What the Ancient Israelites Ate – Jacob’s Lentil Stew

When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished”… But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

- Genesis 25:29-34

I’m always intrigued by references to food in the Torah, and this passage is one of my favorites. In the passage, Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. I’ve often wondered how this stew tasted– it must have smelled delicious for Esau to consider selling his birthright. In ancient times, the birthright was a sacred position belonging to the firstborn. The family name and titles were passed along to the eldest son, as well as the largest portion of the family’s inheritance. In the case of Esau and Jacob, birthright was particularly significant, since the holder of the birthright was next in line to carry on the family lineage of the patriarch Abraham. Yet Esau sells his valuable birthright to his brother Jacob for a simple bowl of lentil stew. Either Esau was truly famished, or that must have been some stew!

Esau Sells His Birthright by Hendrick Terbrugghen ca. 1625

This week, I set about recreating Jacob’s famous lentil stew using ingredients and spices that were cultivated during Biblical times. The result is a delicious and comforting stew recipe that you can enjoy at home! I doubt I’d sell my birthright for it, but it’s pretty darn tasty. :)

In Jewish tradition, it is said that the lentil stew Jacob cooked was meant for his father Isaac, who was mourning the death of his father Abraham (Jacob and Esau’s grandfather). Lentils are a traditional mourner’s meal for the Jews. In The Legends of the Jews, Volume 1, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg explains why:

…the round lentil symbolizes death: as the lentil rolls, so death, sorrow, and mourning constantly roll about among men, from one to the other.

Lentils and barley were particularly important in the Biblical diet. In Eat and Be Satisfied – A Social History of Jewish Food, author John Cooper speaks of the importance of lentils in the ancient Israelite diet, as well as how they were cooked:

Bread was in the biblical phrase the staff of life, but next in importance in the diet of the biblical age was pulse, such as lentils, beans, and peas, which could be made into a pottage or used to supplement bread in a variety of ways… Lentils, which are mentioned four times in the Bible, appear to have been domesticated in the Near East, where carbonized seeds have been discovered dating from 7000 or 6000 B.C.E…. During the Israelite period, cooking pots were made of earthenware and were placed on clay stands built in a horseshoe shape, the opening being used to light the fire under the pot, or food was cooked in pots and suspended from tripods. Both stews (nezid) and soups (marak) of pulse and other vegetables were prepared in these vessels, while garlic and onions were probably used in a similar way by the Babylonians to add flavor to the resulting dish.

Barley was a staple food in the diet of the ancient Israelites. During my visit to Israel last summer, I met with ancient foods expert Dr. Tova Dickstein at Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve. She explained to me that barley was the chief grain cultivated in Biblical times, and was eaten more frequently than wheat. Barley was ground and made into bread or cooked into stews. I’ve added a bit of barley to thicken Jacob’s stew and make it a complete protein source, but it you prefer a more soup-like consistency you can leave it out.

Recreating a Biblical meal at Nazareth Village - Nazareth, Israel

Carrots, celery, and onion have been cultivated since pre-Biblical times and the early Bronze Age in Ancient Mesopotamia. Herbs and spices like cilantro, cumin, hyssop, parsley, sumac and bay leaves were well known to ancient cooks, and used to add flavor to otherwise bland dishes. In the Handbook of Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Stephen Bertman writes about the crops that were cultivated in this region:

The raw materials of the Sumerian diet… were barley, wheat and millet; chickpeas, lentils and beans; onions, garlic and leeks; cucumbers, cress, mustard and fresh green lettuce. The gardens of Mesopotamia, watered by irrigation canals, were lush with fruits and vegetables… As for vegetables, the onion was king, along with its cousin, garlic. Other vegetables included lettuce, cabbage, and cucumbers; carrots and radishes; beets and turnips; and a variety of legumes… To appreciate Mesopotamian daily life our imagination must breath in the pungent aroma of the seasonings that once rose from ancient stoves and filled the air… coriander (cilantro), cress, and sumin; fennel, fenugrek, and leek; marjoram, mint, and mustard; rosemary and rue; saffron, thyme and cumin…

Hyssop and sumac spices were common in Ancient Israel, but they may prove difficult to find in your local grocery store. Hyssop is mentioned in the Torah as a cleansing herb, used for purification rituals. I buy hyssop in bulk from an online spice company because I love its unique flavor (somewhere between parsley and mint). I’ve never seen it in a grocery store, though, except as an ingredient in za’atar spice blends. If you can’t locate hyssop, parsley makes a fine substitute. I found sumac at my local Whole Foods– it has a somewhat lemony flavor. You don’t need it in the stew, but it adds a nice layer of flavor. You could substitute 2 tsps of lemon juice if you wish, but be aware that lemons were not known to cooks in Biblical times.

Spicely brand Sumac can be found at Whole Foods. It's organic and kosher certified, but it contains added salt, so season with care.

