Bible Study Resource
Israel may have been the Promised Land, but much of it was dry and infertile. Farming was hard work - and at least 90% of people in the ancient world lived by working the land. Their story of the first human beings hints at this: the Hebrew word for 'man' is adam; the word for 'earth' is adamah.
According to the Bible story, the Hebrews were farmers (Cain), and nomadic herders (Abel). It was the conflict between these two groups of people that inspired the story of Cain and Abel. See Bible Murders.
Farming was also important in New Testament times. Jesus talked often about the land and its products in his teachings, showing he was familiar with farming techniques. Matthew 13, for example, contains four farming parables.
The Gezer Calendar (see right) is a limestone tablet about 4inches (10cm) tall. It dates from the time of Solomon, in the mid-10th century BC. It describes the agricultural cycle month by month, giving the tasks to be performed at certain times of the year.
The Gezer Calendar is desciphered at the bottom of this page. It has the farmer's tasks for each month of the year.
The annual cycle
The major festivals in Israel were closely linked with the farmer's annual cycle. The Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread were celebrated at the beginning of the barley harvest. Fifty days later came the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, when the wheat harvest began. The Feast of Tabernacles, or Ingathering, took place when the harvest was complete.
Sowing and ploughing began in about the middle of October at the time of the early rains. This was followed by harrowing and weeding. The later rains were vital for ripening the crops, and the rainy season usually ended around early April. Harvesting began with the barley harvest, around the middle of April. The gathering of the grain harvest, the summer fruits, and the grapes lasted until August and September, although the last olives were finally picked in November.
After settlement in Canaan the Hebrews became predominantly farmers.
Drawing Water, example of a Shakeyehz: 1894 photograph
Canaan was surrounded by countries with successful farming methods - Sumerians in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, and Egyptians in the Nile valley. These countries had already mastered irrigation and cultivation methods - see Ancient Technology.
The main crops were grain, grapes (for wine and dried fruit) and olives (for oil). These three crops are mentioned over and over again in the Bible.
Above: Assyrian clay tablet telling the story of the Gilgamesh flood
Unsown land was ploughed three or four times, suggesting beinnial fallow, but the Hebrew sabbatical (seventh) year fallow was also important in promoting soil fertility.
About 30lbs/13.5kg of seed was used to a half acre of land (0.2 hectares). This is about half the quantity of seed normally used today.
Aerial shot showing traces of an ancient irrigation system in Iran
Above: Two images of a traditional stone well used to collect and store water
Wall painting from an official's tomb in Thebes, showing a plough preparing land for sowing
in the Plain of Jezreel, from a 1925 photograph.
The early plough-points were made of bronze, but after the 12th century BC, iron plough-points started to replace bronze. The plough had either one or two handles, so that pressure could be applied by a downward push of the plough-blade. It was pulled by a team of oxen or a single beast.
Unsown land was ploughed three or four times, suggesting beinnial fallow, but the Hebrew sabbatical (seventh) year fallow was also important in promoting soil fertility. About 30lbs/13.5kg of seed was used to a half acre of land (0.2 hectares). This is about half the quantity of seed normally used today.
Sowing took place after the first rains had softened the ground. If the farmer tried to plough before the rain, the plough-blade could not dig into the ground.
"I shall give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. Take heed lest the anger of Yahweh be kindled against you, and He shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain.... (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
There were two methods of sowing seed:
Two animals draw a
plough as the ploughman encourages them with a whip.
For the first method, the farmer walked along the furrows at a constant pace pulling handfuls of seed from a bag at his side and throwing them over the soil.
Several people might be involved for the second method: one to direct the plough and push the handle down into the soil, one to direct the animals, and a third person to hold the seed bag on his shoulder and drop the seeds into the funnel which pointed down to the soil. These seeds would fall behind the plough-point, so that they were covered by the falling soil.
The animals were yoked together with either a single yoke or a double yoke wih bars over and under the neck. An ox goad, a long staff with a nail or metal tip, could be used to control the unfortunate animals.
Harvesting was intense work, and itinerant workers had to be hired especially for it.
Harvesting the crops involved cutting the standing grain with scythes, tying the stalks into sheaves, and transporting the harvested crops to the threshing area. Reaping was done with a sickle held in one hand while a bunch of stalks was seized with the other. The reapers were led by a foreman, and behind them came other people who were taking part in the harvest - the young men and women. See the wall painting from the Tomb of Sennedjem, Amarna above.
painting (above) covered all of one wall in the Tomb of Sennedjem, at
were others who were not directly involved with the harvest - the poor,
who were allowed by religious law to glean any grains that the reapers
dropped or missed. Religious law specified that a
corner of the field had to be left for the poor - this part of the field
could not be harvested by the landowner (Leviticus 19:9, 23:22).
