Text Version
The table grace is the most common form of prayer in the world.
The Lord's Supper is the most important recurring ritual in the Christian church.
The church supper is the most common social activity in modern congregations.

Faith and food are inextricably linked in human experience and belief. This includes the act of eating as well as the natural cycles of planting and harvest. One reason is the obvious importance of nourishment to life.

Food is so essential that the activities involved in obtaining, preparing, and enjoying it are closely related to basic human concerns: happiness and sadness, want and plenty, life and death — even God. It is not surprising that food has deep symbolic as well as physical meanings and that food rituals and food taboos appear in many religions.

The Bible provides a broad range of perspectives on the relation of faith and food. These range from everyday eating and drinking to food as divine grace, and they are often interrelated in literal and symbolic ways. Food also plays a role in the story of human sin, which is the rejection and abuse of grace.

Here are just a few of the famous food stories and images found in the Bible:

  • The Garden of Eden is a natural food fair until humanity eats forbidden fruit (Gen. 2-3).
  • Jacob gives Esau stew in exchange for Esau's birthright (Gen. 25:29 ff.), then tricks his father Isaac with a stew and wins his brother's blessing (Gen. 27).
  • Joseph controls the food supply in Egypt (Gen. 41:46 ff.).
  • God feeds the Israelites with manna in the desert (Ex. 16:14 ff.), as they push toward a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8).
  • Ruth gleans grain in the field of Boaz (Ruth 2:2 ff.).
  • The psalmist celebrates the God who prepares a bountiful table in the presence of enemies (Ps. 23.).
  • Satan tempts Jesus with the power to turn stones into bread (Mt. 4:3 ff.).
  • Jesus attends a wedding banquet at Cana (Jn: 2:1 ff.).
  • Jesus feeds 5000 with five loaves and two fish (Mk. 6:35 ff. Each Gospel has this story).
  • Jesus stresses the importance of feeding the hungry (Mt. 25:35-40).
  • The father in the parable of the prodigal son kills the fatted calf when the younger brother returns (Lk. 15:23-27).
  • The rich man dressed in purple (Dives) in another parable forfeits paradise because he refuses the crumbs of his table to poor Lazarus (Lk. 16:19 ff.).
  • Other parables deal with sowing, storing grain, attending or giving banquets, and working in the fields.
  • Jesus and the disciples celebrate a Passover meal (Mk. 14:12-25).
  • The resurrected Christ has supper with wayfarers at Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-32).
  • Christians at Corinth get confused about the Lord's Supper and evening meal (1 Cor. 11:20-34).
Food and Sustenance
Many biblical references to food—and to planting and harvesting—concern the common need to eat to sustain the physical body. At least part of the dietary laws and food taboos in the Old Testament reflect knowledge of substances harmful to eat in days before refrigeration and preservatives. Life equals food in the Genesis story of Joseph (47:13-26), in which the Egyptians were so hungry, and so fearful of hunger, that they sold their land and bound themselves in slavery to Pharaoh in exchange for seeds. Starvation was a very real possibility in biblical days in the Middle East, as it is in many parts of the world today. Those who had the food (as Pharaoh did) also had the power, as is still the case today. Sustenance of the physical self is reflected in Jesus' question: "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" (Mt.7:9).

But eating and drinking in biblical faith is more than the intake of calories and fluids required by the body itself. More importantly, food and drink sustain the life force breathed into humanity by God in creation and so are acts of reverence and piety. Respect for the life force is no doubt one reason why the ancient Hebrews worked out such minute regulations on the feeding of strangers and the chronically hungry.

The sustenance of the life force echoes in the Gospel's accounts of the feeding of the 5000. As told in Mark (6:30 ff.), Jesus has taught the crowd "many things" in words. Now it is getting late in the day, and the disciples urge Jesus to send the people off to buy food for themselves. Jesus has another suggestion, one that complements the hearing of the Word with the nourishment of the life force. "You give them something to eat," Jesus tells his close friends. They are astounded! Spend money for all that crowd? What food is handy? "Five loaves and two fish. " Jesus organizes the crowd, blesses the food, and provides sustenance for the occasion. His is an act of reverence and piety.

Food and God's Grace
The petition, "Give us each day our daily bread," in the Lord's Prayer (Lk. 11: 3) puts food as sustenance in the context of worship and relates it to God's action. In both Old and New Testaments, God is the clear source of food. Food is a part of divine grace and providence. This is true not only for human beings but for all living things. Psalm 104:21 has the young lions "seeking their food from God. " The means of provision are usually indirect, through the earth's bounty of plant and animal life. However, one of God's greatest biblical acts of grace is the direct feeding of the Israelites during the Exodus, the trek from Egyptian slavery to Palestine. Manna appeared daily—it could not be stored—in a reminder of daily dependence on God. The Lord's Prayer also stresses the "daily" aspects of the bread for which people pray—enough to get by on but not enough to waste or withhold from others.

Reverence for God, the source of sustenance, is demonstrated in the many Old Testament rules (especially in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) about the preparation of food, the planting of crops, and the care of food animals. The value — indeed, the sacredness — of the land is spelled out in Genesis 1:9 when, on the third day, God brought forth the dry land and said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees....And God saw that it was good. " The land belongs to God and is to be used wisely and for the sake of all. Elaborate ceremonies, festivals, and offerings show appreciation to the gracious God who sustains.

Sustenance and grace combine powerfully in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, instituted by Jesus in the context of a Passover meal (Mt. 26:1-29). The bread and the wine become the means of conveying and accepting God's love embodied in Jesus Christ. God provides, and believers accept in the most personal and corporal way—by eating. Taking and eating signifies faith. This is high symbolism created by God from lowly grain and grapes.

