11 May 2010

The Calendar of Ancient Israel

The Calendar of Ancient Israel
By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                A book could be written describing the characteristics of the agricultural year in Iron Age Palestine. The Israelites, like their neighbor nations, were agrarian and marked the passing of time by weather, harvest, and planting. The famous “Gezer Calendar” (believed by most experts to be a schoolboy’s writing exercise) is a small limestone tablet found in the city of Gezer in 1908. It provides us with some information regarding the rituals of the year. In combination with information from the Bible and other sources, we can get an overall picture of the passing of the seasons.

Abib (March/April)
                The name of the month means “green ears,” referring to the ripe but soft heads of barley that marked the start of the agricultural year. It was cool still (50-85° F) and people would have lit fires at night for warmth. The Bible calls this the “latter rains,” when an inch or so of precipitation (snow in the hills) ripened the grain for harvest. Snowmelt and this rain brought the Jordan and other rives to flood stage.
                Lentils are harvested. Flax was harvested and the stalks lain on rooftops or in streambeds where moisture would rot the stems and release the inner fibers that were harvested to make linen. In Philistia and Sharon, along the coastal plain, the barley harvest begins. Herb gardens, grown within the courtyards of houses, are also harvested. Calves frolic in the new grass and the smell of lanolin is everywhere as sheep are shorn. Storax trees explode in clusters of white blossoms.
                Abib was a month of celebrations: the Passover, the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, and the offering of the firstfruits of the barley harvest.
Ziv (April/May)
                Ziv means “brightness”—not referring to the light but to the blossoms and flowers that blanketed the country. Rainfall drops to three-quarters of an inch as the dry season begins; plants rely on the dew for their survival. Morning clouds burn off to clear skies and 60-90° temperatures.
                The barley harvest spreads into the terraced hills, and sickles flash among the wheat fields in the valleys. The hills of Galilee are ablaze with flowers: lily, anemone, gladiolus, hyacinths, tulips, irises. Farmers plant millet and women harvest the cucumbers grown in courtyards or near the town walls. When fig trees begin to get their leaves, everyone knows that summer is near.
Sivan (May/June)
                The dry season arrives in force. The quarter-of-an-inch of rain that falls this month will be the last until the end of summer. A hot, dry southeasterly wind spreads a fine layer of dust over everything and temperatures climb to 70-90°.
                Spring is over. Under the heat of the sun harvesters bring in the wheat and on hills all around the land it is winnowed and threshed, filling the air with blowing chaff. Figs are “nipped” (pierced with a sharp instrument to speed ripening) and leaves are plucked from grapevines to expose the fruit to direct sunlight.
Tammuz (June/July)
                Weeks of clear skies keep temperatures between 70 and 90°; the heavy dews of morning are all the moisture that plants get. The hillsides turn a reddish-brown as vegetation and springs dry up. Millet and lentils are harvested and the first grapes are tasted to correctly schedule the vintage.
Ab (July/August)
                Heat soars to 95° Fahrenheit. No rain falls. The early grape harvest and the harvest of summer fruits yield refreshing fruit juices that replace scarce water at mealtimes.
Elul (August/September)
                At last, summer draws to a close, although temperatures remain between 70 and 90° and heavy dews every morning remind the people that no rain will fall this month, either. Dates and figs are harvested. The general vintage gets underway and, by the end of the month, the new wine is flowing.
Ethanim (September/October)
                Summer is ending; by mid-month it is autumn and preparations are underway for winter. Approximately half an inch of rain softens the ground for plowing even while parching, oppressive winds blow in from the southeast. Temperatures drop to 65-88°.
                Long-handled hooks are used to shake the carob pods from the trees; these are used as animal food and for making sweetmeats. Harvesting is complete, and it is a month of festivals. On the first day of the month a trumpet blast commemorates Noah’s first look out the windows of the Ark following the Great Flood. The most sacred day of the year, the annual Day of Atonement, is celebrated on the 10th, closely followed by the week-long Festival of Booths, where Israelites remember their nomadic roots by living in tents on their rooftops.
Heshvan (October/November)
                “Heshvan” means “yield.” The rainy season begins with about an inch falling during the month, and temperatures drop considerably to the 55-75° range. Plowing continues, and barley and wheat are sown in the fields. In regions where olive trees flourish, harvesters beat the limbs and collect the fallen fruit, then pressed to extract their oil. (Alternatively, the crushed olives can be thrown into water and the oil skimmed off of the top).
                As the weather turns more harsh, shepherds bring their flocks in from the fields to the cover of barns and pens. Delicate saffron is harvested by hand and the fragile threads are pressed into cakes for storage.
Chislev (November/December)
                Winter arrives in earnest. Two to three inches of cold rain falls and people burn charcoal in braziers indoors for heat. Snow dusts the mountains and mornings bring a thick layer of frost to the highlands. Highs do not reach 70° even on the warmest days, and it may drop to below 50° at night.
                By the end of the month, though, the land begins to turn green with sprouting grasses. In valleys and lowlands, egumes such as peas and chickpeas are sown, and people traditionally enjoy spring dishes made from freshly harvested vegetables.
Tebeth (December/January)
                The name of this month evokes the season; “Tebeth” means “to sink down” as one does in muddy ground. Four inches or more of rain flood the land and temperatures continue to fall (48-68°). The hills are frosty every morning and the snow begins to make its way to lower elevations; it is not uncommon for Jerusalem to see flurries. Mountain passes may be temporarily blocked by snow and floods, and poorly constructed homes are in danger of being washed away.
                Unlike other parts of the world, winter in Israel sees the greening of the land as grains and the earliest flowers of spring emerge.
Shebat (January/February)
                Shebat is the middle of winter, and the rain slackens somewhat to around two inches. Temperatures rise; though nights may drop as low as 45°, days reach the low seventies. Toward the end of the month as the weather warms, almond trees brighten the landscape with explosions of pink and white blossoms. Fig trees bud, and the fields are alive with frolicking lambs.
Adar (February/March)
                At last, spring arrives. Thunder- and hailstorms (called the “latter rains” in Scripture) drench most of the land with two more inches of precipitation, providing the moisture and nutrition for plants to mature. Temperatures moderate to between 50 and 70°.
                The land is painted with all the color’s of nature’s pallete. The tiny, red flower clusters of carob trees and the bright red blossoms of pomegranates are visible on distant hills like flame. In the lowlands, terebinth trees display their reddish-purple flowers alongside the bright green of their new leaves. In courtyards and small plots outside the city walls women plant cucumbers, lettuce, endive, coriander, horehound, tansy, horseradish, cumin, garlic, hyssop, mint, and rue.

                Life in ancient Israel was inextricably connected to the land and the seasons. The pagan nations’ religious rituals and beliefs were almost all based on elements of planting, harvest, weather, and reproductive cycles.
                Understanding life in Bible times is impossible without some understanding of these seasonal changes. It is an aspect of life that most people in Western cultures have lost touch with—to our detriment, in the opinion of the author.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr.Wilkinson. I have just discovered your blog today and can't stop reading. I grew up in the church and never got this kind of anthropological background info before. Are you a Christian? I notice you don't talk about it on your blog. Is that deliberate? This stuff is awesome!

Timothy Wilkinson said...

Willie Boy,

I'm glad you're enjoying the blog! I am a Christian, but I market my novels as historical fiction rather than Christian or religious fiction because I try to maintain a clear separation between my religious activities and my commercial activities. If I am doing something that is intended to be a Christian endeavor, then I will do it for free (Matthew 10:8). If I am engaged in a commercial enterprise, I want to make sure people recognize that it is not intended to be proselytic. Thanks for your kind comments!

Leah Grover said...

You have a helpful calendar here. Do you have sources other than the Bible and Gezer Calendar?

Leah Grover said...

You have a fine calendar here. Do you have sources other than the Bible and Gezer Calendar?