While the stew that Jacob cooks is clearly described as “red,” no spices that I know of from this time period would tint the stew red. Sumac has a reddish tint, but it should only be used sparingly because it has a pretty strong flavor. I have used red lentils for the recipe, but they cook up a light brown color. I suppose you could add some paprika to achieve a more reddish color, but paprika was not a known spice to the ancient Israelites. At any rate, this stew is delicious. Make it with vegetable broth for a vegetarian pareve meal. Chicken broth adds a nice flavor, though chicken and other meats were considered luxury foods in ancient Israel, so Jacob’s stew was probably vegetarian. It’s a simple and tasty meal, perfect for a cold winter afternoon. Bete’avon!

Gluten Free Modification: Omit the barley for a more soup-like texture, or substitute 1/4 cup brown rice for the barley. Rice is not a Biblical-era grain, but it makes a delicious substitute for those struggling with Celiac or gluten intolerance.

 

Jacob's Lentil Stew

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro (coriander), divided
  • 3 carrots
  • 3 celery stalks, including leaves
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 cups dry red lentils
  • 1/4 cup pearl barley
  • 2 qts. vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp hyssop or parsley
  • 1/2 tsp sumac (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Servings: 6
Kosher Key: Pareve or Meat depending on broth used
  • Roughly chop the cilantro. Scrub the carrots, then cut them into chunks (do not peel). Cut celery into chunks, including leaves. Reserve.
  • In a medium sized soup pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add diced onion and saute till translucent.
  • Add garlic, carrot chunks, and celery. Continue to saute till onion turns golden and ingredients begin to caramelize. Add red lentils and barley to the pot, stir. Cover mixture with 2 qts. of broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add 1/4 cup of the fresh cilantro to the pot along with the cumin, hyssop or parsley, sumac (optional) and bay leaf; stir.
  • Cover the pot and let the stew simmer slowly for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes, until barley is tender and the stew is thickened.
  • At the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish bowls of stew with the remaining fresh cilantro. Serve as a one pot meal or with a side of sliced bread. In Biblical times, this sort of stew was usually served with bread on the side so it would be more filling. While Biblical bread was generally coarse and unleavened, I'd recommend serving this with a rustic whole grain sourdough loaf or bread made from barley.

Comments (54)Post a Comment

  1. so much like my own recipe that I used for the last 45 yrs except for the barley,sumac,and cumin.However I do use parsley.I know it is not kosher but when I wanted my lentils thickened into a more stew like consistancy (and I do this for my potato soup as well)I use some mash potato flakes.Before I would use a bit of rhue or some cornstarch.Thank you for the history lesson too.This was a most interesting blog today.

  2. Oh wow! I never thought about how to make the historic stew. It looks fantastic, and easy to achieve. I have to say, there is something in me that says I am meant to be a Jew, and as I have been researching and delving into Judaism, it gets stronger every day. Thank you for feeding the foodie bit of that!

  3. I’ve been making lentils for as long as I can remember. And my mother use to make them for us as little kids. My kids love them and in my country we eat them a lot.
    It looks like agreat recipe to try.

  4. Thanks for including gluten free options. I lime the idea of brown rice to replace the barley, I probably would not thought of that but can’t wait to try it!

  5. Glad you all enjoyed this blog! This history behind the food is simply fascinating to me. Stella, there are potato thickeners out there that are kosher, so you could definitely use them in a kosher version of this dish.

    Lauren, I can relate! Glad the blog is “feeding” your Jewish side. ;)

  6. Thanks for giving me an alternative recipe that sounds marvelous! I can’t seem to find one that satisfies my Greek husband, but I’m going to give this a whirl. The history lesson was wonderful!

  7. This was a really interesting history lesson. I’ve been making this stew for years and never knew I was using ancient ingredients. I’ve never used hyssop or sumac and I’m going to try to find them. Thanks for sharing so much information. I really liked the picture of your Bible time meal. Looks like you had a good time.

  8. OOH!! I love lentils and can’t wait to try this recipe out. I don’t know why I never thought about making the lentil stew that Jacob made. This sounds SOO good!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, I do hope you all have a chance to try this stew! Tastes like history to me. :)

      Sandi, the only issue I see with using a crock pot is that the lentils might dissolve completely from the long slow cooking, making it more of a puree than a stew. The carrots, celery, and barley should hold up fine. And I could be wrong about the lentils. Either way, I bet it will taste great, and it would make life easier! Just make sure you keep it on the lowest setting and check the liquid level to make sure it doesn’t dry out (add more broth as needed). If you try it, let me know how it works for you. :)

  9. This sounds like an excellent recipe. My employer thought that is looked good and suggested I bring it to the office so everyone could enjoy a great soup.

  10. The crock pot worked great! I set the timer for 3.5 hrs and it switches to “keep warm” when it’s done. My pot also cooks on the hot side.

    The lentils were still in tact and actually could have been a bit more done. There was still plenty of liquid. I was not able to find pearl barley so added large creamy couscous when I got home. I had also added 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I shredded them and put them back in the stew when the couscous was done. It was fabulous!

  11. @stella jones: many brands of mashed potato flakes are kosher and parve, including Idaho and Betty Crocker (I believe). Others are kosher dairy, which is only an issue if you are using chicken broth.

  12. Wow, it took my 5 seconds to fall in loe with your blog. Not only that you tell the story of the recipe, no you descripe it in the finest way one can untill you offer as the recipe. This Shabbat I`m going to have some Lentil Soup.

