How Ancient Israelites Ate Their Meat: Burned on the Altar, and Rarely

The Hebrews loved meat, as most people do, but who could afford it? For when they could - here's a recipe from the ancient past for meat stew with turnips.

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The temple site and altar used for religious rituals and practices, dated to the early monarchic period of the Judaean monarchy.
The temple site and altar used for religious rituals and practices, dated to the early monarchic period of the Judaean monarchy.Credit: AFP

It was Rachel’s father’s 80th birthday. His children wanted to slaughter a pig belonging to one of Rachel’s 10 siblings to mark the occasion. The octogenarian was aghast at the idea of having an animal so valuable to his farming family's economy gobbled up but the kids did it anyway. Dad spent the whole day sulking in his fields and tasted nary a knuckle.

The dysfunctional family and its food feud could have come right out of the Bible, although Rachel – not her real name – happens to be a Filipina caregiver in Israel, and the story happened last month, on a farm far away in her homeland. And indeed the Bible, and archaeological evidence, tell of many a feast, and more than one family fight over it.

Ancient Israelites apparently did not eat of the swine, though Philistines and prehistoric peoples in the area certainly did, as we know from bone remains. But in ancient Israel, meat of any kind was an expensive commodity. In traditional farming cultures, what lived in the stable made it only rarely to the table.

The taste for meat can be traced to the earliest origins of mankind: in fact until recently, the prevailing assumption was that Neanderthals were almost entirely carnivorous, and in contrast to fluffy views of their cuteness, chimps will happily and eat kill other animals. (The far more maligned gorillas are vegetarians.)

Based mainly on bone findings, archaeologists can elucidate what animals our ancestors slaughtered, what cut they preferred as well as, in some periods, the ethnic identity of the diners.

A taste for tongue

For example, at the now-submerged Mediterranean site of Neve Yam, a sample of 32 butchered animal remains were recovered from a 5th-millennium BCE site. The bones bear slice marks from the removal of soft tissues such as muscles using a sharp stone implement.

These marks were found on a range of animal bones, including goat, cow and sheep well as gazelle, and pig.Going by the marks on skulls, one favorite cut was the tongue.

The experts also say they can tell when bones were broken sharply, allowing us to picture these prehistoric seaside folk finishing off their protein-heavy meal by splitting open the bones and sucking out the marrow.

Animal bones can also show how farmers used their animals, by revealing the age of the animal when it was slaughtered. The older the animal was when it was killed, evidently, the more use the farmers made of their animals’ renewable resources – milk and wool or hair before slaughtering it for table.

When archaeologists find no pig bones at a site, it is considered an indicator that it was inhabited by Israelites, who eschewed pork, among other animals considered biblically unclean (Lev. 11:7–8: Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean; and Isaiah 66:17: They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine's flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the LORD.)

What to kill when company comes

Hey kids, shake it loose together/The spotlight's hitting something/That's been known to change the weather/We'll kill the fatted calf tonight/So stick around/You're gonna hear electric music/Solid walls of sound.”

When Elton John wrote those words, he gave Bennie electric boots, but the party menu had a biblical ring to it. In the story of the medium of Endor who conjured up the ghost of Samuel for King Saul, once she realized the identity of her royal guest and saw how distressed he was at the news she had brought from the other world - nothing less would do for dinner than her precious fatted calf, which she slaughtered herself (1 Sam. 28:3–15).

In the New Testament, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) conveys the same conundrum about the cost of a meat (plus a feuding family): A son who had spent years working for his father is miffed when his wayfaring, profligate brother finally comes home and the overjoyed father heads right for the most expensive animal in the herd so dinner would be a real celebration: But the stay-at-home son says: “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him,” the son says (Luke 15:29-30).

The Bible confirms what bone finds from digs reveal: that pasturing of cattle was common. As Psalm 50:10 puts it “every animal in the forest is mine, and cattle on a thousand hills.” Both Abraham and Job were wealthy men, as least as far as the cattle they owned (Gen. 12:16 and Job 1:3 respectively).

