Our Daily Bread

‘Bread’ (לֶחֶם / leẖֵem) is a word we use daily, but such words, especiallyֵ, have a great potential to surprise us, when it comes to the ways they are used in scripture. The meaning of לֶחֶם is actually wider than we usually think.

During his fight against the Philistines, King Saul had put the people under oath, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food (לֶחֶם) before evening, and until I have avenged myself on my enemies.” (1 Sam 14:24). Jonathan tastes a little honey and thus violates his father’s oath. The specification of Solomon’s לֶחֶם for one day includes thirty kors of fine flour and sixty kors of meal, ten fat oxen, twenty pasture-fed oxen, a hundred sheep besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl (1 Kings 4:22-23). However, not only the food humans eat is called לֶחֶם. The prophet Isaiah writes regarding the last days: dust will be the serpent’s food (לֶחֶם / Isaiah 65:25), and also other verses refer to animal’s food as לֶחֶם (Psalm 147:9; Proverbs 6:8).

The common theory to explain this phenomenon is that the original meaning of לֶחֶם in the Semitic languages was the general term ‘food’ or ‘nourishment’. In addition, it referred to the most important component of the cultural menu. The early Hebrew speakers were an agricultural society and lived mainly on grains, therefore they called the pastries they made from these grains לֶחֶם (for example Leviticus 23:17). The Arabic speakers however, were wandering tribes who made a living from their herds. That’s why the parallel root in Arabic refers to meat. Also in the biblical usage לֶחֶם can be used to describe meat: If he is going to offer a lamb for his offering […] he shall bring as an offering by fire to the Lord, its fat, the entire fat tail […] and the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, […] and the lobe of the liver […]. Then the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar as food (לֶחֶם), an offering by fire to the Lord (Leviticus 3:7-11).

The range of meanings of לֶחֶם influenced also the usage of the word in the New Testament and has left its traces also in modern language, for example in the term “daily bread”. In scripture, this more general meaning of the word is as common as the specific one. When Jacob is on his way to his uncle Laban, he asks God to give him food (לֶחֶם) to eat and garments to wear (Genesis 28:20) – the most fundamental human needs.

As the story goes on, we encounter another meaning of לֶחֶם. Twenty years later, Jacob leaves Laban quietly and sets out to the land of Canaan. Laban pursues and catches up to him, but they settle their quarrels and make a covenant. Then we read: Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal (לֶחֶם); and they ate the meal (לֶחֶם) and spent the night on the mountain (Genesis 31:54). It is hard to imagine Jacob preparing a BBQ and then inviting his relatives to only eat some pita-bread. From this occurrence and other similar cases, we learn that לֶחֶם can also refer to a meal or a banquet (see also Exodus 18:12; 1 Samuel 20:24-27). 

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