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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
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:
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 (Deuteronomy 11:8-17). Also, the annual religious festivals were related to the harvest seasons (Leviticus 23:10; Leviticus 23:14-15; Leviticus 23:39; see ; ). 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 (Exodus 34:21; Jeremiah 4:3).
Farmers normally ploughed with oxen, urging the animals on with a sharpened stick called a goad (Deuteronomy 22:10; Judges 3:31; 1 Kings 19:19; Luke 9:62; Luke 14:19; see also ). Ploughs originally were made of wood, but later of iron (1 Samuel 13:20). In hilly country where ploughing was difficult, farmers dug the ground by hand, using a hoe (Isaiah 7:25).
The rains that marked the arrival of the rainy season were known as the early, or autumn, rains (Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; Joel 2:23) and were necessary for the sowing of the fields that followed (Genesis 26:12; Matthew 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 (Deuteronomy 11:14; Proverbs 16:15; Jeremiah 3:3; Jeremiah 5:24; Joel 2:23; Zechariah 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; Isaiah 18:4; Zechariah 8:12; see ).
The first of the cereal crops to be harvested was the barley (Leviticus 23:10; Ruth 1:22; 2 Samuel 21:9), and this was followed by the wheat (Leviticus 23:16-17; Judges 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 (Leviticus 19:9; Deuteronomy 24:19; Ruth 2:2-7; Ruth 2:17).
Reapers cut the standing grain with a sickle (Deuteronomy 16:9; Mark 4:29), tied the stalks into sheaves (Genesis 37:7; Deuteronomy 24:19), and then transported the sheaves either on animals or in carts to the threshing floor (Nehemiah 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 (Numbers 18:27; Deuteronomy 25:4; 1 Samuel 23:1; Hosea 10:11; 1 Corinthians 9:9). Another method of threshing was to drag large wooden or metal implements called threshing sledges over the pile of loosened sheaves (1 Chronicles 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; Isaiah 30:24; Matthew 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 (Judges 19:19; 1 Kings 4:28; Matthew 3:12).
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 (Numbers 13:20; see ). 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 (Leviticus 19:10). People ate grapes fresh or dried and used them to make a variety of wines (Numbers 6:3; 1 Samuel 25:18; see ).
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 (Deuteronomy 24:20; Isaiah 17:6; Amos 8:2; see ). 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.)
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 (Genesis 13:1-7; Genesis 26:14-22; Genesis 33:13), the family of Jacob had kept flocks and herds in Egypt (Genesis 47:1-6), and the people of Moses’ time had brought animals with them when they left Egypt for Canaan (Exodus 12:38; Deuteronomy 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 (Numbers 32:1; Numbers 32:26; Numbers 32:36; Deuteronomy 32:14; Psalms 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 (Genesis 18:7; Genesis 27:9; Leviticus 7:15; 1 Samuel 25:18; 1 Samuel 28:24; Luke 15:23; Luke 15:29). They kept cattle mainly for their milk, which provided an important part of the Israelite diet (Genesis 18:7-8; 2 Samuel 17:29; Isaiah 7:22). They kept sheep mainly for their wool, which they used to make clothing (Leviticus 13:47; Proverbs 27:26; see ). Goats, which could live in harsher country than sheep, were kept for their hair, which people wove into cloth, and for their milk (Exodus 26:7; 1 Samuel 19:13; Proverbs 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 (Genesis 26:17-22; Genesis 31:39-40; Amos 3:12; John 10:12; see ).
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 (Deuteronomy 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 (Isaiah 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 (Numbers 22:24; Isaiah 5:5; Micah 2:12-13; Matthew 21:33). But neither hedges nor stone walls could prevent thieving and violence (Matthew 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; Amos 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; James 5:4).
Farmers had a constant battle also against natural enemies such as drought (1 Kings 17:7; Amos 4:7; Haggai 1:11), locust plagues (Joel 1:4), hail storms (Haggai 2:17), plant diseases (Amos 4:9) and hot winds from the desert that burnt up their crops (Isaiah 27:8; Jeremiah 4:11; Jeremiah 13:24). Some of these difficulties may have come as judgments from God (Deuteronomy 28:1-24; see also ).
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 Timothy 2:6; James 5:7).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Farming'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/f/farming.html. 2004.