The Bible and Food, Part 1
“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!”
We read the Psalmist’s lovely words and straightaway turn our Bible pages to follow where the spiritual lessons from these verses lead. But stop in your tracks for a moment and think of the truth of such a statement from the God of all creation. The very real provision of food underscores God’s love for us each day.
And Jesus, from the outset of his ministry, uses meals and the dinner table to teach us inclusion and welcome. The Lord reaches out with generous and practical help and he wants us to follow his example. Look out for food in your daily readings and you’ll see it smelling delicious and tasting wonderful. And you’ll taste the love of God.
The graphic and picturesque language of food helped Jesus’ real-time listeners remember his teachings. It was a hook that reeled in every one of his hungry followers when he spoke on the shore and in the fields and in the Temple. Each subsequent generation that reads the Bible can understand the ideas that food illustrated to those first hearers.
Food flavors so many narratives and takes center stage at key Biblical dramas.
It is used as a powerful descriptor—from superabundance at a seaside preaching talk, to famine and scarcity in a parched, rocky wilderness. From feasts and banquets to suppers and picnics. From a starving son scraping out the bottom of the barrel to raucous parties crowded with ravenous guests.
Food flavors so many narratives and takes center stage at key Biblical dramas. We read of food grown in fruit gardens, in vegetable gardens, in herb gardens. We breathe in the scent of cinnamon and coriander, mint and lemon balm. We sit down at meals eaten in palaces, in villas, on fishermen’s boats, in prisons, in the wilderness. Meals on the seashore, in temples, in Egyptian and Empire cities, at births, marriages and deaths.
We hear cooks rattling pots making breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Royal meals, sacrificial meals, celebratory meals. Meals with kings, with slaves, with lawyers, with prostitutes, with Greeks, with sailors, with soldiers, with farmers, with wedding guests. Meals with laborers, with prisoners, with widows, with small girls, with lost sons. Meals with watching shepherds, with murderous priests, with hand-washing Pharisees, with stingy hosts and with generous new believers.
We watch sparrows being fed. We stop and look at lively penned portraits of sowing seeds, sweeping up breadcrumbs, grinding flour at mills, vultures ravaging corpses. We read of figs and thistles, fish and serpents, easy yokes and heavy burdens.
FOOD IS AT THE HEART OF EVERYTHING
We hear Jesus’ inspiring voice as he gives us a new commandment to love one another just after supper on that last evening together with his disciples. We have some of the most beautiful, as well as the most desolate acts of Bible history played out around a meal.
We want to cry out to Pontius Pilate at the Feast of the Passover, setting Barabbas free as the customary pardon, leaving the Lord Jesus condemned in a cell, waiting for the cross. We shed tears with the distraught widow rescued by a food supply through the days of famine, food gifted to her by God when she uses the last of her meager supplies to make a meal for Elijah.
We crash the party and join the drunken guests at Herod’s birthday bash, gorging on the extravagant delicacies imported from Rome. Our hearts are breaking when the platter with John’s blood-soaked head is laid on the table alongside the dishes piled high with roasted meats and preserved blackberries and pears and jugs of wine.
OLD TESTAMENT MENUS
We look back at Egypt and the sweet juicy bite of the ripe melons, the muddy leeks and the onions, the smell of crushed garlic on our fingertips. We hear the noisy chattering from the birds pecking the loaves in the baker’s basket and his body swinging lazily from the gallows while Joseph spends two more years in prison.
We’ve grumbled about the manna and the quails but now we’ve seen and tasted the milk and honey of the promised land and we want to take others on that journey with us. We listen as Boaz tells his fieldworkers to leave grain for Ruth. He doesn’t offer clumsy pious charity or pity. He provides an honorable mechanism for her to eat and help her mother-in-law too.
We peer inside the baskets of Abigail’s food bundles, strapped to the donkeys, and we see the raisins and the bread and the lamb, the grain and the fig cakes and the wineskins. And we know an appeal for mercy and clemency is helped by their offering.
We run alongside David, hunted like a dog in the wilderness, being rescued from hunger by his friends who brought baskets full of different but equally welcome food—beans and lentils, honey and yoghurt and meat and cheese.
We see lovely small details in genealogies—Mattithiah entrusted with baking good batches of flat cakes and the Kohathites in charge of kneading and baking the holy bread.
We listen in with trepidation as Daniel signs up to a vegetable-only test as a captive in a foreign land with foreign customs and foreign food.
We are still nervous as we watch Daniel straighten his shoulders and summon up the courage to tell the king that Nebuchadnezzar would eat grass in the field like an ox.
