Bread, Beer, Baskets, Bedding, and Bricks
Wheat and Wheat Products in the Bible
Baking bread in the traditional way near Latakia, Syria. The wood fire heats the wall of the oven.
Wheat is the most important of the "six species of the land" in Deuteronomy 8:8 and valued as a divine provision for the people of God(1). The daily manifestation of this provision was bread, the best-known product of wheat, often synonymous with food. As if to emphasize this point Jesus said, "I am the bread of life" in His famous discourse in John 6. In addition, flour, grain, beer, straw, and chaff are also produced from the wheat plant.
Flour was an essential element in many of the offerings. Straw was used for fodder, bedding of animals, basketry, and to make bricks. Lesser known products of wheat are roasted grain, and beer. Lastly, chaff, the remains after threshing and winnowing of cereals, is often used in the Scriptures as the symbol of utter worthlessness.
To understand these products better, we need to know something about the wheat plant, its culture, and its evolution. Among the questions to ask are the following. Why is this apparently simple plant the basis of human civilization in so many parts of the world? What features does it possess that confer on it this distinction? What are the major groups of wheat? First, we will consider what makes wheat an ideal crop.
Wheat-- like barley, rye, maize, rice, and oats-- is a cereal. Cereals are all grasses, members of one of the largest families of flowering plants. Through millennia, wild cereal plants were adapted by natural selection for cultivation. This happened because farmers would save the seed of plants with desirable qualities. One such quality is tillering, the ability to produce additional stems from the base of the plant. Anyone who has sown sweet corn in a home garden has seen tillering. Put three grains ("kernels") of corn in the ground, and four or five stems develop. These extra stems, each of which can produce ears (or heads), are tillers. Advantages to tillering are obvious-more stems, more heads, and more grain per plant. To appreciate the structure of the head and grain, we need to digress to review the architecture of these specialized parts of wheat.
At first appearance, the head of wheat looks bewildering in complexity with lots of small, carefully engineered parts. The basic plan is simple, however. Each flower is surrounded by small modified leaves (bracts). Inconspicuous and tiny, the flower nevertheless contains all necessary reproductive equipment. Flowers, in turn, are grouped into spikelets. Every spikelet is also surrounded by protective bracts, called glumes. The head of the grain, then, is an aggregation of florets arranged in spikelets. Glumes and bracts form the chaff which must be separated from the grain.
Wheat, like all cereals, produces a specialized fruit, a grain, in which the coat of the fruit and the coat of the seed are fused. This is important because extra protection of the seed allows storage, enabling sedentary agriculture. Each grain consists of a minute embryo (the germ), a large amount of starch (the endosperm), and the fruit coat (bran). Modern white bread flour has the germ and bran removed and is considerably less nutritious than whole grain flour. When mature, the wheat is cut (harvested) and after this, is beaten or pounded to remove the grain (threshed). The condition of the bracts after threshing defines two major groups of wheats-hulled wheats and free threshing wheats.
Types of Wheat
We will consider three types of wheats: those discussed earlier (hulled, free threshing) and a third type, shattering wheats. In hulled wheats, the glumes separate from the heads at threshing but remain attached to the grain. Releasing the grain from the glumes requires additional work. This is in contrast to free threshing wheats with grains that readily separate from the glumes; the glumes stay with the head. Most modern wheats are free threshing. The third category is shattering which, unlike hulledness and free threshing, refers to the timing of grain ripening. Grain on shattering wheat ripens asynchronously.
Shattering is a feature of wild wheats in which the spikelets or grains fall from the plant as they ripen. The term comes from the fact that when the wheat stem is cut at harvest, the head is shattered because the grains fall and are lost. Shattering wheats are of little agricultural value for this reason. Hulled, free threshing wheats, and possibly shattering wheats are referred to in the Bible. They originated in the Fertile Crescent. Therein lies a mystery.
Agathie Christie used the Orient Express, the famous train that traveled to Aleppo, Syria in some of her stories. I like to think of solving the mystery of identifying the characters in the wheat story in a like manner. Unraveling the mystery of wheat's origin is like a botanical "who dunnit" detective story. Aleppo is where the Fertile Crescent bends south from the mountains of Turkey and a good place to begin our investigation because of the diversity of wheat and its relatives in this region. Who are the characters that participated in the formation of the early wheats? What fingerprints have they left behind? Can we trace them to their source?
