Lechem Hapanim: Bread in the Presence of YHWH
The priests are commanded to bake twelve large loaves of bread each week and place them on a golden table, first in the Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple. This offering of לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים “bread of the presence,” or, more correctly, “bread that is in front of” (Exod 35:13; 39:36; 1 Kgs 7:48; 2 Chr 4:19), is to be kept on continual display to the right of the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple.
The Preeminence of Bread in Ancient Israel
It is not surprising that the food YHWH commands to be ever present on his table is bread. Simply put, bread was the staple food in the ancient Israelite diet and eaten by nearly everyone at every meal. Indeed, the most common term for bread—lechem—is also used to refer to food generally in the Hebrew Bible, showing its centrality in Israelite food culture; the expression “to eat bread” meant to share a meal (Gen 31:54, 37:25).
Wheat and barley are the first two foods on the list of Seven Species that the land of Israel was blessed with (Deut 8:8), and the holidays of Passover and Shavuot have their origins in ancient festivals that marked the annual grain harvests.
Bread of the Presence
The most complete description of lechem hapanim, found in Leviticus 24:5–9, offers few details about the recipe, specifying only the number, size, and type of flour required:
ויקרא כד:ה וְלָקַחְתָּ סֹלֶת וְאָפִיתָ אֹתָהּ שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה חַלּוֹת שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים יִהְיֶה הַחַלָּה הָאֶחָת.
Lev 24:5 You shall take fine flour and bake of it twelve loaves of it, two-tenths of a measure for each loaf.
Solet is usually translated as “fine flour” and likely refers to cereal grains that have been ground finely and/or sifted. While solet is prescribed for offerings to YHWH, it is also used to make bread for kings (1 Kgs 5:2) and honored guests (Gen 18:6). Two-tenths of an ephah would be roughly 0.4 kg, or just under one pound, of flour, which would yield a large loaf of bread. Leviticus does not specify who makes the bread, but Chronicles assigns this responsibility to the Kohathites—one of the four main divisions of Levites (1 Chr 9:32).
Preparation of the Bread
The text does not describe how the bread should be made, but material evidence of bread-making found in and around Israelite houses provides insight into the process. The Israelites used grinding and pounding tools made of basalt and other types of stone to process cereal grains and other foods for consumption. Bread-making required, at a minimum, grain flour and water to create a dough. If leavened bread was desired, the baker could add a bit of dough, from a previous bake, or beer foam to the bread dough, and then let it rise before baking.
The lechem hapanim were likely baked in a cylindrical clay oven, the only type attested archaeologically in ancient Israel. The baker would flatten balls of dough into discs and slap them onto the curved interior vertical walls through a hole at the top of the oven. When they were finished baking, the round, relatively flat loaves would be peeled off the hot oven walls.
To Leaven or Not to Leaven?
In two places in his Antiquities, Josephus mentions that the lechem hapanim were “unleavened” (ἀζύμους). This detail, however, is not specified in the biblical text, which only forbids leaven from being placed on the altar. Nevertheless, as Josephus was himself a priest in the Second Temple period, his description probably at least reflects the practice in his time. This is also the view of traditional commentators, based on the principle of Leviticus 2:11 as codified in the Mishnah (Menachot 5:1)
כל המנחות באות מצה חוץ מחמץ שבתודה ושתי הלחם שהן באות חמץ
All grain offerings should come from matzah, except for the leaven offered with the thanksgiving offering, and the two loaves (with the Bikkurim [first-fruit] offering) which should be leavened.
Unleavened bread may have had the advantage of lasting longer than bread made with yeast; this was important in the case of the lechem hapanim, which was expected to remain tasty for at least a week. On each Sabbath, the priests were to present a fresh set of loaves to YHWH (v. 8), and the bread from the previous week would then be given to the priests to eat:
ויקרא כד:ט וְהָיְתָה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וַאֲכָלֻהוּ בְּמָקוֹם קָדֹשׁ כִּי קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא לוֹ מֵאִשֵּׁי יְ־הוָה חָק עוֹלָם.
