Facebook YouTube
Home | Topics | Contact | Mail List | Donate | Bookstore | MT | AHLB
Topics Manners & Customs

Excerpts from Manners and Customs of Bible Lands
By Fred H. Wight

Growing and harvesting grain

THE NUMEROUS REFERENCES to the growth of grain, which are found in the law of Moses, indicate that it was expected that the Israelites would become an agricultural people after entering the land of Canaan, and that the cultivation of grain would become one of their chief industries. It is a remarkable fact that the methods used by them in growing and harvesting this crop are, virtually the same as those that have been used by the Palestinian Arab peasants for centuries down to the present day.

Waiting for rain before beginning to plough
In Palestine, ploughing is done after the early rains have softened the earth (cf. Psa. 65:10). These rains usually come the latter part of October or the first part of November. If they do not come then, the farmer must wait for them before he can plough his ground. Job said, "They waited for me as for the rain" (Job 29:23). Jeremiah described lack of rain thus: "There was no rain in the earth, the ploughmen were ashamed, they covered their heads" (Jer. 14:4). Once the rain has come, the industrious farmer will start his ploughing. "The sluggard will not plough by reason of the cold" (Prov. 20:4). Such a man will retreat into his home and enjoy the warmth of his fire, but he will miss the harvest. Dr. Thomson tells of one year when the farmers waited until the month of February for sufficient rain to enable them to plough the ground for the grain crop. The harvest came late, but was abundant.

Getting ready for ploughing
The farmer gets ready for ploughing after the first rain starts falling, if he has not already done so before. He will spend the time making sure that his plough is in good repair and ready for action. He may need to cut and point a new goad to use in prodding his team of oxen. He must also see to it that his yoke is smooth and fits the necks of the animals. An ill-shaped or heavy yoke would gall them. The Lord Jesus spoke of "the easy yoke" promised to His obedient followers (Matt. 11:30). When the ground has been softened sufficiently by the rain, then the ploughing can begin.

The plough
One type of Syrian or Palestinian plough is made up of two wooden beams which are joined together, and at the front end it is hooked to a yoke, and at the rear end it is fastened to a crosspiece, the upper part of which serves as the handle, and the lower part holds the iron ploughshare or colter. Even today many may be seen in Bible lands plowing with what we might term a "forked stick." Bible writers often mention iron ploughshares (1Sam. 13:20, etc.). These ploughs could without much work be changed into swords for warfare. Thus the prophet Joel said: "Beat your ploughshares into swords" (Joel 3:10). Exactly the reverse of this prophecy was suggested by both the prophets Isaiah and Micah in predicting the Golden Age (Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3).

The yoke
The yoke is a rude stick that fits the necks of the cattle. Two straight sticks project down each side, and a cord at the end of these sticks and underneath the cattle's necks holds the yoke on the necks. These yokes of wood are often spoken of in the Scriptures (Jer. 28:13, etc.).

The goad
A goad is carried by the native ploughman today, and was also used in Bible times. It is a wooden rod varying in length from five to seven feet, with a sharp point at one end. With this the farmer can hurry up his slow-moving animals. It was such an ox-goad that was used by Shamgar in slaying six hundred Philistines (Judges 3:31). The conviction of sin that came to Saul of Tarsus and led to his conversion was compared to the pricks of an oxgoad: "It is hard for thee to kick against the goad" (Acts 26:14, A. R. V.).

Use of oxen
In Bible times oxen were used almost exclusively for ploughing. For this reason the expression " a yoke" was used by the Hebrews to mean the measure of land which a yoke of oxen could plough in a day (cf. 1Sam. 14:14, and Isa. 5:10). "Oxen" as the Hebrews used the term, meant both sexes of the animal, cows being used as well as bulls for purposes of draught, but the latter were castrated. This explains the reason for the law specifying concerning a heifer to be used for sacrificial purposes, that it be one "upon which never came yoke" (Num. 19:2). The law of Moses forbade ploughing with an ox and an ass yoked together (Deut. 22:10). The Apostle Paul spoke of "the unequal yoke" in connection with partnership between believers and unbelievers (2Cor. 6:14) Today, the Arabs usually make use of oxen in ploughing, but sometimes utilize camels, and occasionally yoke together an ox and a donkey, or a camel and a donkey.

