In a wide range of familial, political, military, religious, and social contexts from sundry times and cultures, feasting stands out as one of the favorite means by which relational ties are forged and fostered. The social consolidation engendered through commensality ranges from alliances between two parties to complex networks of reciprocal debts. Given their capacity for forging political ties and mobilizing workforces and armies, feasts constitute “central arenas of social action that have had a profound impact on the course of historical transformations” (Dietler and Hayden, 2001, p. 16).

Aside from being biological necessities, eating and drinking are communicative and performative acts, with ritual, dramaturgical, and occasionally ecstatic-bacchanal qualities. Feasting sets itself apart from the daily intake of nutrition by its intentionality, formality, and symbolic valence. Given their strictly defined rules and conventions, feasts function as ritual theaters in which the participants can move up and down the social ladder, challenging the status quo by means of either punctilious deportment or shrewd transgressions of etiquette.

The spatial arrangement and the manner of consumption can reflect, affirm, or even subvert the social order. A group can emphasize egalitarian ideals by sitting in a circle and sharing food and drink placed at the center. Conversely, hierarchies are articulated when a clearly defined host sits at the head of the table, the guests are arranged by rank and status in relation to the host, and the lowest classes serve those seated. In these commensal constellations, the host displays wealth, success, and generosity. Where genders are sharply defined and segregated, women may eat separately from men and often are expected to serve them.

Feasting is closely akin to gift exchange. By means of both activities, one converts prestige objects, material surplus, and marriageable children into social bonds and political power. Yet in feasting, the gift is ingested and thereby destroyed. “This is the literal ‘embodiment’ or ‘incorporation’ of the gift and the social debt that it engenders. Aside from the powerful symbolic dimension of this practice, it also results in the pragmatic fact that, unlike durables, the food cannot be recirculated or ‘reinvested’” (Dietler and Hayden, 2001, pp. 73–74). If gift exchange often accompanies feasting, it is because it serves what is usually the primary objective of feasting. A host typically strives to leave a deep impression on his or her guests. The choice of delicacies, their distinctive taste, the aesthetics of the space, the entertainment, and gifts or “party favors,” which the guests do not consume but rather take home as memorabilia or souvenirs, all work toward this goal of memory making. While often the recipients of gifts, guests are usually expected not to arrive empty-handed.

Finally, by means of inscription (depictions in word and image), the act of ingestion (feasting) can continue to perform its memory-making function. One must therefore question the distinction made by some anthropologists between ingested and inscribed memories.

Textual, visual, and material evidence from ancient Israel and its neighbors in western Asia provides concrete illustrations of feasting’s many facets. Building upon previous research, this evidence is treated here under various rubrics. The overarching interest is a shift that can be observed in biblical literature: from kings as hosts of banquets and patrons of feasts, on the one hand, to the communities that collectively assume this responsibility, on the other.

Visual Images of Feasting.

Through feasting and other activities associated with military triumph, a ruler declares him- or herself to be the undisputed victor. As noted, one can perpetuate the memory and communicative effect of these symbolic activities with the help of images inscribed on durable media. It is hence not surprising that triumphal feasting is an exceptionally popular theme in the iconography of ancient western Asia.

Cylinder seals and relief plaques from Early Dynastic II and III, the earliest known representations of commensality, closely associate drinking rituals with symbols of royal–martial power. From the mid-third millennium B.C.E., the “Standard of Ur,” one of the most important early relics of ancient Mesopotamia, depicts a battle scene on one side and a victory-banquet scene on the other (British Museum number BM 121201). This association of feasting with triumph and tribute persists into the first millennium B.C.E. as a popular motif, especially in Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid-Persian iconography.