Lev 24:9 They shall belong to Aaron and his sons, who shall eat them in the sacred precinct; for they are his as most holy things from YHWH’s offerings by fire, a due for all time.
Unleavened loaves thus may have been more palatable to the priests who were commanded to consume week-old bread every Sabbath.
Arrangement of the Loaves
Lechem hapanim is also referred to in late biblical texts as לֶחֶם הַמַּעֲרֶכֶת, “arranged bread” (1 Chr 9:32, 23:29; Neh 10:34; or מַעֲרֶכֶת לֶחֶם in 2 Chr 13:11), and מַעֲרֶכֶת “arrangement” (1 Chr 28:16; cf. עֵרֶךְ in Exod 40:4, 23). The specific arrangement of the loaves was so significant that the table on which the bread was placed in the Temple is called “table of the arrangement” (shulchan hama’areket; 2 Chr 29:18). The bread was to be divided into two sets of six loaves, each topped with incense:
ויקרא כד:ו וְשַׂמְתָּ אוֹתָם שְׁתַּיִם מַעֲרָכוֹת שֵׁשׁ הַמַּעֲרָכֶת עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן הַטָּהֹר לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה. כד:ז וְנָתַתָּ עַל הַמַּעֲרֶכֶת לְבֹנָה זַכָּה וְהָיְתָה לַלֶּחֶם לְאַזְכָּרָה אִשֶּׁה לַי־הוָה.
Lev 24:6 Place them on the pure table before YHWH in two maʿarakhot, six to a maʿarekhet. 24:7 With each maʿarekhet you shall place pure frankincense, which is to be a token offering for the bread, as an offering by fire to YHWH.
The text is unclear about what arrangement we should be picturing. English translations often describe the bread as presented in rows, but rabbinic texts seem to assume the loaves were piled one on top the other in two piles (m. Menachot 11:5–7). Josephus, in his Antiquities is unclear, and English translations differ as to whether he means rows (Loeb) or piles (Whiston). His claim that a gold cup of incense was placed on each arrangement of loaves, however, strongly implies the latter.
Moreover, iconographic evidence from the ancient Near East shows that the bread was stacked, which is likely what the biblical writers had in mind when they referred to it as “arranged bread.”
Bread on Tables in Ancient Near Eastern Feasting Scenes
The presentation of bread on tables before gods, rulers, and others has a long history in the art of the Near East and Egypt. The closest representations geographically and chronologically to the biblical descriptions of lechem panim are feasting and banquet scenes on Late Bronze Age Canaanite and Iron Age Phoenician material culture.
Among the objects in the fourteenth-twelfth century B.C.E. ivory hoard at Megiddo, in northern Israel, is an ivory inlay that may have been part of a wooden stool or chair frame that depicts a banquet. In this scene, a Canaanite ruler is holding a drinking bowl in one hand and a lotus in the other and sitting behind a wooden table piled with food, including what appears to be a stack of three bread loaves topped by the limb of a large animal like a cow or calf.
The tenth century B.C.E. limestone sarcophagus of King Ahirom/Ahiram found in his tomb in Byblos, in Lebanon, features a similar scene. In it, the dead king holds a cup in one hand and a drooping lotus in the other while seated on a winged throne. In front of the king is a wooden table piled with food, specifically a calf’s head and a stack of curved bread loaves with a small object on top.
Similar scenes are known in contemporary Syro-Hittite art, including a recently excavated example from Zincirli (ancient Sam’al) in the northern Levant. The eighth century B.C.E. Kuttamuwu Stele (pictured above), a mortuary monument belonging to the royal official Kuttamuwu, depicts the deceased royal official sitting in a chair and holding a bowl in one hand and a stalk with a pinecone in the other. In front of him sits a wooden table with various objects, including a pyxis (a small box), a footed vessel containing what appears to be a duck, and a stack of curved bread loaves with an unidentified object on top. The accompanying Aramaic inscription details the annual food offerings that are to be made to Kuttamuwu, whose soul is in the stele.