Modern-day women harvesting with sickles
The separation of the grain from the stalks was done on the hard, flat rock of the threshing floor. This was usually located outside the city or town, in a spot where the prevailing westerly wind could help with the winnowing.
A stone threshing floor surrounded by a low stone wall to contain the grain
Threshing: woman with grain on a threshing floor, Israel, 19th century photograph
A modern threshing sledge
The threshing floor was a wide, open space also used for public functions.
For the most famous Bible story involving a threshing floor, see the love story of Ruth at Bible People: Ruth
Theban tomb painting showing grain being winnowed
After winnowing was completed, the farmer was left with several products. The first, of course, was the grain itself. But there was also coarse thick straw suitable for kindling, or as binding in brick making. There was also a finer sort of straw that was the main component of animal fodder. The fine residue of dust/powder left on the threshing floor was used as packing around the grain-filled storage jars.
Winnowing the grain, threshing with donkeys
Reconstructed olive press with stone weights to crush the olives
The Old Testament law let people eat grapes while they were collecting them, but not put them in their own baskets while in someone else's field (Deuteronomy 23:24). The grapes were mainly used for wine, but some were dried as well for later use. Isaiah 5:1-7 gives some idea of the hard work involved in preparing and cultivating vineyards.
As the fruit began to ripen from July onwards, people used stone towers to keep watch for both human and animal intruders. Harvesting the grapes and making wine were great social occasions.
A press was used to crush the oil from the olives after they had been harvested - see Ancient Technology. This press had a beam inserted either into a niche in a wall or into a large stone. Weights were tied to the other end of the beam. The olive baskets were placed under the beam, inside a collection basin.
In later times, during the Roman occupation of Palestine, large stone wheels were used to press oil.
wall painting showing grape-vines trained over a trellis, then
crushed in a vat.
The land and its crops
The Bible praises the fertility of the "promised land", and in fact remains of ancient settlements demonstrate that the land could support large numbers of people.
The principal crops were grain, wine and olive oil (Dt. 7:13; Hos. 2:8).
A large slab of rock used as an ancient mortar for crushing grain
Grain, i.e. wheat, barley and spelt, has been found in the ruins of even the earliest settlements, going back to prehistoric times, while mortars were found at El-Wad cave. Many authorities agree that grain was first cultivated by people living at the foot of Mount Carmel in the Mesolithic Age (8th millenium BC) or perhaps even earlier.
Although the oldest town yet discovered,
Jericho, goes back to the 8th millenium, this was a walled town; depending on trade, probably in salt and bitumen and revealing no traces of
grain silo at the ancient city of Megiddo;
Grain silos have been found in the underground dwelling caves of prehistoric man of the Chalcolithic Age (4th millenium) near Beersheba (Tel abu Matar). The silos, bell shaped and with a capacity of 40-55 litres were found both in the living chambers and the connecting galleries. From the later Bronze and Iron Ages, silos dug into the floors of houses for the storage of grain from one year to the next and larger granaries serving a communal or administrative purpose become a commonplace of excavations. Of these, the best preserved and largest is the stone lined silo at
Megiddo (see above), from the time of Jeroboam II (8th C.
BC), or the granary excavated at Gezer.
Ploughing and Harvesting
The earliest fields were worked with hoes. In the Stone Age these were made of a sharpened flint attached to a wooden stick. Wooden implements, digging sticks, etc. were used earlier but the remains of this "wood age" which may have come before the Stone Age, have rotted and disappeared from the soil of Israel.
Presumably, stone implements were used along with wood from the earliest times, as shown by hand-axes used by men who lived in caves several millenia before the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages. The substitution of bronze for stone in the third millenium meant an improvement in implements.See the bronze hoes from Kobuleti, circe 1300-1200 BC.
Bronze hoes bearing the name of the priest were uncovered at Ugarit. These were probably used in ceremonies meant to ensure the fertility of the soil, for bronze was in use much earlier than Ugarit.
The biggest step forward came with the introduction of the plough. Ploughs were made — as they still are today in primitive communities —of a piece of wood, later tipped with metal, drawn by one or two oxen.
At the beginning of the Israelite period (early Iron Age), copper or bronze was used but, by the 11th century BC (Late Iron Age), iron had been introduced. At first manufacture and repair of iron implements was monopolized by the Philistines, who may have introduced the use of iron into Israel.
From the Neolithic to the late Bronze Age, flint sickles were used in harvesting.
About 1100-1000 BCE iron began to be used for all types of tools and weapons and iron sickles displaced the flint ones. By the time of the divided monarchy, it is clear from the number of iron agricultural tools that have been found that the metal was readily available to everyone. Even so, a plough of this type could only scratch the surface to a depth of 7-10 cms. It could not turn the soil into a furrow.
Flint sickles, flat grinding stone, stone ax with wooden handle
The basic grain crops were wheat and barley. The wheat was of a very poor variety compared to modern strains. Rye seems to have been unknown. By the time of the monarchy, other seeds such as spelt and flax were also sown. Sowing was done by scattering the seed by hand. The land was then ploughed again to cover it, branches being dragged behind the plough to smooth the ground over the seed, (Is. 28:24-5; Job 39:10). It might take weeks of laborious work for the Israelite to sow a small field.
Vineyards came second in importance to fields, but they needed a great deal more care and evoked a strong attachment in their owners — as witness the story of Jezebel and Naboth's vineyard.
A vineyard was a precious possession. It called for much hard work — it had to be weeded and fenced and a stone watch tower erected to guard it against animals and marauders -- and then years of waiting were needed before it came to fruition.
Vines were grown sometimes as bushes or small trees; in other cases, fig trees might be used to support the vines. From this came the phrase "every man under his own vine and under his fig tree" (1 K. 4:25) as a symbol of an ideal of social well-being.
When the grapes were ripe, they were gathered and dumped, one or two baskets at a time, into a small vat whose floor sloped down towards a small basin. The grapes were trampled by foot to extract the juice. Some of the grape presses found in the Judean lowlands (the Shephelah), may also have been used to extract olive oil by a similar method. See the ancient winepress at right, from a 19th century photograph
Wine presses cut in solid rock abound in Judah and Samaria. Some are single square vats for treading out the grapes. Others had three sections, one where the grapes were trodden, one for refining and one for storing the juice. One of the oldest known is the 7th century wine press at Gibeon with dipping basin and stone trough, left, and openings to four vats - see Ancient Technology.
Reconstruction of a Roman wine press
Figs were a staple of the country's diet, being one of the main sources of sugar.
These were of great importance for ancient Israel's economy. Olive oil is used in cooking, for lamps, for cosmetic purposes, as a cleaning agent and in the treatment of sprains and wounds.
To extract the oild, the ripe olives were put into the vat and then either trodden or pounded with a stone or pestle. The oild produced in this way was the finder 'beaten oil'. The pulp left behind was then placed under heavy weights to squeeze out the rest of the oil.
Reconstruction of a large stone olive press
Commercial oil presses had large vats which would be filled with olives and heavily weighted. Presses like this dating from the 10th to 6th centuries
BC were found at Debir and Beth-Shemesh; a press at Gezer is shown at
right. Part of the payment Solomon made to Hiram, King of Tyre, for cedar wood and carpenters supplied for the building of the Temple was in olive
The Cycle of Seasons
Because of the fundamental importance of farming, the year was divided and festivals timed in relation to the farmer and his needs. Even where festivals later acquired a religious and national significance, they kept traces of their original function as the festive seasons of an agricultural community.
The biblical civil calendar gave the months numbers, counting from the first (fall/autumn) month to the twelfth. This system originated with the Israelites and replaced the Canaanite nomenclature. The peasants, whether Canaanite or Hebrew, listed the months according to the tasks to be performed in the different periods of the agricultural year. The Egyptian farmers' calendar at right does the same thing, showing land preparation, ploughing, reaping, winnowing and grain storage.
This is illustrated by a stone tablet from Gezer (see top of page) assumed to be part of a 10th century BCE schoolboy's exercise. It is not an official calendar.
In seven lines, it lists the months and seasons as:
According to the oldest liturgical calendars, (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23), the first month, Nisan, during which the feast of Unleavened Bread was celebrated, began in the spring, approximately March-April in modern terms.
References to farming occur in Genesis 4:2, Genesis 9:20 (Noah), 2 Chronicles 26:10, Isaiah 28:24, Amos 7:14, Luke 8:5, 9:12, 15:25, and James 5:7.
in the Old and New Testament - Archaeology of The Bible, Bible Study Resource