I. DEVELOPMENT OF AGRICULTURE
II. CLIMATIC CONDITIONS AND FERTILITY
III. AGRICULTURAL PURSUITS
1. Growing of Grain
(1) Plowing and Sowing
2. Care of Vineyards
3. Raising of Flocks
I. Development of Agriculture.
One may witness in Syria and Israel today the various stages of social progress through which the people of Bible times passed in which the development of their agriculture played an important part. To the East the sons of Ishmael still wander in tribes from place to place, depending upon their animals for food and raiment, unless by a raid they can secure the fruits of the
soil from the peoples, mostly of their own blood, who have given up wandering and are supporting themselves by tilling the ground. It is only a short step from this frontier life to the more protected territory toward the Mediterranean, where in comparatively peaceful surroundings, the wanderers become stationary. If the land which they have come to possess is barren and waterless, they become impoverished physically and spiritually, but if they have chosen the rarer spots where underground streams burst forth into valleys covered with alluvial deposits (Ex 3:8), they prosper and there springs up the more complicated community life with its servants, hirelings, gardeners, etc. A division of labor ensues. Some leave the soil for the crafts and professions but still depend upon their farmer neighbors for theft sustenance. (1 Ki 5:11.) Such was the variety of life of the people among whom Jesus lived, and of their ancestors, and of the inhabitants of the land long before the children of Israel came to take possession of it. Bible history deals with the Hebrews at a period when a large proportion of that people were engaged in agrarian pursuits, hence we find its pages filled with references to agricultural occupations.
II. Climatic Conditions and Fertility.
With climatic conditions and fertility so varied, the mode of cultivation, seedtime and harvest differed even in closely adjacent territory. On the coastal plains and in the low Jordan valley the soil was usually rich and the season was early, whereas the mountainous regions and high interior plains the planting and reaping times were from two weeks to a month later. To make use of the soil on the hillsides, terracing was frequently necessary. Examples of these old terraces still exist. On the unwatered plains the crops could be grown only In the winter and spring, i.e. during the rainy season. These districts dried up in May or June and remained fallow during the rainless summer. The same was true of the hilly regions and valleys except where water from a stream could be diverted from its channel and spread over the fields. In such districts crops could be grown irrespective of the seasons.
III. Agricultural Pursuits.
To appreciate the many references in the Bible to agricultural pursuits and the frequent allusions of our Lord to the fields and their products, we must remember how different were the surroundings of the farmers of that day from those among which most of us live or with which we are acquainted. What knowledge we have of these pursuits is drawn from such references as disclose methods bearing a close similarity to those of the present day. The strong tendency to resist change which is everywhere manifest throughout the country and the survival of ancient descriptive words in the language of today further confirm our belief that we now witness in this country the identical operations which were used two thousand or more years ago. It would be strange if there were not a variety of ways by which the same object was accomplished when we remember that the Hebrew people benefited by the experience of the Egyptians, of the Babylonians, of the inhabitants of the land of their adoption, as well as of its late European conquerors. For this reason the drawings found on the Egyptian monuments, depicting agricultural scenes, help us to explain the probable methods used in Israel.
Three branches of agriculture were more prominent than the others; the growing of grain, the care of vineyards (Nu 18:30), and the raising of flocks. Most households owned fields and vineyards and the richer added to these a wealth of flocks. The description of Job's wealth (in Job 1) shows that he was engaged in all these pursuits. Hezekiah's riches as enumerated in 2 Ch 32:27,28 suggest activity in each of these branches.
1. Growing of Grain:
In this and following descriptions, present-day methods as far as they correspond to ancient records will be dealt with.
(1) Plowing and sowing.
On the plains, little or no preparation for plowing is needed, but in the hilly regions, the larger stones, which the tilling of the previous season has loosened and which the winter's rains have washed bare, are picked out and piled into heaps on some ledge, or are thrown into the paths, which thus become elevated above the fields which they traverse. (See FIELD.) If grain is to be planted, the seed is scattered broadcast by the sower. If the land has not been used for some time the ground is first plowed, and when the seed has been scattered is plowed again. The sower may keep his supply of seed in a pocket made by pulling up his outer garment through his girdle to a sufficient extent for it to sag down outside his girdle in the form of a loose pouch. He may, on the other hand, carry it in a jar or basket as the sowers are pictured as doing on the Egyptian monuments. As soon as the seed is scattered it is plowed in before the ever-present crows and ravens can gather it up. The path of the plow in the fields of the hilly regions is a tortuous one because of the boulders jutting out here and there (Mt 13:3 ff) or because of the ledges which frequently lie hidden just beneath the surface (the rocky places of Christ's parable). When the plowman respects the footpaths which the sufferance of the owner has allowed to be trodden across his fields or which mark the boundaries between the lands of different owners, and leaves them unplowed, then the seed which has fallen on these portions becomes the food of the birds. Corners of the field where the plow cannot reach are hoed by hand. Harrowing-in as we know it is not practiced today, except on some of the larger plains, and probably was not used in Israel in earlier times.
