Bread of heaven, cake, muffin, scone, or hearth cake?

The bread of angels :  Honey, that ain’t no scone

Last Sunday’s First Reading is from the First Book of Kings, part of Elijah’s story. He has just fled for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab,  and has gone to hide from retribution (after slaughtering all the priests of Baal) in the desert. He falls asleep in despair, unable to see a way out for himself, but an angel wakes him up, with a jug of water and something to eat.  He eats a little, and goes back to sleep, but the angel wakes him again and insists that he has more to eat and drink, to strengthen him for ‘the journey’ (whereas Elijah had been hoping just to die quietly). He eats and drinks, and then walks for forty days and nights (where have we seen that before?) till he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God. And the story moves on.

Elijah, angel and bread
Elijah with the angel… and supplies

The prophet Elijah

I love this reading. Elijah is one of the most human and engaging of the prophets anyway, because his narrative is more practical than most. God has to keep stepping in to feed him, because he concentrates on being a prophet and forgets to worry about his own needs until it’s too late. His story starts in I Kings 17, and is a corking read, which I warmly recommend, with heroes, villains, food-delivering ravens, a wicked queen, slaughter and smiting, fire from heaven and all sorts of excitement.  There is a great cartoon, courtesy of Welsh television, available on the internet here, which uses Mendelssohn’s Elijah for part of its soundtrack (good call).

I want to focus on one tiny element, though, because it was what struck me on Sunday.  The angel touches him to wake him up, and tells him to get up and eat.  ‘He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water’ (1 Kings 19.6, Jerusalem Bible).

Bread in corner
The bread is bottom left
Catering for Elijah

This manages to be both vague and oddly specific.  The same thing happens earlier, when Elijah has no food and there is a drought and a famine.  God tells him where to go, and adds ‘I have ordered the ravens to bring you food there’ (1 Kings 17.4).  The ravens duly supply  ‘bread in the morning and meat in the evening’ (1 Kings 17.6).  When the stream dries up, God has thought ahead : ‘Up and go to Zarephath! […]. I have ordered a widow there to give you food’ (1 Kings 17.9).  Elijah goes off, asks the widow for water, and as she goes to fetch it, he calls after her to bring him ‘a scrap of bread in your hand’.   That ‘scrap’ is interesting; it’s not the usual word for a piece of bread.  Other translations have ‘piece’ or ‘morsel’.  She tells him that she has ‘no baked bread, but only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug’.  She is fetching fuel to cook that into a last meal for her son and herself, ‘and then we shall die’.   Elijah tells her to go ahead, ‘but first make a little scone of it for me and bring it to me, and then make some for yourself and for your son’.  He promises her that the meal and the oil will not be finished before God sends rain again.  She believes him and does as he asks.  Later in the story, the son dies, and Elijah brings him back to life, the first time this happens in the Bible.

Elijah, widow and son
Elijah restoring the resurrected son to his mother
What has the angel actually brought him?

Being a baker myself, I find this really interesting.  It doesn’t sound like a scone to me, more like a flatbread, but then Elijah tells her to make ‘some’ for her little family.  The only ingredients are flour of some kind, oil and water : no yeast, no raising agent, so not a scone.  (She must have put a little salt in it, though.)  So far I have been using the Jerusalem Bible translation, but I thought it might be interesting to see what the other translations might have to offer.

A cake is a loaf is a bread

What about the angel’s catering?  Mostly the translators seem to go for ‘bread’, but there is also ‘cake’, ‘a cake of bread’, a ‘bread cake’, a ’round loaf of bread’.   The same set of words occur in what Elijah requests from the widow.   They are all trying, but they are floundering.  The International Standard Version has, egregiously, ‘muffin’, and the Douay version has ‘hearthcake’, which is possibly the best for those who know what that is, but overwhelmingly I think what we have here is translators not knowing very well what they are describing.  The ’round’ seems to come from the more literal Aramaic translations, and probably reflects what was familiar, but it’s very difficult to make ‘a round loaf’ (not to mention a scone) if you bake it on hot coals or hot stones, especially with no raising agent.  You’re much more likely to end up with something more like an oatcake or a bannock, something you can make on a griddle or a hearthstone.  The Georgians and Turks make lavash, the Mexicans have tortillas.  You roll or pat them out to cook quickly, and then you can tear them into pieces or roll them up.  For a loaf that we might recognise as such, even a flat loaf like focaccia, you need yeast (or raising agent of some kind) and some sort of oven.

Viaticum, journey food

This is food to strengthen Elijah for his journey, like the Passover bread for the Exodus, which is also unleavened and quick to cook.  He doesn’t take it with him; he is described as eating it all before he goes, marching for weeks on one meal, but if this wasn’t a hero story, maybe he could have packed some, because it would fold down easily.  The practical problem would be to stop it getting mouldy.

A scone is not bread

Scones are different.   They seem to be a natural cause for debate and disagreement, from how they are pronounced (skons or scoanes), to whether you put the cream or jam on first (depends whether you’re from Devon or Cornwall; I just put on first whichever is thicker).  But they should always be light, which is why you need either yeast or baking powder or bicarbonate of soda or cream of tartar.  And they tend to be baked in an oven.  They are smaller than a loaf of bread, though of course bread can be divided into small chunks for speed of cooking (bread rolls), and this can lead to smaller bread chunks being referred to as scones, like Irish soda bread.  If you cook those on a griddle, you might even end up with soda farls (from the old word for a quarter, like farthing).

There’s another sort of scone which you can cook on a griddle.  That’s a drop scone (always pronounced ‘dropskon’ with the emphasis on the first syllable).  These are made from a sort of batter (hence ‘drop’), rather than a drier mixture (like Welsh cakes, say, probably very similar to the ‘raisin cakes’ that David has distributed in 2 Samuel 6.19).   Drop scones in old recipe books are often called Scotch pancakes, but that name seems to have died out as ‘Scotch’ has been replaced by ‘Scots’.  But they are very similar to what Americans call pancakes, which has also led to confusion.  Scones strike again!   Let’s not even mention the different understandings of ‘flapjack’.

I say baking powder, you say something different

Bread and baking terms are as confusing as the names for fish, and vary considerably across even a small geographical area.  It’s always fun to find out the local word for a bread roll, but you will need to ask an older person quite often.  It’s not just shape or size, it’s often linked to a particular glaze or finish.  Baps in the Midlands are always flour-dusted and soft, cobs are golden and crusty, and so on.  Loaves can be plaits (Kent), bloomers (everywhere south), cobs, tins, or other names, but are mostly currently described by what they are made from (‘wholemeal’, ‘white’, ‘brown’, ‘rye’, ‘sourdough’ etc.)  ‘Roll’ seems to be the nearest thing to a generic term for ‘small hunk of bread’ (though it’s definitely southern rather than northern British), and I’m surprised to find that no translation offers that to Elijah.  Maybe it sounds too dainty, because you wouldn’t eat part of a roll and then lie down again. 

But how could you resist a drink of water in a cutglass goblet in the desert?
Griddles, girdles and bakestones

And you really want something more rustic and a bit less shaped, if it’s been made on a griddle or cooked on a hot stone among the ashes.  What sort of bread can you cook on a griddle?  That’s a whole other group of possibilities, from the drop scones to singing hinnies, pikelets, crumpets, oatcakes and muffins (the UK sort, not the US).  But none of those is really bread, and drop scones need an egg where the others mostly use yeast.  We want to think of something more like Indian breads, I suspect, or the Turkish bread I’ve already mentioned.  An unleavened, possibly slightly tough, sort of pizza base, cooked in a frying pan if a griddle is not to hand.  This would tear into something like ‘scraps’, but I wouldn’t ever call it a scone.

Wesh cakes
My griddle’s bigger : we can do seven Welsh cakes at once
The Heavenly Diner or Carry-out

Of course none of this matters very much.  I do love the idea of God running a staff restaurant for the angels, from which he can feed deserving (and undeserving) mortals, like Elijah repeatedly here, or like the manna in the desert.  This seems to be the general understanding in the Old Testament : ‘Mere men ate the bread of angels’ (Ps 77/78.25) ‘You gave them bread from heaven’ (Nehemiah 9.15).  Bread is vital, so if God’s people cannot make it for themselves out of what he supplies, he will actually supply the made bread himself.  Not to lack for bread is a sign of divine favour.  We tend to think of the angels as not needing bread, but that’s a modern idea.  Everyone needs bread, so there’s obviously bread in heaven for the angels, and it can be sent out in case of need.  This whole web of ideas is behind all the bread images and discussions in the New Testament, underpinning the feeding of the multitudes and of course the Last Supper and the revelation at Emmaus.

