The Bible is written in such a way that it is completely and inextricably interwoven with the culture and the customs of the times and places in which its events occur. While the cultural references were well known to the people who lived in biblical times, many of them are unfamiliar to us today. Learning biblical customs has many advantages: it makes reading the Bible more enjoyable when we know about the people and how they lived; it clarifies things in the Bible we would otherwise not readily know, or that do not make sense to us at first; it alerts us to mistranslations or possible mistranslations in the Bible; and it gives us great insight into how to properly apply the Word of God in our lives.
Separating the good from the bad
Grains such as wheat, barley, and millet were staple foods in the biblical culture, and were so essential for life that grain was called a “staff,” (walking stick), because it was necessary for support and defense. It is hard to see the idiom of bread as the “staff of life” in most modern English Bibles. This is because so many people have not understood the phrase “staff of bread,” that versions such as the NIV translate the Hebrew text as, “supplies of food.” Nevertheless, the biblical idiom, “staff of bread” was the source of our modern idiom, that bread is the “staff of life.”
Isaiah 3:1 (author’s translation)
For look!, Yahweh Elohim of the armies is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah the staff and the support, all the staff of bread, and all the staff of water.
Ezekiel 4:16 (KJV)
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment.
It was one thing to grow the grain in the field, but it also took a lot of work after the grain was grown to get it ready to grind into flour. For thousands of years farmers used a basic three-part system of threshing, winnowing, and using a sieve to get the grain to the point where it could be ground into flour. After harvesting, the first stage in making grain suitable for grinding into flour was the process called threshing.
Threshing is the process of removing the grain of wheat or barley from the stalk and husk. The threshing was done in different ways, depending on how much grain there was and the tools the farmer had available to him. Essential to threshing was a “threshing floor,” a flat area of hard dirt or rock on which freshly harvested wheat could be piled. Quite a few verses, from Genesis to the New Testament, mention threshing floors, which makes sense because grain was so essential to life.
When there was only a little wheat, the kernels of grain could be knocked off the stalk with a stick, which is what Gideon was doing when he was trying to hide the fact he had harvested some wheat (Judges 6:11). A much more common way of threshing was to pile it on the threshing floor where cows or oxen were driven back and forth over it. Their feet “threshed” the grain from the stalk. God wanted to make sure the animals that did that work were well kept, and so He commanded, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4). In other words, the ox got to benefit from his labor by eating some of the grain he was threshing. Many farmers owned a “threshing sled,” a piece of equipment that looked rather like a wide toboggan, with pieces of metal or stone set in the bottom so the wheat could be cut off the stalk faster:
See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.
As the oxen or threshing sled went over and over the large pile of harvested wheat, the stalks would be cut up into pieces, and the heads of grain knocked off the stalk and often even separated from the husk. Then the grain was ready to be winnowed.
Winnowing was the process that separated the mixed up pile of grain, stalk, and husk so that the edible grain could be sifted and eaten. To winnow the grain, the farmer scooped up the pieces of the crop he had just threshed and threw it all up into the air. The wind blew the light pieces of stalk to the side, while the grain, which was both heavier and roundish, fell almost straight back down. Thus, over time, the threshing floor was covered with three quite distinct piles of material. The kernels of grain fell almost straight down or were not blown far at all. The larger pieces of stalk, or “straw,” had blown a little ways off to the side, and the small pieces of stalk, called the “chaff,” had blown even further away.
The farmer used a “winnowing fork,” or a “winnowing shovel” to throw the threshed grain into the air. The winnowing fork and shovel were used in a similar way as people today move loose hay with a pitchfork or broad shovel. The winnowing fork was usually about the size of a pitchfork, but with flat wooden tines to catch more of the grain. Isaiah 30:24 (ESV), mentions animal fodder “which has been winnowed with shovel and fork.”
Since the grain crops ripened in April, May, and June, it was not unusual that during the daytime there was too little wind to winnow. That meant the farmer had to wait until there was a slight wind, which often came in the evening. That is why when Naomi was looking for a husband for Ruth, she told her to go see Boaz, saying, “This evening he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor” (Ruth 3:2 HCSB).
After winnowing, the valuable grain was gathered and stored, while the straw and chaff were handled in different ways. Sometimes it was ignored and left to blow away. Thus, Jeremiah 13:24 says, “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind.” Sometimes the straw and chaff were used in making mud bricks because it helped bind the mud together. That was why Pharaoh forced the Israelites to make bricks with “straw” (Ex. 5:7-18). Sometimes the straw and chaff were used as fuel for household ovens, because it burned fast and hot, and got the ovens hot quickly. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble” (Mal. 4:1 ESV).
The process of winnowing provided a clear picture of how God will treat people on Judgment Day. The people who have believed in Him and have lived obedient lives will be treated like wheat—they will be gathered together and be safely kept. In contrast, the unbelievers and disobedient will be treated like chaff—they will be burned up in the lake of fire just like chaff is burned up in an oven. Matthew says: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12).
Just before the grain was ground into flour, it was sieved. This was necessary for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was common in the harvesting that weed seeds got mixed in with the wheat, and threshing and winnowing did not separate the different seeds (cp. The Parable of the Seeds in the Field: Matt. 13:24-30). Furthermore, the winnowing process did not get all the chaff from the grain. Also, in picking the grain off the threshing floor, dust and pebbles were mixed in with the grain.
In the biblical culture, a grain sieve was round and fairly large, usually two to three feet in diameter. The sides were wood, often 3-5 inches high with a bottom that was often made of woven reeds, grasses, or thin interwoven pieces of wood. Sieving was one of those parts of life that was so common that people felt no need to describe it. In fact, when James Neil wrote Peeps into Palestine (c. 1915), he remarked, “The process…has never to my knowledge been described by any previous writer.” Due to the paucity of written material on the process, it is appropriate to extensively quote Neil on the subject of sieving.
