During the COVID-19 crisis, social media has seen an explosion of home-baked sourdough, oven-fresh dinner rolls, and bouncy cinnamon scrolls. After years of paleo, blood-sugar, and keto diets, carbs are king again. And there was much rejoicing.
But why? What was it about this pandemic that made so many of us instinctively want to make and consume bread?
At the heart of the meaning of bread is domesticity, homeliness, what the Danish call hygge. Bread requires us to be home, and to embrace being home. And the pandemic has forced many of us to make peace with a place that in busy lives has become a pit-stop—our homes.
Bread requires us to be home, and to embrace being home. And the pandemic has forced many of us to make peace with a place that in busy lives has become a pit-stop—our homes.
Almost every feature of bread underlines this domestic quality. The ingredients for bread (flour, yeast, salt, water) are storable. While other foods may perish, or the season remove them from our larder, the ingredients for making bread remain.
And bread-making quietly demands our presence. One of the reasons for the huge surge in home bread-making is that we’ve been forced to do something in our homes many of us did very little of before—spend time in them. Laptops, mobile phones and cafes have vastly increased the spaces in our world that can be commandeered for work. Parks and playgroups, cinemas and science museums give us places to play. An abundance of coffee-shops, restaurants, and take-away options have meant we are never far from a meal. Under such circumstances home becomes a highly specialised space, fulfilling limited functions of a place to sleep and to wash.
But now suddenly, thanks to an invisible virus and vigilant governments, we have been required to reacquaint ourselves with a space that was for much of human history served as our office, factory, school, and restaurant: our homes. Enter bread. Bread wants us to be at home. Its demands for kneading, proving, kneading again, baking, and resting resist hurry. Bread, like children, requires our presence.
Bread is simple. Its production does not raise the hygienic, aesthetic, or ethical challenges of meat. We do not have to worry about what to do with the rotting off-cuts, fuss over its presentation to distract attention from its origins, or pause at the ethical implications of the blood shed for us to consume it.
The smells it produces delight us. The extra-kilos bread may add are no problem: we diet keep to capture and keep love; we eat bread around those in whose affections we are secure. Bread is the consumable version of the love that in the New Testament is called storgé, the love of familiar things.
The Bible and Bread
What is the meaning of bread in Scripture? The answer, of course, is a great deal. Indeed, bread’s semantic weight-bearing capacity is unrivalled in scripture—it being the only food on the two-item menu for the meal Jesus gave his disciples, but which he intended them to make sense of his mission. That’s a lot to ask of one food product. But Jesus, it seems, thought it was up to the task.
The Common Food
Bread dominates the biblical diet. Just as in many Asian languages, the word for “rice” can substitute for “food” in general, so in the Bible the word for “bread” (Lehem) can stand for a whole meal, or the sum-total of nutrition. “Give us today our daily bread” is a prayer for food in general, not an item request from the menu.
Feasting in the Bible is associated with meat. Meat was costly to buy and difficult to store. The most sensible way to consume meat in world without refrigeration was immediately and with a crowd large enough to leave nothing for later. Bread is meat’s opposite. It is cheap to buy and its ingredients easy to store. The most sensible way to consume bread was daily, at table with those in your household. If meat speaks of crowds, parties, and abundant consumption, bread speaks of households, daily life, and sufficiency.
Food in Common
Second, bread is shared food. Bread in the ancient world was most often a large loaf at the centre of the table, from which guests would break off portions with their hands. At dinner, literally “all shared in the one loaf”. They “broke bread” together. The idea that the “one loaf” of the Lord’s Supper implied some sort of unity amongst them wasn’t a meaning Jesus or his followers dreamed up. It’s what bread already meant.
Bread was shared at table, and it was shared across society. It was also the food the kings and paupers, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Some foods—then and now—are consumed in order to express our differences. Expensive food indicates our economic status, exotic food our cosmopolitanism, complex food our sophistication. But not bread. Bread is everyone’s food. It reminds us of our common humanity.