Le pain juste

I still think ‘scone’ is not a good translation, but I am feeling much friendlier towards ‘muffin’.  The classic English muffin is indeed baked on a griddle, and is a bit more bread-like, but it needs ingredients which would not have been to hand….except I suppose in heaven you would be able to find anything you needed.  It’s not right as a translation here, because it brings in all sorts of unnecessary ideas, and is an intrinsically comic word, which doesn’t help.   But Elijah would have wanted something reasonably familiar and definitely substantial, for the journey he is about to embark upon.  I think I’d go for something like ‘bannock’, which sounds rustic and wholesome but has the big advantage that most people will have some rough idea but not anything too specific.  I do think that any Bible translation would be seriously improved if a few more women were involved in the discussion.  Some of them would know how to cook.

Classic Scottish bannock


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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For ever and ever : to eternity and beyond?

So many ways to say for ever

There are lots of ways in which we talk about something going on forever. From age to age. Happily ever after. Always. For ever and ever.  Through all eternity. Evermore and evermore. To the end of time. For ever and a day (that’s mathematically correct, you can always add one to infinity).  World without end. In perpetuity.  I like Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!‘, and it’s no less clear than many other expressions.   The main difference between ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity’ is that ‘eternity’ has religious overtones which ‘infinity’ mainly avoids, as a mathematical or scientific term.

eternity machine
keeping on keeping on: the first perpetuum mobile
From age to age…to age

Other languages could demonstrate similar collections, from single words (Latin semper and all its descendants) to beautiful or bombastic periphrases. Most Catholics of my generation will remember ‘in saecula saeculorum’ and similar expressions, however vaguely, just because they came up so often at the ends of prayers, when people tend to slow down slightly, so it’s easier to hear.   You can see the same thing occurring in the psalms, where ‘now and for ever’ or a similar form of words flows naturally into an ‘Amen’ or sometimes an ‘Alleluia’ (Pss 40/41, 71/72, 88/89, 105/106 and 113/114 for example).   I don’t think it’s making too many assumptions to think that when ‘now and for ever’ is the last line of the psalm, it might well have been followed by a spontaneous ‘Amen’, such as you often hear when ‘through Christ our Lord’ occurs during the canon of the Mass (and much more frequently among the evangelicals, hurrah for them).  This happens several times (Pss 120/121, 130/131 and 144/145, among others).

infinity in its purest form, and here is a link to a real railway that does the same thing :
Happily ever after

The wish to see happiness unfolding endlessly into the distance is deeply rooted in human beings.  It is how we end nearly all our stories, once the villains have been routed.  Happy (and distant) endings are what we all desire, from daydreams to marriage vows (’till death do us part’);  and yet we know first that death comes to us all (‘What man can live and never see death?’ Ps 88/89.49),  and second that we know absolutely nothing about anything that happens afterwards.  ‘Till death do us part’ is actually impressively realistic compared with most of our expressions.  When we say it, we are recognising human limitations; it is even more convincing than ‘for ever’ would be, because it is more sober.  But God doesn’t have human limitations, so when the psalmist talks about ‘for ever’, what exactly does he mean?  Is this an eternity we can recognise?

Wedding ring
a ring goes round and round..and round
Reach for the stars

In Greek and Roman mythology, one version of ‘for ever’, of lasting into eternity, was to be turned into a star (or a constellation), like Hercules and the Pleiades.  This was an honour beyond being turned into a tree (Deucalion and Pyrrha, Daphne), or a natural phenomenon (Echo, Narcissus).  Stars are too far away to touch, too distant to see clearly, but beautiful and seemingly permanent, so it’s a good halfway house between Mount Olympus and life on earth.    It’s not even just the pagan Greeks.  The nicely-brought-up, Catholic-in-good-standing  Juliet longs for Romeo,  ‘…and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night ‘, (R&J, Act III, scene 2) .  Some people nowadays aspire to sending their own ashes, or those of someone dear to them, up into space, because to be in space is to be out of time.  Now that the Church has decided against scattering ashes, I imagine this is no longer a possible Catholic option, but being buried or having your ashes placed under a tree is still allowed.

