FARMING. The Israelites in the time of the patriarchs were a nomadic people. They first learned agriculture in Palestine after the conquest of Canaan. After that a large proportion of the people were engaged in agrarian pursuits. The pages of the Bible have much to say about agricultural occupations.
Agriculture was the background for all the legislation of Israel. At the time of the conquest every family probably received a piece of land, marked off by stones that could not be removed lawfully (Deut.19.14; Deut.27.17; Hos.5.10). The soil of Palestine was generally fertile. Fertilizing was almost unknown. To maintain the fertility of the land, the law required that farms, vineyards, and olive orchards were to lie fallow in the seventh year (Exod.23.10). On the year of Jubilee those who had lost their ancestral estates recovered possession of them. Terracing was necessary to make use of soil on the hillsides. Irrigation was not required, since there was usually sufficient rainfall.
Plowing to prepare the land for sowing was done in autumn, when the early rains softened the ground that had become stone-hard in the summer sun. This was done with a crude wooden plow drawn by oxen or, if the soil was thin, with a mattock. With such implements the surface of the ground was hardly more than scratched—perhaps three or four inches (eight or ten cm.). Little harrowing was done and was probably unknown in Palestine in early times.
The time of harvest varied somewhat according to the climatic condition of each region, but usually began about the middle of April with the coming of the dry season. Barley was the first grain to be cut, and this was followed a few weeks later with wheat. The grain harvest generally lasted about seven weeks, from Passover to Pentecost. Whole families moved out of their village homes to live in the fields until the harvest was over. The grain was cut with a sickle and laid in swaths behind the reaper. It was then bound into sheaves and gathered into shocks (Exod.22.6). In the interest of the poor, the law forbade a field to be harvested to its limits.
The grain was threshed in the open air, a custom made possible because the harvest season was free from rain (2Kgs.13.7). During the threshing time the grain was guarded by harvesters who spent the nights on the threshing floor (Ruth.3.6). The threshing floor was constructed in an exposed position in the fields, preferably on a slight elevation, so as to get the full benefit of the winds. It consisted of a circular area twenty-five to forty feet (eight to thirteen m.) in diameter, sloping slightly upward at the edges, and was usually surrounded with a border of stones to keep in the grain. The floor was level and hard. The sheaves of grain, brought in from the fields on the backs of men and animals, were heaped in the center. From this heap, sheaves were spread out on the floor; and then either several animals tied abreast were driven round and round the floor or two oxen were yoked together to a threshing machine, which they dragged in a circular path over the grain until the kernels of grain were separated from the stalks. The threshing machines were of two kinds, a board with the bottom studded with small stones or nails, or a kind of threshing wagon. While this was going on, the partly threshed grain was turned over with a fork. After that the grain was winnowed by tossing the grain and chaff into the air with a wooden fork or shovel so that the wind might blow away the chaff. This was usually done at night, to take advantage of the night breezes. The chaff was either burned or left to be scattered by the winds. The grain was then sifted with a sieve to remove stones and other impurities, and collected into pits or barns (Luke.12.18).
Of the large number of crops the Israelites cultivated, wheat and barley were the most important. They also raised rye, millet, flax, and a variety of vegetables. See also Agriculture.