The mealtime customs depicted in ancient biblical texts are still practiced by many people living in the lands the Bible describes. In this region of the world meals are not utilitarian and mealtime customs can express social, cultural, deeply symbolic and spiritual ideas. Sharing meals often expresses the universal Near Eastern value of hospitality (Gen 18:1-8; Heb 3:12; Rom 1:13). Meals can affirm kinship, friendship and good will (Gen 31:33-54), acknowledge one’s status (1 Kgs 17:8-16, 2 Kgs 4:8-11), recognize a peaceful disposition and commitment to non-aggression (Gen 26:26-33; Josh 9:14). Depending on the context and occasion meal fellowship can convey an array of non-verbal messages relating to interpersonal relationships.
A vast number of biblical passages revolve around meal settings and the value of studying mealtime customs is a deeper and more precise understanding of these passages. Ancient Israelite meals can be divided into ordinary, festive and sacred. In the East all aspects of life are perceived as spiritual occasions and when it comes to meals the kitchen table and the altar are inseparable. For example, the inhabitants of Qumran whose vast libraries of scrolls were discovered in the Dead Sea region saw themselves and their meals as a living human sanctuary. For most Jews meals connected directly to sacrificial worship were considered especially sacred and thus can be seen as a separate category.
Because of the agrarian and pastoral lifestyle, ancient Israelites and their neighbors ate ordinary meals twice a day, one at midday or late morning, while taking a break in the hottest part of the day, and second meal late at the very conclusion of the day (Jer 52:34; Josephus, Antiquities XIV.15.11, VI. 24.1). The morning meals were usually simple and evening meals more elaborate (Luke 7:12; 24:29, Josephus, Antiquities VI. 4.1). The timing and frequency of meals could be influenced by status and occupation (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 10a). Ordinary meals consisted of bread made from wheat and barley, parched grain, olive oil and olives, stews from lentils, beans and vegetables. Israelites ate fish, honey, fruits of all kinds, grapes, dates and figs, raisins and dairy products like curds and cheeses. The meat of clean animals (Lev 11:3-8, Deut 14:4-8) was consumed rarely, usually as a part of sacred meals and during the most festive occasions. Besides domesticated animals Israelites occasionally ate wild game and fowl (Gen 27:3-4; Exod 16:13). On the Sabbath it was customary to eat three meals instead of two (Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 10, Josephus, Life 54).
Dining areas were typically shaded from the sun, sometimes indoors, at other times on the roofs (1 Sam 9:26) and on porches attached to the exterior of the house. Because of food preparation meals could be lengthy. Seating at meals was arranged by status and places of honor (Mat 23:6), to the right and to the left of the host (1 Sam 9:22-24; Matt 20:21-23). Meals were eaten sitting (Gen 37:25; Exod 32:6; 1 Sam 20:24) or reclining (Matt 26:6; Luke 7:46; Josephus, Antiquities, 15:9. 3). Reclining was the custom of the wealthy and usually practiced by most at festive meals (Amos 6:4; 14:10, 1 Esdras 4:10, Tobit 2:1). While reclining one’s head rested close to the chest of the person dining besides, explaining the biblical phraseology of “being in one’s bosom” (John 13:23, Luke 7: 28; 16:22, Matt 8:11).
Because bread was an indispensable staple and substantial part of most meals it often served as a reference for the meal itself (Gen 37:25; Exod 2:20; 1Sam 28:22-25; Matt 6:11). Bread was not cut, but typically broken with hands which is reflected by the common expression “to break bread” (Lam 4:4; Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42, 46). Dishes were usually shared among all guests (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 47a, Gittin 59b). Since eating was done with hands washing hands before meals was customary (Luke 11:23, Mishna, Yadaim 4:2). For some Jews washing hands and utensils involved in meals was associated with rules of ritual purity (Mark 7:2-4; Mat 15:2, 20; Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 53b, Mishna, Kelim 2:1). Qumran Jews bathed their entire bodies prior to meals. Washing feet was another custom practiced especially prior to reclining at meals (Gen 24:32; John 13:5; 1 Tim 5:10). Ancient mealtime could also be preceded by other hygiene practices, such as the use of oil or perfume (Ps. 23:5; Luke 7:44-46).
Though there are many biblical examples of Jews sharing meals with non-Jews and accepting food from non-Jews in earlier times (Gen 14:18, 26:30; Exod 18;12; Deut 2:28, 23:4-7; 2 Kings 4:8, 25:29-30), the social and the spiritual meanings of meals restricted such interaction during the Second Temple Period. The possibility of defilement and association with food involved in idol worship was assumed (Acts 10:28; 11:3; Joseph and Aseneth 7:1; Mishna, Hullin 2:8) and tensions over such table fellowship surfaced among early Jewish followers of Jesus (Acts 15:29; Gal 2:12). Besides the Jewish-Gentile tensions during the Second Temple Period, table fellowship was often restricted even between the members of various Jewish groups (Qumran Community Rule, 1QS 6:16-21, Josephus, Wars II.139).
Some Jews ate only after the morning prayers (Acts 2:15). It was customary to recite short prayers just before meals (1 Sam 9:13, Matt 14:19, 15:36, 26:26; Luke 9:16; John 7:11. Qumran War Scroll, 1QM 2, Mishna, Berachot 6:5; Josephus, Antiquities II.12.12; Apology of Aristides 15). Yet the Jewish custom was to express proper thanksgiving through prayers following the meals (Deut 8:10; Josephus, Wars II. 8.5; Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 35a). Some Jews celebrated special occasions with banquets lasting late into the night, while Qumran Jews preferred simplicity, eating in complete silence (Josephus, Life 44, Wars II. 8.5; Qumran War Scroll, 1QM 2.129-133).
Biblical literature demonstrates that many people groups in the ancient Mediterranean had their own unique customs associated with meals and their practice and meanings were often deeply symbolic and very significant to them, yet diverse and not always consistent.