During the first half of the twentieth century, scientists from several countries tracked the relatives of native wheats in the Fertile Crescent and surrounding areas-from the Caucasus Mountains to Mount Hermon. Like fingerprints, the chromosomes were used for identification. Through extensive searching in the field and by elegant laboratory studies, the genetic lineage of wheat-- from modern bread wheat to the original wild relatives-- was worked out. In recent years, this lineage has been documented and reconfirmed with powerful molecular techniques. In short, the ancestors of modern wheats have been identified. The sleuth work paid off. At the lineup we find the four main characters-- einkorn, emmer wheat, durum wheat, and bread wheat(2).
Evolution of Wheat
Wild einkorn is still common in the Fertile Crescent; it is shattering, so of little value in cultivation. Einkorn grains have been found at archeological sites, apparently collected in the wild. From wild einkorn, prehistoric farmers selected for non-shattering plants-wheats that produced grains that all matured at the same time. The first wheat to be widely domesticated was emmer. With continued domestication of emmer, durum wheat arose. Then, after hybridization between durum wheat and a wild grass, bread wheat appeared on the scene long before Christ. With a high gluten content that traps carbon dioxide and causes the dough to rise, bread wheat is the most desirable grain for making light and fluffy loaves.
The selection and evolution of bread wheat, from einkorn through emmer and durum, are among the best documented examples of evolution of any crop. This is an elegant model for studying other plants that have been cultivated since prehistoric times(3). What concerns us, however, are ancient wheats. Which wheats were grown in Bible days?
The majority of wheat cultivated in Bible days was probably emmer, a type of hulled wheat. This is implied from the Biblical texts referring to threshing sledges and mortars. Hulled emmer wheat required considerable work to extract the grain which may be the reason that threshing sledges were widely used in Bible times (discussed below). Although laborious to prepare, hulled wheats store well and are more resistant to insect damage than free threshing wheats. The use of a mortar and pestle to thresh hulled wheats is well known from a variety of archeobotanical studies(4). This was probably the use of the mortar specifically associated with grain in Proverbs 27:22(5). Some sort of mortar was also used by the Children of Israel in the wilderness, implying that mortars were common household items(6). After pounding to remove the hulls, bread can be made with emmer wheat. Although true bread, it may not conform to our image of bread because a lower gluten content would make a flatter loaf.
Much of the wheat grown in Bible days may have been durum wheat. Durum, a derivative of emmer, is grown today on a large scale in the Middle East and elsewhere as a source of semolina flour. It is also used to make bulgar, precooked wheat widely used in Middle East cooking, as well frikeh (discussed below). It can eaten as a kind of porridge, boiled in milk. Bread can be made from it although it does not contain as much gluten as bread wheat. Durum also has the advantage of being free threshing and very productive. Having considered durum and emmer, we are left with the third kind of wheat in the Bible, spelt. What is "spelt"?
Spelt is a hulled bread wheat. The Hebrew word kuccemeth is translated as spelt in four verses(7). It is rendered as "rie" (see rye) in the KJV in Exodus and Isaiah, and as "fitches" in Ezekiel. The NIV translates this as "spelt." Is it true spelt, Triticum spelta?
This seems unlikely because, as we have noticed, much of the wheat in the ancient Middle East was emmer. In Egypt, however, emmer may have been the only wheat grown(8). The reference in Exodus 9: 32, "The wheat and spelt, however, were not destroyed, because they ripen later," clearly distinguishes between the two crops damaged by the seventh plague, hail. It is very unlikely that this is true spelt, as spelt was unknown in Egypt and, unlike most cultivated wheats, may not have arisen in the Fertile Crescent(9). As noted earlier, the Children of Israel had mortars in their households after leaving Egypt. This does not require that the refugees took kuccemeth with them because the mortars would be needed for emmer. If there was no true spelt in ancient Egypt what is kuccemeth? Could it be einkorn, the primitive wheat we considered earlier?
We can't say for certain but circumstantial evidence supports einkorn as a candidate for kuccemeth. First, it is mentioned very few times so must be distinct from the widely planted emmer and durum wheats. Second, in the Ezekiel account kuccemeth is associated with food for the very poor. Einkorn would fit this category. On the other hand, maybe kuccemeth was free threshing bread wheat, grown on a small scale in Egypt. Free threshing wheat was undoubtedly grown in Bible days. Or, perhaps kuccemeth is a specialized wheat that is no longer grown and determination of this apparent cereal remains unknown.
