FARMING

Since the majority of Israelites were farmers, a common practice in Israel was to indicate times of the year by features of the agricultural seasons, rather than by names of the months. Using the twelve months of our calendar for comparison, we can summarize the agricultural year in Palestine as follows: Month Weather Agriculture January Cool Rain Sowing February Warmer Rain Almond blossom March Warmer Rain Citrus fruit harvest April Warmer Dry Barley harvest May Hot Dry Wheat harvest June Hot Dry First ripe figs July Hot Dry Grape harvest August Hot Dry Olive harvest September Hot Dry Dates, other fruits October Cooler Rain Ploughing time November Cooler Rain Winter figs December Cooler Rain Sowing Israel’s agricultural prosperity depended upon more than simply growing the right crops in the right seasons. The nation was in a special sense God’s people, and its devotion to God was a basic factor that influenced seasonal conditions (Deut 11:8-17). Also, the annual religious festivals were related to the harvest seasons (Lev 23:10,14-15,39; see FEASTS; MONTH). In fact, the whole way of life in Israel was tied in with the annual agricultural cycle.

Ploughing and sowing

Like farmers elsewhere, Israelite farmers depended much upon the rain for the success of their crops. After the six months dry season, at the end of which all the harvesting for the year was over, the farmers awaited the coming of the rains. The ground was by now hard and dry, and had to be ploughed and broken up in preparation for the sowing of new crops (Exod 34:21; Jer 4:3). Farmers normally ploughed with oxen, urging the animals on with a sharpened stick called a goad (Deut 22:10; Judg 3:31; 1 Kings 19:19; Luke 9:62; 14:19; see also YOKE). Ploughs originally were made of wood, but later of iron (1 Sam 13:20). In hilly country where ploughing was difficult, farmers dug the ground by hand, using a hoe (Isa 7:25). The rains that marked the arrival of the rainy season were known as the early, or autumn, rains (Deut 11:14; Jer 5:24; Joel 2:23) and were necessary for the sowing of the fields that followed (Gen 26:12; Matt 13:3). Rain fell irregularly throughout the cool season, helping the crops to grow. But the rains that farmers most eagerly looked for were the later, or spring, rains. These were necessary to bring the cereal crops to full growth before the dry season arrived (Deut 11:14; Prov 16:15; Jer 3:3; 5:24; Joel 2:23; Zech 10:1). Throughout the hot dry season that followed, farmers depended mainly on heavy dews to provide moisture for their crops (1 Kings 17:1; Isa 18:4; Zech 8:12; see WEATHER).

Cereal harvest

The first of the cereal crops to be harvested was the barley (Lev 23:10; Ruth 1:22; 2 Sam 21:9), and this was followed by the wheat (Lev 23:16-17; Judg 15:1). When harvesting, the farmer was not to reap to the borders of his field, and was not to go back over the field to gather any grain he had missed when reaping. He was to leave this for the poor (Lev 19:9; Deut 24:19; Ruth 2:2-7,17). Reapers cut the standing grain with a sickle (Deut 16:9; Mark 4:29), tied the stalks into sheaves (Gen 37:7; Deut 24:19), and then transported the sheaves either on animals or in carts to the threshing floor (Neh 13:15; Amos 2:13; Micah 4:12). The threshing floor was a hard flat piece of ground where oxen trampled the loosened sheaves so that the grain fell from the stalks. The oxen were allowed to eat from the pile of straw as they trampled it (Num 18:27; Deut 25:4; 1 Sam 23:1; Hosea 10:11; 1 Cor 9:9). Another method of threshing was to drag large wooden or metal implements called threshing sledges over the pile of loosened sheaves (1 Chron 21:23; Amos 1:3). The farmer then winnowed the grain, usually in the evenings when a soft breeze was blowing. Using a large fork, he threw the grain into the air so that the breeze blew away the chaff, while the grain itself fell to the earth (Ruth 3:2; Isa 30:24; Matt 3:12). He then sifted the grain in a sieve to remove impurities, before packing it into bags or baskets ready for household use (Amos 9:9; Luke 22:31). He burnt any dirty or useless straw, but stored the good straw away, to be used as food for animals (Judg 19:19; 1 Kings 4:28; Matt 3:12).

