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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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AGRICULTURE.—The influence of the physical and climatic characteristics of a land upon the character of its people has been a favourite theme with many writers. But we are more concerned here with another marked feature—the profound influence exerted by the occupations of a people on their manner of thought and their modes of expressing it. Nowhere was this subtle influence more manifest than in the case of the Hebrews. Their occupations were largely determined by the characteristics of the land they inhabited, but their thought and the language that was its vehicle were equally moulded by their occupations.

1. The place of Agriculture in the life and thought of the Hebrews.—From the first the Hebrews were a pastoral, and from very early times an agricultural people; and these twin employments have lent their colour and tone to their literature, and shaped their profoundest thoughts and utterances regarding God and man. God is the Shepherd of Israel (Psalms 80:1); Israel is ‘the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand’ (Psalms 95:7, cf. Psalms 74:1, Psalms 79:13, Psalms 100:3). God is the Husbandman; Israel is His vineyard (Isaiah 5:1 ff.). God is the Ploughman; Israel is the land of His tillage (Isaiah 28:25 ff.; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9).

When we turn to the Gospels we find the same stream of thought in full flow. The highest Christian virtue is enforced by appeal to Him who ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45). The kingdom of God is set forth under such emblems as the sower going forth to sow (Matthew 13:3 ff.), the wheat and the tares growing together until the harvest (Matthew 13:24 ff.), the lord of the vineyard going out early in the morning to hire labourers (Matthew 20:1 ff.), or sending to demand its fruits (Matthew 21:33 ff.). Christ compares Himself to the shepherd who seeks his lost sheep until he finds it (Luke 15:4), or lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). The multitude are, to His compassionate eye, as ‘sheep I not having a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34). The world appears to Him as a great field ‘white unto harvest’ (John 4:35), and awaiting the labour of the reapers (Matthew 9:37 f.). His relation to His disciples is expressed under the figure of the vine and its branches (John 15:1 ff.) See also art. Husbandman.

Noteworthy also is the place assigned by Biblical writers to the cultivation of the soil. It is represented as the duty of the first man. Adam, placed in the Garden of Eden, is ‘to dress it and to keep it’ (Genesis 2:15); driven from it, he is sent ‘to till the ground from whence he was taken’ (Genesis 3:23). To Noah the promise is given that ‘while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest … shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22). The land of promise is ‘a land of wheat and barley’ (Deuteronomy 8:8). The Golden Age will be a time when men ‘shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,’ and ‘they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree’ (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3-4). The gladness of the Messianic age is ‘joy according to the joy in harvest’ (Isaiah 9:3).

Nor was it only in their conception of the past and their anticipation of the future that the influence of agriculture made itself felt: it was the very foundation of their national and religious life. A pastoral age, it is true, preceded the agricultural, and the patriarchs are represented, for the most part, as herdsmen rather than cultivators (Genesis 37:12; Genesis 47:3); and even as late as the beginning of the settlement in Canaan, the trans-Jordanic tribes are said to have had a great multitude of cattle (Numbers 32:1). But, on the other hand, we learn that Isaac, who had gone to Gerar, ‘sowed in that land, and found in the same year an hundredfold’ (Genesis 26:12); while the first dream of Joseph shows that if he did not actually follow, he was at least familiar with, agricultural pursuits (Genesis 37:5-7). But it was not till after their conquest of the Land of Promise that the Hebrews became an agricultural people on any large scale. Prior to that time, however, agriculture was highly developed among the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 8:8); and it may have been from the conquered race that they acquired it. Once learned, it became the staple industry of the country.

The Mosaic legislation presupposes a people given to agricultural pursuits. That is sufficiently attested by the laws anent the three annual festivals (Exodus 23:14-16), the septennial fallow (Exodus 23:11), the gleanings of the harvest field (Leviticus 19:9), Leviticus 19:10 the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10 ff., Leviticus 27:17 ff.), and many others. Further attestation of the same fact is found in the blessings that were to attend the faithful observance of the Law, and the curses that would follow disobedience (Leviticus 26:3-5; Leviticus 26:14-20, Deuteronomy 28:1-5; Deuteronomy 28:15-18).

