Kennedy, A. R. S. "Shewbread." A Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. J. Hastings.

       Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. 495-97.  

            Public Domain. 




                                            A. R. S. Kennedy


            SHEWBREAD.--'Shewbread,' formed apparently on the pattern of Luther's

Schaubrot, is the tr. first adopted by Tindale, of the Heb. MynipA(ha) MH,l, ‘bread of

the presence [of J"],' of which, accordingly, the more correct tr. is that proposed by

RVm, viz. 'presence-bread.'

            It has been usual hitherto to assign the introduction of the term 'shewbread'

to Coverdale (see, e.g., Plummer's Luke, 167). But it is found as early as 1526 in

Tindale's New Testament, He 9:2 'and the shewe breed which is called wholy'

(Offor's reprint). Curiously enough, Tindale not only uses other renderings in the

Gospels ('the halowed loves,' Mt 12:4, Mk 2:26; 'loves of halowed breed,' Lk 6:4),

but retains the same inconsistency in his revised edition of 1534, after he had

adopted ' shewbred' in his Pentateuch of 1530. In the latter on its first occurrence

(Ex 25:30) be adds the marginal note: 'Shewbred, because it was alway in the

presence and sight of the Lorde' (see Mombert's reprint, in loc.). Wyclif had

naturally followed the Vulgate (see below) with 'breed of proposicioun.' The

Protestant translators and revisers who succeeded Tindale give ' shewbread' in OT,

'shewe loves," shewbreads,' and 'shewbread' in NT, the last, by the end of the 16th

cent. being firmly established in both Testaments (the Rheims version, however,

retaining 'loaves of proposition').


            1. NOMENCLATURE.--On the occasion of the earliest historical mention

of the presence-bread (MyniPAha MH,l, 1 S 21:6 [Heb.7]) it is also termed 'holy

bread' (wd,qo MH,l,. ib. 5. 6. [6. 7] RV; AV 'hallowed bread'). The former term is

that used throughout the Priests' Code (P) of the Pentateuch, with the addition of

the name 'continual bread'  (dymiTA l Nu 4:7b; cf. 'bread' only Ex 40:23). In the

post-exilic period we meet with another designation, viz. 'the pile-bread'

(tk,rAfEm.aha MH,l,) 1 Ch 9:32 23:29; Neh 10:33, but with the terms reversed 2 Ch

13:11, cf. He 9:2 ; also tkrfm alone 2 Ch 24). This name is due to the fact that

the loaves were arranged upon the table in two piles (tOkrAfEma Lv 24:6; this, the

rendering of RVm, suits the facts better than the 'rows' of the text of EV). The

tr. varies considerably in the Gr. versions, the most literal rendering of the older

designation is a@rtoi tou? prosw<pou 1 S 21:6, 2 Es 20:33 (but cf. Aquila's

a@r. prosw<pwn), a@r. e]nw<pioi Ex 25:30, of oi[ a@r. oi[ prokei<menoi Ex 39:18;

elsewhere most frequently a@r. th?j proqe<sewj, 'loaves of the setting forth.' This,

the term used in the Gospels (Mt 12:4, Mk 2:26, Lk 6:4), reflects the later Hebrew

designation above mentioned (cf. proqe<sewj in LXX to render j`refA ‘to set



495b                           Kennedy:  Shewbread


in order,’ ‘set forth’ [a meal upon a table]).* The variant h[ pro<qesij t. a@rtwn


* Codex BeR (D) has prosqe<sewj, with which comp. prostiqe<nai for protiq.

in some MSS of the LXX (passim). See for D's reading, Nestle, Introd. to Text.

Criticism of Gr. NT (1901), 237.


(He 9:2) follows 2 Ch 13:11, 2 Mac 10:3.  Still another rendering, oi[ a@r. th?j

prosfora?j, is confined to some MSS of the Greek of 1 K 7:48 (Lucian has

proqe<sewj). The Vulgate also reflects both the Hebrew designations with panis

facierum (of. Aquila, above) and panis propositionis.

