Apple and Barley Cake

Meal: Elisha Cooks Masterfully at Gilgal

  • recipe
  • bible reference
  • history

Apple and Barley Cake

  • 2 ½ cups barley flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • a dash salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 apples, pared and chopped
  • ¼ cup whipping cream
  • ¼ cup honey
  • Preheat oven to 400°F.

Sift together the barley flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat eggs lightly with a fork. Combine with apples, cream, and honey, and add to dry ingredients; mix well. Pour batter into cake or loaf pan and bake for 20–25 minutes. Cut into squares while warm.

Yield: 12 squares

The Text


“Put a large pot on the fire and cook up some stew for the prophets.”

38 Elisha went back down to Gilgal. There was a famine there. While he was consulting with the guild of prophets, he told his servant, “Put a large pot on the fire and cook up some stew for the prophets.”

39 One of the men went out into the field to get some herbs; he came across a wild vine and picked gourds from it, filling his gunnysack. He brought them back, sliced them up, and put them in the stew, even though no one knew what kind of plant it was.

40 The stew was then served up for the men to eat. They started to eat, and then ex claimed, “Death in the pot, O man of God! Death in the pot!” Nobody could eat it.

41 Elisha ordered, “Get me some meal.” Then he sprinkled it into the stew pot. “Now serve it up to the men,” he said. They ate it, and it was just fine— nothing wrong with that stew!

42 One day a man arrived from Baal Shalishah. He brought the man of God twenty loaves of fresh baked bread from the early harvest, along with a few apples from the orchard. Elisha said, “Pass it around to the people to eat.”

43 His servant said, “For a hundred men? There's not nearly enough!” Elisha said, “Just go ahead and do it. God says there's plenty.”

44 And sure enough, there was. He passed around what he had—they not only ate, but had leftovers.

II Kings 4:38–44, The Message

Biblical Passage Notes

In the story above, Elisha has returned to Gilgal (Hebrew for “circle [of stones?]”), probably the present-day village of Khirbet “Alyata, about seven miles north of Bethel. At that time, a famine had struck the city, and the prophets' guild (circle, perhaps) were present, apparently to divine what could be done to help the people who were in need of food. Would God intervene? Was God angry at the people or at the king of Israel for his apostasy? Should the people suffer for the deeds of their king? These were just a few of the questions that must have been going through the minds of the king's subjects as they gathered to discuss their options at Elisha's meal.

The Preparation

Elisha, aware of the hunger of the prophets who had gathered, instructs his servant to put a pot on the fire and make some pottage. (According to some scholars, this pot was a big cauldron like those found in Egyptian kitchens, with legs that stood over the fire in the floor. A “seethed” pottage, like the one made here, consisted of meat cut into small pieces, mixed with rice or meal and vegetables.)1 One of the men goes into a nearby field and gathers some greens (in Hebrew, orah, or “shiny herbs') and wild gourds (in Hebrew, paqquoth), from which he makes a stew. Apparently unfamiliar with the flora of the area, the forager picks fruit from a vine and cuts it up for stew in a mixture that was so dreadful and bitter no one could eat it! Just what was so awful?

Apparently, what the unsuspecting cook had picked to serve for dinner was colocynth, or wild cucumber, as it is known in places near the Dead Sea, where it still can be found today. Other names for this viny gourd are “bitter apple,” “egusi,” or “vine of Sodom.” It is an extremely acrid fruit about the size of a lemon, yellowish-green in color, with a spongy texture. Its seeds, however, are quite edible, nutty-flavored, and rich in fat and protein. The fruit, picked fresh from the field and sliced open in bits, would have ruined any stew. In fact, it is said that when consumed in large quantities, the colocynth can be fatal. In small portions, it is a quite effective laxative, so the prophets undoubtedly were pretty sick to their stomachs, feeling quite rapidly like “death warmed over” (“Death in the pot, O man of God!” they clamored).

Elisha commands that he be given some “meal” (in Hebrew, qemach, often translated as “flour”), and according to the story, its addition remedies the bitter taste of the stew. It's difficult to believe that any amount of flour would actually have rendered the pottage edible. The storyteller is more eager to present Elisha's handiwork as one of a series of minor miracles meant to glorify the subject of the tale. But this is the stuff of legends.

In what seems at first to be an unrelated story, a man arrives at the prophets' camp, having come from Baal Shalishah. He brings with him from the first fruits of the harvest twenty loaves of barley bread, and some other things to eat. 2(The version above says “apples from the orchard”; the KJV tells us “full ears of corn in the husk thereof,” both incorrect, as neither apples nor corn existed in the Middle East during this period. The Hebrew word of the text, karmel, means “garden land,” or “grain.” If what the servant brought was the best ofCarmel, the land of Abigail, it was more likely apricots, as we learned in our earlier discussion of I Samuel 25.) Elisha instructs that the food be shared with all those present, though such a small amount would hardly feed one hundred hungry men. But in a move not unlike the feeding of the 5,000 people by Jesus in the Gospel of John, 3the provisions are passed out and there is plenty left over. In this passage, as in the one prior to it, the storyteller is eager for us to envision Elisha as a miracle worker, not necessarily of grand proportions (though his later works are accomplished on a greater scale), but as a man of the people with an astute level of compassion—a true leader! The redactors of II Kings present in Elisha a type of folk hero, what in Yiddish is known as a mensch, with the qualities the Jewish people later came to expect of the Messiah. Hence, in Christian writings, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say I am?” they answer (perhaps with the above text in mind), “John the Baptist; others Elijah; and others say one of the ancient prophets [Elisha?] come back to life” (Luke 9:19, JB).


1. See Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Whole Bible (New York: George H. Doran, 1921) at
2. Here the author of II Kings is making a political statement, in effect stating that a nation with an apostate king and priests do not deserve the portion of the first fruits normally reserved for them under Deuteronomic Law (Deuteronomy 18:4); the faithful servants of God (in this instance, the prophets) would now receive them. Hence, the traveler seeks out Elisha, and makes the proper offering.
3. The feeding of the five thousand “men” is recounted in all four gospels in some form or another; however, only the Gospel of John relates the details regarding “loaves of barley.”

The History

As related in Chapters 7, 8, and 9, the twelve Israelite tribes united under King Saul to form the Kingdom of Israel sometime around 1050 b.c.e. After the kingdom grew into an empire under King David (the second king) and experienced a period of peace under King Solomon (the third king), severe tensions developed between the northern and southern portions of the state. By 920 b.c.e. the kingdom had fallen apart: ten tribes split off as the Kingdom of Israel in the north, under King Jeroboam (Solomon's overseer), and two tribes remained as the Kingdom of Judah in the south, with Jerusalem as the capital under King Rehoboam (Solomon's son). Strife and warfare between the two kingdoms continued for a long time; and though the northern kingdom was larger, it suffered from excessive internal divisions and was geographically more vulnerable to invaders, spies, and traitors.

Into this political stew, during the reign of King Joram (also known as Je-horam; 851–842 b.c.e.), the ninth king of Israel, a prophet by the name of Elisha (Hebrew for “God is salvation”) rose to prominence. Born into a farming family, Elisha had no political aspirations, but one day while he was plowing, the great prophet Elijah came and covered the farmer with his cloak—an indication, as we have seen from the story of Joseph's “coat of many colors,” that Elijah intended to pass on a double portion of his legacy (spirit) to Elisha. Some scholars contend that the anointing took place during the reign of King Ahab (875–853 b.c.e.), when Elijah had become active in Israel, but the actual date of the anointing (if indeed it did actually occur) has been lost to history.

Sometime during the reign of King Joram, Elijah seems to have gone into retirement, perhaps on Mount Carmel. At some unrecorded date he sought Elisha at Gilgal, and the two proceeded to Bethel and Jericho, crossed the Jordan River, and came to Gilead. Tradition states that Elijah was taken up to the heavens in a blazing chariot, his cloak falling back to the ground to settle on Elisha.

Previously, Elisha seems to have been resident with a school of prophets in Gilgal, but after Elijah's ascension, Elisha became a wandering prophet, purifying a water spring in Jericho, cursing a group of young men in Bethel, raising from the dead a wealthy benefactress' only son in Shunem, and even traveling to Damascus to anoint a new Syrian king. Along the way, Elisha cured Naaman of leprosy, multiplied twenty barley loaves into food sufficient for one hundred men, was said to have caused the rainfall that prevented the army of Joram from dying of thirst, and was believed to have performed many other miracles on behalf of the people he encountered. He also seems to have functioned as a sort of political advisor to the kings of Israel, helping to defeat the Moabites, to prevent disaster at the hands of the Syrians, and to prophesy Israel's victories in battle.

Elisha is believed to have died sometime during the reign of Joash (also known as Jehoash; 797–781 b.c.e.), the 12th king of Israel, though this is not much more than speculation based upon the narrative found in the scriptures. The scriptures also recount that a year after Elisha's death, the body of a dead man was thrown into Elisha's grave; upon touching Elisha's bones, the dead man was revived and stood up.