Closer to the southern Levant, sculptures on the two ritual basins from the Syrian city of Tel Mardikh/Ebla (twenty-second–twentieth centuries B.C.E.) show an enthroned king (and queen) raising a drinking vessel; behind them stand armed warriors. One portrays a figure, likely a vassal, standing before the king, also with upraised cup. An ivory box from the palace of Acemhöyük (eighteenth century B.C.E.) shows a figure seated on a throne bearing a cup in his right hand with seven attendants approaching the throne bearing tribute. Numerous Syro-Hittite mortuary steles (late tenth–eighth centuries B.C.E.) depict one or more figures seated at a table heaped with food. These orthostats apparently stood at the gravesites of the individuals whom they represent. The scene of imbibing food and drink depicts not only the meal enjoyed in the afterlife but also the activity that the living representatives of the deceased should perform on their behalf. Supporting this interpretation, a monument at Zincirli portrays Kuttamuwa, a high-ranking servant of King Panamuwa II (r. ca. 740–733 B.C.E.), seated before a food-laden table. The corresponding inscription provides detailed instructions regarding the annual sacrificial rituals to be performed for various gods as well as for his “soul” (nbš) in the presence of his stele.

Several ivories from the Levant depict scenes of triumphal feasting. An ivory inlay from Megiddo (ca. twelfth century B.C.E.) depicts a royal figure riding a chariot and seated on a throne. In the throne scene, the royal figure drinks from a cup. Before him stands a queen, who touches the lotus in the ruler’s hand (symbolizing love and fertility). A female musician is shown playing a lyre, and a couple of servants bear beverages in rhytons. The martial nature of the iconography is signaled not only by the war chariot and weaponry but also by the presence of two bound Shasu captives who are led before the throne. Such imagery is reminiscent of Judges 16, where Sampson is put on display before the feasting Philistines.

Similar iconographic themes are found on a four-piece ivory composition from Megiddo (ca. twelfth century B.C.E.), which depicts scenes of chariot warfare, triumphal return with captives, seated ruler receiving tribute, and a banquet with a table and numerous guests seated before the ruler. Incised ivory panels from Tell el-Farאah (S), from the same time period, portray a hunting feast using characteristic features of Egyptian New Kingdom (and Aegean) iconography. The triad of hunting–procession–banquet corresponds to the triumphal narrative of the Megiddo ivory. Additional similarities include the seated ruler lifting a cup and holding a lotus and the presence of a queen, dancer, flute player, and servant. Finally, representations of commensality can also be found among the collection of Iron-Age ivories from Nimrud, some of which may have been produced in the Levant and given to the Assyrian king as tribute.

Archaeology of Feasting.

Future study of feasting will have to examine not only the textual and iconographic materials but also the material cultural record. To be sure, excavated evidence has the potential to add significant new dimensions to our understanding of ancient commensal practices by revealing archeologically discernible patterns of feasting. For example, at the Iranian site of Godin Tepe (level II, a Median site from 750–500 B.C.E.), excavators uncovered not only large colonnaded buildings that likely served as banquet halls but also exceptionally fine ceramics that were not meant for quotidian usage, as well as exotic floral/faunal remains. With respect to the southern Levant, one wonders to what extent courtyards and squares near city gates could have served as spaces for public gatherings and festivals or whether the dimensions of vessels correspond to their use at feasts (e.g., the dozen unusually large LMLK pithoi [storage jars]).

Trends in pottery manufacturing also have the potential to enrich our knowledge of Levantine feasting practices. Israelite pottery in the Iron Age I–II showed an increased appearance of slip and burnish on vessels used for public feasting, a trend that may be related to society-wide shifts in gender norms. With the rise of the monarchy came greater societal complexity, one expression of which was the increase of hierarchy in male–female relations. The proliferation of slip and burnish may be a material manifestation of this ideological shift. It is no accident that slipped and burnished pottery was used primarily for food consumption and nonburnished, “natural” pottery was used for food preparation. Consumption took place in the public sphere—the realm of men—and preparation took place in the private sphere—the realm of women. What may, at first glance, appear to be a minor shift in decorative practices turns out to be an index for societal change.

