Barry Newman's Blog

October 11, 2011

The Breaking of Bread (part II)

Filed under: Agape meals,Eucharist,Holy Communion,Lord's Supper — barrynewman @ 2:41 am

The Old Testament

The Hebrew word, “lechem”, generally translated, “bread” or “food”, occurs 287 times in the Masoretic text of the Old Testament and is found in 30 of its books.  In the New American Standard Bible (NASB) “bread” is the dominant translation (186x) with “food” (83x) being the next most common.[1]  However, it is often problematic as to which of “bread” or “food” is the appropriate sense.  Sometimes it is fairly clear, that “bread” is the issue.  For example, where reference is made to a “lechem” of barley bread that in a dream crashed into a tent (Judges 7: 13) and where Jeroboam instructs his wife to take ten “lechem” with her to the prophet at Shiloh (1 Kings 14: 3). In each case “lechem” is to be understood as a loaf or loaves of bread of one composition or another.  Other times, it might well be that “food” is the more appropriate word.  For example, the “food” (NASB) that Saul had not eaten all day and all night (1 Samuel 28: 20). Yet in the verses that follow a woman indicates that she would like him to have a piece of “bread” (NASB) and then kneads and bakes flour to make “unleavened bread” (NASB) (1 Samuel 28: 22, 24).  That is, there is a suggestion here that the first reference may have actually been to “bread” rather than “food”.  (It should be noted that there are special words for “unleavened bread” [matstsah] and “leavened bread” [chametz] though they have the more general senses of simply “unleavened” and “leavened”, respectively.)  The reference to “lechem” in 1 Chronicles 12: 40, given its context, is probably better understood as a reference to “food” in general: “Those who were near to them … brought food on donkeys, camels, mules and oxen, great quantities of flour cakes, fig cakes and bunches of raisins, wine, oil, oxen and sheep.  There was joy in Israel” (NASB). Numerous times, “bread” is mentioned in conjunction with “water” (e.g. Exodus 23: 25; Deuteronomy 23: 4; 1 Kings 13: 8 ff; Ezra 10: 6; Isaiah 30: 20; Hosea 2: 5; Amos 8: 11, just to cite a few) and an idiomatic expression may underlie some or many of the instances.  On the other hand, many if not all of the references may be to literal bread and water.  One thinks of the proverbial and actual “bread and water” supplied to, for example, prisoners in England in times past.

That God might and did cut off the supply of bread in Israel is testimony to the importance of bread for the survival of God’s people (Leviticus 26: 26; Psalm 105: 16 [a reference to the time of Jacob]; Isaiah 3: 1 [both bread and water supplies to be cut off]; Ezekiel 4: 16; 5: 16 [again both water and bread are mentioned]) even if “food” in general is to be thought of rather than “bread”.  Yet the Leviticus and first Ezekiel passages seem to make it clear that “bread” is the underlying consideration:  “When I break your staff of bread, ten women will bake your bread in one oven, and they will bring back your bread in rationed amounts, so that you will eat and not be satisfied” (Leviticus 26: 26 [NASB]); “I am going to break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they will eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and drink water by measure and in horror, because bread and water will be scarce; (Ezekiel 4: 16, 17a [NASB]).

The point to be made is that “bread”, of some sort or another, made from some grain or another, was a not uncommon component of the diet of this Semitic people.[2]  Even where “bread” is to be understood as a reference more generally to “food”, this in itself probably indicates how significant bread was as a source of food.  It could well be that because “bread” does not assume the importance in a modern English speaking world that it had in that ancient world, we are more disposed to translate “lechem” as something other than “bread” than we have a right to.  We are familiar with bread in connection with sandwiches, toast or buns etc. but bread is not our main source of food. In the ancient Jewish world, special grain based delicacies were undoubtedly prepared[3] but basic bread of one sort or another seems to have been an important component of the regular diet for ordinary people in ordinary times.


[1] Other words occurring in the NASB as translations for “lechem” are: “meal” (9x), “loaves” (3x), “fruit” (1x), “prey” (1x), “something to eat” (1x), “cake” (1x) and twice the idea of “bread” or “food” is to be understood.

[2] Besides the word, “lechem” and the words often translated, “leavened” and “unleavened”, there are other words that occasionally appear that can relate to grain based products. For example, Sarah was instructed by Abraham to make “ash cakes” (uggah) from three measures of fine flour (Genesis 18: 6).  And see the word, “challah” in the note below, a general word for a “cake” that may have had a hole through the centre (e.g. Leviticus 8: 26 “He took one unleavened “challah” and one “challah” of bread mixed with oil”)

[3] The bread that David had distributed to people upon the joyous occasion of the ark having been brought into the city, named as his city, may have been of a special nature : “He distributed … a cake (challah) of bread and one of dates and one of raisins to each one” (2 Samuel 6: 19 [NASB]).

Though made to be food for a stringent diet and not as a delicacy, the bread that Ezekiel is instructed to make (Ezekiel 4: 9) is indicative of how varied a recipe for bread could be  – “Take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt, put them in one vessel and make them into bread” (NASB).

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