Agriculture is the science, art, and business of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock: farming. Israel's society remained basically agricultural throughout biblical times. Although cities and towns developed in Israel as early as the time of David and Solomon, both Old and New Testaments contain many references to agricultural customs and practices.
The Bible indicates that one of man's basic tasks was to "till and keep" the land (Gen. 2:15, RSV), so that man is seen as a being with divinely given ability to be a gardener or farmer. Man's close relationship with the soil is also indicated by the similarity between two Hebrew words for man (adam) and earth (adamah).
Although Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob moved about within Palestine and were concerned primarily with looking after their flocks, they were also involved in farming. Isaac, for example, was instantly aware of the "smell of a field" on Esau's clothes. He prayed that Jacob might be blessed with "plenty of grain and wine" (Gen. 27:27-28).
When the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan, they were largely confined to the heavily wooded hill country, while the Canaanites continued in the valleys and along the coast (Judg. 1:27-33). The Israelites, therefore, began the long process of clearing the forests. The uplands of Ephraim and Judah as well as the land east of the Jordan River were gradually made suitable for cultivation.
With the expansion of Israel during the time of the United Kingdom under David and Solomon, agricultural activity prospered (I Kin. 4:25). Some agricultural products, such as wheat, olive oil, and honey, were even exported (Ezek. 27:17). Certain kings, such as David (I Chron. 27:26-31) and Hezekiah (II Chron. 32:28), took a special interest in agricultural production, and none more so than Uzziah, who is described as one who "loved the soil" (II Chron. 26:10). This prosperity, however, was not enjoyed by everyone. Ahab's attempt to take over Naboth's vineyard (I Kings 21) is only one example of how the poor were exploited. The prophet Isaiah condemned those who "add field to field" (Is. 5:8).
The years of Israel's captivity in Babylon brought a considerable decline in agricultural activity. Much of the land was neglected, desolation was increased by the ravages of wild animals (II Kings 17:25-27), and only the poor were left to till the land "as vinedressers and farmers" (II Kings 25:12).
Some restoration of agriculture took place after the return from captivity, but some of th earlier problems persisted. In the prophet Haggai's time, GOD's corrective judgment had a noticeable effect on food production (Hag. 1:11). And Nehemiah received complaints from the poor concerning the financial difficulties they were experiencing in keeping their farms going (Neh. 5:11).
Agriculture was also important in New Testament times. Jesus made frequent reference to the land and its products in His teaching, indicating that He and His hearers were quite familiar with such matters. Matthew 13, for example, contains four agricultural parables - the sower (verses 1-23), the wheat and the tares (verses 24-30,36-43), the mustard seed (verses 31-32), and the treasure hidden in the field (v.44). Other New Testament writers also refer to agricultural matters. The apostle Paul, for example, spoke of reaping and sowing (Gal. 6:7-10) and the cultivation of olive trees (Rom. 11:17-24); and James referred to the farmer patiently waiting for the rain (James 5:7).
The Bible supplies two striking agricultural metaphors concerning the purposes of GOD. GOD Himself is twice described as a farmer. He is the "vinedresser" who tends the vine, which is both Christ and those who abide in Him (John 15:1-8); and He farms the field of His church, where He is working to produce a perfect harvest (I Cor. 2:7,9). The second picture is slightly different. It illustrates GOD's constant supply of rich and varied food for His people, especially in heaven. This idea is found both in the Old testament prophets (Amos 9:13-15; Joel 2:18-19) and in John's vision of the New Jerusalem,where the tree of life produces 12 different monthly crops of fruit (Rev. 22:2).
The traditional picture of Palestine is that of "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exod. 3:8,17). This view is supported elsewhere in the Bible, as in Deuteronomy 8:8: "A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey". But the fertility of the land was neither automatic nor uniform. The Old testament in particular continually stresses that success and prosperity in agriculture came form GOD and that His blessing was closely associated with the people's trust in GOD and their obedience to His word (Deuteronomy 28).
Thus, agricultural labor was tied up with spiritual and moral attitudes. Bumper crops could not be guaranteed through the correct observance of ritual, as the idol worshipers of Canaan imagined. Many Israelites, however, were seduced by Canaanite ways, influenced by the unpredictability of Palestine's climate and the undemanding morality of Canaanite religion, as well as by their desire for a good harvest.
One reminder that thanksgiving and worship were due to the LORD for multiplying their crops and flocks came through Israel's festivals, which were closely associated with the agricultural year. Passover with unleavened bread was celebrated at the beginning of the barley harvest. This was followed 50 days later by the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost with the offering of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest.
The Feast of Tabernacles, or Ingathering, took place when the harvest was complete. Because these festivals sometimes degenerated into the mere performance of ritualism, the prophets brought a further reminder that Jehovah, and not Baal, was the true LORD of the harvest. The prophet Hosea actually said of Israel, "For she did not know that I (the LORD) gave her grain, new wine, and oil" (Hos. 2:8), so steeped had they become in paganism. When the people failed to respond even to this clear message, the prophets announced GOD's judgment on the land as well as the people (Jer. 12:7-13; Amos 4:6-10), although they still gave hope for the future (Ezek. 36:30; Hos. 2:21-23).
Israelite agriculture included the farming of the land and the rearing of animals. In the days of the patriarchs, livestock farming was the major activity; but as the Israelites settled in the land, the role of animals became less important. Herds and flocks were kept basically for their wealth and for food, although meat was much less important than it is in modern Western society. Most families also owned work animals, the ox being the most valuable and the donkey the most common. Neither horses nor camels were used much in agriculture. Horses were kept mostly for military use and camels for trading purposes.