After the plowing is over, the fields are deserted until after the winter rains, unless an unusually severe storm of rain and hail (Ex 9:25) has destroyed the young shoots. Then a second sowing is made. In April, if the hot east winds have not blasted the grain (see BLASTING) the barley begins to ripen. The wheat follows from a week to six weeks later, depending upon the altitude. Toward the end of May or the first week in June, which marks the beginning of the dry season, reaping begins. Whole families move out from their village homes to spend the time in the fields until the harvest is over. Men and women join in the work of cutting the grain. A handful of grain is gathered together by means of a sickle held in the right hand. The stalks thus gathered in a bunch are then grasped by the left hand and at the same time a pull is given which cuts off some of the stalks a few inches above ground (see STUBBLE) and pulls the rest up by the roots. These handfuls are laid behind the reapers and are gathered up by the helpers (see GLEANING), usually the children, and made into piles for transporting to the threshing-floor.
The threshing-floors are constructed in the fields, preferably in an exposed position in order to get the full benefit of the winds. If there is a danger of marauders they are clustered together close to the village. The floor is a level, circular area 25 to 40 ft. in diameter, prepared by first picking out the stones, and then wetting the ground, tamping or rolling it, and finally sweeping it. A border of stones usually surrounds the floor to keep in the grain. The sheaves of grain which have been brought on the backs of men, donkeys, camels, or oxen, are heaped on this area, and the process of tramping out begins. In some localities several animals, commonly oxen or donkeys, are tied abreast and driven round and round the floor. In other places two oxen are yoked together to a drag, the bottom of which is studded with pieces of basaltic stone. This drag, on which the driver, and perhaps his family, sits or stands, is driven in a circular path over the grain. In still other districts an instrument resembling a wheel harrow is used, the antiquity of which is confirmed by the Egyptian records. The supply of unthreshed grain is kept in the center of the floor. Some of this is pulled down from time to time into the path of the animals. All the while the partly threshed grain is being turned over with a fork. The stalks gradually become broken into short pieces and the husks about the grain are torn off. This mixture of chaff and grain must now be winnowed. This is done by tossing it into the air so that the wind may blow away the chaff (see WINNOWING). When the chaff is gone then the grain is tossed in a wooden tray to separate from it the stones and lumps of soil which clung to the roots when the grain was reaped. The difference in weight between the stones and grain makes separation by this process possible (see SIFT). The grain is now poled in heaps and in many localities is also sealed. This process consists in pressing a large wooden seal against the pile. When the instrument is removed it leaves an impression which would be destroyed should any of the grain be taken away. This allows the government offers to keep account of the tithes and enables the owner to detect any theft of grain. Until the wheat is transferred to bags some one sleeps by the pries on the threshing-floor. If the wheat is to be stored for home consumption it is often first washed with water and spread out on goats' hair mats to dry before it is stored in the wall compartments found in every house (see STOREHOUSES). Formerly the wheat was ground only as needed. This was then a household task which was accomplished with the hand-mill or mortar (see MILL).
2. Care of Vineyards:
No clearer picture to correspond with present-day practice in vine culture (see VINE) in Israel could be given than that mentioned in Isa 5:1,6. Grapes probably served an important part in the diet of Bible times as they do at present. In the season which begins in July and extends for at least three months, the humblest peasant as well as the richest landlord considers grapes as a necessary part of at least one meal each day. The grapes were not only eaten fresh but were made into wine (see WINE PRESS). No parallel however can be found in the Bible for the molasses which is made by boiling down the fresh grape juice. Some writers believe that this substance was meant in some passages translated by wine or honey, but it is doubtful. The care of the vineyards fitted well into the farmer's routine, as most of the attention required could be given when the other crops demanded no time.
3. Raising of Flocks:
The leaders of ancient Israel reckoned their flocks as a necessary part of their wealth (see SHEEP). When a man's flocks were his sole possession he often lived with them and led them in and out in search of pasturage (Ps 23; Mt 18:12), but a man with other interests delegated this task to his sons (1 Sam 16:11) or to hirelings. Human nature has not changed since the time when Christ made the distinction between the true shepherd and the hireling (Jn 10:12). Within a short time of the writing of these words the writer saw a hireling cursing and abusing the stray members of a flock which he was driving, not leading as do good shepherds.
The flock furnished both food and raiment. The milk of camels, sheep and goats was eaten fresh or made into curdled milk, butter or cheese. More rarely was the flesh of these animals eaten (see FOOD). The peasant's outer coat is still made of a tawed sheepskin or woven of goats' hair or wool (see WEAVING). The various agricultural operations are treated more fully under their respective names, (which see).
James A. Patch