The Bible’s famines, fasts, and feasts
A close look at scripture shows the importance of food throughout human history.
The first meal ever recorded in the Bible was pretty sparse: a mythical piece of fruit. Today this would amount to a healthy snack. At the time, it was the most harmful bite imaginable. Of course, the story in Genesis 3 isn’t about eating so much as it is about hunger. We humans seem to be hungry all the time. We crave food and drink, sweet and salty flavors available to many of us at arm’s length. But we’re also hungry for the love and support of others, for attention and recognition. More broadly, we desire liberties yet untasted, justices denied us, and peace of mind at the end of the day.
And yes, like the mythical first couple, we do have a terrible itch for power. Even the smallest and meekest person at your table secretly wishes to be in charge and to have more authority, if only over his or her own fate. If a piece of fruit—let’s rather make it a chocolate—was presented to you one night, a delightful truffle guaranteed to give you the authority to make the world over to your liking, would you be able to resist it? Keep that truffle in mind the next time you’re tempted to convince yourself that Adam and Eve were weaklings who should have shown a little more restraint in a garden ripe with plenty of other things to eat.
Hunger drives history. Most people who ever occupied this planet have lived and died in a perpetual state of hunger. The nameless, faceless poor who occupy the widest tier of human society spend their whole lives in desperate pursuit of the next mouthful. Food is a fascinating subject because it’s literally a life or death matter for all but the few of us whom history and timing have favored. Tell us a story of an eschatological banquet with overflowing tables and nothing but time to sample each dish.
Miracle stories about abundant food supplies hold our attention as children. A cottage in the middle of the forest made of gingerbread and candy? The winning ticket to a tour of a chocolate factory? Tales like these held the attention of the ancients as well. Moses takes a nation out of Egypt into the desert and immediately faces the problem of how to feed them. Freedom’s a fine thing, but if it doesn’t come with meal service, it doesn’t last long. Cue the daily manna from heaven, the regular flocks of quail, and water summoned from a rock. And if you’re going to advertise a promised land, make sure it includes the clause about “flowing with milk and honey.”
In the first book of Kings a widow on the verge of starvation encounters the prophet Elijah, who promises that her jar of flour will not go empty nor her jar of oil ever run dry. It’s a lifetime guarantee of hearth cakes. The second book of Kings delivers another tale of a prophet, Elisha, who meets a widow about to lose her two children to a creditor’s demands. She’s advised to borrow every vessel in the neighborhood that can hold oil. She takes her last jug of oil and is miraculously able to fill them all—thereby procuring the means to repay her debt and rescue her children from slavery.
Another tale in the Elisha cycle concerns a gift of 20 barley loaves mysteriously transformed into enough bread to feed a hundred people. The tagline is familiar to us from the gospel stories: and there was some left over, too. Stories of wonders from these ninth-century prophets would certainly have come to mind as the folks in Jesus’ day told the story of what happened one day in the wilderness when Jesus took a boy’s lunch and fed a multitude with it. The multiplication story was so popular that it’s the only miracle reported in all four gospels—with variant versions repeated in Mark and Matthew to make this a tale told a whopping six times. Do we need further proof that “endless food” miracles were among the most popular?
Add to these the net-breaking, ship-sinking catch of fish stories reported by Luke and John. While the symbolism of these accounts may refer to the future magnitude of the church’s saving “catch,” to the fishing-dependent families in the audience, that’s still a belly load of sushi.
Mealtime doesn’t have to be miraculous to hold our interest. When I sit down to a hot scrambled egg breakfast complete with coffee, it smells divine to me. So too the many descriptions of feasts in the scriptures must have sounded to those who first heard them by means of oral tradition.
King Melchizedek shares bread and wine with Abraham at the end of a successful battle, and we hear the echo of Eucharist in this early blessed dinner. Have you ever enjoyed a fresh warm loaf of bread right out of the oven and a good cabernet? I did once with a friend, and I confess we ate the whole loaf and emptied the bottle in one sitting. Not all culinary excesses have to wait till Thanksgiving. The event of food can be celebration enough.
Jacob prepared a stew for his blind father Isaac and stole his brother’s birthright with it. That was some stew. I was once served a potato salad so remarkable I offered to marry the person who prepared it. She still reminds me of this every time I see her. In many cultures the ability to put food on the table has been the measure of a spouse’s suitability. The ability to prepare food in a pleasing manner has also been the way to win hearts, one stomach at a time. In fact, in Jewish law, you could divorce a woman if she burned your supper. I would have gone through dozens of husbands based on that criterion.
The sacred calendars of most world religions center on harvest times and food availability. Some seasons are for fasting and others for feasting, but all wind up with a lavish table at the end. Refraining from one menu item, like pork for Jews and Muslims, or any meat on Fridays for centuries of Catholics, became a question of identity. In a literal way, you are what you eat—or not.
Among the most popular images in scripture is the story of how Wisdom builds a house and sets a table: Would anyone sit long enough to hear her unless she fed them and kept the wine flowing? Prophets could always get an audience with an opening like: Come to the water! Receive grain and eat! Drink milk and wine! Oracles about rivers in the desert, fruit trees beside flowing waters—that’s how you hold the attention of your listeners. Everyone remembers Isaiah’s line: “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (22:13) Nobody quotes his many passages on the perversion of justice or the judgments on various enemies.
Jesus was shrewd to appreciate that mealtime was the best time to get people to listen. So he dined with Pharisees one night and strangers on hillsides the next. He risked criticism for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes. He sat at Martha and Mary’s table on happy occasions and with a tight group of friends on the night before he died. Jesus still prefers to meet up with his friends at suppertime. Can you blame him?
This article also appears in the June 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 6, pages 47–49).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons