In the Bible agriculture and religion are intimately connected. Of the three major festivals two were clearly connected with the agricultural year. The Feast of Weeks was associated with the first fruits and the end of the grain harvest. The Feast of Booths was an occasion of joy at the completion of the harvesting of fruits. Some have connected the Passover with the beginning of the grain harvest. (See also Feasts and Festivals.) Furthermore, the poetic imagery of the Bible is heavily freighted with agricultural metaphors. The blessing of God was perceived in agricultural abundance and his cursing in drought. The golden age was described in terms of agricultural productivity. The singer in the Song of Solomon uses agricultural images to portray his beloved. Renewal for the author of the later part of Isaiah (chaps. 40–66) was expressed visually in miraculous agricultural phenomena. Jesus' teachings include many agricultural metaphors. The New Testament often uses agricultural images for the church.
Palestine has almost no rain for six months of the year (15 April to 15 October). In late October and November the “early rain” begins. Precipitation then slackens in December and January only to intensify again in March (the “later rain”). The Mishnah prescribes a series of fasts if the rain fails to appear in October and November (m. Taʿan. 1.4–7). The dew in May and June triggers the final ripening process of the grain and renders the stalks soft enough to facilitate reaping.
Snow usually falls each winter on the hill country. The snow is seen as a special blessing and is called in Arabic “the salt of the earth.” It kills the insects and is absorbed rather than running off. From ancient times there has been some irrigation from the Jordan River, from its tributaries, and from the great spring of En‐gedi. (See also Geography of Palestine; Water.)
The soil is rich and deep in the valleys, but most of the land is rocky hills that must be terraced to be used for agriculture. Solid rock is but a few inches below the surface. A wall is built on the slope, then stones are removed and earth carried in to level the ground (see Isa. 5.1–2). Thus the rocky ground in the parable of the sower indicates an area where the soil covering is too thin to support a mature plant (Luke 8.6). Plowing is done with a light one‐handled plow. The farmer's other hand holds a thin pole with a small spade on one end used for cleaning the plow point and a spike on the other end used for driving the oxen. The point of the plow is covered with iron. This metal sleeve is held together with strips of iron about the shape of a sword (cf. Isa. 2.4). After plowing, the large clods are generally broken up with heavy hoes. The land is plowed in preparation for the rain. After the first rains the seed is scattered by hand, and then the seed is covered by a second plowing. If this second plowing is done carelessly the birds will eat the seeds (see Luke 8.5). Grain is cut by hand and transported to threshing floors near the villages.
The Farmer's Enemies.
Drought was an ever‐present threat. A locust plague was rare (Joel 1.2–4) but devastating. There were no sprays for blight (see Amos 4.9). Fire could destroy a crop at harvest time. The hot southeast desert winds of May and June can critically damage a number of crops. Thus, remembering past losses, the farmer would “sow in tears” (Ps. 126.5–6).
Among the food‐producing trees, the hardy olive bears fruit each year after six months of drought. The oil was used for food, medicine, soap, and light. Figs were a major source of sugar. The tree's deep shade was a convenient place to study (John 1.48); it symbolized peace (Mic. 4.4). The sycamore fig is small and tasteless; only the poor dress and gather them (see Amos 7.14). The tasty red pomegranate grows on a large shrub; this fruit is referred to metaphorically in love poetry (Song of Sol. 4.3). The almond blooms first in the spring (see Jer. 1.11–12). The word apple (quince?) figures prominently in the Song of Solomon. A tasty molasses is boiled out of carob pods, and the remaining husks become animal feed (Luke 15.16). Date palms flourished in the Jordan valley.
The common grains were wheat, barley, and spelt (KJV: rye). The wheat was cut and transported to the threshing floor where it was systematically trodden by animals and flailed with sticks or crushed with a threshing sledge. The latter is made of two wide boards joined on the top with two cross arms. The bottom is embedded with rows of sharp‐edged flint nodules. The sledge is dragged by animals in a circle over the wheat with the driver standing on the sledge to add weight. Occasionally pieces of iron were used rather than flint (Amos 1.3). The wheat was then winnowed by throwing it into the air on a windy day (Ps. 1.4; Luke 3.17). Finally the wheat was put through a sieve to remove the remaining impurities (see Luke 22.31). Flax was grown for clothing and rope. Sesame produced cooking oil. Lentils and chick‐peas supplemented the protein available. Onions, garlic, cucumbers, and melons were among the vegetables cultivated. Herbs included mint and cumin. The Mishnah lists the bitter herbs to be eaten at Passover as lettuce, chicory, pepperwort, snakeroot, and dandelion (m. Pesah. 2.6).
Kenneth E. Bailey