The table of shewbread has likewise in Hebrew a twofold nomenclature: in

MyniPAha nHal;wu in P 'the presence-table' (Nu 4:7), but in Chronicles tk,rAfEma.ha w

(2 Ch 29:18) ; in both we also find rOhFAh w 'the pure table' (Lv 24:6, 2 Ch

13:11, probably because overlaid with pure gold. For other designations now

disguised in MT see next section.



--The earliest historical mention of the shewbread occurs in the account of David's

flight from Saul, in which he secures for his young men, under conditions that are

somewhat obscure, the use of the shewbread from the sanctuary at NOD (1 S

21:2ff). It is here described, as we have seen, both as 'presence-bread' (v.6[7]) and

as 'holy' or 'sacred bread' (vv.4. 6 [8-7]), in opposition to ordinary or

unconsecrated bread (lOH).  The incident appears to have happened on the day on

hich the loaves were removed to be replaced by fresh or ' hot bread' (MHo MH,l,)

v. 6[7]).

It must not be inferred from this narrative that the regulation of the Priests'

Code, by which the stale shewbread was the exclusive perquisite of the priests,

was already in force, although this, naturally, is the standpoint of NT times (see.

Mt 12:4 and paralls.). Ahimelech, in requiring and receiving the assurance that

David's young men were ceremonially 'clean'  (see art. UNCLEANNESS), seems

to have taken all the precautions then deemed necessary. The narrative is further of

value as giving us a clear indication of the meaning originally attaching to the

expression 'presence-bread; for the loaves are here expressly said to have been

removed from the presence of J"’ (“ ynep;li.mi MyrisAUm.ha MT, v.7; of. the similar

expression Ex 25:30). We next meet with the rite in connexion with Solomon's

temple, among the furniture of which is mentioned in our present text ' the table

whereupon the shewbread was' (1 K 7:48 RV). This table is here further said to

have been 'of gold,' by which we are to understand from the context 'of solid gold'

(cf. Ex 25:24 in LXX, and Josephus' [Ant. VIII. iii. 7] description of the temple).

But it is well known that in this section of the Book of Kings the original narrative

has been overlaid with accretions of all sorts, mostly, if not entirely, post-exilic;

these are due to the idea of this latertime, that the interior decoration of Solomon's

temple, and the materials of its furniture, could in no respect have been inferior to

those of the tabernacle of P. See Stade's classical essay, ' Der Text des Berichtes

                                    Hastings:  Bible Dictionary, vol. 4                                      495c


ueber Salomo's Bauten,' in ZATW, 1883, 129-177, reproduced in his Akad. Reden

u. Abhandlungen (1899), 143ff. Stade's results have been accepted in the main by

all recent scholars. Thus he shows that the original of 1 K 6:20b. 21 probably read

somewhat as is still given in the middle clause of the better Gr. text of A

(e]poi<hsen qusiasth<rion ke<drou . . . kata> pro<swpon tou? dabi<r)

viz. rybiD;ha ynEp;li zrAx, HBaz;mi ‘and he [Solomon] made an altar of cedar-

wood (to stand) in front of the sanctuary (the ' Holy of Holies' of P).'  Whether we

should retain or discard the words 'and overlaid it with gold,' is of minor import-


The altar, therefore, of v. 20b is not to be understood of the altar of incense,

which first appears in the latest stratum of P (see TABERNACLE), but, as in the

passage of Ezekiel presently to be considered, of the table of shewbread. The

express mention of the latter by name in 1 K 7:48b is also part of an admittedly

late addition to the original text (see authorities cited in footnote). The same desire

to enhance the glory of the Solomonic temple is usually assigned as the ground

for the tradition followed by the Chronicler, who states that Solomon provided the

necessary gold for ten tables of shewbread (1 Ch 28:16 ; cf. 2 Ch 48:19). This

writer, however, is not consistent, for elsewhere we read of ' the ordering of the

shewbread upon the pure table (2 Ch 13:11).' In his account, further, of the

cleansing of the temple under Hezekiah, only ' the table of shewbread, with all

the vessels thereof' is mentioned (ib. 29:16),--a view of the cage which is

undoubtedly to be regarded as alone in accordance with the facts of history.