“The woman servant—for it is only women who sift—sets herself on the ground with her feet spread widely apart, taking in her hands a large but shallow sieve called ghurbal, some two and a half feet across. Having placed a small amount of wheat in the ghurbal, or sieve, she commences by giving it some six or seven sharp shakes, so as to bring the chaff and short pieces of crushed straw to the surface, the greater part of which she removes with her hands. After this the main part of the work begins, which is done with much skill. Holding the sieve in a slanting position, she jerks it up and down for a length of time, blowing across the top of it all the while with great force. In a word, she turns herself into a regular winnowing machine! Three results follow. In the first place the dust, earth, small seeds, and small, imperfect grains of wheat, etc., fall away through the meshes of the sieve. Secondly, by means of the vigorous blowing, any crushed straw, chaff, and such-like light refuse is either blown away to the ground, or else collected in the part of the ghurbal which is furthest from her. Thirdly, the good wheat goes together in one heap about the center of the sieve, while the tiny stones or pebbles are brought into a separate little pile on that part of it which is nearest to her chest. The pebbles, chaff, and crushed straw thus cleverly removed from the corn [grain], mainly by the angle at which the sieve is held and the way in which it is jerked up and down, are then taken out of the ghurbal with her hands. Finally, setting the sieve down upon her lap, she carefully picks out with her finger any slight impurities which may yet remain, and the elaborate and searching process of sifting is complete.”
Understanding the sieving process helps us understand its use in biblical illustration. For example, Amos 9:9 says, “For I will give the command, and I will shake the house of Israel among all the nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, and not a pebble will reach the ground.” This verse has been widely misunderstood because the sieving process itself has not been clearly understood. Sieving separates the grain from the pebbles, but both of them stay in the sieve. The translators of the KJV could not understand why the verse would say that “pebbles” would remain in the sieve, after all, the sieving process was supposed to separate the pebbles from the wheat. So the KJV reads, “For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.”
The KJV translation seems to make sense, but the Hebrew word the KJV translates “grain” is clearly a rock or pebble. The message in Amos is a subtle but profound one. Amos was written before any of the great deportations and scattering of Israel occurred, and the point God was making via Amos’ prophecy is that even though Israel would be shaken among the nations like grain is shaken in a sieve, the grain and the pebbles would still be together. The godly Israelites, “God’s grain,” if you will, would survive, and so would the obstinate and hard-hearted Israelites, the “pebbles.” Even in God’s judgment upon Israel and the scattering of the Israelites among the nations (which happened when Israel was scattered by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans), the godly and ungodly Jews survived together, just like there were always pebbles found with the grain.
The other notable use of sieving as a biblical example occurred when Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31, 32 ESV). The illustration was clear to Peter because all the wheat that was sold in the marketplace had pieces of chaff, dirt, and pebbles mixed with it. Just as when wheat is sifted in the sieve and pieces of dirt and chaff show up, Satan was demanding to be able to pressure Peter until a lot of unwanted stuff showed up in his life. Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail and that no chaff or pebbles would ruin Peter’s life.
Threshing, winnowing, and sieving grain was a part of daily life from Genesis until the early 1900’s. The fact that there are dozens of allusions to it in the Bible reflects both the daily life of the people, and the fact that God expects us to learn spiritual lessons from our daily lives.
 Isaiah and Ezekiel use different Hebrew words for “staff,” but they both can refer to walking staffs.
 Some include: Gen. 50:10; Num. 15:20; Deut. 15:14; Judges 6:37; Ruth 3:2; 2 Sam. 6:6; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Kings 6:27; Job 39:12; Jer. 51:33; Hos. 13:3; Micah 4:12; Matt. 3:12.
 The ESV does a good job in Malachi 4:1 in using the word “oven.” Some modern versions use the word “furnace,” which is misleading. There are words in Hebrew for different types of furnaces (though none were used to heat homes). A kibshan (#03536 כִּבְשָׁן) was a smelting furnace or lime-kiln (Gen. 19:28); a kur (#03564 כּוּר) was a refining furnace (Prov. 17:3); an attun (#0861 אַתּוּן) was a large furnace that was used in extracting ore. The word in Malachi is tanur (#08574 תַּנּוּר; pronounced tan-noor), a household oven.
 The translation, “unquenchable fire,” which occurs in most versions of Matthew, is very accurate. The fire in the Lake of Fire is “unquenchable,” it cannot be put out. That does not mean, however, that it burns forever. As with any fire, when the fuel is gone, the fire goes out. When the last person is annihilated, totally consumed, in the Lake of Fire, it will go out. For more information on annihilation in the Lake of Fire, see REV commentary on Revelation 20:10 at stfonline.org/REV
 James Neil, Peeps Into Palestine (Billings and Sons, Great Britain, c. 1915), pp. 58, 59. Neil, who lived in the Middle East for years, gives us a clear example of why the pre-World War I customs books are such a treasure. After WWI, customs in the Middle East that had been the same since the time of Abraham began to change, and change rapidly. Old customs, like sifting grain, soon died, and no amount of arm-chair sociology or archaeology is able to tell us how the ancient customs were actually done. Thankfully, people like Neil wrote what they often got to see with their own eyes, and had Neil not recorded it in such detailed fashion, a vital part of what went on in basically every household for thousands of years would now be lost to us.
 The Arabic word is ghurbal, the Hebrew word is kebarah (#03531 כְּבָרָה; cp. Amos 9:9).