  13. Thanks for the very nice and healthy recipe.
    And by the way, sumac works good for a blood pressure.
    Lets enjoy the right food eating for the better health…)

  14. Mine lentil soup is…lentils, onions, garlic, carrots, bay leaf and olive oil. My family loves it. I would like to try yours but don’t have some of those things here.

  15. I read an article about King Midas’s tomb. When it was opened gastroanthropologists determined from the residue in the food pots that the funeral feast was a lentil stew made from lentils, either roasted goat or lamb, onions, garlic, salt, and middle Eastern herbs, like thyme. I’d been making this for decades with lamb and all except thyme. I added the herb to make it more authentic.

  16. Dear Shiksa-

    I was attracted to your site because I like the name. I stay because your recipes are thoughtful, creative, ultimately doable. And WOW WOW WOW WOW DELICIOUS! Jacob’s stew elevates the humblest ingredients to rockstar meal. Your figged Brie is sublime. Pumpkin cake coming up. Thanks for the thought, care, pix, variety and sheer richness of your blog (and the ensuing edibles) – you’ve made a difference in my kitchen and home. Thank you.

  17. If you use the Red Lentils the stew will really thicken up. Red Lentils are tiny little things, they look orange really, and they dissolve right into anything you cook and thicken it right up. A fantastic and super healthy way to thicken up just about anything!

  18. I made the red lentil soup with a couple of changes. I left out the carrots and added beets. The result was a very tasty and very red soup. I read that beets were used for seasonings and medicine. The ancients associated the beet root with the heart. If Jacob made the soup for his father in mourning, and it was red, well he could have easily added beets and thus the red soup. to see a picture of how it looked when I was done I added the following link. BTW the soup was very satisfying and is what I had for dinner. link to sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net

    1. I have just made the stew and it is delicious, however, it is not red, but looks like the photo in the blog – dare I say it orange. Like you I was interested in this aspect and thought that beetroot would be the answer too. Although your picture shows red stew, I think the colour is too vibrant. You put up a good case, but beetroot and lentil stew in my opinion is a strange mix. I am not saying that it wasn’t tasty, but would you sell your birthright for lentil and beetroot stew

      Furthermore, I am an Englishman living in Poland and so have my hands tied behind my back when it comes to ingredients. Fresh coriander is impossible to get here, but a generous amount would darken the stew and perhaps give it a redder appearance. On the other hand, I used parsley, which I think was a mistake because it gave a greenish tinge. Sumac, which is a red spice, does not necessarily turn things red in my experience, even when large amounts are used, things tend to go grayish. (As Tori pointed out it has a strong flavour and only a small amount should be used)

      My conclusion therefore, is that if we imagine that Jacob made the stew in the evening as it took a while to make; and with the setting sun and the flickering firelight casting shadows on a pot of what ostensibly was an orange stew – Esau saw the stew as red. In other words, a trick of ancient light.

    2. How many beets did you use? I made this with 3 beets, but the color was basically the same as Tori’s original picture.

  19. thank you for this! my son and i are going to try this since we recently covered this story in our studies lol and i always wondered what the stew must have been like. now i have a pretty good idea.

    1. Nobody knows what the stew was like, Jonathan, but I have taken my best guess based on the ingredients available to the Ancient Israelites after interviewing a Biblical food scholar and reading several sources. That said, your guess is as good as mine!

  20. Late comment, I know, but…How crucial is the cilantro? I’m one of those people for whom it tastes like soap. Can I use another leafy green instead? The internet is full of advice, much of it contradictory. :-)

  21. Sorry I’m late discovering you and your incredible blog!!! Until I recently began researching ancient biblical foods I hadn’t even heard of sumac or a few other spices/herbs used back then (which are still available today)… So minus that, this recipe is fairly similar to the lentil stew recipe passed down through generations in my (Italian) family, as well as a few others I have gathered from other sources… It’s kind of nice to see that some things have survived so long…

    Also as Bob asked, I’d be very interested in the recipe for the pictured bread! I’ve been looking for more traditional/ancient type loafed breads as I already have several authentic unleavened type breads…

  22. This is a great sounding recipe and the backstory is quite fascinating. We’re actually supposed to get our first snowfall this coming weekend so I’m thinking that we’re going to be exploring this recipe very soon :)

  23. I added 3 medium red beets grated as well as a inch of tumaric root grated and left out the carrots. Beets were thought of as medicinal and used in pagan cultures in ancient Mesopotamia. Throughout history the beet was thought of the earth’s heart and special qualities in medicine and religion were attributed to it. I bet the lentils were red on account of the beets. I added the barley too but it was most likely barley flat bread that accompanied the fateful meal. The result is both delicious and red.

  24. I used 3 med to large beets that were very deep red. Remember not all beets give a deep red color. You may have needed to add more, like 4 cups grated. For taste, it is yummy.

  25. I like this whole setup. It was also the first place on the Internet that I was able to find an ancient Biblical recipe!

  26. I too thank you for this recipe. My son and I are essentially gluten free so the Brown rice is a nice substitute. I am making this for an archaeology class.

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