Archaeological data suggest that the autochthonous Canaanite peoples of the Late Bronze were resistant toward Aegean feasting practices. For instance, in iconographic depictions of Aegean feasting, participants typically hold stemmed vessels; in Canaanite depictions, however, drinking bowls are typically used. This distinction in iconographic sources corresponds to archaeological evidence as well. Drinking bowls, like those seen in the hands of Canaanites, are well represented in Levantine sites of this period, whereas stemmed vessels are much less common. This tendency to maintain Canaanite practices seems to be a case in which cross-cultural influence is met with a degree of resistance.

Conversely, nonnative Philistines appear to have been resistant toward assimilating the feasting practices of their Canaanite neighbors. Based on an analysis of pottery and animal bones from Tel Miqne-Ekron (the Iron-Age Philistine city of Ekron), cuisine may have been a way for the colonizing Philistines to maintain their distinct identity in the presence of a native Levantine population. In pre-Philistine levels, no more than 1 percent of the faunal remains are from pigs; but, beginning in Iron Age I (stratum VII) and coinciding with the presence of Aegean pottery, pig bones make up some 13 percent of animal bones in the earliest stage. This evidence suggests that Philistine cuisine was stubbornly maintained in order to promote a distinct ethnic identity and to strengthen communal ties.

Considerable attention has been devoted to the study of food in the context of Levantine burial customs from the Late Bronze and Iron Age. These uses of food range from offerings to the dead at the time of interment to regular feasts celebrated at the gravesite. Thus, “beginning in the tenth century B.C.E., bowls, storage jars with dipper juglets, plates/platters, cooking pots, wine decanters and amphoras were widely adopted into the mortuary repertoire” (Bloch-Smith, 1992, p. 141). Corresponding to this material evidence are references to mortuary feasts (marzēaḥ/marzīḥu and kispu[m]) and other forms of commensality with, or commemoration of, the dead in various biblical, Ugaritic, and Mesopotamian sources.

Thanks to various studies published by Gloria London (e.g., 2011), Tell al-ʾUmayri (in Jordan) has become an important site for the study of material-cultural aspects of Levantine feasting practices. The mortuary remains from the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age include ceremonial architecture and an extensive collection of animal-bone fragments that witness to a large seasonal celebration for people from diverse locations. Leaders could legitimize their authority by connecting to the ritual landscape surrounding al-ʾUmayri, with its many ancient dolmen.

State-Sponsored Festivals.

Annual festivals were important moments in the collective lives of ancient Near Eastern peoples. With respect to Late Bronze–Age evidence, a sacrificial feast at Ugarit (CTU 1.40) appears to have been celebrated as a means of reconciliation between various factions of society (oppressed, strangers, migrant laborers, etc.). The Hittites observed many public festivals throughout the year. The king Mursilis II (r. ca. 1334–ca.1306 B.C.E.), for example, boasts that he took great care to ensure that the gods were honored with regular festivals. Before he initiated his annual campaigns, he celebrated the feasts of the sun goddess of Arinna, praying for prosperity and success in his military endeavors. At the city-state of Emar, zukru (memorial) festivals were celebrated, on both an annual and (later) a septennial basis. The entire population was expected to be present. As a client-ruler of the Hittite empire, the king played a minimal role in the ritual, whereas the deity Dagan was central. The people affirmed this god’s guardianship as they sacrificed, anointed steles, paraded his divine axe, and imbibed food and drink in his presence. The most famous annual festival in Mesopotamia was the akītu, which originated as a spring barley-harvest feast. After the destruction of Babylon in 681 B.C.E., the Assyrians imported the festival to Assyria, assigning to the king a central role in the festivities and reversing the centripetal movement (the gods coming to Babylon) to a centrifugal one (the king making his presence felt on the periphery of the Assyrian homeland).

