Food in the Bible: Bread of Life

Food in the Bible: Bread of Life

mejadraJohn 6:1-13; 30-35

by Daniel Harrell

I should start by apologizing for getting so giddy about olive oil last Sunday. Seriously, who pays $40 for a bottle of Segreto from Sicily when you can get a whole gallon of Bertolli for $24.99 or Crisco extra virgin for under six dollars? When you’re hungry, who cares about taste? Take the multitude gathered here in John 6. Thousands mob Jesus to hear him teach and be healed by his touch—not unlike the crowds who’ve mobbed Pope Francis this week. A whole day nearly spent, Jesus saw the hungry hordes and wondered aloud where to get bread to feed everybody. Philip thought he’d gone crazy: six month’s wages wouldn’t buy enough to give each person a bite. There was this kid with five loaves and two fish. But what was that among so many people? We heard read what happened next.

I’ve heard it preached that what really happened was Jesus inspired everybody to share what they’d brought, not just the boy and his lunch. While my faith in Jesus stretches further than that explanation, there have been other moments of remarkable multiplication of bread for hungry people in history.

Food author and chef Dan Barber writes how in 1940, vice president–elect Henry Wallace attended the inauguration of Mexican president, Manuel Ávila Camacho. As the former secretary of agriculture and founder of a hybrid corn seed company, Wallace welcomed an invitation to visit the hillside fields of local Mexican farmworkers. His heart went out to the peasants who worked their small plots in miserable conditions. The soil was failing and their seeds were unproductive—they had no machines and no fertilizers. Upon returning to the United States, Wallace persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to support a special collaboration with Mexico to improve farmers’ crop yields.

The best American agricultural scientists would train their Mexican counterparts in the latest breeding practices. And a fertilizer was developed that tripled wheat growth. A Japanese short-straw wheat got planted to survive the fertilizer’s kick without keeling over. This fertilized dwarf wheat grew to dominate Mexico’s wheat production, allowing for a harvest six times greater than had ever grown before. Encouraged by the results, the dwarf wheat was shipped to India, which was on the brink of mass famine. Farmers planted the new wheat and followed the fertilizer regimen, and within a few years the results were just as incredible: crop yields more than tripled, and India became a net exporter of wheat. The new varieties continued to spread throughout Asia, with the same effect. New strains of “miracle” rice soon followed, which matured fast enough to allow farmers to grow two crops in a year instead of just one. From 1950 to 1992, harvests increased 170 percent on only 1 percent more cultivated land. It is estimated that a billion lives were saved as a result.

These practices displaced local grain varieties refined over thousands of years and upended the traditional practices of millions of farmers. Over the same period of time, certain types of digestive cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gluten intolerance and obesity all increased, attributed to these changes in how and what people eat. Ours is the first generation whose children have life expectancies shorter than their parents due to higher rates of diet-related disease. As many people suffer worldwide the ill effects of too much food as suffer the ill effects of too little—the number of obese nearly equals the number of malnourished. Americans spend as much on weight loss products and programs as the federal government spends annually on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as food stamps). Though sometimes referred to as diseases of affluence, especially when they appear in the global south, Type 2 diabetes and obesity disproportionately affect poorer people. In America, school districts agonize over spending a whole extra quarter per day per child for better school lunches in the same week as the Justice Department releases a financial report showing that they’d paid more for muffins at a single catered event than a family of four receives from food stamps for six months’ worth of groceries.

Still, when you’re starving you’ll eat what you’re given. We don’t read about the five thousand people fed in John’s gospels spitting out their wonder bread. To the contrary, the crowds hounded Jesus, hungry for more. The Lord eluded their grasp, aided by a helpful ability to walk across water, but the crowds chased him down nonetheless. They wanted more miracle wheat, bread from heaven like Moses provided their ancestors in the dessert. The reference is to manna, that famous, delicious morsel that emerged every morning like dew. It was tasty too. The Bible describes it as akin to coriander seed and honey. Manna sustained God’s people in a desert where nothing else grew. And they never had to work for it. They needed only to trust the Lord.

