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Holman Bible Dictionary
The people of biblical times, both of the Old and New Testament periods, were essentially rural. Even those who lived in towns were close to the country and usually owned gardens or farms. With the seasons as a background to their daily life, the religious calendar was partly based on the agricultural year with several festivals coinciding with significant events: e.g. Feast of Weeks or first fruits (of cereals, Exodus 32:11 ), Feast of Tabernacles or ingathering (of grapes, Leviticus 23:34 ). The primary crops of the Bible include grain, grapes, and olives (Genesis 27:28; Deuteronomy 7:13; Joel 1:10 ).
How were cereals cultivated? Grain crops were the staple food of rich and poor alike, although the poor may have had to consume barley bread rather than the more palatable wheat. Both were sown by scattering the grains into prepared land usually ploughed by draft animals. The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23; Luke 8:5-15 ) provides an interesting account of grain sowing and the subsequent fate of the seed. Peasant agriculture, unlike modern farming practices, was unsophisticated with primitive implements often used in harsh conditions where rocky ground and vigorous weeds militated against a good yield. Hence it would be normal for some of the scattered seed to fall on a path of compacted soil where it would not be covered and lie vulnerable to birds. Similarly, some seeds would fall at the margins of the fields where thorny thickets and rapidly growing thistles easily suffocated the germinating wheat. Shallow soil and lack of moisture during the hot dry summer encouraged the withering of the seeds that did sprout into young plants on the field's outer borders. Those seeds that fell on moist, deep soil grew and matured their ears ready for harvest.
The Book of Ruth provides a vivid picture of the harvesting scene that was carried out by whole families and extra hired men, followed by poor women gleaners picking leftovers. Barley was harvested first during April and May, followed by wheat a month later. A sickle was used to cut off the ears which were held with one hand, and then bundled together in small sheaves to be carted off to the threshing floor (1 Chronicles 21:22 )—a cleared area of stamped earth or stone. Animals, usually cattle, were driven over the spread-out stalks to trample out the grains. Often a cartwheel or a heavy sledge with small stones inserted in the bottom was drawn round and round the floor to hasten the threshing. The grains were swept together and separated from the useless chaff by winnowing—a process involving the throwing up of the grain in breezy weather so that the light scaly chaff is blown away, leaving a pile of clean grain ready for grinding into flour (Matthew 3:12 ). A proportion of the crop was always kept aside and carefully stored in dry conditions for sowing the following year (Genesis 47:24 ).
How did the agriculture of Egypt differ from that of Canaan? The essential difference between Egyptian and Canaanite agriculture was that Canaan depended on rainfall (Deuteronomy 11:11 ), while Egypt depended on the River Nile and its annual flood (Amos 8:8 ). In other words, Canaan was a rain-fed agriculture, while Egypt used irrigation agriculture. In July the Nile rose following rainfall in Ethiopia and flooded the land on both sides. (Now the modern Aswan Dam impounds the water and releases it evenly throughout the year). The flood carried silt that enriched the farmland; and the water level fell later in the year, leaving behind pools of water that could be used for irrigation in channels small enough to be opened and closed by a farmer's foot (Deuteronomy 11:10 ). Egypt was renowned for its rich harvests of wheat and vegetables which were missed by the Israelites fleeing the country via the desert of Sinai. There the Israelites longed for the succulent melons, cucumbers, garlic, leeks, and onions they left behind (Numbers 11:5 ).
Were vineyards for growing grapevines? The Bible presents two accounts of vineyards that describe them in some detail. In Isaiah 5:1-7 and Mark 12:1-9 we read how the hillside was fenced and terraced to provide deep stone-free soil where the rainfall could water the vines' roots in winter. Dung and compost nourished the plants which needed to be trained over rocks or fences. Constant attention had to be given to the trailing branches of carefully chosen varieties in order to yield sweet green or black grapes. As harvest time approached, the owners of the vineyards and their families camped near the vineyards in shelters (booths) or in stone-built towers ( Isaiah 1:8 ) to protect the grapes from animals, such as jackals (foxes) and wild pigs (boar) (Psalm 80:13 ) and human thieves. When ripe, the grapes were picked for eating fresh (Isaiah 65:21 ), drying in the sun as raisins (1 Samuel 30:12 ), or crushed for wine. Most vineyards had a winepress where the grapes were trodden under human foot (Nehemiah 13:15; Revelation 19:15 ), the juice collected in flagons or skins and fermented (Matthew 9:17 ). Fermentation was caused by naturally occurring yeast (Saccharomyses) breaking down the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. During the winter, the long shoots of the previous year's growth had to be pruned away from the vines to leave a few buds for the next season (John 15:2 ).
How long do olive trees live? The huge trees in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36 ) on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are hundreds of years old and could potentially stretch back to New Testament times. During the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 the Roman forces under Titus felled all the trees, presumably including the olives which could have sprouted again (Psalm 123:3 ) to yield the aged hollow trees still growing around Jerusalem.
Olive trees are not raised from seeds because the seedlings invariably produce very inferior ones similar to the wild stock. Selected cuttings are rooted or more often grafted on to the wild plant which has a better root system. Olive roots spread widely to gain nourishment on rocky hillsides, hence the trees are often well spaced. Although flowering begins when the trees are less than ten years old, full yield of fruit is not reached until they are 40 or 50 years old, after which branches are pruned to encourage new fruitful growth. Olives require a Mediterranean type of climate of moist cool winters and hot dry summers to be economically productive.
Olive groves usually had an oil press nearby where the heavy stone wheel crushed the fruit and its hard kernel. The pulp was placed in a press which extracted the precious yellow oil. This was used for cooking purposes as an essential part of diet (Deuteronomy 7:13 , 2 Kings 4:5 , 2 Chronicles 2:10 ). Olive oil was rubbed over skin and hair (Psalm 2:6; Psalm 23:5 ) and used for anointing guests (Luke 7:46 and 1 Kings 1:34 ). Christ was God's “anointed” one (Psalm 2:2; John 1:41; Acts 4:27 ), anointing being symbolic of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 61:1; Acts 10:38 ). Medicinally, olive oil mixed with antiseptic wine healed wounds (Luke 7:34 , James 5:14 ). Taken internally, olive oil soothed gastric disorders and acted as a laxative. Olive oil was used as fuel for lamps with a wick made of flax, producing a bright flame when lit (Exodus 25:6; Matthew 25:34 ).
What animals were used in agriculture? Mainly cows (oxen) were used to pull carts (1 Samuel 6:7 ) and simple wooden plows (Job 1:14; 1 Samuel 14:14 ) tipped with iron, if the farmer could afford it (Isaiah 2:4 ). Oxen and donkeys (asses) were driven over the harvested grain to thresh it. The use of horses and camels in agriculture appears to have been limited, presumably because they were more valuable animals, well adapted for carrying heavy loads and for use in time of war. When pairs of animals were used, they were coupled with a wooden yoke across their shoulders (Jeremiah 28:13; Luke 14:19 ).
F. Nigel Hepper
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Agriculture'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/a/agriculture.html. 1991.