Bread was the all-important commodity of the ancient Near East, and the price of grain is an infallible index to economic conditions at any given time. In early Babylonia the grain of corn provided the basic unit for the system of weights, and cereal took the place of money in commerce. Hosea paid part of the price of his wife in grain.
While we possess much information about the price of grain, references to the price of bread are extremely rare because it was usually made by each housewife. One reference from the Hammurapi period (18th century BC) gives 10 še (about a twentieth of a shekel) as the price of about 2½ litres (4 sila) of bread, and half this amount was a man’s daily ration. (B. Meissner, Warenpreise in Babylonien, p. 7.) In 2 Ki. 7:1 the price quoted for cereal seems abnormally high, but it was doubtless considerably lower than in the preceding famine. In Rev. 6:6 the prices describe graphically the grim conditions of famine.
Barley bread was probably the most widely used. The fact that barley was also fed to horses (1 Ki. 4:28) does not necessarily imply that it was considered inferior, any more than is oats in our day. Wheat bread was more highly prized and was probably fairly common. Spelt was also used, but rye does not seem to have been cultivated. On occasions various cereals may have been mixed together and, as Ezk. 4:9 shows, even lentil and bean meal were added.
The general term for grain was dāḡān. After threshing and winnowing, the grain was either crushed in a *MORTAR with a pestle or was ground in a *MILL by rubbing the upper stone to and fro on the nether millstone. The term for flour or meal in general was qemaḥ, and when necessary this was qualified by the addition of the name of the cereal (Nu. 5:15). What was probably a finer quality was called sōleṯ (cf. 1 Ki. 4:22), but some scholars take this word to mean ‘groats’. This was the meal used in the offerings (Ex. 29:40; Lv. 2:5, etc.).
The word qālî’, often translated ‘parched corn’, was probably roasted grains, which were eaten without further preparation.
The flour, mixed with water and seasoned with salt, was kneaded in a special trough. To this, leaven in the form of a small quantity of old fermented dough was added until the whole was leavened. Unleavened bread also was baked. Leaven was not used in the offerings made by fire (Lv. 2:11, etc.), and its use was forbidden during Passover week. The baking was done either over a fire on heated stones or on a griddle, or in an oven. Leavened bread was usually in the form of round, flat loaves, and unleavened in the form of thin cakes. The form called ‘uḡâ was probably the griddle cake, since it required turning (Ho. 7:8).
When bread was kept too long it became dry and crumbly (Jos. 9:5 and 12). In Gilgamesh 11. 225–229, there is an interesting account of the deterioration of bread .
That so vital a commodity should leave its mark on language and symbolism is not surprising. From earliest times the word ‘bread’ was used for food in general (Gn. 3:19 and Pr. 6:8, where Heb. has ‘bread’). Since it was the staple article of diet, it was called ‘staff’ of bread (Lv. 26:26), which is probably the origin of our phrase ‘staff of life’. Those who were responsible for bread were important officials, as in Egypt (Gn. 40:1), and in Assyria a chief baker is honored with an eponymy. Bread was early used in sacred meals (Gn. 14:18), and loaves were included in certain offerings (Lv. 21:6, etc.). Above all, it had a special place in the sanctuary as the ‘bread of the Presence’. The manna was later referred to as ‘heavenly bread’ (see Ps. 105:40). Our Lord referred to himself as the ‘bread of God’ and as the ‘bread of life’ (Jn. 6:33, 35), and he chose the bread of the Passover to be the symbolic memorial of his broken body.
W. J. Martin