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Bread, Battle, and Bond: A Semitic Lexicon

"And fear not the people of the land, for they are our bread" (Numbers 14:9)


In the Hebrew Bible, "לחם" (lechem) is a general term for food. Thus, in the aforementioned verse, and in many other places in the Bible, "לחם" represents sustenance. Our patriarch Jacob, while fleeing from Esau, asked that "לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל" (bread to eat) and clothing to wear be given to him. Just as "בגד" (beged, meaning 'garment') is a general term for clothing, so "לחם" is a general term for food. It could be from vegetation (as Abraham said to the three men who came to his tent: "I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts"… and he said to Sarah, "Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal"); but also from animals (as when Jacob, fleeing from Laban, offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his brothers to "eat bread"). When Saul had filled the people with dread in the war against the Philistines, "Cursed be the man who eats bread before evening," it also referred to a small taste of honey on the end of the rod, as with Jonathan's action (1 Samuel 14); and when David's men gave the Egyptian lad a slice of fig cake and two clusters of raisins, the scripture describes this as: "and they gave him bread" (1 Samuel 30).


Indeed, when "לחם" is mentioned in the Bible in the context of a specific food, it refers to a grain-based baked good, as in our modern parlance. One could speculate that initially, compound phrases like "פת-לחם" (a piece of bread), "כיכר-לחם" (a loaf of bread), or "חלת-לחם" (a cake of bread) (all mentioned in the Bible) were used, and later speakers dropped the prefixes and were content with "לחם" alone (a natural phenomenon in spoken language. A current example would be "What will you eat, beef or chicken?", instead of "בשר-בקר" (beef) or "בשר-עוף" (chicken)). In the language of the sages, as in our own, "לחם" no longer has a general meaning and refers only to a baked pastry.


Some have suggested that the languages of eating were connected to warfare and killing due to the ancient shape of the sword, which resembled a "פֶּה" (mouth). Yigael Yadin in his book on ancient weapons brings that the ancient sword was curved like a sickle and was used for hitting, not stabbing, hence the common expression "לפי חרב" (by the edge of the sword). Since the sword is compared to a mouth – its action was likened to eating. Abner asks Joab: "Will you consume the sword forever?", and in Jeremiah, this metaphor is expanded in a prophecy foreseeing calamity for Egypt: "That day belongs to the Lord, the Lord of Hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword will devour and be sated and drink its fill of their blood" (Chapter 46). Subsequently, the straight sword, which was sharp on both sides, came into use, as with Ehud son of Gera: "And Ehud made himself a sword which had two edges" (and it is called a two-edged sword).



However, it seems that the linguistic connection between eating and fighting is broader and not limited to the sword. Linguists have noted that in Semitic languages there are many roots used in both of these senses. For example, Joshua Steinberg (1830-1908; born and died in Vilna), the author of the biblical dictionary 'Mishpat ha'orim' writes: "In the language of the ancient Semites, the whole matter of sustenance is denoted by a verb that also signifies fighting for one's life and existence."


Thus, with the root "לח"ם" – "Put forth bread" versus "and David went out and fought"; the root "זו"ן" – "he sent to his father... oxen and bread and food" against "armed bandits"; "צי"ד" – "a man knows hunting" opposite "and they have not prepared their net"; "טר"ף" – "Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces" versus "she brings her food from afar"; and perhaps also "נצ"ה," from which derive both the men who are "נִצִּים" (right wings) as well as "מַצָּה" (unleavened bread).


To conclude, the linguistic correlation between war and sustenance is a fascinating topic that reveals much about the worldview and daily life of the ancient Semites. The shared language of eating and combat underlines a stark reality: the fight for sustenance, both literally and metaphorically, has always been a central part of human existence.

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