In many cases, rulers organized festivals as a way of fostering solidarity in their realms. The biblical authors tell, for example, how Jeroboam, when he founded his kingdom of Israel, adopted various measures to consolidate his realm. Chief among them was a new festival that served as an alternative to one that was celebrated in Judah (1 Kgs 12:25–33). Likewise, when David centralizes his kingdom, he brings up the Ark of Yahweh to Jerusalem amid a public gathering. After sacrificing, he distributes bread, meat, and raisin cakes “among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women” (2 Sam 6:19).

The Chronicler depicts David and his warriors celebrating an elaborate coronation feast for which the people of Israel send comestibles from all corners of the kingdom (1 Chr 12:39–41). Collective feasts punctuate the remaining narrative of this book. At the coronation of Solomon, the officers and representatives of Israel congregate in Jerusalem to eat and drink in the presence of Yahweh (1 Chr 29:22). All Israel assembles before the king at the festival in the seventh month (2 Chr 5:3). Solomon provides for the sacrificial requirements for “the sabbaths, the new moons, and the three annual festivals—the festival of unleavened bread [Matzot], the festival of weeks [Shavuot], and the festival of booths [Sukkot]” (2 Chr 8:13; see 30:24). Hezekiah and Josiah issue decrees calling for all Israel to come up to Jerusalem in order to celebrate Passover and Matzot (2 Chr 30 and 35; see also 2 Kgs 23:21–23).

Feasts were often organized to mark the completion of significant building projects (usually temples or cities). The founder of the Ur III dynasty, Ur-Nammu (r. ca. 2112–ca. 2095 B.C.E.), built the Ekur (the temple of Enlil in Nippur) and celebrated a banquet at its dedication, when Enlil honored and blessed the king. Gudea of Lagash (fl. ca. 2144–ca. 2124 B.C.E.) hosted a seven-day banquet after finishing a temple for the god Ningirsu. Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.E.) claims to have hosted a 10-day dedication feast for nearly 70,000 people (including commoners) after finishing the construction of the city of Nimrud (Calah). Similar feasts were celebrated by Shalmaneser I (r. 1274–1245 B.C.E.), Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.E.), and Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.E.). Many myths describe feasts in connection with (temple-) building projects (Enki, Marduk, Baal, and others). When Solomon finished the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, he organized a festive dedication at which he sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. The whole nation, with people coming to Jerusalem from the very north to the very south of Israel’s borders, celebrated a feast for seven days and then decided to repeat it for another seven days (1 Kgs 8:62–65; cf., however, 8:66 and 2 Chr 7:9).

Communal Festivals.

In keeping with the move from kingship to peoplehood, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah present the community in Judah, under the direction of the foreign Persian king, building Jerusalem and celebrating feasts at each stage of the construction: the altar (Ezra 3:1–6), the temple (Ezra 6:16–22), and the municipal wall (Neh 12:27–47). The centerpiece in the narrative portrays everyone gathering to hear the Torah read and thereafter to make merry by eating fatty foods, drinking sweet wine, and sending portions to those without (Neh 8:9–12). Later, they assemble again in the city to celebrate Sukkot with “very great rejoicing,” reading from the Torah on each of the seven days (8:17–18).

From Ezra and Nehemiah (as well as Chronicles), we can therefore see how public festivals rose in importance in the postexilic period, bolstering the new collective identity of “the people of Israel” that emerged from the ashes of defeat. The authors of these works draw upon the Torah, which ascribes a great deal of space to prescriptions for yearly festivals, many of which (Passover-Matzot, Shavuot, Sukkot) have been linked to events of the Exodus. (The Exodus begins, after all, with Moses and Aaron petitioning Pharaoh to celebrate a festival in the wilderness; see Exod 5:1, 10:9.) Prior to being fitted into Israel’s national narrative, these festivals would have borne different meanings and been celebrated in various ways. For example, many scholars believe that Passover was originally celebrated by individual families and without a connection to the Exodus; this view is, however, not without its problems.

