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‘What would Jesus eat?’ Church class seeks answers
LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo by Cathy Farmer

"Lentil stew, anyone?" asks John Williams Jr., during a class on biblical foods.

July 28, 2005

By Cathy Farmer*

Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of lentil stew. You can find the story right there in the Bible, Genesis 25:29-34. For an eldest son like Esau to sell his birthright meant he was giving up the leadership of the family and a double share of the inheritance.

So what the heck is lentil stew?

“Lentil stew or pottage is made by cooking lentils to mush,” explained John Williams Jr., a self-described “avid cook” and Sunday school teacher at Broadway United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky. Williams is teaching a series of classes he calls, “What Would Jesus Eat?”

“I’ve been collecting books on the topic for almost 10 years,” Williams said, “and I’ve been trying out recipes using only the food common in the biblical world. It seemed to me that other people might be interested as well, so I offered this series.”

Back to the lentil stew. According to Williams, nomads like Jacob and Esau, who lived in tents and cooked over fires, needed to prepare food that would last. No refrigerators, you understand. No tables, either. They tended to sit around on rugs and eat with their hands or by scooping the food with bread.

“Often, the meal was cooked days or even weeks in advance,” Williams explained. “It was served ‘room’ temperature. And it wasn’t uncommon to have a big bowl in the middle of the tent from which everyone would dip by hand.”

He picked up a pottery bowl filled with pottage and offered it for sampling. Most of the class approached the brownish mush — which looked rather like lumpy refried beans — gingerly.

“Hmmm,” was the general consensus of the 20 or so students. “Not bad, but nothing to give away your birthright for!”

Of course, in his defense, Esau was famished. According to the account in the Bible, the oldest twin had been out in the field working or hunting while Jacob, his mama’s favorite, was hanging around the tent, cooking up beans and onions.

To the average American, lentil stew might not look all that enticing. But to a nomadic shepherd?

Williams provided a list of the foodstuffs that would have been available in the ancient Holy Land. But he cautioned the class to remember that everything was seasonal — there was no year-round food supply. Nor was the peasant family able to afford many items on the list.

“Their diet was rather bland,” he said. “And storage was a problem. They used large clay jars for some things.”

“Would you call that biblical Tupperware?” called one woman.

Vegetables were especially limited from the perspective of a person who can drive to the local supermarket and pick up nearly anything grown anywhere on the globe.

Anise, artichokes, beans, cucumbers, fennel, leeks, lentils, mustard greens, onions and sorrel rounded out the list of vegetables.

Fruits included apricots, dates, figs, grapes, mulberries, muskmelon, olives, pomegranates, quinces and raisins.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer

Sunday school class members taste the biblical feast prepared by teacher John Williams Jr.

Meat, usually the main dish in an American meal, was expensive, and it was typically “stretched” with something like barley by nomads like Esau and Jacob.

“It was sort of the ‘hamburger-helper’ of its time,” said Kristin Williams, John’s wife.

Lamb, beef, fish (both fresh and dried), chicken, pigeons (squab), goat and quail were the meats available.

Herbs and spices included caraway, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, mustard, saffron, bay leaves, capers, coriander, dill, garlic, hyssop, parsley, sage and thyme.

In Psalms, David mentions being “purged with hyssop,” which the class discovered to be rather bitter tasting.

Milk and milk products such as butter and yogurt were important. Williams offered several dishes that featured yogurt — cucumbers and yogurt salad and hummus with yogurt and dill. (Hummus is a mixture of chickpeas, tahini and garlic. Tahini is ground sesame seeds.)

Since there was no sugar, desserts would have been few and far between, and possibly included honey and various fruits, such as dates and grapes.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo by Cathy Farmer

Biblically inspired dishes (from top): lentil pottage, cucumbers fried with hyssop, sauteed onions/leeks/almonds and parsley, and lamb stretched with barley.

“I consider the food mentioned in the Bible the fingerprints of the people,” Williams said as he described the various dishes he had prepared for the class. “These would have been included in a feast for events such as marriages, Passover, family gatherings (think of the dinner prepared for the prodigal son) and ritual special occasions.

“The first course is grape leaves stuffed with lamb and wheat, plain yogurt and a shredded cucumber salad made with yogurt and fresh herbs. You’ll notice there aren’t a lot of vegetables.

“At the Last Supper,” he continued, “which was a Passover Feast, what did Jesus eat? Bread and wine. Jesus wasn’t a man with money, and he tended to eat with the marginalized, such as prostitutes and tax collectors.

“Does anyone know when the early church met?” he asked. “Sunday evening. And Communion would end the service.”

With a wave of his hand, Williams urged the class to try the rest of the dishes spread over two tables and a counter top.

In addition to the “lentil stew,” there were cucumbers fried with hyssop, onions and leeks sauteed with almonds and parsley, lamb stretched with barley, hummus, pita chips (unleavened and toasted bread), quince, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, water, grape juice (instead of wine) and olives.

“Pretty good,” was the final decision. “Pretty good.” 

*Farmer is director of communications for the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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