The ploughing of the ground in Oriental fashion is quite primitive. The plough, which at best is a slight implement, can be carried if necessary two miles to the farmer's place of work. Of course by comparison with modern ploughs, it could be said merely to scratch the surface of the soil. The ploughman holds the one handle of the plough with one of his hands, while he carries the goad in the other hand, with which to prod the animals. Jesus said, "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). He described the operation accurately in saying hand, i.e. one hand , rather than two hands, as is the case with a Western farmer. It would be fatal for the Palestinian farmer to look back, because his implement is so light that the worker often has to press down with all his weight upon it to keep it from leaving the furrow.

The Eastern farmers will sometimes plough together, each man having his own plough and team of oxen, and one following close behind the preceding one. This sort of farmer's club is adopted as a protection from roving Bedouin robbers, and also because co-operation is desired when the wheat farms are large. Thus Elisha was found ploughing with eleven other ploughmen and a total of twenty-four oxen (1Kings 19:19).

Use of pickax or mattock
Where the ground is hard, or on the rocky hillside, it is not possible to use the plough. In such places, if the peasant farmer is industrious, he will prepare the soil by using the pickax or mattock. Isaiah speaks of "hills that shall be digged with the mattock" (Isa. 7:25). By using such an implement, all the available ground is utilized for the crop."

Kinds of grain sown
There are various kinds of grain used in the Orient. The word " corn," as used in English translations of the Bible, is actually the family name for cereal grains , because the "maize" or "Indian corn" of modern days was doubtless unknown to Bible writers. The two principal (grains cultivated in ancient Palestine were wheat and barley. There is one mention in the Old Testament of the use of millet (Ezek. 4:9). The Revisers in the A. R. V. have changed the word "rye" in Exodus 9:32 and Isaiah 28:25 to mean "spelt." In modern times, both rice and maize or Indian corn are used in Palestine, although the former is largely imported.

How and when the seed is sown
The farmer usually carries his seed to his field in a large sack on the back of his donkey, and then the leather bag which he carries under his arm is replenished with seed from the sack. As a rule, the seed is scattered broadcast on the ground, and then it is covered over by the ploughing. Often the sower walks along, scattering his seed, and then one of his family, or a servant if he has one, follows directly with the plough. The Biblical word "to sow," as used in the Pentateuch (Gen. 26:12; Lev. 25:3, etc.), means, "to scatter seed."

Rain and the maturing of the crops
The Palestine grainfields are largely dependent upon the rain that falls, for their fruitfulness. No rain falls in the land from May to September. The former rain , spoken of in Scripture, falls in the latter part of October or the first part of November usually. It is this rain that is the signal for the farmer to begin his ploughing and plant his seed. The Bible also speaks of the latter rain , which ordinarily falls in March and April, and it is this rain that is of so much value in maturing the barley and the wheat crops. The heavy winter rains come the latter part of December and during January and February. The prophecy of Joel mentions all three of these kinds of rain: "And he will cause to come down for you the rain, the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month" (Joel 2:23). The word rain here means heavy, gushing rain that falls in winter months, and the rainy season starts with the former rain in the fall, and ends with the latter rain in the spring. Barley harvest is usually in April and May, and wheat harvest in May and June. Thus we see that Jeremiah was quite correct in his order of seasons in relation to the harvest time, when he said: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved" (Jer. 8:20).

Cutting the ripened grain
The ripe grain is cut with a sickle. In early times sickles were made of flint, which material was abundant and therefore cheap. In later periods there were some made of bronze or of iron, but the former were more prevalent in all periods. The flint was at first set in the jaw-bone of an animal, or in a curved piece of wood. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of "him that handleth the sickle in the time of harvest"

(Jer. 50:16). And the prophet Joel commands: "Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe" (Joel 3:13).