This table fell a prey to the flames which consumed the temple in the 19th

year of Nebuchadrezzar (2 K 25:8, Jer 52:18). The tale related by the Byzantine

chronicler (Syncellus, 409), that it was among the furniture concealed by Jeremiah

on Mount Pisgah, is but a later addition to the earlier form of the same fable,

which we already find in 2 Mac 2:1ff.  Notwithstanding these uncertainties, the

continuance of the rite under the monarchy is sufficiently assured.


iii. THE POST-EXILIC PERIOD.-Ezekiel in his sketch of the ideal

sanctuary likewise contemplates the perpetuation of the rite, for in a passage

of his book, which on all hands is regarded as


* See besides Stade, op. cit., the commentaries of Kittel and Benzinger, esp. the

latter's Introduction. xvi if., where an interesting study will be found of the gradual

growth of the accretions with which 1 K 6:16-21 is now overgrown; also Burney's

art. KINGs in the present work, vol. ii. 863b, and his Notes on the Hebrew Text of

the Books of Kings, in loc.

496a                            Kennedy:  Shewbread


corrupt, but capable with the help of the LXX of easy emendation, we read thus as

emended): 'In front of the sanctuary [this also=P's 'Holy of Holies'] was

something like an altar of wood, three cubits in height, and the length thereof two

cubits, and the breadth two cubits ; and it had corners, and its base and its sides

were of wood. And he said unto me: This is the table that is before J" (Ezk

41:21, 22 ; so substantially Cornill and all recent commentators). Here, then, we

have not the altar of incense, but once more the table of shewbread. The twofold

circumstance that it is here expressly termed an altar, and is of plain wood without

a gold covering, is a strong argument in favour of Stade's restoration of the text of

1 K, discussed above. Ezekiel's table of shewbread resembled in its general outline

the similar altar-tables so often seen on the Assyrian monuments (see last section)

its height was half as much again as its length, and in section it formed a square of

at least 3 ft. in the side. The projections or 'horns' were, no doubt, similar to those

of the Assyrian altars (see, e.g., Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Chaldea and

Assyria, i. pp. 143, 255, etc. ).

In the temple of Zerubbabel, consecrated in the 6th year of Darius (B.C.

516), the table of shewbread, we may safely infer, had its place in the outer

sanctuary, although we have no information as to whether or not it was modelled

on Ezekiel's altar-table. After the introduction of the Priests' Code it may have

been remodelled according to the instructions there given (Ex 25:23f .); we may

at least, with some measure of certainty, suppose that it was then overlaid with

gold, since Antiochus Epiphanes, when he carried off the spoils of the temple (1

Mac 1:22), would scarcely have taken the trouble to remove a plain wooden altar.

The well-informed author of 1 Maccabees, in the passage cited, includes among

the spoils not only the table itself, but 'the flagons and chalices and censers of

gold' used in the ritual of the table (see for these art. TABERNACLE, section on

Table of Shewbread). The provision of the shewbread, it should be added, was one

of the objects to which were devoted the proceeds of the tax of one-third of a

shekel instituted by Nehemiah (1032, cf. Jos. Ant. III. x. 7, § 255).

Here attention may be called to two non-canonical Jewish writers who

allude to the subject of this article. The earlier of the two, is pseudo-Hecataeus,

whose date is usually assumed to be the 3rd cent. B.C. (Schurer, GJV 3 iii. 465;

but Willrich, Judea u. Gricchen, etc., 20 1., argues for a date in the Maccabaean

period). This writer, in a passage preserved for us by Josephus (c. Apion. i. 22),

describes the second temple as ' a large edifice wherein is an altar (bwmo<j), and a

candelabrum both of gold, two talents in weight.' The former term, in the light of

what has been said above with regard to the altar-tables of Solomon and Ezekiel,

we must identify with the table of shewbread. The other writer referred to is

pseudo-Aristeas, whose date falls within the century 200-100 B.C.. In his famous

letter, purporting to give an account of the origin of the Alexandrian version of the

