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​Women and food

· Symbols in the Bible ·

We women generally have a greater verbal fluency than men. And, however strange it may seem, this may be noted in the preparation of food. When women are in the kitchen they are much more than what is seen of them.Three or even four generations soon become present because one woman says that her grandmother adds an ingredient to the recipe, another that her mother lets the dish rest for a day and the mistress of the house reveals that her aunt passed on to her a trick which always works. All this is far more than sharing and communicating, it means creating a community with a common history and memory.

Mattia Preti, “The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath” (1641-1642)

In the Bible without a doubt the woman’s first connection with food did not seem very promising. The story of Eve and the tree of good and evil (cf. Gen 3:1-8) has always been interpreted as being based on the worst decision, instead of seeing the risk taken by the woman to penetrate the path to knowledge despite the divine warning. From there it is as though God, who knew what future lay in store for womankind, conceived of a different scenario where food and women would have a more positive relationship which enabled them to be an essential element in the history of salvation.

This relationship between food and women goes far beyond the preparation of foodstuffs which are necessary in order to live. And it really becomes a condition for them since, through food, its context and its rituals, women may show their attitudes and even their intuitions in daily life but also in extraordinary situations. Service and power, passion and pleasure, often life and death come into play in daily actions such as eating. Food enables us to commit ourselves in a different way, according to the occasion, because it facilitates communication. There is something more; food, in a certain way, is like the natural sacrament of communion between people which was freely given to us at the moment of the Creation when God clothed the earth.

We connect food in biblical Israel almost exclusively with religious rituals, forgetting that the Jews ate every day like all other human beings. This food, prepared by women in the early morning as may be read in Proverbs (cf. 31:15) and this task, preferably performed by women, has on many occasions enabled the history of salvation to encounter fewer obstacles. For example: that acceptance should be lived to the full; that profound faith should be shown; that shrewdness and strategy should have the name of woman; that sexuality should be integrated through food into life; that Wisdom should be demonstrated in a traditionally female environment; that some women should become protagonists of acts which, with time, repeated by others, would acquire great importance; or that spiritual guidance should be taken on by women.

With food, Sarah (cf. Gen 18:6) and the widow of Zarephath showed hospitality, acceptance and faith. In the shade of the tent Sarah broke bread, the basic food, with the guests. Sharing bread, which is synonymous with taking part in a meal, began to satisfy the hunger of the guests who, their own hunger assuaged, would calm with a promise Sarah’s hunger to be a mother, in a reciprocal communion, in order to alleviate a need that would have historic repercussions.

The widow of Zarephath (cf. 1 Kings 17) in Sidon, the foreign land of Canaan to which, it seemed, Yahweh’s action did not extend, trusted in God through Elijah’s promise and gave him all the food she had. Matthew in his Gospel speaks to us of another Canaanite woman, nameless, who, with the same faith as the widow of Zarephath and contenting herself with the crumbs that fell from a table, asks Jesus for help. Here faith and trust abound in two foreigners, with eating as the means of a relationship with God.

During the Exodus (cf. Ex 16:1-36), Wisdom (cf. Wis 16:2) provided the food that transformed women into messengers and Yahweh’s promise to give his people a land flowing with milk and honey into a daily memory. Every day at dawn, when manna, that unknown, granular thing appeared, the women baked it into a very thin flat bread whose flavour was reminiscent of honey and which accompanied the quails.

Curiously the woman-food relationship is bound more closely to intimate moments rather than to grand banquets, although it was also present at these. In the most total anonymity Naomi (Ruth 1:1-4, 22), in a reduced version of Job’s tragedy, is a strategist who transforms adversity into a possibility of solutions to the family problems. A handful of wheat ears served as food for Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, while Ruth nurtured the strategy that would guarantee the prolongation of her lineage, becoming the wife of her liberator and, a more important fact, the grandmother of King David from whose stock Jesus would be born. But there are also banquets where women like Judith and Esther appear, where the courage and force with which they act might seem attitudes more proper to men. In different ways Judith and Esther make use of cunning and strategy in order to save Israel from the peril of destruction. It is as if audacity needed a sumptuous scenario, with lights and stenographers, since it was an affair of the state and of justice. Even though Jael (cf. Judg 4:17-24), she too daring, needed only the intimacy of the tent to protect her people from Sisera and a little milk to make him fall asleep exhausted so that she could kill him. In these episodes Naomi, Jael, Judith and Esther (whose undertaking became a feast, Purim, which has come down to our day) smoothed the way so that the history of salvation might pass along it.

Eating in the family enabled women to have public visibility with a certain frequency. Job’s three daughters were invited by their brothers to share food (cf. Job 1:4) and to take part in God’s blessing, manifested in the abundance of foods.

The Song of Solomon, a book that breaks the mould among those of the Bible, considers men and women as equal in their passion for tasting and savouring. He is like a sweet fruit (cf. 2:4), she is like pomegranates, nard, saffron, cinnamon (cf. 4:13-14), milk and honey (cf. 4:11) for her beloved, symbols of Israel which transform it into a promised land, in acceptance and in a balance between harmony and the passion of the feast of the senses.