Fruit harvests

During the months that the farmers were reaping, threshing, winnowing and storing the cereal crops, the fruits were beginning to ripen. The first to ripen were the figs, which continued to bear fruit for about the next ten months (Num 13:20; see FIG). Next to be harvested were the grapes. Following the practice of the grain farmer, the vineyard keeper was not to go through his vineyard a second time to gather grapes he had missed when picking, but was to leave them for the poor (Lev 19:10). People ate grapes fresh or dried and used them to make a variety of wines (Num 6:3; 1 Sam 25:18; see GRAPES). After the grapes were the olives, which workers harvested by shaking or beating the tree so that the fruit fell to the ground. It was then collected in baskets (Deut 24:20; Isa 17:6; Amos 8:2; see OLIVE). Finally came the harvest of dates and other summer fruits, which marked the end of the agricultural season (Amos 8:1). The people were now well stocked with food for the winter months ahead. During these months the rains came and the farmers began preparing for the next annual cycle. (For details of other cereals, fruits and vegetables that the Israelites grew see FOOD.)

Flocks and herds

Only after the Israelites settled in Canaan did they became crop farmers and fruit growers. Before that, they and their forefathers had been mainly keepers of sheep and cattle. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had moved around from place to place with their animals (Gen 13:1-7; 26:14-22; 33:13), the family of Jacob had kept flocks and herds in Egypt (Gen 47:1-6), and the people of Moses’ time had brought animals with them when they left Egypt for Canaan (Exod 12:38; Deut 8:11-14). Having settled in their new homeland, the Israelites continued to keep sheep and cattle. Some of the best regions for their animals were the grassy plains of Bashan and Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan (Num 32:1,26,36; Deut 32:14; Ps 22:12; Micah 7:14). Israelites were not great eaters of meat. In general they ate only the meat of cattle, sheep and goats, and usually only in connection with religious sacrifices or on special occasions (Gen 18:7; 27:9; Lev 7:15; 1 Sam 25:18; 28:24; Luke 15:23,29). They kept cattle mainly for their milk, which provided an important part of the Israelite diet (Gen 18:7-8; 2 Sam 17:29; Isa 7:22). They kept sheep mainly for their wool, which they used to make clothing (Lev 13:47; Prov 27:26; see SHEEP). Goats, which could live in harsher country than sheep, were kept for their hair, which people wove into cloth, and for their milk (Exod 26:7; 1 Sam 19:13; Prov 27:27). Those who looked after animals usually became tough, hard people. Life for them was harsh and dangerous as they battled against the difficulties created by drought, heat, cold, wild animals and thieves (Gen 26:17-22; 31:39-40; Amos 3:12; John 10:12; see SHEPHERD).

Difficulties for farmers

No fences divided one farmer’s land from another’s, the borders being marked by huge stones called landmarks. Farmers sometimes lost their land because of the dishonesty and violence of others (Deut 19:14). Much of Palestine’s farming land was stony, and farmers had much hard work to do in digging up the stones before they could use the land for farming (Isa 5:2). They used most of the stones to make walls for sheep folds and vineyards, though in some cases they preferred to surround their vineyards with hedges (Num 22:24; Isa 5:5; Micah 2:12-13; Matt 21:33). But neither hedges nor stone walls could prevent thieving and violence (Matt 21:38-39; John 10:1). In addition to these dangers, farmers were exploited and oppressed by wealthy merchants and government officials (Amos 5:11; 8:4-6). As a result many of them became poor and even lost their houses and lands to ruthless money lenders (Amos 2:7-8; Micah 2:1-2; James 2:6; 5:4). Farmers had a constant battle also against natural enemies such as drought (1 Kings 17:7; Amos 4:7; Hag 1:11), locust plagues (Joel 1:4), hail storms (Hag 2:17), plant diseases (Amos 4:9) and hot winds from the desert that burnt up their crops (Isa 27:8; Jer 4:11; 13:24). Some of these difficulties may have come as judgments from God (Deut 28:1-24; see also SABBATICAL YEAR). One quality required in farmers, therefore, was patience amid the trials of life. Through hard work and perseverance they could expect in the end to enjoy the fruits of their work (2 Tim 2:6; James 5:7).

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