Wheat as a Crop
In the Bible lands of the Near East, cereals are sown in December and harvested after six or seven months. Wheat is grown in regions of higher rainfall and more fertile soil (see Barley). Traditionally, farmers save wheat from their harvest to sow for the next crop. Jesus used examples of sowing in His teaching, for example as prefiguring His resurrection in John 12. A seed is planted. If it is not planted, it does not grow. If it does grow, it produces prodigiously. Was Jesus referring to tillering in this verse? After sowing and weeding (see Tares), the grain was harvested.
Depending on the rains, barley would be harvested in mid-May and wheat about one month later. The wheat harvest takes place long after the rains have ended so that the sending of rain during the harvest was a manifest judgment from God(10). Rain at this time would cause the wheat plants to lodge, that is, fall and mat together making harvest difficult and decay likely. Wheat is harvested in two ways. It can be cut, usually by a scythe, and then gathered in bundles. If fodder is scarce, due to poor rainfall, the plant is pulled to increase food for animals. Harvest is the cutting (or pulling) of the wheat, and threshing is the physical pounding or other mechanical abrasion of the heads to obtain the grain. Removing the glumes is the last stage of threshing with hulled wheats. Winnowing is the final cleaning of the grain. Harvesting yields sheaves, threshing yields grain, and winnowing yields chaff.
Threshing in Bible days used a threshing sledge or tribulum(11). This was a platform of flat boards, sometimes with an upturned front end resembling a toboggan. Stones or metal spikes were fixed on the lower surface. The threshing sledge was drawn by an animal and weighted with stones (or children!). As the sledge went over the wheat, the spikelets or grains would be abraded and removed from the stems. Often, the ox was tied to a stake or tree as it carried out its work. This obviously was a familiar image to Bible audiences in both the Old and New Testaments as Paul quotes twice from Deuteronomy regarding the proscription of muzzling the ox that treads the grain(12).
Wheat was threshed on flat rocks where the grain could be spread out. Known as threshing floors, these were places where public gatherings were held, perhaps because the relatively flat surface provided a sort of outdoor arena(13). Threshing removed the spikelets from the heads or, in the case of hulled wheats, may have removed the glumes as well. If the wheat was stored without de-hulling, mortars and pestles (noted above) could be used to prepare the grain. Today modern machines are used for threshing, but the grain is often piled at sites that long served as threshing floors for sledges. I have not seen a traditional threshing sledge used in the Middle East for almost twenty years.
For winnowing, the farmer would throw the threshed grain into the air so the wind could carry away the chaff. A shallow basket or woven mat was used to hold and catch the grain. The final step is to lift the grain with a type of fork that allows the chaff to blow away(14).
Products of Wheat
Having briefly considered the features of the wheat plant, its evolution, culture, and the types of wheat, we can now look at the Scriptures that deal with wheat and wheat products. Certainly the best known is bread with almost three hundred references. Lack of bread resulted in hunger and famine, sometimes as a divine judgement(15). Very simply, food is bread.
Scripture says little about details of baking in Bible days. For example, what type of ovens were used? One common type, still used in Syria, is a cylindrical structure made of mortar. At the bottom is a wood fire which heats the mortar. The dough is placed on hot surface to bake. It is important to remind ourselves that this is a flat bread, not a fluffy loaf of sandwich bread!
Except for certain ceremonies, bread was made with yeast, or more precisely, leaven(16). The concept of leaven is less familiar today when pure dehydrated yeast is used. In Bible times, a bit of the dough was put aside before baking to be used as the "starter" for the next batch of bread. Obviously, this was a common practice and referred to in Jesus' teaching(17).
Bread was used in some of the offerings."Consecrated Bread" (NIV) or "Shewbread" (KJV) was placed each week on the golden table by the lamp stand in the Tabernacle and Temple(18). The shewbread was eaten by David and his men as they fled from Saul(19).
