Exploring World Cultures with the Olivers Ancient Israel

The Olivers gather around dishes from ancient Israel in their first foray into experiencing world cultures. (Facebook photo)

We are pleased to feature a new ongoing segment based on the Oliver family’s weekly efforts to learn about different cultures and their cuisine. Each family member has selected a culture, and, going in order of oldest to youngest, Sherri researches the selected culture’s customs and foods for the family to share in. At our request, she has agreed to share their project with our readers. The first culture the family featured was ancient Israel, with the meal appropriately falling on Holy Thursday. This segment thus incorporates a significant amount of symbolism pertinent to Christianity.

Each Thursday our family enjoys learning about a different culture. We learn some facts about a foreign country, eat some of their popular foods and see an example of their dress. Each family member has chosen a country and that person is the one to dress in costume for everyone else to see.

Our first meal fell on Holy Thursday (the day we remember Jesus’s last supper with his disciples, knowing that the following day he would be crucified). We Christians are commanded to remember Him and His sacrifice by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper (Communion). Normally our church observes this communion monthly, with only a small piece of bread to symbolize his broken body, and a small cup of juice to symbolize the blood He shed. This year our family also decided to observe communion in a more intimate setting, and Bobby led us in communion at home. Instead of only doing the small bread and juice, we had a full meal that was historically accurate to what would have been available in Israel while Jesus lived there.

Tilapia and sardines were the main protein for our Jewish Meal. Tilapia was the easiest fish to catch in the Sea of Galilee during biblical times because they required little equipment to catch as they stay relatively close to the surface of the water and swim close together. Sardines from the Jordan River (where Jesus was baptized) were a staple of the locals’ diet and these were probably the “two small fish” which Jesus used to miraculously feed the multitudes. Grapes were grown mostly for wine, although some were eaten fresh at harvest time, or dried as raisins. Melons and pomegranates were other popular fruits. I couldn’t find a single pomegranate in Calais, but there was juice, so I made a pomegranate jelly that we spread on the challah bread. The common veggies were onions and leeks (which I simply boiled), tomatoes, and cucumbers. I used many of them in the Jerusalem Salad: tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, olives, feta, cilantro, parsley and lemon juice.

Dried figs, dates, feta (goat) cheese, and a honeycomb were among the sweets prepared. In the Bible, sometimes when it refers to honey it is actually talking about a sweet syrup that they would make from dates. Other times, it says “from the honeycomb”, so we had both here. Milk would have been from goats, and because of the lack of refrigeration it would have been turned into cheese. The Bible actually mentions a time that Jesus was disappointed when he wanted figs and the fig tree was full of leaves, but no fruit.

Olives (oil) were mentioned 19 times in the Bible. Olive trees grew in Israel and olives were an important part of Jewish culture. Broad beans, chickpeas and lentils are all mentioned in the Bible, and along with grains were the mainstay of their diets. We ate a cold bean/lentil salad as well as chickpea/garlic hummus. The hummus was spread on homemade flatbread.

I tripled the recipe for challah (in order to make three flavors), not knowing that each recipe was supposed to make two loaves. Our challah loaves were massive! In current times, challah, which is made with eggs, is the Jewish Sabbath‑and‑holiday bread. It is loaded with symbolism. On festive occasions, a blessing is said over two loaves, symbolizing the two portions of the manna that was distributed on Fridays to the children of Israel during their exodus from Egypt. The eggs (not in basic bread recipes) represent the richness and extra blessings that God gave to His people. Challah is braided with 12 strands, or several loaves are baked with a total of 12 strands, to represent the 12 loaves of showbreads placed on the table (Shulchan) in the Holy Temple. I watched so many YouTube videos to learn the challah braid, and the 4-strand was the only one I could even attempt. I baked three loaves of challah (4 strands times 3 loaves = 12 showbreads). One was plain, braided in a “normal” loaf and served with dinner. The two others were for dessert. Each of the 4 strands were rolled flat, filled with something sweet (I used apples in one, and cinnamon/sugar in the other) and pinched together (basically filled dough “tubes”) then braided into a circle shape. Breads like this are typically used for celebrations.

We shared in Holy Communion, a symbol of Jesus’s Crucifixion. The grape juice reminded us of his shed blood. (The grape must be crushed, as He was.) The broken flatbread reminds us of His body being broken for us.

Lastly, our family appreciated the scents of the Holy Week, including frankincense and myrrh. When Jesus was born the wise men followed the star (a special star that God placed in the sky as a symbol to them that the Messiah had been born.) They brought three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The Bible does not tell us any other significance to these three gifts; however, tradition has it that there is a deeper meaning for each of the three.

According to Lee Strobel, “Gold is a symbol of divinity and is mentioned throughout the Bible... The gift of gold to the Christ child was symbolic of His divinity—God in flesh. Frankincense is a symbol of holiness and righteousness. The gift of frankincense to the Christ child was symbolic of His willingness to become a sacrifice, wholly giving Himself up, analogous to a burnt offering. Myrrh [used in embalming] symbolizes bitterness, suffering, and affliction. The baby Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man and would pay the ultimate price when He gave His life on the cross for all who would believe in Him.”

Donning a homemade costume that resembles the traditional dress of a woman from ancient Israel is Sherri Oliver. Sherri researches the culture and prepares the meals for the family project each week. (Facebook photo)