Setting aside the sad fact that God’s people did get fed up with manna, like they would soon get fed up with Jesus, Jesus took this occasion of their hunger to reiterate a truth Moses had spoken back in that desert. In Deuteronomy 8, we read, God “humbled his people by letting them hunger, and then fed them with manna with which neither they nor their ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but also by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” John’s gospel has already identified Jesus as the word become flesh. Jesus now identifies himself as flesh become bread. Manna as man.

“The bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the whole world,” he said. “Give us this bread every day,” shouted the crowd. “I am the bread.” Jesus replied. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. I am the living bread come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; this bread which I give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The crowds scratched their collective heads at this odd response. What in the world was he talking about? Even his own disciples thought this teaching too strange. Jesus called his flesh good to eat. No wonder early Christians were accused of cannibalism whenever they celebrated communion.

Admittedly, we’ve gotten a bit carried away over the centuries trying to make sense of it all. If Jesus’ body is bread to eat, how and when does that happen, and therefore what kind of bread should suffice? Here at Colonial, we’ve decided that a loaf from Jerry’s will do for communion, but other traditions require special waffle irons and consecrated nuns to bake proper bread. My former church used a shortbread recipe that tasted a lot like cookies, taking seriously, I think, the admonition to taste and see that the Lord is good. Most Christians have been content to enjoy Christ’s presence at communion as mystery, but Jesus is also present in the parking lot before church and long afterward in our homes and workplaces and communities and families and throughout the entire universe before the world ever began.

We don’t come to worship each week because the tankful of Jesus we got last Sunday ran out and we need a refill. We come to celebrate again and again the ever-present mystery of Jesus as bread-of-life for the world. The gospels describe the whole thing as a banquet. You come to savor over and over how gracious God is, and, in the words of Robert Capon, “to roll over your tongue the delectable things that have been yours all along, but which get better every time you taste them.” Christ died for all. Christ rose from the grave. Christ fills all in all. There’s enough good food for everybody.

In Washington DC on Thursday, residents of the Harriet Tubman Homeless Shelter rose at 3AM to give everyone time to shower, fix their hair and get dressed in the best clothes they had after years on and off the streets. Though homeless due to evictions, domestic abuse and lost jobs—former felons, addicts, mentally ill and out-of-luck others were going to have lunch with Pope Francis who had eschewed an invitation to dine with powerful members of congress to sup with them instead. They were seated at what looked like a wedding reception: a sea of round tables draped in baby blue tablecloths crowned with vases of yellow and orange flowers. Volunteers served sumptuous plates of teriyaki chicken, Asian pasta salad, fresh bread and steamed green beans and carrots—the best food available and not leftovers. As he blessed the feast, Pope Francis emerged to remind how, “In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness. Faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us” every day. Buen apetito.

Christianity has long celebrated how more than feeding others, but eating with them—especially with enemies, outcasts and strangers—provided a foretaste of heaven, a glimpse of glory, a preview of the final wedding feast of the lamb. “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither hunger, nor mourning nor crying nor pain.” Moreover, to practice hospitality as wide as the arms of Jesus welcomes Jesus too. Whatever is done for the least is done unto Jesus—as well as whenever you love and serve others. All the more reason to eat together, whether as host or guest. The simple recipes I’m cooking these Sundays are for us to make and eat with each other in our homes—be it as a small group, one of Grow and Serve groups, a task force, committee or simply a dinner party you throw for the occasion, inviting perhaps a few neighbors and strangers and needy people too.

We need food every day. Daily bread. This is why Jesus uses bread as the sign of his presence. Bread is for life, but this means more than merely survival. Food is love and grace and goodness and joy. Farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry bemoans how “our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. ‘Life is not very interesting,’ we seem to have decided. ‘Let satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.’ We hurry through meals to get to work and hurry through our work in order to ‘recreate’ ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation — for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the ‘quality’ of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

There are “politics, esthetics, and ethics [and even theologies] of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world [and its Creator]. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” The bread of life broken and eaten and enjoyed.