Food and the Social Community
Families, tribes, and cultures bond around the table. This is a widespread social characteristic. People who are unfriendly to each other do not eat together. Examples of both the bonding and divisiveness of the table abound in Scripture. Job's sons and daughters reunite at banquets given for one another (Job 1:4-5). Elisha is fed by a couple in Shunem whenever he passes by (2 Kings 4:8-10). Abraham and Sarah make a meal for angels unawares (Gen. 18:2 ff.). The father in the story of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32) attempts to draw the family back together with a banquet. Jesus pleasantly joins his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus around the table (Jn. 12:1-3). Community is created and grows in the sharing of food and drink.

Refusal to eat with others is a sign of enmity. Genesis 43:32 observes that an Egyptian could not eat with a Hebrew. Jonathan leaves the table in First Samuel 20:34 because he is angry with his father Saul. Jesus is challenged because he eats with "sinners" (Mk. 2:16). The eldest son in the parable of the prodigal refuses to attend the banquet because he thinks he has been dishonored (Lk. 15:28-30). A serious question arises in John 4:9 over whether Jesus, a Jew, should have asked for and accepted water from a woman of Samaria. The table fellowship of the early church in Corinth is broken over a question of what kind of meat should be eaten (1 Cor. 8:4-13).

One of the most powerful biblical accounts of eating and the formation of a faith community takes place in the village of Emmaus, outside Jerusalem, on the first Easter afternoon (Lk. 24:13-32). Two followers of Jesus wearily make their way homeward, dejected and perplexed by the Crucifixion and accounts of an empty tomb. A stranger joins them. Cleopas and his unnamed companion do not recognize Jesus and tell him their story of bewilderment. Jesus speaks to their failure to comprehend what has taken place. Evening is coming and the village is just ahead. The two ask Jesus to stay with them, in keeping with the Jewish practice of giving hospitality to strangers.

"So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight....That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, 'The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!' Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Lk. 24:29b-35).

While the supper at Emmaus is not a eucharistic meal, it recalls the Last Supper and projects the newly forming Christian church as an intimate community. It forecasts a faith community in which one of the most common of things—bread—becomes a most uncommon bearer of God's presence. The three-dimensional Jesus vanishes from sight, but bread remains and the breaking of bread continues in the fellowship of faith. For Christians, the table grace, inherited from Judaism, is a reminder of the living presence of Jesus in individual lives and the community of the church.

Food and Sin
Though the table draws people together, food and the table can also be used to separate and destroy community. Because it is so essential, because it is a form of God's grace, food figures in broken relationships and in the rejection of grace. Thus food and sin are often partners in the Bible and in life.

Food plays a major role in the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, where God provided directly for the couple's sustenance. Only one prohibition was set: Adam and Eve could eat of every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16). Such a tree is clearly symbolic, unrelated directly to physical nourishment. Yet the story presents disobedience to God in the language of food. Adam and Eve ate forbidden fruit. Fittingly, in the last chapter of Revelation, "the tree of life" (Rev. 22:2), recalling the tree of Eden, stands in the restored human city, bearing 12 kinds of fruit and leaves that can heal the nations.

Food in the Bible (and, perhaps, in all societies) represents power. Those who control the supply and production of bread can do good or evil. The cycle of stories in Genesis about the Israelites in Egypt illustrates food as power. Jacob's family is pulled toward Egypt by the availability of grain (Gen. 42). Once there, 10 of Jacob's sons encounter Joseph, the brother they earlier mistreated, who is now in charge of the household of Pharaoh. Pharaoh owns all the food and Joseph, as his prime minister, attempts a fair policy of distribution in famine years. Later, in the book of Ruth, Boaz is presented as a landowner who obeys the religious expectation that landowners leave grain standing in the corners of the fields for the poor to glean (Ruth 2:1-16).

But food power is easily abused and not every biblical character is as conscientious as Joseph and Boaz. Several of the prophets, particularly Amos, excoriate those who tax the grain of the poor (5:11) and sell to the needy "the sweepings of the wheat" (8:6). In his parables, Jesus shows great impatience with those who abuse the power of food, including the rich man who denies crumbs to Lazarus (Lk. 16:19 ff. ) and the man who keeps building barns in order to hoard grain (Lk. 12:16-21). In the allegory of Judgment Day, sorting the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25:31 ff.), those who fail to feed the hungry are among the unfavored goats:

"For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me" (Mt. 25:42-43). The services neglected were among those expected in Jewish practice and were built into Christian ethical behavior.

Food and the Healing Covenant
Another kind of abuse of food—one that breaks the fellowship of the church—appears in First Corinthians 11, which goes on to illustrate how brokenness is repaired (11:17-34).

Early churches were often small fellowships, the members forming a tiny religious minority that bonded around religious rituals and social interaction. Something got out of hand in Corinth and Paul heard about it. He writes: "When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?" (1 Cor. 11:20-22a).

Paul continues with words explaining the Lord's Supper that continue in the Communion liturgy to this day. He puts eating and the Lord's Supper in the context of a covenant with God and one another. Paul then describes the many varieties of gifts within the Christian community (chapter 12), showing how members support and complement one another. Then comes the great hymn of love (chapter 13), which is a song about believers who examine themselves as they join in a common meal. The thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians is a Communion hymn.

Breaking the covenant sealed in Holy Communion is sin to Paul and to successive generations of Christians. But sin is removed and right relationships reestablished through the body of Christ. The body of Christ is the church—and is also the presence and power of God communicated in a meal of bread and wine.

Note: Food and drink in the Old Testament are thoroughly discussed by Alan W. Jenks in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday, 1992, vol. 2, pp. 250- 254.

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Elliott Wright is a frequent contributor to New World Outlook.

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