Ezekiel Bread, Book of Ezekiel, Torah

Ezekiel’s Vision, William Blake, (1803-05)

There are many interpretation of “Ezekiel Bread” online, in cookbooks, and even in commercial products. While the most vocal interpretation is that it is a sprouted grain bread, all of the interpretations are for breads presented as being wonderful, good tasting breads. Reading the text taking into account period culture, and the fact that this a bread intended to demean and defile a good tasting product is an unlikely interpretation of what the bread Ezekiel was fed.

Ezekiel is a prophet in the Jewish religious texts Christians call the “Old Testament.” Bread appears twice in the Ezekiel biblical texts. First, he is fed a sweet tasting bread. The sweet tasting bread has not captured the imagination of today’s bakers. Contemporary focus is on the second bread, a grain of mixed grains and pulses, the weight of 20 shekels wroth he was to live on for 390 days.

The text, as translated to English in the early 17th century King James version of the Hebrew original, makes no mention of how the bread is made.

8 And, behold, I will lay bands upon thee, and thou shalt not turn thee from one side to another, till thou hast ended the days of thy siege.

Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof, according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side, three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof.

10 And thy meat which thou shalt eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it.

11 Thou shalt drink also water by measure, the sixth part of an hin: from time to time shalt thou drink.

12 And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight.

13 And the Lord said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles, whither I will drive them.

Getting our heads into this text I think it helpful to start with the one specific piece of bread baking fact that is included within the text, and that is that the bread is made “as barley cakes.” Barley cakes are unleavened breads, usually shaped like a disk from barley ground into flour, that mixed with water to form a workable dough, and then baked on a griddle or in the ashes. I am not sure how dried human shit works as a fuel. In Northern India I have seen breads baked with cow dung — dung used as a fuel under a griddle and and as a source of flame and glowing embers used to complete the baking of wheat breads.

The details of the text pertaining to the grains-pulse bread describe a diet that will lead to death in a reasonably short period of time. The daily ration is bread with a weight of “twenty shekels.” A biblical shekel was both money and a unit of weight, as was for many centuries, the British pound. Shells are interpreted as having weighed 11g, so twenty shekel’s worth of bread is 220g worth — roughly one half a pound.

Twenty shekels worth of bread offers something in the range of 500 calories. This is a starvation ration. The daily water ration is given as one sixth of a lim, which is roughly 1 liters or quart of water per day. Again, not enough to live on. Imagine the long hot months of the Judaean climate! 500 calories and 1 liter of water per day will not get a person magically paralyzed so that he can only lie on one side though one year of captivity. In fact, one would last days, at the most. In other words, this is not a literal text from which a jewel of a bread recipe can be found. The focus focus of this text is on humiliation. The choice of ingredients in Ezekiel’s prison bread offers insights into period cultural attitudes towards mixed grain pulse breads: they were not desirable.

The bread ingredient are themselves are humiliating in the context of the period culture links grain type and flour refinement to a social hierarchy. Not only does the passage require that Ezekiel eat a low status flour mix but, he is supposed to defiled in the baking by being baked on on dried human feces. Ezekiel remember, is bound so that he is lying one one side, and not able to move to the other side. Yes! Torture! Bed sores! Infection! Gangrene! Locked in a stress position he is not baking his own bread.

Prisoners bound in stress positions are not fed delicious breads. There is a multi-thousand year history of prison breads. They are universally exorable.

I have not been able to find any commentary explaining why this bread is so often interpreted as a sprouted grain bread. If you know of one that references sources please put in the comments. Yes, there absolutely sprouted grain flour during the Biblical period. The standard sprouted grain flour was sprouted wheat. After sprouting, the wheat, now transformed through enzymic action to have sweetness and a pleasant complex taste, is dried, and then ground into flour. Barley is part of the Ezekiel grain mix. Contemporary American artisan bakers often add sprouted barley flour to their bread. That is the “malt” listed in the ingredients. It makes no sense that bread meant to demean, that will be defiled during baking by being baked over human shit, would have anything done to it to make it taste good.

In the context of the Bible’s Ezekiel story, this second mixed grain bread contrasts with first bread he is fed, one that is sweet, like honey. That first bread could well have been made with sprouted grain, or it could have made by gelatinizing some of the flour, a process that also creates a sweet tasting bread. This bread, the mixed grain bread, is a bread that contrasts with the first bread he is fed. His situation has changed. The focus of the story has changed. We go from day, from hope, to a hellish night: 390 days of torment. The bread makes this change, too.

The bakers making this bread for the bound prisoner will not have been authorized to expend their craft skills to make it as palatable as possible. Instead, if any work was expended on this bread by the bakers, it will have been to highlight bitterness, unpleasant smells, and any other unpleasantness that could be developed in the dough to make it as awful as possible.

The pulses in the list of ingredients would have fermented quickly in the usually hot climate of the region, so I think we could imagine that after grinding the dough was mixed with water and left to sour, to over-sour so that it baked up into a dense, bran-filled, stinky cakes. That is more like what I imagine the poets who wrote this text had in mind — like the American prison nutriloaf — a bread meant to harm the soul even if it fed the body.

With very little vitamin C, and apparently no other foods served, this bread and water diet will have brought on scurvy, so that even if one managed on the 500 calories and the 1 liter of water per day, by the end, if not dead from scurvy, one would be suffering the horrible effects of vitamin C deficiency, bleeding gums, loose teeth, cognitive and behavioral issues, and much much much more awfulness, besides. That, I am pretty certain is what Ezekiel bread is all about. Awfulness.

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