In the book of Deuteronomy, festivals and commensality figure prominently. The pivotal law of centralization calls Israel’s households to perform all its sacrifices at the central, divinely chosen place. There, they should congregate to eat (tithes, offerings, first fruits) and rejoice “before Yahweh” (chapter 12; see concessions in 14:22–26). Likewise, the law prescribes three festivals (Matzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot) during which all (males) are to undertake a pilgrimage to the chosen place in order to see the face of Yahweh, making sure that they do not appear empty-handed (16:16–17, drawing on and revising Exod 23:14–16). An additional law stipulates that every seventh year, when the nation assembles at Sukkot to see the face of Yahweh, the Torah is to be read in the presence of all Israel—men, women, children, and strangers (31:10–13). The reading of the Torah here, as in Nehemiah 8:13–18, occupies the place assigned to the proclamation of monarchic decrees in state-sponsored festivals (see, however, m. Soṭah 7:8).

The priestly festival laws (Lev 23, Num 28–29) emphasize neither commensality nor assembly at the central place as Deuteronomy does. Instead, they take these features for granted and focus on more technical matters related to prohibitions, rituals, and sacrifices. (For additional [late] regulations on the festivals, see Exod 12:3–20, 13:1–16, 34:18–26.) Nevertheless, the priestly ordinances are similar to those in Deuteronomy, Ezra, and Nehemiah inasmuch as they assign the role that the king plays to all the families of Israel. These individual households, not the palace, are expected to carry the responsibility of providing for the sacrificial offerings (cf., e.g., 2 Chr 8:13, 30:24 with Neh 10:33–40). Likewise, instead of the king dispensing food to the people (2 Sam 6:19), the community provides for itself and shares collectively the burden of feeding those in need (Neh 8:10, 12).

Israel most likely had a tradition of cultic festivals that were celebrated collectively and that did not originate as state-sponsored programs of consolidation (see Judg 21:19, which is admittedly a late text). But many of the festivals that are prescribed in the Torah likely owe their wide acceptance to royal initiatives. It is thus remarkable that the Torah removes the king from these feasts. And it is equally noteworthy that Chronicles, a late biblical book, reassigns a role to these rulers.

Triumph and Tribute.

As witnessed in the iconographic evidence, victories were typically celebrated with ostentatious feasts. After the completion of their annual military campaigns, Hittite kings celebrate the nuntarijašħaš festival, during which the local population formed a massive assembly around the king and other leaders. Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III (r. 858–824 B.C.E.) claim to have often hosted banquets in the palaces of the rulers they conquered. For instance, after triumphantly entering Babylon, Shalmaneser organized an extravagant festival during which he clothed the guests, consisting of the freemen of the conquered land, in brightly colored garments and presented them with gifts. Curiously, one of the primary motivations for undertaking military campaigns seems to have been the desire for goods (sheep and cattle, garments, singers/musicians, exotic tables, fine vessels) that could be displayed and consumed at victory banquets.

The Achaemenid king celebrated yearly tribute festivals. On these occasions, representatives from every people of the empire traveled to the Persian court bearing precious gifts, including spices, foods, and vessels. In keeping with long Iranian traditions, the Achaemenid courts invested a great deal of time and resources into their banquets, for which they built cities and large public spaces to celebrate their festivals. The conspicuous consumption during these feasts exercised the imagination of Greek authors as well as the authors of biblical literature.

In the Bible, Melchizedek prepares bread and wine for Abraham when he returns triumphant from battle against the four kings from the East (Gen 14:17–20). Sampson’s capture by the Philistines is commemorated by a celebration and sacrifices to Dagon, with Samson providing the entertainment (Judg 16:23–25). Saul vanquishes the Ammonites and is subsequently made king at Gilgal, where the people offer sacrifices to Yahweh and celebrate a joyous feast (1 Sam 11:15). After killing Jezebel, Jehu goes inside to eat and drink in the palace of the vanquished, while a pack of dogs feeds on the corpse of the queen (2 Kgs 9:34–37).

