Often occasions of happy fellowship and spiritual benefit among the ancient Hebrews and, later, the early Christians, meals also afforded opportunities for showing love and extending hospitality to others. It appears that the Hebrews and early Christians customarily offered prayers in connection with meals.—1 Sam. 9:13; Acts 27:35; 1 Tim. 4:1, 3; see HOSPITALITY; LORD’S EVENING MEAL; LOVE FEASTS.
The Israelites appear to have had two main meals each day, one in the morning and the other in the evening at the close of the workday. (Compare Ruth 3:2, 3, 7; 1 Kings 17:6.) While many ate their breakfasts at home, others, including fishermen who toiled all night, apparently made it a practice to take some food along when going to work. Fishermen could also prepare some of their catch for breakfast.—Compare Mark 8:14; John 21:12, 15.
There is evidence, however, that a meal, perhaps usually a lighter one, was served about noon. (Acts 10:9, 10) Probably at this time persons working in the field stopped to rest and ate some food.—Compare Ruth 2:14.
Women customarily served the food. (John 12:1-3) But at times they ate their meals in company with men. (1 Sam. 1:4, 5; Job 1:4) In well-to-do, particularly royal, households servants waited on the tables. King Solomon’s table was served by waiters having special attire.—1 Ki. 10:4, 5; 2 Chron. 9:3, 4.
Drinks were usually served in individual cups, but food was often placed in a common dish. Those eating might take food with their fingers or use a piece of bread somewhat like a spoon to partake of certain foods.—Mark 14:20; John 13:25, 26; see also Proverbs 26:15.
The postures assumed by persons at meals included reclining and sitting. (Gen. 18:4; 27:19; Judg. 19:6; Luke 9:14) A relief from the palace of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal depicts him as reclining on a couch and his queen as seated on an elevated chair while feasting. Reclining on couches at meals was apparently also a practice among the Persians. (Esther 7:8) Tables and couches were used at least by some Israelites in Ezekiel’s time.—Ezek. 23:41.
IN THE TIME OF JESUS’ EARTHLY MINISTRY
The general Hebrew custom in the first century C.E. was for persons to wash their hands before eating a meal. This was a ritualistic practice among the scribes and Pharisees.—Mark 7:1-8; see WASHING OF HANDS.
At banquets or large feasts in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, couches of different heights were placed around three sides of a table. This left the fourth side free so that those serving the food could gain access to the table. The Roman arrangement of table and couches was such that the highest couch was to the right hand of those serving the meal as they approached the table. A somewhat lower couch was straight ahead of them and the lowest couch was to their left.
At times four or five persons occupied one couch, but usually the number was three. Those partaking of the meal usually rested on the left elbow, probably on a cushion, with their heads toward the table. Food was normally taken with the right hand. The place of highest importance on a couch was that occupied by the person having no one behind him. To be in the “bosom position” in relation to someone else reclining at a meal meant being in front of him and would also signify having his favor. (John 13:23) The individual having a person in the bosom position could easily carry on a confidential conversation with him.
The customary three positions on each couch indicated that a person had the high, middle or low position on the couch. One having the low position on the third or lowest couch had the lowest position at the meal.—Compare Matthew 23:6; Luke 14:7-11.
At least on certain festive occasions a large meal or banquet might be under the supervision of a director (John 2:9) and could feature such entertainment as “a music concert and dancing.”—Luke 15:25.
PROPER VIEW OF MEALS
It is God’s will for man to enjoy food and drink. (Eccl. 2:24) But excesses are detestable to him. (Prov. 23:20, 21; Eccl. 10:17; Rom. 13:13; 1 Pet. 4:3; see DRUNKENNESS; GLUTTON.) Since partaking of meals in moderation can be most delightful, the condition of one who is joyful at heart is comparable to a continuous feast. (Prov. 15:15) Also, a loving atmosphere contributes to the enjoyment of a meal. Says the proverb: “Better is a dish of vegetables where there is love than a manger-fed bull and hatred along with it.”—Prov. 15:17.
To eat a meal with someone else signified friendship and peace between the persons involved. Therefore one who was privileged to eat regularly at the table of a king was especially favored and enjoyed a very close bond with the monarch. (1 Ki. 2:7) This relationship Jesus promised his faithful disciples when telling them that they would eat and drink with him in his kingdom.—Luke 22:28-30; see also Luke 13:29; Revelation 19:9.
The destruction of those standing in opposition to God provides the occasion for a “great evening meal.” This meal is for the birds that will feed on the dead bodies of those slain. (Rev. 19:15-18) A very different meal is the great banquet for all the peoples mentioned at Isaiah 25:6.