We swagger into the palace and join the revelers at Belshazzar’s feast, where a thousand guests look on terrified as the hand of God writes on the plaster wall. The noblemen, their wives and their mistresses are all drinking wine from golden goblets ransacked from the temple in Jerusalem. As they are raising toasts to their idols, God judges their thoughtless and depraved ways and, for this folly, it will be the king’s last meal and last night on earth.
We marvel at how the description of food in the text brings authenticity and reality and glorious color to the narrative.
Samson and the honey from the carcass of the lion, bees swarming and buzzing around. Zechariah sowing peace like wheat. Vashti’s delectable feast for women only. Solomon’s fabulous shopping list of provisions. The Kings and Chronicles’ narratives say that what the Queen of Sheba saw that day took her breath away.
We pity the suffering of desperate men in the Book of Job, gnawing the hard ground and starving and eating the roots of trees. Hosea describing his nation like a fig tree, swallowing down the fruit of lies. Ezekiel breaking down as God outlines for him the terrors of the siege of Jerusalem where the captives are eating bread with anxiety and drinking water with dismay, starving and dying.
DINING WITH JESUS AND THE DISCIPLES
We step again into the New Testament with John in austerity, eating locusts and wild honey. We feel the pressure on Jesus in the sweltering heat of the desert, staring at the stones and imagining them as loaves of crusty bread. We hear Martha stressed and cross with Mary as she rushes around the kitchen getting dinner ready, and we secretly love her for her very relatable annoyance with her sister.
James warns us that it is pointless to say “Be filled” without giving people what they actually need
Their home with Lazarus is in Bethany on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, where these trees flourish in the limestone earth. The olive fruit and oil of the olive have been used at meals, anointings, births, sacrifices and deaths since the day that the dove flew back to Noah with a branch in its beak.
We catch a glimpse of Peter at two very different charcoal fires—in John 18, cold and angry and descending in a spiral of denial and self-destruction in the courtyard of the high priest. Then at another, a few chapters later, as he clambers out of his boat after a dispiriting night and sees fish already laid sizzling on the coals. Food cooked by the risen Jesus who never stopped loving him. Showing that love in action—a master preparing a meal for his disciple.
We are ashamed again of our meanness and selfishness when James tells us that pure religion, undefiled, is this—to visit the orphans and the widows, the heirs of the Kingdom of heaven. He warns us that it is pointless to say “Be filled” without giving people what they actually need (Jas 2:16 NASB). Not empty words, not just interesting lectures and Bible verse connections. Instead, shared hospitality, taking around a dinner, stocking up kitchen cupboards, planting a vegetable garden, paying a supermarket bill. Being practical and being genuine. One meal at a time.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
God helps us move beyond the words and pictures and use them in 2021 to motivate us to love and good works, to change and influence our behavior and our attitudes. Food is already one of our favorite topics. Eating is one of our greatest pleasures. No wonder God says to use that enthusiasm and passion as an entry into talking about Him and His Son, our Lord, to people we meet and put Christ-like love to work. “The Gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.”¹
Jesus uses food and meals to show us principles of inclusion and harmony, and help, welcome and generosity. This concept of providing for someone’s needs is encapsulated in the Greek word philoxenia which comes across in English as eagerness to show hospitality. It means the love of a stranger. It shows itself in tangible acts of kindness for someone you don’t know, acts of giving which cannot be grudging or half-hearted.
This idea of searching, seeking out and pursuing hospitality is central to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. God spells out how crucial it is for anyone wanting to live a godly life to be concerned for the welfare and wellbeing of strangers. Hospitality speaks of sharing your life with others. It is what Jesus came to do. “Jesus is actually looking for people he can trust with his power.”2
This idea of searching, seeking out and pursuing hospitality is central to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments.
How can we make this idea of hospitality work in our world? A world where political rhetoric has perhaps made us fearful of strangers—in a world which builds walls to keep people out and which primarily focuses on who’s in and who’s one of us. In a world reeling with a pandemic.
We need to see Jesus and his life to help us to be his kingdom people now, to grasp his hand and turn with him to reach out and see need and respond with love. When Jesus walked the shoreline on Galilee, or when he stopped at a fisherman’s home or ate dinner at the house of a ruler, his mission was to seek out and save the lost and the lonely. And he did this one meal at a time.
We want to follow his exemplary life. Jesus was looking for the lost to come and sit with him and eat. We often think that must be someone else; it surely couldn’t be you or me. But being lost isn’t an indictment. We have all been lost—you might be feeling lost right now—but we all want to be found.
Jesus says he has found us, and he wants us to follow his methods to find others. He says eating together is a good place to start. Let’s see his inspirational connection with people in his world, how he sat down with them to eat and talked about the things that matter. If we could learn from his sweet example, his genuine interest in others, his welcome that had no barriers, no prejudices, no exclusions, wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Next Issue: Using food and meals to show the love of Jesus.
1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989)
2 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006)