Many more scenes in Neo-Assyrian art depict similar stacks of “crescentic objects resembling slices of melon” that should be understood as bread—specifically, the flat bread derived from baking the loaves on the curved walls of a cylindrical clay oven.
An Ancient Israelite Practice
The expression lechem hapanim appears exclusively in the Priestly source in the Torah (Exod 25:30, 35:13, 39:36), but its mention in the historical books suggests the antiquity of this practice. This is seen in 1 Samuel 21:4–6, when David, on the run from King Saul and in need of food, asks Ahimelech, a priest officiating at the Tabernacle in Nob, to feed him and his men:
שׁמואל א כא:ד וְעַתָּה מַה יֵּשׁ תַּחַת יָדְךָ חֲמִשָּׁה לֶחֶם תְּנָה בְיָדִי אוֹ הַנִּמְצָא. כא:ה וַיַּעַן הַכֹּהֵן אֶת דָּוִד וַיֹּאמֶר אֵין לֶחֶם חֹל אֶל תַּחַת יָדִי כִּי אִם לֶחֶם קֹדֶשׁ יֵשׁ אִם נִשְׁמְרוּ הַנְּעָרִים אַךְ מֵאִשָּׁה.
1 Sam 21:4 Now then, what have you got on hand? Any loaves of bread? Let me have them—or whatever is available.” 21:5 The priest answered David, “I have no ordinary bread on hand; there is only consecrated bread—provided the young men have kept away from women.”
Ahimelech replies that he has only “holy bread” (lechem kodesh; referred to as lechem hapanim in v. 7) to eat. Leviticus 24:9 and Exodus 29:32–33 make it clear that this bread is only to be eaten by priests, but Ahimelech offers David the bread, but only once he is assured that David and his men have not had sex with women recently, and are thus ritually pure (v. 6).
The loaves given to David were apparently not taken from the table itself:
שׁמואל א כא:ז וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ הַכֹּהֵן קֹדֶשׁ כִּי לֹא הָיָה שָׁם לֶחֶם כִּי אִם לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים הַמּוּסָרִים מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לָשׂוּם לֶחֶם חֹם בְּיוֹם הִלָּקְחוֹ.
1 Sam 21:7 So the priest gave him consecrated bread, because there was none there except the bread of the presence, which had been removed from before YHWH, to be replaced by warm bread as soon as it was taken away.
Rather, he was given the old bread that been removed from before YHWH and replaced with an offering of freshly-baked loaves.
Bread for YHWH?
The evidence suggests that lechem hapanim was originally at the center of ritual meals in which food offerings brought to the deity were shared by YHWH and the Israelites. The concept of a ritual meal also appears at the conclusion of the covenant ceremony at Sinai, after the elders of Israel ascend the mountain:
שׁמות כד:יא ...וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.
Exod 24:11 …They beheld God, and they ate and drank.
YHWH’s need to eat like other deities was later downplayed. Rashi (R. Solomon b. Isaac, 1040–1105) explains the tradition that the name lechem hapanim derives from the bread’s shape, commenting that the bread was baked in molds, and the resulting loaves had two “faces,” or sides (Exod 25:29):
קְעָרוֹתָיו זֶה דְּפוּס שֶׁהָיָה עָשׂוּי כִּדְפוּס הַלֶּחֶם, וְהַלֶּחֶם הָיָה עָשׂוּי כְּמִין תֵּבָה פְּרוּצָה מִשְׁתֵּי רוּחוֹתֶיהָ, שׁוּלַיִם לוֹ לְמַטָּה, וְקוֹפֵל מִכָּאן וּמִכָּאן כְּלַפֵּי מַעְלָה כְּמִין כְּתָלִים, וּלְכָךְ קָרוּי לֶחֶם הַפָּנִים, שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ פָנִים רוֹאִין לְכָאן וּלְכָאן לְצִדֵּי הַבַּיִת מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה.
