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Hermeneutics of Food in Times of Crisis

By Dr. Dorothea Erbele-Küster
Johannes Gutenberg University

April 19, 2023


By Dr. Dorothea Erbele-Küster
Johannes Gutenberg University


As we taste the world, we perceive it. Hence losing taste, which is one of the symptoms of Covid-19, entails losing a primary connection to the world. The Covid-19 pandemic reveals the fragile nature of food and foodways. The recent war in Ukraine aggravates it. Food (production) and nourishment allow us to understand the intersectionality behind the pandemic and develop a habitus to respond to these challenges. Biblical texts express this interconnectedness of different crises through the triad of “sword, famine, and pestilence,” especially in the prophetical books Jeremiah (Jer. 14,12; 15,2; 18,21) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 5,12.17; 6,11-12; 14,19-21). 

Hermeneutics of food as a lens of human life and biblical texts 

The crisis affects precisely the fundamental reference to the world and manifests itself even more in it: nourishment. This entails understanding food and embodiment as a hermeneutical lens for the interpretation of biblical texts as well as for the current context. 

Our experiences of the pandemic affect, or should one say infect, our hermeneutics of biblical texts, and our ethical habitus. A hermeneutics of food sheds light on the means to produce, distribute and consume it, which is linked to other aspects of society, such as questions of social justice, religion, culture, identity, and economy. Our hermeneutics of food implies a twofold interpretative strategy: food serves as an interpretative lens of human existence and of biblical texts of different genres. In what follows, this shall be highlighted along two genres: a creation myth and a lament. 

It all starts with eating- the fruit of knowledge 

The creation story placed in a garden full of trees (Genesis 2-3) takes into account that human life is inconceivable, both impossible and not conceive-able, without food. Nurturing and being nurtured is central to the way we grasp the world. In the foundational biblical story, food and corporality are central concepts. ‘To eat’ is a leitmotiv in Genesis 2-3. Eating the attractive fruit is not understood as the origin of sin, as some longstanding doctrinal readings hold, but the origin of the capability of humans to grasp the good and eventually the evil (Gen 3:6). 

Rereading Genesis through the lens of the generative theme of food discloses transcultural characteristics that are basic to human existence, such as the physical and the sensory. Yet, these characteristics are deeply culturally and historically shaped, reflecting aspects of the agrarian life in the highlands during the Iron Age when the creation story was composed. Here, we find a conception of the human being as a being that longs for food and is endowed with the breath of God (Gen 2:7), as expressed in the Hebrew term for the throat as an organ for the intake of breath and food and vulnerability in general (Hebrew næfæš traditionally translated as soul). Human vulnerability in its relation to the earth and to God becomes a source of resilience in the creation story. Rereading this mythopoetic image in times of shortness of breath during the Covid-19 pandemic and facing #Icantbreath, the understanding of this text has been challenged: The breath of life given by God is under threat. The virus has vehemently entered the hermeneutical circle. 

Lament and embodiment 

Lament seems to be counterintuitive in times of crisis. However, it is a specific coping strategy in biblical texts the Jewish-Christian tradition has to offer. In the first lockdown and even in the second year of the pandemic, there has been difficulty expressing grief and anger. In the German context, as a society and as mainline churches, it took us a long time to find an appropriate form and a suitable time for public mourning rites. Lament implies being sensitive to what is going wrong. Through expressing lament, we may regain agency. In Lamentation 2, a text that responds to the destruction of Jerusalem, we witness the moribund voices of the children after the war who are dying due to the famine. 

“Towards their mothers they say: Where is the corn and wine? as they pine away like mortally wounded in the streets of the city, as their breath of life (næfæš) pours out into the wombs of their mothers (v. 12).”  

The traumatized and perishing bodies are contrasted with two major sources of the daily menu in Ancient Israel: corn and wine. The lament in Joel 1 concerning food shortage mentions the primary food sources but also lists extraordinary foods, such as tasteful and sweet fruits.  

“Vine dressers wail over wheat and barley, for the crops of the field are lost. The vine has dried up, the fig trees withers, pomegranate, palm and apple, all the trees of the field and joy have dried up” (Joel 1:11-12). 

In lament, the food language’s multidimensionality allows readers picture the experiences of devastation and loss, and even to allude via negationis to the delicious taste and the richness of the fruits of the earth. Hermeneutics of food, hence, raises awareness on our bodily experiences and the interconnection of all life. 

The virus has infected our hermeneutics and foodways 

Hermeneutics of food connects our reading of biblical texts, the experience of the pandemic, and an ethical habitus. Volker Küster, has reformulated from an intercultural perspective the task of the hermeneutical circle between text and context facing the pandemic.: It is no longer just us interpreting;: the virus interprets us. In a similar vein, yet with another twist, the LatinX biblical scholar Jacqueline Hidalgo pleads in the special issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature on the pandemic in autumn 2020 that we should not privilege texts over real-life experience. The title of her article Scripturalizing the Pandemic indicates that the pandemic functions as scriptural interpretation. In turn, it implies that the pandemic should become scripture. The epistemological starting point in rereading biblical texts then becomes the human body, including its sensory experiences, and the vulnerability of all living beings. In this sense, the focus on food (supply) in our hermeneutics alerts us to the interconnectedness of humans, animals, plants, the earth, and God. The food crisis has affected my hermeneutics and pushed me to reread these texts. In addition, the food images, the specific literary and theological ways of reacting to and coping with crisis in biblical texts may teach us an ethics of vulnerability. 

For further reading: 

Dorothea Erbele-Küster/Volker Küster (eds.), Betweeen Pandemonium and Pandemethics. Responses to Covid-19 from Theology and Religions (Contact Zone 27), Leipzig: EVA 2022. 

Dr. Dorothea Erbele-Küster is a senior lecturer in Biblical Literature, Gender, and Diversity at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz/Germany. Her research focuses on biblical ethics and anthropology, feminist and intercultural hermeneutics, trauma studies, the Psalms and Leviticus. She has recently coedited a volume on responses to the Pandemic from Theology and Religions.