Flour, rather than bread, was a required ingredient for some offerings(20). This was produced by grinding in hand mills or with querns. Hand mills (sometimes also referred to as querns) were made from two large flat stones, circular in shape. In the center of the stone was a hole through which a wooden or iron shaft could be placed to turn one of the stones while the other was stationary. Grain was fed into the mill, ground, and came out through a slit in the stone. Such hand mills were as common in ancient households as microwave ovens are today(21). Family dependence on the mill is evident from Deuteronomy 24:6 where the upper part of a hand mill could not be taken as security. One upper stone of a hand mill was used as a lethal weapon(22)! Querns are usually large stones in which a shallow trough has been ground or worn. Grain is put in the trough and ground using a smaller stone that fits into the groove. Both types of grinding were practiced in the ancient Middle East.
Bread and flour may be well-known Bible images, beer certainly is not. Beer is mentioned in at least nine verses(23), though never in a positive connotation. Its production in the ancient Middle East and Egypt is well documented. Recently, the work of Delwen Samuel has given us insight into ancient baking and brewing(24). With scanning electron microscopy of starch grains and yeast cells, Samuel showed that Egyptians used a malting process in their beer. Sieves, frequently pictured in tombs, were apparently to remove the large quantities of chaff in the brew. This was necessary because the wheat that was used was a hulled wheat that required mechanical removal of the chaff. Barley was also used to make beer(25). Since the same grains were grown in Canaan, it seems likely that the same process was used.
Like beer, roasted grain (KJV "parched corn") is a lesser known wheat product. Could it be frikeh? Throughout modern day northern Syria, frikeh is a traditional way to eat wheat. Frikeh is made only from wheat with green heads. Dried for at least two hours after cutting, the wheat is then burned until the chaff is black and the tip of the grain is charred. Barley is harvested at the same time as frikeh production so barley straw was readily available as a fuel for a cool fire. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, the grains are removed from the heads for tasting. The soft, green grains are chewy, slightly sweet, with a desirable smokey taste. When fresh, the frikeh can be cooked with meat, like rice. It is usually dried, however, and ground because grinding shortens the cooking time. Drying is in the shade to avoid bleaching the green grains. Traditionally, durum wheat is used to make frikeh but bread wheat is also used.
Could frikeh be the roasted or parched grain mentioned in the Bible? In the widely used Van Dyke edition of the Arabic Bible (1865), parched corn (King James Version) or roasted grain (New International Version) is translated frikeh in the six verses where it occurs(26). In the Syriac text, a cognate of frikeh, froka is used. In Hebrew the word is kawlee, which is derived from a word meaning to scorch or parch.
Frikeh is a good candidate for roasted grain because of its association with the barley harvest and its use as a dried provision. In Ruth, the roasted corn was eaten at the barley harvest which is the time that frikeh is prepared. In the references in I and II Samuel, roasted grain is associated with other dried foods (beans, raisins) that can be readily transported.
Can emmer be used to make frikeh? There is no archeobotanical or ethnological evidence. The detailed discussion by Nesbitt and Samuel on the unlikelihood of parching being used to prepare emmer(27) also suggests that emmer is not a good candidate. If the glumes were burned in emmer, it would be likely damage the grain as emmer grains have a thinner coat than other wheats.
Like the days of the Pharaohs in Exodus 5, straw is still an essential for brick making in rural Mesopotamia. Straw, from either wheat or barley, is mixed with mud and put into wooden forms to make bricks. Humble dwellings are made from sunbaked bricks. Fire baked bricks are much more durable and were used to make some of the buildings in the Fertile Crescent that still stand(28). Straw is mixed with the mortar to make the mud houses characteristic of the northern Fertile Crescent.
Less enduring then bricks, baskets and mats were still important and could be made from straw. Making baskets from cereal straw has almost vanished from the Middle East today with the advent of synthetic materials. There are no explicit references to straw for making baskets but in Bible days long stemmed wheat stalks were no doubt valued for this purpose.
Sometimes used for fodder(29), straw was more frequently used as bedding for animals in the Scriptures(30). Linked with chaff(31) and easily burned(32), straw is mentioned by both the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul as an image of poor spiritual investment(33).
The most humble wheat product, chaff, is the only part of the wheat that has little or no value. Scripture refers to chaff as something worthless and of little weight, which can easily be carried before the wind.(34)
Remarkably, cereal chaff is now of exceptional value to archeobotanists! It contains microscopic inclusions of silicon called phytoliths. Phytoliths are distinctive for each species. By examining the phytoliths from chaff from archeobotanical sites, it is possible to determine which plants were used.