Expensive food indicates our economic status, exotic food our cosmopolitanism, complex food our sophistication … Bread is everyone’s food. It reminds us of our common humanity.
Naturally, bread in the Bible is a symbol of hospitality. Guest were received with bread (Gen 14:18; 18:5–6). The betrayal spoken about in Psalm 49 is all the more painful because the psalmist’s close friend—“the one who shared my bread”—has turned against him. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, with whom he broke bread. And Jesus’, after his resurrection, meets the disciples on the sea-shore with baked bread—an act of reconciliation to those who, only days earlier, had failed him (John 21:9).
Bread is Daily Food.
Bread is “daily” in the sense that it is a daily feature of the table. But it’s also daily in the specific sense that it needs to be cooked daily. Bread does not store. It goes stale. The best bread is today’s bread.
Bread’s ubiquity made it a ready picture of something that was always around. The formula “the bread of…” speaks of a situation which is persistent or chronic—whether tears (Psalm 80:5), adversity (Isaiah 20:30), or sincerity (1 Corinthians 5:8).
Grain itself has the opposite quality. It stores almost indefinitely. For this reason, grain and bread are a crucial part of the rise of civilisation in the Ancient Near East. A diet of fruit and game commits a population to hunting and gathering (or vice versa). The food of hunters and gatherers needs to be eaten quickly—neither fruit nor game can be stored for long. But grain can. A storehouse of grain can be insurance for a family or a population against future famine (Gen 41:49). Indeed, the normal practice was to use the grain from last year’s harvest for this year’s bread—a practice that gave families a one-year buffer between them and starvation.
Grain is storable, allowing for long-term planning, the building of cities and the development of cultures. But the good it creates is dramatically contingent, temporary, and fleeting. Grain can be stored for decades; once it’s bread, it needs to be consumed that day.
The process by which grain becomes bread is itself vaguely miraculous. The technology of grain works because grain is inert, stable, lifeless. But, by crushing it with a stone, grain is turned into flour. By adding to water, salt, and yeast, we, like Dr Frankenstein, are involved in a process of re-vivifying, of bringing life from the dead. Yeast is literally alive. And anyone who has at the pleasure of watching a batch of dough rise and morph under the conditions of bread-making, feels like they are watching a living thing.
Jesus and Bread
The story of Jesus and bread deserves a separate treatment. Perhaps pre-figured by his birth in Bethlehem, “the House of Bread”, Jesus and bread were a thing. From Mary’s prayer that her son bring food the hungry, to his prayer for daily bread, the bread with which he fed the multitude in the desert, through to the bread which he broke saying, “Take and eat, this is my body which is for you.”
Sometimes we feast; occasionally we fast; mostly we just eat. Life, it turns out, is mostly neither ecstatic, nor tragic. Mostly, we go about our lives confused, bemused, delighted, and distracted. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to learn to live in places we had spent precious little time in before—our homes. And we baked bread. And it was good.
The logic of western secular culture allows God his place in strictly limited and highly regulated spaces. The weekend, the church, the privacy of the home. His existence can be invoked more publicly only in times of great celebration (feast), or national tragedy (fast). Christians in the West are at risk of implicitly accepting these terms, and expecting our church services, Bible readings, or pray times to be full of drama and the extraordinary.
But bread reminds us of God’s presence where neither state pertains. God is there in the lavish feast. He is there in the time of mourning. But he is present to us in the everyday: The world of waking and sleeping, of work and rest, of simple joy and low-octane sorry.
Life with God is made up, not of wild cycles of feast and fast, but a thousand mumbled prayers, also-ran church services, and half-digested Bible readings. Never-mind. That’s how we stay alive. That’s how we continue to grow. This is our daily bread.
We didn’t invent bread during COVID-19. We just learned to love it again in a new way.
 Beck, John A. Food and Everyday Life in Bible Times . Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.