But sheep, goats and cattle were very labor-intensive to raise, which is why meat was reserved for special occasions, like a royal visit, the return of a long-lost son (or an 80th birthday, for that matter, which in Bible days was an almost unheard-of milestone).

Sacrificing to God and eating it too

The more difficult it was to raise animals, the harder it would be to part with them, not to mention without tangible remuneration. That is precisely what placed them high on the list of sacrifices acceptable to God. One of the perks of priestly duties in the Temple was that the priests could consume the meat of most types of sacrifices. But after providing the requisite sacrifice, and after it was "burned" on the altar, families could eat the rest of the meat themselves.

Those were precisely the circumstances in Shiloh, where the Israelites came to worship before the First Temple was built. In 1 Samuel 2 we find people happily settling down to cook up the remaining post-sacrifice meat. Cue the evil sons of Eli the priest, who sent their servant to pick the best cuts right out of the pot boiling on the fire (1 Sam. 2:12-16), a sin, by the way, for which God made sure none of the males of Eli’s line would live to a ripe old age (1 Sam. 2:33).

Millennia before it occurred to anyone to worry about the fat content of their diet, the aliya, – the sheep’s fatty tail – was a prized culinary commodity. One ancient source says that sometimes this appendage grew so large that shepherds would attach a little wagon so their sheep could carry it around in comfort (and keep it from being injured). A Hebrew expression going back to the Talmud, signifying something perfect save one flaw (parallel to "fly in the ointment”) comes from the value of this part of the sheep’s anatomy – aliya vekotz ba – a sheep’s tail with a thorn in it.

Found in the Hebrew-language Lieberman edition of the commentary Deuteronomy Rabbah, this story also reveals the high value placed on meat (and possibly also the vessel it was cooked in): “A story of two children, who lived in the same neighborhood. One was rich and one was poor. The rich boy would come to synagogue every day with pieces of meat and eggs…the poor boy came with two carobs, and was sad. When the poor boy’s father saw his son sad…he took a litra [about 350 grams] of meat and cooked it. When the boy came home from school, his father said, come and eat what you desired. But just then a dog came I and put its head into the cooking pot [krater] and could not get it out. The father said: “Stand up and let’s see where the dog went, since you didn’t get what you wanted. Let’s save the pot, he said, and he and his son ran after the dog.”

The moral of this odd tale is distinctly non-culinary: Right after dad and junior left the house after their errant canine, the house fell down. In the sages’ opinion, the pair were saved not because they were fleet of foot but because they were faithful followers of the commandments.

What might that ancient stew have contained?

And now for the recipe: Meat and turnip stew

Dr. Tova Dickstein, an expert in biblical and talmudic food, has an answer. Based on three ancient sources, the minor talmudic tractate Kala Rabati 7, 6, Tosefta Hullin 1, 21, and the Babylon Talmud, Berachot 44:2, meat stew was very popular cooked with lefet – turnip.

To discover hints of how ancient food was cooked, Dickstein turns to contemporary traditional cuisine, in this case, the kitchen of a member of the ancient, tiny Samaritan community, Batya Tsedaka, of Holon. Here is Tsedaka’s recipe for meat and turnip stew.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

1 large finely chopped onion
1 large turnip, peeled and cubed
1 lb (500 g) beef (chopped into small cubes)
2 tbsp olive oil
3 chopped cloves of garlic
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp black pepper
1½ tsp salt
1 cup red wine
½ tsp honey


Chop the onion into small pieces. Peel the turnip and cut it into small cubes. Brown the onion in olive oil until it is soft and transparent. Add the chopped garlic and the meat and continue to brown for a few more minutes. Add the spices, the wine and a little water and cover. Cook until soft, correct seasoning, then cook with the lid open to reduce the liquids. Serve (out of reach of Fido, needless to say).

The ancient Philistine altar at the Tel Tzafit archaeological site.

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