The portion from the Bible that was read this Saturday in Synagogues throughout the world (the “Haftarah“), after the reading of the weekly portion (the “Parashat ha-Shavua) from the Pentateuch (which this week was Shmini [Leviticus 9-11]), was the story of the bringing of the ark of the covenent to Jerusalem, led by David (II Sam 6). After the story of the death of Uza (II Sam 6:6-10), and the temporary stationing of the ark in the home of Obed-Edom the Gittite (that’s right – he was from Gath!), the Ark is brought to Jerusalem, where David dances like a maniac!
After the ark is finally set up, David gives out to all people who participated: “חלת לחם אחד ואשפר אחד ואשישה אחת” (KJV – “to every one a cake of bread, and a good piece of flesh, and a flagon of wine” [though note, as we will see below, this translation is problematic]).
This passage is very interesting as it tells us about types of foods that were connected to ritual activities, and that were given as presents to the participants. The meaning of these three items is quite interesting, even if many interpretations have been suggested.
Most commentators have assumed that the first, the “challa” is a loaf of bread and there is no reason to question this; the 3rd, the “ashisha” is interpreted by most modern scholars as a raisin bread (see my note on this a while back).
The 2nd item, the “eshpar”, which only appears in the Bible in II Sam 6 and (in the parallel text in II Chron 16:30) is much more problematic. The lack of parallels in the biblical text makes this quite hard to understand. Some commentators have seen this as a piece of meat (or even a sixth of a cow). Perhaps the only sensible interpretation is offered by Koehler and Baumgartner (see HALAT, 3rd edition, page 93), who based on an Arabic etymology, suggest that it is a date cake. This fits in very well with the rest of the passage, since, then, the people were given three different types of baked goods, from three primary foods (grain, dates and grapes).
Such a reading is strengthened by the fact that various types of cakes were used in Semitic cults, such as the “Kawwanim” cakes mentioned in connection with the “Queen of Heaven” in Jer 44:19, as well as other examples (on this see for example L. Stager in RSF 28/1 : 6-11]). Thus, we appear to have an additional example of three types of baked goods in cultic contexts (who said that cookies can’t be heavenly??).
Just as we previously pointed out the possibility that we may have archaeological evidence for “Ashishot” at Tell es-Safi/Gath, it should be noted that dates have been found at Tell es-Safi/Gath in the 9th century destruction level (Stratum A3) – perhaps they were also used to make an “eshpar” cake?