2. The soil of Palestine.—The fertility of the soil of Palestine was remarkable, as is testified by Josephus (c. Apion. i. 22; BJ ii. 3) and others (Diod. xl. 3, 7; Tac. Hist. v. 6). The soil varies in character. In the Jordan Valley and the maritime plains it consists of a very rich alluvial deposit; in the regions lying at a higher elevation it has been formed from decomposing basaltic rock and cretaceous limestone. This, however, was greatly enriched by the system of ‘terracing,’ low walls of ‘shoulder-stones’ being built along the mountain slopes, and the ledges behind them filled with the alluvial soil of the valleys. These walls gave protection against the heavy rains, and prevented the soil from being washed away. It was to this system that districts such as Lebanon, Carmel, and Gilboa owed the wonderful fertility that formerly characterized them.

All parts were not, of course, equally productive. Thus we find the Mishna (Gittin, v. 1) enumerating several classes of soil according to their quality or the degree of moisture. Such a classification is quite distinct from that of the parable of the Sower, where the wayside, the rocky places, etc., are all within the limits of a single field (Matthew 13:5, Mark 4:3, Luke 8:5). It may be noted here that ground which yielded thorns was considered specially good for wheat-growing, while that which was overrun with weeds was assigned to barley. The most productive fields were often marked by the presence of large stones, some of which were beyond a man’s own strength to remove. Their presence was regarded as a token that the soil was fertile. Smaller stones, which were also plentiful, were often used for making rude walls along the side of the fields. In some districts they were so numerous that they had to be removed every year after ploughing had taken place.

3. Agricultural operations, etc.—The work of preparing the land for cultivation was the first concern of the farmer. Where virgin soil had to be reclaimed, a beginning was made by clearing it of timber, brushwood, or stones (Joshua 17:18, Isaiah 5:2). It was then ready to receive the plough (which see).

(a) Ploughing began immediately after the ‘early rain’ had softened the ground, i.e. towards the end of September or beginning of October, and went on right through the winter, provided the soil had not become too wet and, therefore, too heavy. Usually a single ploughing sufficed, but if the soil was very rough it was ploughed twice.

In some cases the hoe or mattock took the place of the plough. That is the common practice in modern times where there is a rocky bottom and only a sparse covering of earth. In ancient times the same course was followed where hillsides were brought under cultivation (Isaiah 7:25). The same implement was employed for breaking up large clods of earth (Isaiah 28:24, Hosea 10:11), but whether the reference includes the clods upturned by the plough, or merely those occurring in ‘stony ground,’ is not quite certain.

(b) Dung was employed for increasing the productiveness of fruit trees (Luke 13:8), but not, as a rule, for grain fields. The most common forms were house and farmyard refuse mixed with straw (Isaiah 25:10), withered leaves, oil-scum, and wood-ashes. The blood of slaughtered animals was also used for this purpose.

(c) The principal crops were wheat, barley, spelt, millet, beans, and lentils (see articles on the first two of these). Oats were little cultivated. From Joshua 2:6 we learn that flax was grown. It was sometimes sown as an experiment for testing the quality of the soil, for a field which had yielded good flax was regarded as specially suitable for wheat-growing.

(d) The sowing season began in the early days of October. A beginning was made with pulse varieties, barley came next, and wheat followed. Millet was sown in summer, the land being prepared for it by irrigation. When the winter set in cold and wet, barley was not sown till the beginning of February.

The sower carries the seed in a basket or bag, from which he scatters it broadcast. Where a single ploughing suffices, the seed is sown first and then ploughed in. When it is sown on ploughed ground, the usual course is also to plough it in, but sometimes a light harrow (not infrequently a thorn-bush) is used to cover it. Seed that falls on the footpath or ‘wayside’ cannot be covered owing to the hardness of the ground, and is picked up by the birds (Matthew 13:4 and parallels).

(e) The crops thus sown were exposed, as they grew, to various dangers, such as the inroads of roaming cattle, the depredations of birds, or the visitation of locusts; and also to such adverse natural and climatic influences as drought, east wind, and mildew. Some of these will be separately treated, and need not be dwelt upon now. But it may be convenient to say a few words at this stage regarding—

(f) The water supply of the country.—Unlike Egypt, which owed its fertility exclusively to the Nile, Palestine had its time of rain (Deuteronomy 11:10-11; Deuteronomy 11:14, Jeremiah 5:24 etc.). The ‘early rain’ (מורָה) of the Bible is that of October, which precedes ploughing and sowing: the ‘latter rain’ (מַלִקוֹשׁ) denotes the refreshing showers that fall in March and April, and give much-needed moisture to the growing crops. The intervening period is marked by the heavy rains of winter (נַּשָׁם), the wettest month being January. The rainfall is not uniform over the country. In the Jordan Valley it is very slight; at Jerusalem it averages about 20 inches annually; in some other upland regions it is almost twice as much. In the highest lying parts, as Lebanon, there is a considerable fall of . There are also many brooks and springs (Deuteronomy 8:7), and irrigation is employed, especially in gardening, though naturally on a much smaller scale than in Egypt. The summer months are hot and rainless.

(g) Harvest.—Barley harvest (2 Samuel 21:9) began in April or May, according as the district was early or late; wheat and spelt were ripe a few weeks after (Exodus 9:31-32). The grain was cut with a sickle (Joel 3:13, Deuteronomy 16:9, Mark 4:29; see art. Sickle), or pulled up by the roots (Mishna, Peah iv. 10). The latter method was followed both in Palestine and in Egypt, and is so still; but the use of the sickle goes back to very early times, as the excavations at Tell el-Hesy have shown. Ordinarily the stalks were cut about a foot beneath the ear, but in some instances even higher (Job 24:24). The reaper grasped them in handfuls (Ruth 2:16), reaped them with his arm (Isaiah 17:5), and laid them behind him; while the binder, following him, gathered them in his bosom (Psalms 129:7), tied them with straw into sheaves (Genesis 37:7), and set them in heaps (עֳכָרִים* [Note: See Vogelstein, Landwirthschaft in Pal. 61.] Ruth 2:7).

(h) Threshing.—The sheaves thus prepared were carried to the threshing-floor on the backs of men or of beasts of burden, such as donkeys, horses, or camels. Amos 2:13 has been taken by some as implying that they were sometimes removed in carts, but this is very doubtful. The reference is more probably to the threshing-sledge (Isaiah 28:28).

The threshing-floor is simply a circle of level ground which has been carefully cleaned and beaten hard, and is enclosed with a row of big stones to prevent the straw from being too widely scattered. The spot selected always stood higher than the surrounding ground, so that it should be open to the air currents, and that rain, if it occurred, though it was rare in harvest time (1 Samuel 12:17), might run off without doing injury. The sheaves were unbound and scattered over the floor, till a heap was formed about a foot high. Cattle (Hosea 10:11) were then driven over it repeatedly, or a threshing wain drawn by cattle. The Pentateuchal law provided that the cattle engaged in this operation should not be muzzled (Deuteronomy 25:4). It was also the custom to blindfold them, as otherwise, moving continually in a circle, they became dizzy (Talmud, Kelim xvi. 7). Certain crops, however, were threshed by being beaten with a stick (Isaiah 28:27).

Two kinds of threshing machines were employed, the drag and the waggon. The drag (מורָנ, הָררן) was a heavy wooden board, [Note: See illustration in Driver’s Joel and Amos (Camb. Bible), p. 227.] the under-surface of which was studded with nails or sharp fragments of stone (Isaiah 41:15). It was further weighted with large stones, and by the driver himself, who stood, sat, or even lay upon it. The waggon (עֲנָלָה Isaiah 28:28) was provided with sharp metal discs. These were affixed to revolving rollers set in a rude waggon-frame.

(i) Winnowing.—The operation of threshing yielded a confused mass of grain, chaff, and broken straw, which required to be winnowed. Two implements were used for this process—the shovel and the fan (Isaiah 30:24). With these the mixed mass was tossed into the air, against the wind. The chaff was blown away (Psalms 1:4), the straw fell a little distance off, and the grain at the feet of the winnower. Where, as at large public threshing-floors, there was an accumulation of chaff, it was burned (Matthew 3:12). The chopped straw (הָּבָן Isaiah 11:7) was used as fodder for cattle.

(j) Sifting.—The winnowed grain still contained an admixture of small stones and particles of clay, stubble, and unbruised ears, and also of smaller poisonous seeds such as tares, and so stood in need of yet further cleansing. This was effected by means of sifting. In modern Palestine the sieve in common use is a wooden hoop with a mesh made of camel-hide. This implement probably corresponds to the כָּבָרָה (ĕbhârâh) of ancient times (Amos 9:9). The mesh was wide enough to allow the separated grains to pass through, but retained the unthreshed ears, which were cast again on the threshing-floor.* [Note: In this case the meaning of ‘the least grain’ in Amos 9:9 must be ‘the least pebble’ (so Preuschen, ZATW, 1895, p. 24). Others (e.g. Driver, Joel and Amos, p. 221; Nowack and Marti in their Comm. ad loc.) צְדו̇ד (ěrór, lit. ‘pebble’) to stand here for a grain of wheat, while admitting that the word is not elsewhere so used. On this supposition the action of the ěbhârâh would be similar to that of the modern described above.] In Isaiah 30:28 another implement is mentioned, נָפָה (nâphâh), which both Authorized Version and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 render ‘sieve.’ It is not quite certain, however, that the nâphâh was really a sieve. If it was, it may have resembled the modern ghirbal, which is of smaller mesh than the kĕbhârâh (Arab. [Note: Arabic.] kirbal), and permits only broken grains and dust to pass through, while retaining the unbruised kernels.

The sifted grain was collected in large heaps, and, pending its removal to the granary, the owner, to guard against thieving, slept by the threshing-floor (Ruth 3:7). In the Gospels there is one reference to sifting (Luke 22:31).

(k) Storage.—In the NT a granary is called ἀποθήκη (Matthew 6:26; Matthew 13:30, Luke 12:18; Luke 12:24). In the OT quite a variety of names occurs (מִסבּנוֹה Exodus 1:11; אֲסָמֽים Deuteronomy 28:8; מִאַב֖מים Jeremiah 50:26; מִוָוִים Psalms 144:13; אֹצרוֹת and מַמֻּנ֖רוֹת Joel 1:17). But though the nomenclature is so ‘rich, of the construction and character of those granaries we know nothing. Some of them were probably sheds, and may have resembled the flat-roofed buildings used in Egypt for storing grain. Others may have been dry wells, or cisterns, or caves hewn out of the rock, such as are common in modern times. The grain stored in these magazines will remain good for years.

Literature.—Ugolinus. Thesaurus, vol. xxix.; Benzinger, Heb. Arch. 207 ff.; Nowack, Lehrbuch der Heb. Archaologie, i. 228 ff.; Vogelstein, Die Landwirthschaft in Palastina zur Zeit der Mischna; Stade, Geschichte d. Volkes Israel, i. vii.; Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, passim; Thomson, The Land and the Book; van Lennep, Bible Lands and Customs; ZDPV [Note: DPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins.] ix.; PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] , passim; Ungewitter, Die landwirthschaftlichen Bilder und Metaphern i. d. poet. Buch. d. Alt. Test.; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, and Encyc. Bibl. s.v. ‘Agriculture.’

Hugh Duncan.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Agriculture'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​a/agriculture.html. 1906-1918.
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