Similar to myths of Marduk, Baal, and other gods, prophetic literature describes feasts hosted by the deity to celebrate cosmic battles. Thus, in Isaiah 25:6–10, all the people of the earth come to Yahweh’s banquet on Zion. The menu features choice wines and meats. But instead of celebrating a typical victory, this feast marks the deity’s triumph over death. Divine victories over human armies culminate in banquets in many other texts (see, e.g., Ezek 39, Zech 14).

Reflecting the attempt of biblical authors to come to terms with the loss of native kingship, the book of Esther describes the celebrations of the Jews after they collectively vanquish their enemies. The triumph over the enemy occasions its own festival that is integrated into the holiday calendar, with the Esther scroll likely intended to be read on this festival (Esth 9). Throughout the book’s narrative, a series of feasts accompany (and propel) the gradual shift from the banquet of the foreign king to the meals hosted for the king by Esther to the communal feasting of the Jews. In this way, the book portrays a reversal of the process depicted in the book of Kings (from Solomon to Jehoiachin). The difference is that the people have now assumed the place of the king. The victorious community depicted here stands over against the iconographic motif that focuses on the triumphant hero-ruler.

Treaties and Commensality.

Treaties throughout the ancient Near East were ratified by a meal. The food and drink were the means through which the oath and curse, symbolized by the slaughtered animal, entered the body and “being” of the treaty parties. One physically ingested the oath, and the pact became legally binding only after eating and drinking. Eating bread and drinking beer could even serve synecdochically for legal agreements. Assyrian-Aramaic texts stipulate that agreements are valid only if one party makes the formal statement to the other before witnesses: “Here eat bread!” Esarhaddon’s succession treaty (early seventh century B.C.E.) proscribes the entering of a mutually binding oath with anyone that involves “setting up a table” and “drinking the cup.”

Feasting and commensality accompany treaty ratification in biblical literature as well. Isaac hosts a feast for Abimelech to ratify a peace treaty (Gen 26:17–31, see also Gen 21). Jacob and Laban make a treaty with one another that includes both sacrifice and the consumption of food (Gen 31:43–55). Jethro sacrifices and eats bread with Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel “in the presence of God” (Exod 18:12; see also Exod 24:11; Num 22:40, 25:2; Josh 9:12–14; Jer 41:1–3; Ps 41:9–10; Obad 7—a play on “bread” and “warrior” in a context of treaty partners).

Feasting and commensality play a central role in political and social consolidation. The myths of the divine council, in both Akkadian and Ugaritic texts, present important political decisions being made in the banquet hall. In the Babylonian Epic of Creation, for instance, the gods elect Marduk as their champion during a feast. Also in the Bible, the table is a space for social and political change. After David hosts a feast for Abner, Saul’s former general, the latter agrees to rally all of Israel to the side of the king (2 Sam 3:20–21). Similarly, when Absalom and Adonijah, David’s sons, wish to mount the throne, they begin by organizing feasts (2 Sam 13:23–29; cf. 15:1 and 1 Kgs 1:5). With the help of strong drink, the Aramean king nourishes his alliance with his 32 coalition partners during a campaign against Israel (1 Kgs 20:16). Later, the prophet restrains the king of Israel from slaughtering the Aramean forces, commanding him instead to prepare a lavish feast for them. Thereafter, the enemy ceased their assaults on Israel (2 Kgs 6:22–23).

As a royal cupbearer, Nehemiah assigned commensality a central role in his larger program of political restoration. He boasts that “at my table there were 150 Judeans and officials, besides those who were coming to us from the nations round about” (Neh 5:17, authors’ translation). Given the massive opposition and societal fragmentation Nehemiah faced, common meals would have fed friendships and thereby generated support for his construction project in Jerusalem. In addition, his table would have served the purposes of consolidating power, similar to the function of the royal table.

The Royal Table.

