THE tourists were hungry. Visiting the historical sites of the old city of Bethlehem had given them a hearty appetite, and they wanted to try something typical. One of them spotted a restaurant offering falafel—tasty ground chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables served with pita bread. The delicious snack gave them fresh energy to continue their tour.
Unknown to these visitors, eating that unpretentious pita bread was possibly the most historical experience they had that day. The name Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” and bread has been baked in the area for thousands of years. (Ruth 1:22; 2:14) Pita bread is today one of the typical breads of Bethlehem.
Nearly four thousand years ago, not far south of Bethlehem, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, made freshly baked “loaves of bread” to feed three unexpected visitors. (Genesis 18:6) The “fine flour” that Sarah used may have come from emmer wheat or from barley. Sarah had to prepare this bread quickly and probably baked the dough on hot stones.—1 Kings 19:6.
Abraham’s family prepared and baked their own bread, as this account indicates. Their nomadic lifestyle meant that Sarah and her servants likely could not bake bread in the type of ovens commonly used in Ur, Sarah’s hometown. She prepared fine flour from local grain. This would have been a laborious task done by using a portable hand mill and possibly a mortar and pestle.
Four centuries later, the Mosaic Law stipulated that a hand mill could not be taken as security for a loan, since it was “someone’s livelihood.” (Deuteronomy 24:6) God viewed a hand mill as vital because without it, a family could not make their daily bread.—See the box “Daily Grinding and Baking in Bible Times.”
BREAD TO SUSTAIN THE HEART OF MORTAL MAN
The Scriptures refer to bread some 350 times, and Bible writers often used bread as a synonym for food. Jesus showed that those who serve God can confidently pray: “Give us today our bread for this day.” (Matthew 6:11) Here, “bread” represents food in general, and Jesus hereby shows that we can rely on God to provide our daily sustenance.—Psalm 37:25.
There is, however, something more important than bread, or food. “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every word that comes from Jehovah’s mouth,” Jesus said. (Matthew 4:4) His statement referred to a time when the Israelites depended totally on what God provided for them. This began not long after their departure from Egypt. About a month had gone by since they entered the Sinai Desert, and their food supplies were running low. Alarmed at the prospect of starving to death in that arid wilderness, they bitterly complained: “We were eating bread to satisfaction” in Egypt.—Exodus 16:1-3.
Doubtless, the bread in Egypt was tasty. In Moses’ time, professional bakers offered the Egyptians an ample variety of breads and cakes. But Jehovah had no intention of leaving his people without bread of any kind. “Here I am raining down bread for you from the heavens,” he promised. Sure enough, this bread from heaven appeared in the early morning, “a fine, flaky substance” that looked somewhat like dew or frost. “What is it?” the Israelites asked the first time they saw it. “It is the bread that Jehovah has given you for food,” Moses explained. They called it manna,* and this bread sustained them for the next 40 years.—Exodus 16:4, 13-15, 31.
At first, the miraculous manna must have impressed the Israelites. It tasted like “flat cakes with honey,” and there was ample provision for everyone. (Exodus 16:18) But as time went by, they began to miss the variety of foods they had eaten in Egypt. “We see nothing at all except this manna,” they grumbled. (Numbers 11:6) Later they fumed: “We have come to hate this contemptible bread.” (Numbers 21:5) The “bread from heaven” ultimately became distasteful and repulsive to them.—Psalm 105:40.
THE BREAD OF LIFE
Clearly, bread, like so many other things, can easily be taken for granted. But the Bible refers to a very special sort of bread that should not be disparaged. This bread, which Jesus compared to the manna that the Israelites had so ungraciously rejected, could offer everlasting benefits.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told his listeners. “Your forefathers ate the manna in the wilderness and yet they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and for a fact, the bread that I will give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world.”—John 6:48-51.
Many of Jesus’ listeners did not understand his figurative use of the words “bread” and “flesh.” Yet, the illustration was most fitting. Literal bread gave the Jews daily sustenance, just as the manna had sustained the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. Although the manna was a gift from God, it did not impart everlasting life. Jesus’ sacrifice, on the other hand, offers just such a prize to those who exercise faith in him. He is truly “the bread of life.”
Perhaps when you feel hungry, you reach for a piece of bread. And you might also give thanks to God for your “daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11, The New English Bible) While we do appreciate a tasty provision, may we never forget the value of “the bread of life,” Jesus Christ.
How can we show that unlike the ungrateful Israelites of Moses’ day, we do not take for granted this priceless bread? “If you love me, you will observe my commandments,” Jesus said. (John 14:15) By observing the commandments of Jesus, we have the prospect of eating bread to our delight for all eternity.—Deuteronomy 12:7.
The term “manna” is probably derived from the Hebrew expression “man hu’?” meaning “what is it?”