Binding the grain into sheaves
The cut grain is gathered on the arms and bound into sheaves. The Psalmist makes reference to the mower filling his hand, and the binder of sheaves filling his bosom (Psa. 129:7). And Song of Solomon speaks of an heap of wheat (Cant. 7:2), and Joseph in his dream saw "binding sheaves in the field" (Gen. 37:7). Thus the cut grain was gathered in the arms and bound into sheaves.

Transportation of grain to the threshing floor
The usual method of transporting the grain to the threshing floor is as follows: two large bundles of the grain are made secure by a network of rope and then placed a few feet apart. Then a camel is made to kneel in the space between them, and then the bundles are fastened to the animal's packsaddle. The driver gives his signal, and the camel rises and begins to march off to the threshing floor, which is usually located not far from the village. Here he kneels again and is relieved of his burden of grain, and goes back for another load. When a camel was to be had, this was the method of transportation that was doubtless used in Bible times. Otherwise the much, used donkey was utilized for the purpose. When sheaves of grain are loaded on the donkey, a sort of cradle is suspended to the flat saddle, and the cut grain is thrown over this and tied by a rope . The brothers of Joseph used asses to carry sacks of grain and also straw for them to eat (Gen. 42:26, 27).

Threshing floor
A typical Oriental threshing floor has been described by Thomson thus:

The construction of the floors is very simple. A circular space, from thirty to fifty feet in diameter, is made level, if not naturally so, and the ground is smoothed off and beaten solid, that the earth may not mingle with the grain in threshing. In time, the floors, especially on the mountains, are covered with a tough, hard sward, the prettiest, and often the only, green plots about the village, and there the traveller delights to pitch his tent. Daniel calls them summer threshing floors; and this is the most appropriate name for them, since they are only used in that season of the year.

Methods of threshing
Three methods of threshing were in use in ancient times, and in some places in the East today. (1) A flail was used for threshing small quantities of grain. Ruth must have used such a wooden instrument. "And beat out that she had gleaned: and it was about an ephah of barley" (Ruth 2:17). And without doubt Gideon was also using such an instrument when he was threshing a small amount of wheat secretly, for fear of the enemy. "Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites" (Judges 6:11, A. R. V.).

(2) A threshing instrument was often used.Picture: Threshing Grain One type that has been used in Bible lands in modern days, is composed of two wooden planks joined together, about three feet wide and six feet long, and underneath has rows of cut square holes, and sharp stones or pieces of metal are driven into these. Isaiah well describes such a threshing instrument: "Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth" (Isa. 41:15, A. R. V.). This threshing board is pulled by the oxen over the grain, and the thresher sits or stands upon the instrument, with his goad in his hand to hurry up the animals. Another type of threshing instrument takes the form of a small wagon with low cylindrical wheels that serve as saws. The prophet must have been thinking of this sort of instrument when he mentioned "the cart wheel" in connection with the threshing activity of the farmer (Isa. 28:27, 28).

(3) The oxen alone were driven over the grain in order to thresh it. This method was the most common method used by the Jews in Old Testament times. The animals were turned over the layer of grain as it lay upon the threshing floor, and their hoofs did the work of threshing. Many of the Fellahin today will say that this is the best way of threshing. "This must have been the same in Bible days, for the Hebrew verb 'to thresh' is doosh , which has as its root-meaning 'to trample down', 'to tread under foot'" (cf. Job 39:15; Dan. 7:23).

The oxen not muzzled while threshing
Even today the Arab peasant farmer does not muzzle his oxen while they are treading the grain on the threshing floor. He says it would be a great sin to do so. This agrees with the teaching of the Mosaic Law. "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn [grain]" (Deut. 25:4). The Apostle Paul quotes this Scripture to enforce his argument that "the laborer is worthy of his hire" (1Cor. 9:9; 1Tim. 5:18).

What the threshing process accomplishes
What happens has been described as follows:

As these heavy sledges are drawn over the layer of straw and ears, they rub out the grain. This by its form and weight, sinks immediately through the straw, and thus escapes being hurt. The straw, which by its lightness remains on the surface, is slowly broken and crushed into tiny pieces. Thus a double process goes on by means of this simple but effective treatment. Not only is the corn threshed out, but the straw is at the same time prepared for cattle and camel fodder. In this crushed state it is called "teben" and is used to mix with the barley with which all their animals are fed, just as we mix chopped hay with oats; but this crushing is far superior to our chopping as a means of preparing cattle food.

