God’s Iron Griddle

by Stephen Bryen

There are four basic ways to cook food –in a pot, in the oven, over a fire and in a pan or griddle.  In ancient Israel, all four ways were in use, but the single most common cooking utensil was the griddle.

The ancient Israelite diet was largely vegetarian and was composed of wheat and barley, lentils, dried grapes and dates (often formed into cakes), honey, milk from goats and some vegetables, most commonly onion. Wheat and barley could be cooked up as a gruel and mixed with some dried grapes or other fruits; or formed into pancakes or flatbreads and cooked on a griddle made of clay or iron.

We can read in Deuteronomy chapter 8:  “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills;  a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey;  a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.”

Because Israelite tribes were semi-nomadic, often following food sources, the griddle was one implement that was handy to use and could be placed over hot stones and a small fire. Flat Cakes, sweet or savory, could be made and eaten right away or carried by hunter-gatherers wherever they went.

Ancient wheat was either a variety called Einkorn, Kamut or Emer (today called Farro). Farro has gained popularity as a healthful grain that can be used like wheat being ground into flour or cooked just as rice would be prepared.  Kamut (known as Khorasan wheat) was rediscovered in Egypt in 1949 by two US airmen and is today grown in Montana. It is used in bread making and excellent pastas.

Emer was rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century by the famous Palestinian agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn.  Aaronsohn discovered Emer (triticum dicocoides) growing in the wild and it caused a sensation in Europe and the United States.   Thought of as the “mother” of all wheat, Aaronsohn was invited to the United States to give lectures on his scientific work in the Holy Land.  Later, as a founder of Nili, he and his sister Sarah and their friends provided vital intelligence to the British facing the Ottoman empire in Palestine. Sarah would later die by her own hand to avoid torture by her Turkish captors. Aaronsohn himself would die in a plane crash off the coast of France in 1919.

The Bible has a great deal to say about food starting with strong food prohibitions (no pork for example). As is found in Leviticus 11 “And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” This prohibition was kept by ancient Israelites as archeology confirms. At  Khirbet Qeiyafa in Israel, which was a heavily fortified city at the time of King David, no pig bones were found. Although hundreds of bones were found at the site, none of them were from pigs (in contrast to surrounding sites), since those animals were not to be eaten according to the Old Testament laws. According to archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel, “Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs.”

In ancient Israel clean and unblemished animals were sacrificed to propitiate God or to serve as a sin offering.  While Temple sacrifices disappeared after the second destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD by the Romans, some elements survive today both in the imagery of Christianity (Christ as the Paschal lamb) and in Jewish practice (the lamb shank on a platter symbolizing the Passover sacrifice).  Sacrifices included not only animals but also offerings of bread and cakes.  As we read in the book of Exodus 29, Chapter 1-3, “This is what you are to do to consecrate them, so they may serve me as priests: Take a young bull and two rams without defect.  And from the finest wheat flour make round loaves without yeast, thick loaves without yeast and with olive oil mixed in, and thin loaves without yeast and brushed with olive oil. Put them in a basket and present them along with the bull and the two rams.”

The griddle played a role in offerings and is mentioned a number of times in Leviticus 6:21 such as “It (the grain offering) must be prepared with oil on a griddle; bring it well-mixed and present the grain offering broken in pieces as an aroma pleasing to the Lord,” or (Leviticus 2:5) “If your grain offering is prepared on a griddle, it is to be made of the finest flour mixed with oil, and without yeast.”  If it had been made with yeast, the yeast would derive from wild yeast spores.  The bread would be sour (ancient sourdough) and presumably would not be a sweet savory offering to the Lord.

The griddle also plays an important part in Ezekiel where he is instructed by God to take certain actions against the people of Jerusalem.  The Orthodox Jewish Bible translates the key passage this way: “Moreover take thou unto thee a machavat barzel (iron griddle), and set it for a kir barzel (wall of iron) between thee and the Ir; and set thy face against it, and it shall be besieged, and thou shalt lay siege against it. This shall be an ot (sign) to Bait Yisroel.”  Here is an alternative translation from Ezekiel by I. Teilband (translated from the German by Walther Zimmerli): “And you take an iron plate [a griddle] and place it as an iron wall between you and the city [of Jerusalem]; and set your face against it, and let it be besieged, and you shall besiege it. This is a sign for the House of israel.”

Iron was the great symbol of power in Ancient Israel.  The importance of Iron is brought out most clearly in the David story where the Philistines controlled the region, including Israelite tribes, by controlling the production of metals, especially iron.   As 1 Samuel 13 tells us: “Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.'”   There is good circumstantial evidence that David, escaping King Saul and hiring himself out to the Philistine King Achish, used his service to learn how to smelt iron and forge it into weapons.  Iron’s importance is reported in Leviticus 26:19 in admonishing the Israelites thusly: “If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit.”  The stiff necked stubbornness of the Israelites permeates the Biblical text: Ezekiel’s iron griddle symbolizes how God deals with malefactors.  Even today, especially on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), one of the sins that needs to be forgiven is being stiff necked.

The ancient Iron griddle exists today and is used in many places around the world.  The best tortillas are made on an iron griddle in Mexico over hot coals.  Round in shape with a lip around the edge, the griddle is both handy, portable and if made of iron, long lasting.  By rubbing it with oil, such griddles don’t rust if regularly used and heat more quickly than clay griddles.

But the ancient griddle was also God’s griddle, because God could use it to symbolize how to surround sinning Jerusalemites with an Iron griddle wall.  Don’t you think Winston Churchill got the same idea of God’s griddle and used it in his famous speech in 1946 at Fulton, Missouri, where he said:  “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”?

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