Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
There are two separate roots לחם (laham), which, at first glance seems to mean completely opposite things:
The verb לחם (laham) means to fight or do battle. This verb occurs 171 times, and, according to HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, pertains predominantly to God's role in Israel's wars. HAW Theological Wordbook further argues that the wars of Israel are essentially fought by YHWH, or rather that instead of God coming to the aid of Israel, Israel is an agent active in bringing forth the purpose of the Lord, along with such agents as large stones (Joshua 10:11), darkness and sea (Joshua 24:7), and stars (Judges 5:20).
This verb yields three derivations, two of which are obscure:
- The masculine noun לחם (lahem). This noun occurs only once, in Judges 5:8, and we don't know what it means. Deborah and Barak sing about new gods being chosen and something being in the gates, but what that is remains unclear.
- The masculine noun לחום (lehum). This noun occurs only once too, in Zephaniah 1:17, where the prophet describes the Lord's judgment: their blood will be poured out like dust, and their what? like dung. BDB Theological Dictionary timidly proposes intestines, bowels, but immediately submits: "meaning and root not wholly certain".
- The feminine noun מלחמה (milhama), meaning battle or war. This noun occurs 319 times in the Bible, and again predominantly in references to wars in which YHWH is involved. It's this noun that's used in the curious and almost paradoxical statement יהוה איש מלחמה יהוה שמו (YHWH 'sh melehema YHWH shemu), meaning "YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name" (Exodus 15:3).
The verb לחם (laham) means to eat or use as food. The verb occurs a dozen times, predominantly in the poetic literature of the Bible (Proverbs 4:17, Psalm 141:3).
This verb has one derivative: the masculine noun לחם (lehem), meaning food or bread or grain. This noun occurs 296 times and its meanings are: bread (Genesis 18:5, Numbers 21:5), sacrificial bread (Leviticus 21:6), food in general (Judges 13:16), food for animals (the ant: Proverbs 6:8; beasts in general: Psalm 147:9), and a small cluster of sayings such as the bread of wickedness (Proverbs 4:17), the bread of idleness (Proverbs 31:27), or evil that is sweet in the mouth but in the stomach it turns to cobra's venom (Job 20:14).
It's not unusual to find two completely different words in the Hebrew Bible that are spelled and pronounced the same. The Hebrews weren't active in a cultural vacuum and words were incorporated from other languages. Sometimes similarities are just coincidences, but are we really looking at two wholly different ideas when we look at the two roots לחם (laham)?
In the reality model of the Hebrews, a collective was regarded as a single female. And just like a human individual has to eat, so must a collective periodically obtain victual from outside of it, in order to sustain itself. It seems that the leap from food for the individual and spoils from a raid for the group is not all that large.
Numbers 14:9 reads — using our verb לחם (laham) — "Do not fear the people of the land, for they shall be our prey".
Psalm 124:3 reflects the same sentiment — without using our verb לחם (laham) — "When men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive. . ".
But whether the similarity between the two roots is coincidental or not, a Hebrew audience would realize that the word for bread, or food in general, was identical to the word meaning (God's) war. It is against this broad background that the words of Jesus should be understood: "I am the bread of life," (John 6:35); "Give us this day our daily bread," (Matthew 6:11), as well as the bread-part of the communion ritual (Matthew 26:26), or Jesus' enigmatic statement that he would not bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34).