1. Deuteronomy 32:14, Psalm 81:16, and Psalm 147:14 refer to high quality wheat.
2. Names of wheat species, varieties and cultivars abound. For simplicity, I am following the taxonomy of Nesbit and Samuel (cited below) for wheats. There are two wild einkorns, Triticum boeoticum Boiss. and T. urartu Thum. ex Gandil., and one domesticated einkorn, T. monococcum L. Numerous wild emmer wheats are known, the one that is most important for our purposes is T. dicoccum (Schrank) Schübl. Durum wheat, a kind of domesticated emmer, has the remarkably appropriate Latin name of T. durum L. Likewise, spelt is T. spelta Desf. Lastly, bread wheat is T. aestivum L.
3.Zohary, D. and M. Hopf. 1993. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
4. Nesbitt, M. and D. Samuel. 1996. pp. 41-100. in: Padulosi, S., K. Hammer and J. Heller, editors. Hulled Wheats. Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops. 4. Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Hulled Wheats. Rome: International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.
5. "Though you grind a fool in a mortar, grinding him like grain with a pestle..."
6. Numbers 11:8.
7. Exodus 9:32, Isa 28:25, Ezekiel 4:9
8. Nesbitt and Samuel, 1996.
9. Nesbitt and Samuel, 1996.
10. I Samuel 12: 16-17
11. Anderson, P. C. 1998. History of harvesting and threshing techniques for cereals in the prehistoric Near East. in: Damania, A. B., J. Valkoun, G. Willcox, and C. O. Qualset, editors. The Origins of Agriculture and Crop Domestication. Aleppo, Syria: International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. This is a most helpful review of harvesting and threshing in which the author used authentic tools to explicate the construction and use of tools.
12. Deuteronomy 25:4, 1 Corinthians 9:9, 1 Timothy 5:18
13. Genesis 50:10, 1 Kings 22:10
14. A fan might also have been used similar to those used in developing countries today when winnowing grain. The farmer vigorously fans the grain with a woven fan. This could be the allusion in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3: 17 where the threshing fan (used only in the KJV) is mentioned. It is also implied in some Old Testament verses, for example, Isaiah 41:16.
15. Amos 1:6, 2 Kings 7, Hosea 8:7. Many others could be added.
16. I prefer the translation as leaven, rather than yeast, because it is more precise. The leaven contained the yeast organism but was more than just yeast. Yeast is 100% leaven, leaven is not 100% yeast.
17. E.g., Matthew 13:33
18. Leviticus 24: 5-9.
19. I Samuel 21: 1-6.
20. For example, the grain offering in Leviticus 2:2 required flour as part of the offering. In the case of the sin offering in Leviticus 5, the flour is the offering for the very poorest supplicant.
21. 21. Exodus 11:5, Matthew 24:41
22. Judges 9: 50-56.
23. 1 Samuel 1:15, Proverbs 20:1, 31:4, 31:6; Isaiah 24:9, 28:7, 29:9, 56:12; and Micah.
24. Samuel, D. 1993. Ancient Egyptian cereal processing: beyond the artistic record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3(2) 276-283.
25. Samuel, D. 1996. Archaeology of ancient Egyptian beer. Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists 54(1): 3-12.
26. Leviticus 2:14, 23:14, Ruth 2:14; 1 Samuel 17:17, 25:18; 2 Samuel 17:28. The word in Joshua 5: 11 is different. The New Living Translation renders this as "...roasted grain.." but notes that it was "...some of the produce of the land:" In other words, this was not grain that had been brought across the Jordan. Could this be fresh frikeh?
27. Nesbitt and Samuel, 1996.
28. Mesopotamian baked clay is mentioned in Daniel 2.
29. Isaiah 11:7, 65:25
30. Genesis 24:25, 24:32; Exodus 5:7, Judges 19:19, 1 Kings 4:28, Isaiah 25:10
31. Job 21:18 Isaiah 33:11
32. Job 41:27, Job 41:29, Isaiah 5:24
33. Jeremiah 23:28, 1 Corinthians 3:12
34.Job 13:25, 21:18 , 41:28; Psalm 1:4, 35:5; Isaiah 17:13, 29:5, 33:11, 40:24, 41:2, 41:15, Jeremiah 13:24, Daniel 2:35, Hosea 13:3, Zephaniah 2:2, Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17.
Bricks. The straw of both wheat and barley is used in traditional brick making
Aspects of traditional farming
Wheat, Bread, Flour, and Grain References