In keeping with a widely practiced centralization strategy, kings in the premodern world kept an eye on potential opposition by requiring their presence at their courts. In the ancient Near East, these courts revolved around the royal table, where seats were assigned to specific individuals and vacancies could be quickly registered. Thus, Saul grows suspicious when David’s seat at the table remains empty at the new moon festival (1 Sam 20). Likewise, David grants Mephibosheth a perpetual place at his table (2 Sam 9). Aside from being an act of benefaction, this measure ensured that the descendant of Saul could not be used in a revolt, as Abner does with Ish-bosheth. (Compare the cases of Absalom in 2 Sam 15, Barzillai in 2 Sam 19, and Shimei in 1 Kgs 2:36–46.) As a depiction of both subjugation and hope, the book of Kings concludes with the Judahite king in the court of the Babylonian ruler, where he eats his bread before the king “all the days of his life.”

The ideal prophet becomes one who stands at a distance to the throne, whereas corrupt prophets eat at the king’s table. For example, King Jeroboam attempts to bring a “man of god” under his control by imploring him to eat at his table and offering him a gift (1 Kgs 13:8). While the false prophets eat daily at the table of Ahab and Jezebel, the solitary Elijah resides by the Wadi Cherith, far from the palace, where ravens feed him (1 Kgs 17–18). According to rabbinic interpretation, the ravens bring bread to Elijah from the king’s table so that the prophet can benefit from the palace yet not succumb to its influence.

When asked to appoint a king for Israel, Samuel informs Israel about the manner in which monarchs rule: they take not only the yield of the people’s crops and the flocks but also their children to work in his fields and kitchen (1 Sam 8). In keeping with the prophet’s warning, Solomon designs a system of heavy taxation in order to provide for his table (1 Kgs 5:7–8).

The king’s table was the space where rulers not only governed their kingdoms but also sought to impress foreign dignitaries through ostentatious displays of food and wealth. Such feasts advertised success and power while also inviting reciprocity. Thus, when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon, she witnesses “the wisdom of Solomon, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cup-bearers, and the offerings that he offered in the house of Yahweh, she was left breathless” (1 Kgs 10:4–5, authors’ translation). After catching her breath, she gives the king of Israel 120 talents of gold, an unsurpassed amount of spices, and precious stones (1 Kgs 10:10; see also 3:15, 8:2, 65).

The letters of Zimrilim, from Mari (eighteenth century B.C.E.), describe the rituals of feasting in the greatest detail, providing information on the constitution of the guests, table etiquette, seating arrangements, entertainment, and party favors. The king took his special drink- and tableware with him on voyages. During banquets that could last for days, he discussed war plans, forged coalitions, and arranged marriages. Throughout the meal the guests were treated to performances of acrobats, dancers, and singers. They received gifts (in special cases, the king’s own perfumed robes) that served as souvenirs of the experience at the table. The ruler would also send meat to his vassals and allies so that they could participate in his sacrifices and meals from afar. (For the first millennium B.C.E., Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid documents refer to the practice of kings sending “leftovers” from their table to special guests, a practice similar to the priests partaking from sacrifices to the gods.)

While the table is normally a space in which the king consolidates power through commensal performance, it becomes in the biblical book of Daniel a place where the foreign ruler forfeits his sovereignty: in an act of hubris, Belshazzar serves his guests wine from the holy vessels that had been deported from the temple in Jerusalem. And at that precise moment, he witnesses the writing on the wall foretelling the downfall of his empire (Dan 5).

Additional Aspects of Feasting in Ancient Israel.