OT, he gives the rein to a lively imagination in his description of a shewbread

table of unexampled magnificence--all of gold and precious gems, and of

unsurpassed artistic worlananship--which Ptolemy Philadelphus is said to have

presented to the temple at Jerusalem (see Wendland's or Thackeray's edition of

                                    Hastings:  Bible Dictionary, vol. 4                          496b


Aristeas' letter-tr. by the former in Kautzseh's Apolcryphen u. Pseudepigraphen,

ii. 6 ff.). This table is admitted to have had no existence outside the pages of


To resume the thread of our narrative, we find that on the re-dedication of

the temple (B.C. 165) Judas Maccabaeus had new furniture made, including the

shewbread table (1 Mac 449),--now, we may be sure, constructed in entire

conformity to the requirements of Ex 25:23ff.--upon which the loaves were duly

set forth (v.51). This table continued in use till the destruction of the temple by

Titus in A.D. 70. Rescued from the blazing pile, it figured along with the golden

candlestick and a lull of the law in the triumph awarded to the victorious general

(Jos. BJ  vii. v. 3-7, esp. 5, § 148).  Thereafter, these were all deposited by

Vespasian in his newly built temple of Peace (ib. v. 7), while a representation of

the triumph formed a conspicuous part of the decoration on the Arch of Titus,

erected subsequently. Few remains of classical antiquity have been so frequently

reproduced as the panel of the arch on which are depicted the table and the

candlestick, borne aloft on the shoulders of the Roman veterans (see illustration

under Music, vol. iii. p. 462). Both seem to have remained in Rome till the sack of

the city by Genseric, king of the Vandals, in 455, by whom they were transferred

to Carthage, the site, of the new Vandal capital in Africa. From Carthage they

were transferred to Constantinople by Belisarius, in whose triumph they again

figured. On this occasion a Jew, it is said, working on the superstitious awe felt by

Justinian for these sacred relics, induced the emperor to send them back to

Jerusalem. They probably perished finally in the sack of Jerusalem by Chrosroes,

the Persian, in 614 (see Reinach, ' L'Arc de Titus,' in REJ 20, p. lxxxv f., in book

form, 1890; Knight, The Arch of Titus, 112 ff.).


iv. PREPARATION OF THE SHEWBREAD.--According to the express

testimony of Josephus (Ant. III. vi. 6), the Mishna, and later Jewish writers, the

shewbread was unleavened. Nor does there seem to be any valid ground for the

assertion, frequently made by recent writers, that it was otherwise in more

primitive times. The absence of leaven best suits the undoubted antiquity of the

rite, and, moreover, is confirmed by the Babylonian practice of offering 'sweet'

(i.e. unleavened) bread on the tables of the gods (see below). The material in

all periods was of the finest of the flour (Lv 24:5), which was obtained, according

to Menahoth (vi. 7), by sifting the flour eleven times. The kneading, and firing of

the loaves in the time of the Chronicler was the duty of the 'sons of the

Kohathites,' a Levitical guild (1 Ch 9:32) ; in the closing days of the second temple

their preparation fell to the house or family of Gamin (Yoma iii. 11, Shekal.

viii. 1). The quantity of flour prescribed by the Priests' Code for each loaf (hl.AHa

halls) was 'two tenth-parts of an ephah' (Lv 24:5 RV), which reckoning the ephah

roughly at a bushel-represents about 4/5ths of a peck (c. 7 ¼  litres), a quantity

sufficient to produce a loaf of considerable dimensions, recalling the loaves which

gave their name to the Delian festival of the Megala<rtia.

496c                           Kennedy:  Shewbread


In the earlier period, at least, the loaves were laid upon the table while still

hot (I S 21:6). The later regulations required that they should be arranged in two

piles (tOkrAfEma, see sect. i. above). On the top of each pile, apparently,--on the

table between the piles, according to another tradition, stood a censer containing

'pure frankincense for a memorial (hrABAz;xa, for which see comm. on Lv 24:7),

even an offering by fire unto the LORD.' Alexandrian writers give salt in addition

(Lv l.c. in LXX; hence, doubtless, Philo, Vit. Mos. ii. 151).  The stale loaves, by

the same regulations, were removed and fresh leaves substituted every Sabbath.

According to Sukka (v. 7 f.), one half went to the outgoing division of priests, the

other to the incoming division, by whom they were consumed within the sacred

precincts.* In order to avoid repetition, further examination of the details given

by post-biblical Jewish writers--many of them clearly wide of the mark—

regarding the shape and size of the loaves and their arrangement on the table, as

well as regarding the nature and purpose of the vessels mentioned, Ex 25:21, Nu

4:7, is reserved for the section on P's table of


     * It is a mere conjecture that the shewbread was originally burned (Stade,

Akadem. Reden, etc., 180, note 15).