In my defense, I should stress that I do not cook with Segreto. It’s forty bucks a bottle, for heaven’s sake. No, I savor it, but I also share it and serve it to my family and friends and guests to bring joy to us all. And in so doing I serve the Lord too. So come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, may our food by you be blest, may our souls by you be fed, always on the living Bread. Amen.

Baked Puffed Flatbread

Makes 8 flatbreads


1 pkg. (21/4 tsp.) active dry yeast

1 cup warm (not hot) water

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 tbsp. honey

1/3 c. plain Greek-style yogurt

4 cups whole wheat flour

1 1/2 tsp. salt


Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. Let sit for about 5 minutes, until bubbly. Whisk in olive oil, honey and yogurt.

In a large bowl, combine whole wheat flour and salt. Using a wooden spoon or the dough hook of a stand mixer, add the liquid ingredients and mix thoroughly, only adding additional flour if the dough seems especially sticky. Alternatively, you may need to add a bit of water if the dough isn’t sticky enough. I found that adding the flour and salt to the liquids until the right consistency works well.

Turn out onto floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes, using a scraper if necessary to lift and pull the dough over itself until it feels smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Try to resist adding additional flour, although humid conditions may require a bit more. This is a soft, tender dough.

Lightly coat a medium bowl with oil and place the dough face down, then flip so the coated side is on top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. (My oven has a bread proof setting of 100 degrees.)

When dough is ready, begin heating griddle on stovetop. If using the oven, preheat to 500 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place that on the bottom rack to heat. Otherwise, place a heavy sheet pan in the oven. (You want to lay the flatbread dough on a hot surface to help it puff.)

Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 8 pieces, forming each into balls. Cover with a cloth and let rest for 5 minutes.

With a rolling pin on a floured surface, roll a ball into a flat circle about 8 inches across, flipping once. If the dough shrinks and pulls back, let rest for a minute, then continue to roll.

Gently lift the dough round and lay it on the hot griddle, pizza stone or baking sheet.

The dough soon will begin to puff and bubble. After 2 minutes, lift an edge to see how it’s browning on the bottom; it should be golden and speckled. Flip and continue cooking for another minute, or until the bread feels puffy with no doughy areas.

Remove to clean kitchen towel and cover while you continue with the rest of the dough balls.

The flatbreads are best served the same day they’re made, but will keep overnight if well-wrapped in plastic.



(Legend has this dish was served to Esau by Jacob in exchange for his birthright [Genesis 25:29-34]. It is good stuff. These days it is made with rice instead of barley, but rice was not available in Bible times. Watch the demonstration video.)

Serves 8


1 3/4 cups green or brown lentils

5  medium onions (1 1/2 lb before peeling)

4 tablespoons whole wheat flour

1 cup sunflower oil

2 1/2 full teaspoons cumin seeds

2 full tablespoons coriander seeds

1 2/3 cup hulled barley groats (if you use pearled barley, reduce cook time)

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

2teaspoons ground allspice

2teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoon honey

3 1/2 cups water

Plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of salted water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.

Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large flat plate or large bowl, sprinkle with the flour and 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan placed over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and carefully (it may spit!) add one-third of the sliced onion. Fry 7-10 minutes or more, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until the onion takes on a nice golden brown color and turns crispy (adjust the temperature so the onion doesn’t fry too quickly and burn). Use the slotted spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt. Do the same with the other two batches of onion; add a little extra oil if needed.

Wipe the saucepan in which you fried the onion clean and add the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the barley, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, honey, a good dose of salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the barley with the oil and then add the 3.5 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over low heat for 30-45 minutes until barley has softened but still has a little bite. Add more water if necessary. Then add the cooked lentils and simmer over low heat for 10 more minutes. Lentils and barley should be tender but not mushy.

Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pot with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes.

Finally, add half the fried onion to the barley and lentils and stir gently with a large fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion. Serve with yogurt with cucumber sauce.


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