In keeping with nomadic customs, visitors were welcomed with liberal hospitality that includes food and drink, if not also an elaborate meal (Gen 19:3, 43—45; Exod 18:12; Judg 19). The weaning and naming of a child would have usually been celebrated with a “great feast” (Gen 21:8). Wedding ceremonies included banquets to which everyone was invited (Gen 29:22, Judg 14). Similar to barn raisings in North America and “work events” in other cultures, the occasions of harvesting and sheepshearing were celebrated with feasts and frolics (Gen 38, 1 Sam 25). Sabbaths and the beginning of the month apparently were celebrated with feasts (see, e.g., 1 Sam 20). Details about feasting abound in biblical texts—from seating arrangements according to birth order (Gen 43:33) to Egyptian taboos of eating with Hebrews (Gen 43:32). Descriptions of feasts appear in various passages of the Prophets as a synecdoche for a social order of conspicuous consumption and inequitable opulence that faced imminent judgment (see especially Amos 6:4–7 and the reference to the “house of feasting” in Jer 16:5–9).

At a very early point, postbiblical Judaism came to revolve around the table, with questions related to food and commensality becoming central: what one eats, with whom one shares table fellowship, how food should be prepared, how and when it should be eaten, etc. What precipitated this development were not only factors of Hellenistic and Roman cultures but also the Bible. Its narrative begins by describing how humans failed to heed the deity’s directions related to food consumption (Gen 2:16–17, 3:1–13). Its authors devote a significant amount of space to regulations on diet and food production and preparation (esp. Lev 11 and Deut 14). And it includes many depictions of commensality and joyous feasting, like those treated in this article. Indeed, both the biblical authors and the rabbis could imagine few things more desirable than the peaceful enjoyment of food and drink: “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy” (1 Kgs 4:20).



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  • Gonen, Rivka. Burial Patterns and Cultural Diversity in Late Bronze Age Canaan. Dissertation Series, American Schools of Oriental Research 7. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1992.
  • Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Grottanelli, C., and Lucio Milano, eds. Food and Identity in the Ancient World. Padua, Italy: Sargon, 2004.
  • Hamilakis, Yannis. “The Anthropology of Food and Drink Consumption and Aegean Archaeology.” In Palaeodiet in the Aegean: Papers from a Colloquium Held at the 1993 Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Washington D.C., edited by Sarah J. Vaughan and William D. E. Coulson, pp. 55–63. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2000.
  • Houston, Walter. “Rejoicing before the Lord: The Function of the Festal Gathering in Deuteronomy.” In Feasts and Festivals, edited by C. M. Tuckett, pp. 1–14. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 53. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 2009.
  • Lewis, Theodore J. Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit. Harvard Semitic Monographs 39. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1989.
  • London, Gloria. “Late 2nd Millennium BC Feasting at an Ancient Ceremonial Centre in Jordan.” Levant 43, no. 1 (2011): 15-37.
  • MacDonald, Nathan. Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Matthiae, Paolo. Ebla: Un impero ritrovato. 2d ed. Turin, Italy: G. Einaudi, 1989.
  • Rosenblum, Jordan. Food and Identity in Early Rabbinic Judaism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Struble, Eudora J., and Virginia Rimmer Herrmann. “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.
  • Wright, Jacob L. “Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia: The Background to Nehemiah’s Feasting (Part I).” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 122, no. 2 (2010): 212–233.
  • Wright, Jacob L. “Commensal Politics in Ancient Western Asia: The Background to Nehemiah’s Feasting (Part II).” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 122, no. 3 (2010): 333–352.
  • Wright, Jacob L., and Meredith Elliott Holman. “Society and Politics: Banquet and Gift Exchange.” In A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, edited by Bruno Jacobs and Robert Rollinger. Blackwell’s Companions to the Ancient World. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  • Yasur-Landau, Assaf. “Old Wine in New Vessels: Intercultural Contact, Innovation and Aegean, Canaanite and Philistines Foodways.” Tel Aviv 32 (2005): 168–191.
  • Ziffer, Irit. “From Acemhöyük to Megiddo: The Banquet Scene in the Art of the Levant in the Second Millennium B.C.E.” Tel Aviv 32 (2005): 133–167.

Most of the material related to ancient Near Eastern and iconographic evidence is presented in more detail and with bibliographic data in Wright (2010) and Wright and Hollman (2012).

Jacob L. Wright and Michael J. Chan