Winnowing the grain
Winnowing was accomplished by the use of either a broad shovel or of a wooden fork which had bent prongs. With this instrument, the mass of chaff, straw, and grain was thrown against the wind. Because there was generally a breeze blowing in the evening, this was the time when it was normally done. So Naom I Said to Ruth concerning Boaz: "Behold, he winnoweth barley tonight in the threshing floor" (Ruth 3:2).

When the Bible speaks of the farmer's fan, it does not mean that some instrument was used to increase the wind. Rather, the fan was the shovel or wooden fork used when unseparated grain and straw was thrown against the wind. The prophet Jeremiah tells of God using a fan to winnow His people Israel: I have winnowed them with a fan in the gates of the land" (Jer. 15:7, A. R. V.).

When the grain and straw, not as yet separated, are thrown into the air, the wind causes the mass of material to fall as follows: Since the grain is the heaviest, it naturally falls beneath the fan. The straw is blown to the side into a heap, and the lighter chaff and the dust are carried beyond into a flattened windrow. This gave to the Psalmist his figure: "The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away" (Psa. 1:4). The chaff is burned as Scripture often indicates. "And the flame consumeth the chaff" (Isa. 5:24). John the Baptist was familiar with the winnowing process and the burning of the chaff. He said: "Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17).

Dr. Lambie reports seeing an additional process used by Bible land Arabs. After being thrown against the wind, the grain is placed on a rock and the farmer uses a mat about eighteen inches square with which to fan the grain, while a helper keeps turning it over, in order to get rid of any remaining chaff. There is no definite reference to such a practice in the Bible, but it is possible this method may have been used in olden times as an additional means of cleaning the grain, or perhaps it was employed when the winds were quiet.

Sifting the grain
When the winnowing process is over, then comes the sifting of the grain. The wheat or barley will still be more or less mixed with certain amounts of chaff, little stones, and perhaps some tares. Sifting is therefore necessary before the grain can be ground into meal. This is the task of the women. The sifter seats herself on the floor, and shakes the sieve which contains the grain, until the chaff begins to appear on the top, and this is blown away by lung power. The stones are removed as are also the tares. The Lord Jesus made reference to the "sifting" of Simon Peter. He said: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:31).

Storing the grain
Smaller quantities of grain are often stored away for future use by the family, in "barrels" made of a combination of clay and wickerwork. If there is a larger quantity of grain it is sometimes placed in a dry cistern under the ground, and the location of the place is kept a secret by covering over the opening. Actually there were no flour barrels in the homes of Old Testament characters. The Revisers have correctly changed the word "barrel" to "jar." Earthenware jars were used to store grain or flour. see (1Kings 17:12, 14, 16; 1Kings 18:33, A. R. V.).

Both underground storage places for grain and buildings above ground have been in use in modern times. In the Bible, three words are used in our English translations for grain storage places: the storehouse, the garner, and the barn (Deut. 28:8; Matt. 3:12; Prov. 3:10). These places were often located below the surface of the ground, but were sometimes above ground. The barns of the rich fool Christ told about, must have been of the latter type, because he said: "I will pull down my barns and build greater" (Luke 12:18). When excavators uncovered the city of Gezer, they discovered that granaries had been important buildings in ancient times. Some of them were connected with private homes, while others were evidently public storehouses. Most of them were circular in shape, like some that have been in use on the maritime plain of Palestine in recent years. Their size varied greatly.

Free study pack when you join our Mail List
Free Study Pack
Sign up for our mail list and get a free study pack that includes Mr. Benner's ebook, A Mechanical Translation of Genesis.

Related Pages by Jeff A. Benner

HowHow to do a Hebrew Word Study (Video Course)
Learn the methods to uncover the deeper meanings of Hebrew words behind the English translations.

DomesticDomestic animals (Article)
A variety of domestic animals were raised by the Hebrews for food, work and other materials.

WaterWater supply (Article)
One of the most important resources to a desert dwelling people.