Qeʿarotav are the molds that were made to shape the bread. The bread was shaped like a case that was broken open on two of its sides. It had a bottom underneath, but no top, and this bottom was turned up on both ends to form, as it were, walls. On this account it was called lechem hapanim—“bread with faces”—because it had faces (surfaces) looking in both directions towards the sides of the Temple.
Yet arranging bread before YHWH on a table is consistent with the concept of the care and feeding of the gods that was central to ancient Near Eastern cultic traditions. The fact that the bread placed before YHWH was not burned indicates that the deity was believed to symbolically consume it, just as he was assumed to smell the “pleasing aroma” of burnt food offerings and incense (Gen 8:21; Lev 1:9). That later sources refer to it as lechem hamaʿarechet “arranged bread” (1 Chr 9:32, 23:29; Neh 10:34), rather than lechem hapanim, may have been intended to downplay YHWH’s anthropomorphism, generally, and his desire to eat this simple Israelite staple food specifically.
Cakes for the Queen of Heaven
YHWH was not the only deity for whom the Israelites baked bread. Grinding tools and ovens found in shrines and household cultic spaces attest to the widespread practice, condemned by the biblical writers, of presenting bread to deities in rituals. For example, Jeremiah describes women in late seventh–early sixth century B.C.E. Judah presenting the Queen of Heaven with special cakes, called kawwanim, that were made “in her image” (לְהַעֲצִבָה; Jer 44:19):
ירמיה ז:יח הַבָּנִים מְלַקְּטִים עֵצִים וְהָאָבוֹת מְבַעֲרִים אֶת־הָאֵשׁ וְהַנָּשִׁים לָשׁוֹת בָּצֵק לַעֲשׂוֹת כַּוָּנִים לִמְלֶכֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהַסֵּךְ נְסָכִים לֵאלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים לְמַעַן הַכְעִסֵנִי.
Jer 7:18 The children gather sticks, the fathers build the fire, and the mothers knead dough, to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven, and they pour libations to other gods, to vex Me.
We are not given a recipe for this bread, but the context of this family ritual for which the children gather wood and the fathers kindle fire is the household, where most of the grain was stored and bread was baked in ancient Israel. In addition, Isaiah admonishes those who “arrange a table for Gad,” a Semitic god of fortune:
ישׁעיה סה:יא וְאַתֶּם עֹזְבֵי יְ־הוָה הַשְּׁכֵחִים אֶת הַר קָדְשִׁי הַעֹרְכִים לַגַּד שֻׁלְחָן וְהַמְמַלְאִים לַמְנִי מִמְסָךְ.
Isa 65:11 But as for you who forsake YHWH, who ignore My holy mountain, who arrange a table for Gad, and fill a mixing bowl for Meni.
Lechem hapanim in Ancient Israel
As these passages and the archaeological evidence for bread offerings in shrines and houses indicate, the act of presenting bread to deities was not only a priestly prerogative in ancient Israel. The continual arrangement of lechem hapanim, “bread that is in front of” YHWH, thus reflects both the normal dietary pattern of the ancient Israelites and the broader Near Eastern practice of presenting food and drink before gods.
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Prof. Jennie Ebeling is Associate Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Evansville. She earned the M.A. and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis on Syro-Palestinian Archaeology from the University of Arizona. A former Fulbright scholar, she has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Lady Davis Trust to support research in Israel and Jordan and was appointed Annual Professor of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem in 2015–16. Ebeling co-directed the Jezreel Expedition in Israel with Norma Franklin 2012–2018 and is the ground stone artifact specialist for numerous archaeological projects in Israel. She also produced several films based on her ethnographic research of traditional bread ovens in Jordan; one is on permanent display in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Ebeling currently edits ASOR's Archaeological Report Series and has co-edited four volumes. She is the author of Women's Lives in Biblical Times (T&T Clark Int’l, 2010).
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