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Bible Dictionaries

Smith's Bible Dictionary


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Meals. Our information on the subject of meals is but scanty. The early Hebrews do not seem to have given special names to their several meals, for the terms rendered "dine" and "dinner" in the Authorized Version, Genesis 43:16; Proverbs 15:17, are in reality, general expressions, which might more correctly be rendered "eat" and "portion of food." In the New Testament, "dinner" and "supper," Luke 14:12; John 21:12, are more properly "breakfast" and "dinner."

There is some uncertainty as to the hours at which meals were taken; the Egyptians undoubtedly took their principal mean at noon, Genesis 43:16, laborers took a light meal at that time. Ruth 2:14. Compare Ruth 2:17. The Jews rather followed the custom that prevails among the Bedouins, and made their principal meal after sunset, and a lighter meal at about 9 or 10 A.M.

The old Hebrews were in the habit of sitting. Genesis 27:19; Judges 19:6; 1 Samuel 20:5; 1 Samuel 20:24; 1 Kings 13:20. The table was in this case but slightly elevated above the ground, as is still the case in Egypt. As luxury increased, the practice of sitting was exchanged for that of reclining was the universal custom.

As several guests reclined on the same couch, each overlapped his neighbor, as it were, and rested his head on or near the breast of the one who lay behind him; he was then said to "lean on the bosom" of his neighbor. John 13:23; John 21:20. The ordinary arrangement of the couches was in three sides of a square, the fourth being left open for the servants to bring up the dishes. Some doubt attends the question whether the females took their meals along with the males.

Before commencing the meal the guests washed their hands. This custom was founded on natural decorum: not only was the hand the substitute for our knife and for, but the hands of all the guests were dipped into one and the same dish. Another preliminary step was the grace or blessing, of which we have but one instance in the Old Testament - 1 Samuel 9:13 - and more than one pronounced by our Lord himself, in the new Testament - Matthew 15:36; Luke 9:16; John 6:11.

The mode of taking the food differed in no material point from the modern usages of the East. Generally there was a single dish, into which each guest dipped his hand. Matthew 26:23. Occasionally separate portions were served out to each. Genesis 43:34; Ruth 2:14; 1 Samuel 1:4. A piece of bread was held between the thumb and two fingers of the right hand, and was dipped either into a bowl of melted grease, (in which case it was termed "a sop,"), John 13:26, or into the dish of meat, whence a piece was conveyed to the mouth between the layers of bread.

At the conclusion of the meal, grace was again said in conformity with Deuteronomy 8:10, and the hands were again washed. On state occasions, more ceremony was used, and the meal was enlivened in various ways. A sumptuous repast was prepared; the guests were previously invited, Esther 5:8; Matthew 22:3, and on the day of the feast, a second invitation was issued to those that were bidden. Esther 6:14; Proverbs 9:3; Matthew 22:4.

The visitors were received with a kiss, Luke 7:45, water was furnished for them to wash their feet with, Luke 7:44, the head, the beard, the feet, and sometimes the clothes, were perfumed with ointment, Psalms 23:5; John 12:3, on special occasions, robes were provided, Matthew 22:11, and the head was decorated with wreaths. Isaiah 28:1.

The regulation of the feast was under the superintendence of a special officer, John 2:8. (Authorized Version, "governor of the feast"), whose business it was to taste the food and the liquors before they were placed on the table, and to settle about the toasts and amusements; he was generally one of the guests, Sirach 32:1-2, and might therefore take part in the conversation.

The places of the guests were settled according to their respective rank, Genesis 43:33; Mark 12:39, portions of food were placed before each, 1 Samuel 1:4, the most honored guests receiving either larger, Genesis 43:34, or more choice, 1 Samuel 9:24, portions than the rest. The meal was enlivened with music, singing and dancing, 2 Samuel 19:35, or with riddles, Judges 14:12, and amid these entertainments, the festival was prolonged for several days. Esther 1:3-4.

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Bibliography Information
Smith, William, Dr. Entry for 'Meals'. Smith's Bible Dictionary. 1901.

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