–49. Provides analysis of a recent iconographic and epigraphic find from Syria, showing the role of various foods in cultic practice.
  • Zertal, Adam. “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavation Seasons 1982–1987.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987): 105–165. An important site for the use of animals in sacrifice, especially the use of wild animals.
  • Zohary, Daniel, and Maria Hopf. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Species by species analysis: helpful overview of sites used and when certain plants are first documented in various regions.

Peter Altmann