God creating earth
stars outside earth, serenely circling
Dwellers all in time and space

As temporal beings, we find it almost impossible to conceive of being outside time, and it’s very hard to imagine any sort of eternity that doesn’t seem either boring or terrifying in the long term.  Change, immutability, continuity, repetition : we struggle with all of this in the context of ‘for ever’.  Even ‘perpetual light’ means no twilight or dawnings, nothing refreshing or familiar; it sounds intimidating, possibly even bringing  interrogation to mind.   The language we use to address the question doesn’t really work.  What does ‘eternity in the long term’ mean?  The two ideas cancel each other out.  It is surprising how many times ‘for ever’ occurs in the Psalms, but it means different things to different psalmists.

Pharisees vs. Sadducees
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your law

We know that one of the points of contention between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was over eternity, specifically life after death.  The Pharisees asserted that it was the reward for a good life, but would not be drawn on what it actually meant or what it might be like, which was very sensible of them.  The Sadducees thought that virtue had to be its own and only reward: people should do good things because they were good, not from any hope of reward.  Austere, but impressive.

Versions of eternity in the Psalms
Jess tree
your children are your future

In the psalms, much of the time the psalmist limits his looking forward to this current life, especially when longing for deliverance from present danger.  Children are frequently seen as equivalent to avoiding mortality (cf. Ps 111/112);  they are not an advantage just because they will defend you if necessary (Ps 126/127) or take care of you in old age or infirmity (Ecclesiasticus 3. 14-16 is the classic text here), but because they give you a way of not being blotted out.  They prevent your name being forgotten (cf. Ps 82/83.5).  Obliteration is the fate reserved for the wicked, and it is seen as terrifying (‘the depths […] the dark […] the land of oblivion’, Ps 87/88).  This is why ‘perpetual light’ is meant to be positive rather than scary, but artificial light has altered our perception.   Children are the human-scale opposite of this obliteration.  God’s mercy has to be extended down the generations or it loses its importance (all those references to children’s children).  ‘Let this be written for ages to come/ that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord’ (Ps 101/102.19).

God dividing light and dark
Immortal, invisible : God dividing light from  darkness (Sistine)
How long have you got?

The huge difference between God and human beings is duration.  Man has a span, ‘seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong’ (Ps 89/90.10), but God is ‘for ever’, ‘from age to age’, ‘he rules for ever by his might’ (Ps 65/66.7).  Paradoxically God is also out of time, and it does not mean the same for him (‘one day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere’ Ps 83/84.11), to the extent that even tenses are reversed: ‘Before the mountains were born […] you are God’ (Ps 89/90); ‘From all eternity, O Lord, you are’ (Ps 92/93).  In God’s eyes ‘a thousand years/ are like yesterday’ (Ps 89/90.4), which makes me wonder whether the same person wrote these two psalms which set one against a thousand.  Psalm 101/102, one of the psalms of repentance, specifically contrasts the brevity of human life (‘my days are vanishing like smoke […] like a passing shadow’) and God’s strength and permanence (‘you, whose days last from age to age’), ending with a remarkable stanza which describes how God will outlast even the heavens : ‘Long ago you founded the earth/ and the heavens are the work of your hands. / They will perish but you will remain. / They will all wear out like a garment. /You will change them like clothes that are changed. / But you neither change, nor have an end.’ 

Toasting God

The Psalter shows a growing understanding and increasingly subtle grasp of eternity as we move through it.  In the earlier psalms, it is on a more human scale, and Psalm 17/18 even includes a prayer ‘Long life to the Lord, my rock!’, which shows David (almost definitely the psalmist here) thinking of God as a bigger but still mortal king, who saves him and gives him victory after victory, who will do the same for his sons ‘for ever’; but there is no suggestion of a future eternal life for David to be reborn into.  Human ‘for ever’ is limited to ‘all the days of my life’, as in Pss 22/23 and 26/27.  The good man aspires to live in God’s house or tent for all his life, but is still aware that ‘in your house I am a passing guest, a pilgrim, like all my fathers’ (Ps 38/39.13).  Psalm 60/61 is a pivotal moment, where the psalmist asks ‘Let me dwell in your tent for ever’ and continues even more clearly,’May you lengthen the life of the king: may his years cover many generations’.  We are moving on from children being the only continuation of the just,  to daring to imagine an unending life, for us, in God’s presence.