The growing of crops in ancient Israel was no easy matter. Palestine's location between the Mediterranean Sea and the desert produced unpredictable rainfall. The growth of vegetation in some lowland areas, such as the Jordan River Valley and parts of the Plain of Sharon along the coast were so luxuriant that they contained mostly dense forests. Other areas, mainly in the east, were dry and barren, with stony terrain and only occasional rain. These were impossible to farm and unable to support a settled population. Even the areas that could be cultivated had their continual hazards, such as locusts, hail, desert storms, and invading armies. The Israelite farmer well understood the truth of Genesis 3:19: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread".
The pattern of the agricultural year in the land of Palestine can be reconstructed only with difficulty. Many details remain unknown, and there must have been considerable variation from place to place. The period of sowing and plowing began around the middle of October at the time of the early rains. This was followed by harrowing and weeding. The latter rains were vital for ripening the crops, and the rainy season usually ended around early April. Harvesting began with the barley harvest, around the middle of April. The gathering of the grain harvest, the summer fruits, and the grapes lasted until August and September, although the last olives were finally picked in November.
An early Hebrew inscription from the 10th century B.C., found at Gezer and known as the "Gezer Calendar", lists various agricultural activities through the months of the year. Its purpose is unknown, although it is often thought to have been an child's exercise tablet. The approximate translation is as follows: "Two months of harvest. Two months of sowing. Two months of late planting. Month of reaping flax. Month of reaping barley. Month of reaping and measuring. Two months of vine tending. Month of summer fruit".
The Old Testament consistently refers to the three basic Israelite crops; grain, grapes, and olives. Psalm 104:15, for example, speaks of providing "wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which sustains man's heart" (Deut. 7:13; II Kings 18:32; Neh. 5:11). Of the grain crops, wheat was grown mainly in the central area of the western highlands (Manasseh) and in Gilead and Bashan, east of the Jordan River. Barley was grown in the drier south and east, especially in Philistia. Barley is able to grow in poorer soils than whet, and it has a shorter ripening period.
Seed was usually broadcast and then plowed or raked into the soil, although occasionally plowing was done before sowing. A single wooden plow with a metal tip was normally used; it was pulled by a pair of oxen or donkeys. The animals were yoked together with either a single yoke or a double yoke with bars over and under the neck. An ox goad, a long staff with a nail or metal tip, was used to control the animals (Judg. 3:31).
Harvest was an important time, and workers were hired especially for the occasion. The standing grain was cut with a scythe or sickle, then brought in bundles to the threshing floor where it was threshed and separated from the chaff. Finally it was stored, either in earthenware jars or in underground silos. The prophet Isaiah referred to the various processes involved in growing grain, observing that it was an occasion for wonder and praise of GOD (Is. 28:23-29).
Vineyards were concentrated on the terraces of the Judean hills, although they were also found in the Carmel area and in parts of the region east of the Jordan River. Isaiah 5:1-7 gives some idea of the hard labor involved in preparing and cultivating vineyards. Vines were often left to trail on the ground. As the fruit began to ripen from July onwards, people built watchtowers, or temporary booths, to keep watch for both human and animal intruders. Harvesting the grapes and making wine were great social occasions. The Old Testament law allowed a person to eat grapes while collecting them, but not to put them in his own basket while in someone else's field (Deut. 23:24). The grapes were mainly used for wine, but some were dried as raisins.
Olive trees need little cultivation, as they can grow in shallow soils and survive long periods of drought. They were grown in the central uplands of Ephraim and Carmel and parts of Gilead. Olives were the last crop to be picked - as late as October and November - and they were used mainly for their oil.
In addition to the three main crops, a variety of fruit and vegetables is indicated by Ahab's desire to turn Naboth's vineyard into a vegetable garden. Melons, cucumbers, leeks, herbs, and spices were probably grown in the kitchen gardens of the nobility, while the poor had to be content with beans and lentils, which were often grown between the vines of other crops (II Sam. 17:28).
Summer fruits were eagerly awaited in the heat as a tasty and refreshing supplement to the regular diet. Figs and pomegranates seem to have been particularly popular (Hos. 9:10; Hag. 2:19), and the prophet Amos was involved in the production of sycamore figs (Amos 7:14). Dates were cultivated in the Jericho region, and nuts such as almond and pistachio were also enjoyed (Gen. 43:11; Song 6:11).
The harvest was the period at the end of the growing season, when crops were gathered. Harvest was one of the happiest times of the year in Palestine (Ps. 126:5-6; Is. 9:3), marked with celebrations and religious festivals (Exod. 23:16). There were actually two harvests. Barley was gathered from mid-April onwards, and the wheat from mid-May.
The harvesting process began with the cutting of grain with a sickle (Deut. 16:9; Mark 4:29). Then it was gathered into sheaves (Deut. 24:5). Next the grain was gathered into sheaves (Deut. 24:5). Next the grain was taken to the threshing floor, an important local site with a hard surface and often situated on higher ground. Various tools, such as metal-toothed sledges drawn by oxen, were used for threshing (Is. 28:28; 41:15). Then the grain was winnowed, or tossed into the air, with a pitchfork. The wind carried off the chaff, but the heavier kernels and straw fell to the ground (Matt. 3:12).
Finally, the kernels were shaken in a sieve, made of a wooden hoop with leather thongs (Is. 30:28; Amos 9:9). Then the grain was stored.
Harvest became a picture of GOD's judgment (Jer. 51:33; Joel 3:13), and Jesus compared the Last Judgment with the harvest (Matt. 13:30,39; Rev. 14:14-20). However, Jesus used the same metaphor for the gathering together of those who believed in Him (Matt. 9:37-38; Luke 10:2), indicating that the final harvest has already begun with His first coming (John 4:35).
See also, "Plants of the Bible".
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