                                    Hastings:  Bible Dictionary, vol. 4                          497a


shewbread and its vessels in the general article TABERNACLE.


v. SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RITE.--The rite of ‘the presence-bread’ is one

of the fairly numerous survivals from the pre-Mosaic stage of the religion of the

Hebrews, and goes back ultimately to the native conception that the god, like his

worshippers, required and actually partook of material nourishment. No doubt, as

W. R. Smith has pointed out, this idea 'is too crude to subsist without modifica-

tion beyond the savage state of society' (RS1 212). In the case of the shewbread, it

may be suggested that the odour of the 'hot bread' (MHo MH,L,) 1 S 21:6[7]) was

regarded in ancient times as a 'sweet savour,' like the shell of the sacrifice to J"

(Gn 8:21, Lv 23:13).  In any case the custom of presenting solid food on a table as

an oblation to a god is too widespread among the peoples of antiquity to permit of

doubt as to the origin of the rite among the Hebrews.

The lectisternia,which the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, afford the

most familiar illustration of this practice (see Smith's Dict. of Gr. and Rom.

Antiqs.3 In the OT itself we hear of Jeremiah's contemporaries kneading

cakes for the queen of heaven (Jer 7:18), and, at a later date, of the table which

even Jews spread to Fortune (GAD, Is 65:11 RV). In the religious literature of the

ancient Babylonians, again, particularly in the ritual tablets to which the attention

of scholars has lately been turned, we find numerous references to the various

items of food and drink to be presented to the deities of the Babylonian pantheon.

The tables or altars, also, on which the food was set out are frequently represented

on the monuments (see, e.g., Eenzinger, Heb. Arch. 387; Riehm's HWB 2 1. 148,

etc.). And not only so, but, as Zimmern has recently shown, the loaves of sweet or

unleavened bread thus presented are, frequently at least, of the number of 12, 24,

or even as many as 36 (see the reff. in Zimmern's Beitrage zur Kenntnis der

Babylon. Religion, 1901, p. 94 f.). These numbers, we can hardly doubt, have an

astronomical significance, 12 being the number of the signs of the Zodiac, 24 the

stations of the moon, and 36 those of the planets (see 2 K 23:5 RVm, Job 38:32,

and art. BABYLONIA in vol. i. p. 218a). The knowledge of this ancient practice

of offering food on the tables of the gods survived to a late period; see Epist. of

Jeremy, v.28ff and the fragment of Bel and the Dragon (esp. v. 11; note also that

the food of Bel comprised 'twelve great measures of fine flour'). Hence, if the

loaves of the presence-bread were 12 in number from the earliest times,--though of

this we have no early testimony,--we should have another of the rapidly increasing

instances of early Babylonian influence in the West (cf. Josephus' association of

the 12 loaves with the 12 months, Ant. in. vii. 7).

While, however, it must be admitted that the rite of the presence-bread had

its origin in the circle of ideas just set forth, it is not less evident that, as taken up

and preserved by the religious guides of Israel, the rite acquired a new and higher

significance. The bread was no longer thought of as J"s food (MH,l,) in the sense

attached to it in an earlier age, but as a concrete expression of the fact that J" was

the source of every material blessing. As the 'continual bread' (dymiTA MH,l,

497b                           Kennedy:  Shewbread


Nu 4:7), it became the standing expression of the nation's gratitude to the Giver of

all for the bounties of His providence. The number twelve was later brought into

connexion with the number of the tribes of Israel (cf. Lv 24:8), and thus, Sabbath

by Sabbath, the priestly representatives of the nation renewed this outward and

visible acknowledgment of man's continual dependence upon God. The presence

of the shewbread in the developed ritual, therefore, was not without a real and

worthy significance. It may here be added, in a word, that the explanation of the

shewbread hitherto in vogue among the disciples of Bahr, according to which ‘the

bread of the face' was so named because it is through partaking thereof that man

attains to the sight of God, accords neither with the true signification of the term,

nor with the history of the rite.


by A. R. S. KENNEDY.



Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: