07 July 2010

Agriculture in Ancient Israel

by Timothy S. Wilkinson

                Sizeable chapters and even entire books have been written on the subject of the agricultural practices of the Israelites in Bible times. This article just skims the surface, but I have tried to include details that I felt readers might find interesting or particularly informative.
                It is extremely difficult for modern people to comprehend what agriculture was to the ancients—it was, as the word itself suggests, a culture that influenced every aspect of their lives. Israelites felt a connection to the land that most of us will never experience. Common people came to be known as amha’arets, or “people of the land” because their identities were so inextricably tied up with the earth upon which they walked.
                They were, at least prior to the period of the monarchy, self-sufficient farmers; each family was an economically independent unit. That meant that when they sat down to a meal of mutton, they were eating an animal that their hands had slaughtered and dressed, but also one that they had watched be born (even helped to deliver), carried as a lamb, bandaged and shorn. During the winter, they had hand fed it food that they had grown, using tools they had made from trees, stones, and ore that came from the land that God had given them and that had been in their family for hundreds of generations—land that had never belonged to anyone else and, from their perspective, never would. The knife they used to slaughter, the staff they leaned upon and the clothes they wore were all made by their own hands from materials they had harvested.
                This little corner of the earth has always been remarkably productive. Somewhere between 1991 and 1786 B.C.E., an Egyptian scribe wrote the document now called “TheStory of Si-nuhe” that described Palestine this way: “It was a good land…Figs were in it, and grapes. It had more wine than water. Plentiful was its honey, abundant its olives. Every [kind of] fruit was on its trees. Barley was there, and emmer. There was no limit to any [kind of] cattle.”
                Unlike Egypt that depended on the flooding of the Nile, or Mesopotamia that depended on irrigation, the people of Israel lived and died by rainfall. Droughts were deadly serious events—lengthy ones completely destroyed the economy. They were also one of the primary bases for war. During times of drought, farmers who lived in the drier areas would retreat to parts of the country that received more rainfall or heavier dew, or was nearer to some more permanent water source. The land they left, barren as it was, was still better than the land inhabited by the desert nomads to the east. They quickly moved in to take advantage of it. When the rains finally came and the farmers wanted to return to their ancestral lands, they had to fight to get it back.
                Some of what we know about Israelite farming is based on a broken piece of pottery upon which is scratched a little poem—probably some sort of mnemonic writing exercise done by a child. It is called the Gezer Calendar, and it says:
The two months are olive harvest
The two months are planting grain
The two months are late planting
The month is hoeing up of flax,
The month is barley harvest,
The month is harvest and festivity
The two months are vine tending
The month is summer fruit

                Most of the land was hilly and rocky, and farmers were obliged to cut the hillsides into narrow terraces and to fell whatever trees had been spared from the blacksmith’s forge and the carpenter’s saw. Family farms were small because they required constant tending and because it was easier to supply water to a smaller area during the dry summer months. The early rain mentioned in the Calendar (October and November), softened the ground, which had become rock-hard during the summer, for plowing. Such plowing was frequently unpleasant work, since it was done during the cold torrential rain of late fall. The rain was so torrential, in fact, that there was constant danger of flash floods and serious erosion of the shallow soil in the hill country.
                By spring the “latter rain” came, concluding the rainy season and heralding the beginning of the harvest. The writer of the Gezer Calendar mentions harvest and festivity in one phrase because the two were one and the same. For a people whose survival depended on a successful harvest (and who had subsisted on stored food for many months), bringing in the crops was the most exciting time of the year.
                But some crops remained in the ground through the summer, and it was these that were most at risk from the changeable weather of the Levant. Summer brought hot winds (siroccos) from the desert, parching the land and carrying plagues of locusts. The wind might blow nonstop for up to seven days, raising the temperature to as much as 20 degrees above average. The only moisture the crops would get for several months was the water that prudent farmers had managed to store in underground cisterns, and the heavy dews created by cold air from Mount Hermon’s snowy cap meeting the warmer air from the eastern desert.
                As the grain crops (wheat and barley) were harvested with plowshares and sickles (iron ones, during the time of King David), they were carried to threshing floors, almost always located atop a high hill. There the poor whipped them with willow switches to separate the grain kernels from the stalks. In later times, oxen were allowed to tread over them; their sharp hooves did the work of the willow switches. Later still, the oxen would drag sledges behind them—an indication of the increasing volume of grain being harvested.
                Once the grains had been separated, the farmers stepped in with wood-tined pitchforks and began to toss the harvest into the air. The hot eastern wind blew over the hills and carried away the lightest parts—the chaff. The fruit fell back to the threshing floor where it could be collected and placed into storehouses.
                As touched on by the Gezer Calendar, the primary crops were grain, wine, and olive oil. Other standards included millet, peas, lentils, melons, cucumbers, beans, mallow, sorrel, artichokes, figs, pomegranates and dates. These latter three, along with wild honey, were the only sources of sugar. Flax was grown in the south to make into linen, and many Israelite mothers no doubt had a small herb garden somewhere near the family home.
                The thirteenth tribe, the tribe of Levi who served as the religious leaders of the people, had no farmland allocated to them (although they did gain land of their own as time progressed). They were supported by the tithe, by which every family donated one-tenth of its harvest to care for the needs of the Levites and their families. The Levites, in turn, donated one-tenth of this to the priestly families among them. Additionally, every time a family began to harvest a crop (whether wheat, grapes, or even the herbs in their little family garden), they were required by the Torah to donate the “firstfruits” of that harvest to Jehovah by offering it to the priests at the Temple. The amount was not specified; it seems that was determined by the giver’s appreciation and generosity.
                One final aspect bears mentioning: every seven years, the Torah ordered, they were not to plant any crops. Instead they were to rely on Jehovah to make their stored foodstuffs last until the year was over. In addition to being a powerful lesson in reliance on Jehovah for their sustenance, this practice also allowed the soil to recuperate, and similar practices are employed by many farmers today.

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

1 comment:

Andy said...

You mention about the Sabbath years and the fact that this is now common practice in farming. But what about the weekly Sabbath day? In your opinion, would it have been difficult for the Israelites to have rested from their work or is the agricultural economy well suited to that work/rest pattern even during seasons of ploughing and harvesting?