The closest relationship is found when the woman herself makes herself into the food that nourishes her child. Already in pregnancy she gives the foetus the nutritive elements which it needs in order to develop. When the baby is born, breast-feeding is a giving of herself and there is no bond of closer union between two people. The Evangelist Luke was to put on a woman’s lips words that unite Jesus and his mother with food as a bond: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!” (Lk 11:27).

Giotto, “The Wedding at Cana” (1303-1305)

Yet the relationship between food and woman does not end in the courageous attitude, in the capacity for welcoming, in trust before the promise, in passion for tasting or in being food herself. Jesus was to say: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). These words from the mouth of God are also bread which the woman kneads, because she too transmits the Word.

Bread, the basic food in the Bible made of flour, water and leaven, is what identifies the figure of Jesus (cf. Jn 6:35). Its dough begins to be kneaded with Mary’s “Yes”. The history of salvation is narrated as a matrimonial covenant and in this history the love stories begin at wells where women go to draw water, a primary element in foods and in itself a food, because one can survive longer without eating than without drinking. It is by a well that we find couples such as Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, Sephora and Moses. It is a common motif. Why deprive Mary of living the experience of the Annunciation beside a well as a woman bound to the history of salvation, even if in a special form? Why remove her from the symbolic scenario of the water of life, and in her case, of the Water of Life?

Mary might have been beside a well when she felt the Bread begin to take a form in her womb: that Bread was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread”; Jesus’ Mother fed him with herself when he was a baby; and he grew up eating normal food cooked by Mary; as an adult it seems that he liked eating and drinking because he was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” Mt 11:19); and at the end of his life he makes himself into Bread broken. However his mother lacks one aspect common to the women of Israel. Mothers took care of male children until they were 12 years old, when they moved on to depend directly on their fathers. Until when would Mary have spiritually nourished the Child Jesus? Let us remember that Mary continued to follow him even long after he had reached the age of 12, and that at the wedding in Cana she linked his figure to the water and the wine, when she turned to her Son in order to preserve a joyful atmosphere during the feast, an image par excellence of the Kingdom, where it is impossible to be sad or to be clothed in mourning, as Jesus himself frequently recalled.

Mary, joyful and attentive, unites wine, the drink par excellence, and water, elements linked to the symbology of the Son: a cup of wine at the Last Supper and water that flowed from his side during the Crucifixion.

That women are not mentioned at the Last Supper does not mean that they were not present, given moreover that some of them would have cooked it. Perhaps the authors left them in the background, taking for granted that everyone knew that they were present at the most important ritual supper. For this reason, although the act of sharing the basic food, bread, has a more profound meaning at the Last Supper, it reflects the image of the community of life among men and women which is present in Sarah, in the widow of Zarephath, in Job’s daughters, in the lovers of the Song of Solomon, and which concerns all of us since we cannot forget Jesus’ words: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in memory of me” (1 Cor 11:25).This covenant is for everyone.

John’s Gospel we see the “practical” meaning of that supper in the washing of the feet. It is a gesture that a little earlier had been made by a woman, pouring perfume on Jesus, who prophesied that she would be remembered for this act. There is a different relationship here between eating and women in a daily ritual but with a profound significance. This woman’s gesture acquires depth and importance through his words.

Leaven is an element of bread. The women of the New Testament would act as a leaven which enabled the development of the Kingdom. We shall see them linked not so much to the act of kneading or baking as rather to sharing and caring for people, gestures that are part of nurturing. Martha, the busy woman to whom Jesus recommends a little tranquillity, will be charged to proclaim her faith publicly and her image will be given a new dimension as leaven for the community designated in the text (cf. Jn 11:27).

Paul presents women who behave as true ministers of the New Covenant (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). Phoebe is one of them and nothing prevents us from thinking that she led a domestic Church, and that this entailed having to look after all the community’s needs: without any doubt the food that nourishes the body but also that which nourishes the spirit.

In short, women and food in the Bible mean a culture of broad and variously experienced relationships, materially and spiritually shared in bread, the basic food, and in bread, the word of life.

Cristina Inogés Sanz

The author

Cristina Inogés Sanz, a Catholic, completed her studies at the Faculty of Protestant Theology SEUT of Madrid and works at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Zaragoza. For 10 years (2004-2014) she wrote for Predicaciones, the Spanish-language section of the Theology Faculty of Göttingen, Germany, and collaborates with Reflexiones diarias, apublication of the Evangelical Church of Río de la Plata, Argentina, and with the monthly 21 la revista cristiana de hoy. Her publications include: Via crucis de la misericordia (ppc Editorial, 2016) [Way of the Cross of mercy], Charitas Pirckheimer. Una vela encendida contra el viento (Editorial San Pablo, 2017), [Charitas Piorckheimer. A lighted candle against the wind] El Cantar de los Cantares. Don, compromiso y regalo (ppc Editorial, 2017) [The Song of Songs. A gift, a commitment and a present; La sinfonía femenina (incompleta) de Thomas Merton (ppc Editorial, 2018) [The feminine symphony (incomplete) of Thomas Merton].




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