A Thumbs Up Book Review
Nutrition in Biblical Times
By Ruth F. Rosevear
Review by Beatrice Trum Hunter
“The bible is a storehouse of wisdom on foods and nutrition,” writes Ruth Rosevear in Nutrition in Biblical Times. She adds, “It’s up to us now to learn from the successes and failures, and apply the lessons to our own lives.” The author has devoted many years and much effort searching for information about foods and nutrition in the Biblical world. She has relied on texts from Holy Scripture, as well as modern scholars who have helped to interpret ambiguous passages. Where passages are subject to various interpretations, Rosevear skillfully guides the reader to the most plausible explanations. Best of all, with her solid grounding in the work of Weston Price, Rosevear pays careful attention to the biblical uses of the foods that provide fat-soluble activators—fish, organ meats and insects.
Many of the foods familiar to us were grown or raised in the ancient world. However, there is speculation about some. Manna, for example, might have been the sweet secretion of a scale insect on the stems of a bush. Even in modern times, Beduoins gather the solidified secretion and mix it with eggs, almonds and flavorings. It keeps indefinitely, carefully packed and sealed in pots. This might have been the “manna in the golden pot” mentioned in the Book of Hebrews. Or, manna might have been bdellium, a gum resin from a tree that produces sap that hardens to “manna sugar,” presently cultivated in Sicily. Or perhaps manna was a lichen that adheres to rocks. During drought, it curls into lightweight balls or flakes that break loose readily and can be carried great distances by strong winds. Although this lichen does not grow in the Sinai, winds might have blown it there. Today, in Turkey, the Kurds call this lichen “bread from heaven.”
The biblical apple was probably an apricot. The description of “apples of gold in a setting of silver” fits the apricot which is golden and which shines among the leaves whose silver surfaces turn up in the wind.
Amos was in fig trees with a special knife (called a balso) to slash the tops of mature figs to allow tiny wasps to fertilize the figs. A cake of pressed figs was applied to boils. Now we know that figs contain the proteolytic enzyme ficin, which digests dead skin. Ficin lanced Hezekiah’s boil and he recovered quickly.
Why were Israelites prohibited from eating pork, or told to shun meat-and-milk combinations at the same meal? Why was seafood without fins or scales forbidden foods? Nutrition in Biblical Times offers reasonable answers to these intriguing questions.
Honey was valued highly. “Honey in the rock” was wild honey found in rock crevasses, contrasted to honey in the field produced by domesticated bees. Honey was recognized as a preservative. When Alexander the Great died in Babylon, his body was encased in honey before making the long trip home.
In biblical times, locusts were eaten during periods of drought. Grasshoppers have ten times the iron as their equivalent weight in beef. One hundred grams of dried insects have 50-75 grams of protein, compared with 34 grams in the same amount of dried beef. They are also rich in fat and fat-soluble vitamins. Rosevear suggests that locust consumption would have helped prevent anemia.
“They loathed any kind of food.” This statement describes a form of anorexia caused by lack of zinc in the diet. Often, bread was the main staple in biblical times, resulting in zinc deficiency. Also, bread as a mainstay may have depleted people of sufficient salt, especially in a hot climate where water was scarce. The value of salt is reflected in the act of having salt accompany all offerings, as well as the ancient Jewish custom of salting the first morsel of bread before a meal. Salt depletion can cause faintness, vision loss, nausea and confusion.
Some biblical scholars suggest that Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) had epilepsy. When he journeyed to Damascus, the desert heat aggravated his epilepsy and caused him to see a “light from heaven”—possibly a forewarning aura that precedes some seizures.
Rosevear presents intriguing speculations about certain health problems of notable biblical personages.. For example, did Job have pellagra? He displayed pellagra symptoms of dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia, as well as signs of mineral deficiencies, especially zinc. He lost his appetite. His food was either flavorless or foul tasting. His recovery was hastened by foods he needed most: niacin-containing meat.
Did Esau suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia? Was he subject to hypoglycemia? Esau’s problems may have resulted from an excess of hormones due to an inborn error of metabolism that caused macrogenitosomia precox, a precocious development of secondary sex characteristics. These excess hormones make a child robust, with rapid early growth, muscularity and a deep voice. Yet in spite of excessive virility, Esau was subject to sudden collapse. Excess hormones disturb the body’s ability to control blood sugar. Esau recognized his plight. Feeling faint after hunting, he felt restored by high-protein food. Thus, he exchanged his birthright for Jacob’s red lentil soup and bread.
Why was Goliath so huge? Probably, he was born with multiple endocrine neoplasia, which causes tumors to grow in the endocrine glands. David’s stone, hitting Goliath on the head, may have struck a cyst, penetrated his skull and pierced his brain. Or, Goliath may have suffered from a pituitary tumor, which would account for his gigantism. Also, it might have impaired his vision and made him an easy target for David’s attack.
Despite the modest size of this book, it is concentrated in information that is both interesting and enlightening. The large print makes the work easy to read, especially for bedtime reading enthusiasts.
Ruth Rosevear pursued special nutrition studies for four years at the University of Cincinnati after having earned a BS in chemistry from Cornell University. She is a licensed dietitian and has been a lifetime nutrition educator, famous for her write-ups of rat studies called “Goodie and Junkie.” She has traveled widely to investigate the food habits and health of other cultures. She serves on the honorary boards of both the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation and the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Nutrition in Biblical Times is available from Clifton Hills Press, Inc. (513) 281-0670 and in bookstores.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2001.