Eternity as more time or less time

This eternity is pictured as an endless now, and the psalmists see themselves as trees in God’s house or garden, or standing beside a river.  In a time and place where wars kept breaking out, trees seem more permanent than buildings, especially when what you are used to is tents, and they constantly renew themselves (‘still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green’ Ps 91/92.15), as well as being able to proclaim God’s glory and sing his praises (but not in a scary way). The nine or ten psalms that lead up to Psalm 100/101 show a future opening up with no visible term except ‘the end of time’,  and describe this eternal present with serene confidence.   The psalmist is still trying to make sense of it, and different notes are still struck, sometimes even in the same psalm:  Psalm 102/103 talks about God ‘renewing your youth like an eagle’s'(v.5), referring to the myth that eagles could go off on a featherless retreat and come back for a fresh lifespan and new feathers (which I think must be a version of the phoenix myth),  but later compares man to grass and wild flowers, and looks forward to God protecting future generations rather than this one (v.17).

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
Family tree : the patriarchs in order,  from generation to generation, culminating in Christ
His love endures for ever

The psalms in the last third of the Psalter strike an increasingly confident note.  God’s mercy endures for ever, a line that recurs.  So does his justice. These lines are fun to write tunes for, because you can make the music go on running and not come to an end.  He is reliable and faithful.  The history psalms repeat the message and reinforce it : he has always done this, he will continue to do it.  ‘He remembers his covenant for ever,/ his promise for a thousand generations ‘ (Ps 104.8).  And the idea of eternity is less frightening and intimidating because the emphasis now is on God’s love, his faithfulness or his kingdom lasting for ever.  The psalmist is happy to leave the details to God.  The Lord is beyond everything he can grasp, even if he is the (slightly smug and) perfect observer of God’s law who wrote Psalm 118/119, the longest psalm with its emphasis on decrees, rules and precepts; so we need to trust him and leave it to him. ‘I have seen that all perfection has an end/ but your command is boundless’ (Ps 118/119.96). 

The Psalms’ version of heaven
sleeping like a baby

We are heading towards a time beyond time, an eternal present of peace.  The dangers and struggling fall behind, and the psalmist sees himself as a ‘weaned child on its mother’s breast’ (Ps 130/131).  ‘For the Lord has chosen Zion’;  God has chosen the destination (‘This is my resting place for ever, here have I chosen to live’ Ps 131/132.14).   We are all supposed to be there too (‘Those who put their trust in the Lord/ are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken, that stands for ever’ Ps 124; and also ‘How good […] it is when brothers live in unity![…] It is like the dew of Hermon which falls on the heights of Zion.  For there the Lord gives his blessing, life for ever ‘Ps 132/133).

A life of eternal bliss

The psalmists get bolder and bolder.  The present tenses keep coming; there are still historical references, but they alternate with present celebration (‘For his love endures for ever’ Ps 135/136), so we stay in the eternal now.  The psalmist calls on ‘you who stand in the house of the Lord’ (Ps 134/135), as though we were there already.  There are still notes of persecution, penitence and exile, but the overwhelming feeling is of a rising wave towards the celebratory last few psalms.  It becomes explicit in Psalm 138/139, which celebrates the might and the reach of God in beautiful and unforgettable words which I’m only not quoting because I’d have to write out most of the psalm, and it’s better if you look it up.  But eternal life is now the explicit aspiration : ‘To me, how mysterious your thoughts, the sum of them not to be numbered!  /If I count them, they are more than the sand; / to finish, I must be eternal, like you’ (vv. 17-18); ‘lead me in the path of life eternal'(v.24).  By the penultimate psalm, we are still being encouraged to ‘sing a new song’, to dance and rejoice, but it’s good to see also that provision is made for sitting down :’Let the faithful rejoice in their glory, / shout for joy and take their rest’ (Ps 149.5).

Medieval band
if only we had the soundtrack
Zion, praise your God!

This is a very joyful eternity, with lots of music (see Ps 150).  It still has a sizeable component of enjoying seeing your enemies vanquished and suffering, which is the big difference between OT and NT heavens, but this is far from being crucial.  The emphasis is overwhelmingly on praise and celebration, and every single created thing taking part in the chorus of joy (Ps 148).  That is an eternity  we can all look forward to.  Science may have done for the concept of the music of the spheres, but we can look forward to hearing the oceans and the mountains singing God’s praise.  I would love to hear that.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.





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