Agricultural Life—Peasants

[This article was taken from Chapter Two of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].

When it is mentioned that French railway cars bringing wheat from the rich plain south of Damascus are now supplanting the camels that used to do it, that an American engineer is sinking Artesian wells at Sidon for irrigating the land, and that every summer English steamers lie off Gaza loading barley for Scotland, the suspicion naturally arises that the farmer of Palestine has left the shepherd behind, and that his life is no longer a reminder of patriarchal methods. But the land is still a land of grain and wine and oil; and the sowing and reaping, the treading of grapes in the wine press, the beating of the olive tree for its olives, these and many other details of peasant life are the same today as when Ruth gleaned and Elisha followed the plow.

1. Grain. The chief grain fields are the Syrian plain between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, the Hauran east of Galilee, the plains of Esdraelon and Sharon, and the plateau around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. [1] The appearance of the level land without walls, fences, or hedges is that of a great green sea. On the sloping ground, as on the sides of all the watercourse valleys, called wadies, the land is laid out in stair-like ridges, each leading into the one above or below it so that all can be plowed continuously. These terraces serve a double purpose; the ground is cleared of rock and large stones by building the low walls, and by the succession of levels the soil is kept in its place and not swept down to the foot of the valley by the winter rains. All over the land there are terraces that are fallen down and overgrown, and which can hardly be recognized, indicating at once the resemblance and the difference between the ancient and modern civilizations. The grains sown are chiefly wheat, plain and bearded; barley; spelt or vetch (translated “rie” or “rye” in some versions of Exod. 9:32 and Isa. 28:25); and “fitches” (Ezek. 4:9). Oats are unknown. Besides the above are millet, beans, and lentils (Ezek. 4:9), also pulse (Dan. 1:12), under which is included everything of the nature of peas or beans, in fact all seed food apart from wheat and barley.

(A) Sowing. Millet was sown in summer upon irrigated land, but irrigation was not easily done in Israel. The usual time for sowing grain was when the first rains, or “former rain,” which usually started in the beginning of October, had softened the soil. [2] Wheat was commonly sown in October, November, and December, and then, like modern winter wheat, was mostly dormant through the winter. Barley was sown in the beginning of February. The fact that the rains started before plowing could be done, and that planting was done in the cold and rainy months, is the source of the proverb, “The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing” (Prov. 20:4).

Eastern plow and goad

When the soil is very rough it is customary to plow twice, but ordinarily the seed is sown and then plowed in. The farmer walks in front scattering the seed, and one of the family or a servant follows immediately with the plow. In the parable the birds could pick up the seed that fell on the footpath because it was not covered like the rest (Matt. 13:4). [3]

The leveling of the ground into terraces often caused broad slabs of rock to be thinly covered over with soil. Seed planted here germinated quickly, but also withered quickly since the soil was not deep (Matt. 13:5). Thorns abound everywhere, growing with great rapidity and strength (Matt. 13:7). They are either collected and burned in the field, used as fuel, or ground on the threshing floor as fodder for the cattle.

Barley is ripe in April and May, and wheat in May and June. The same grains ripen at different times because of the large difference in elevation from the Jordan Valley to the high fields around the cedars, which are more than 6,000 feet above the sea. The latter rains in March refresh the standing crops, delaying the time of harvest, but filling out the grain before it finally ripens. A field of wheat or barley has the pale white appearance of oats in England. [4] The rain has ceased for three months and the stalks and ears become perfectly dry.

Farmer plowing with ox and goad

(B) Harvest. The stalks of grain are either cut with a sickle or torn up by the roots, and the sheaves are carried to the threshing floors on the backs of men, donkeys, horses, and camels. Carts are not used for this purpose as they were in biblical times (Amos 2:13). The chief perils to the crop apart from the nature of the soil and the hands of robbers, are from mildew or sweating in soft misty weather, blasting by the dry heat of the east wind (Deut. 28:22; 2 Chron. 6:28; Amos 4:9), or occasionally from locusts.

Though the crops in Syria do not present such an appearance of a solid mass as in Egypt, the soil is in many places exceedingly fertile, and the return corresponds with the standards cited in the parable: 30, 60 and even 100 fold (Matt. 13:8).

Women threshing with threshing sleds and woman with a grain sieve

(C) Threshing. The threshing floor is a circular piece of level ground about 20 to 30 feet in diameter, in an open, breezy location near the village. The ground is carefully leveled and cleaned, and has around it a roughly placed row of large stones to keep the straw from being scattered too far. Threshing produced the grain, straw (the larger pieces of stalk), and chaff (the tiny broken pieces of stalk). The grain was used for food and also was the seed for next years planting. The stalks, and sometimes the chaff, were used to thicken mud in making bricks (Exod. 5:7) and for fuel. Sometimes the chaff was just allowed to blow away and was not collected and used (Ps. 1:4).

Threshing and winnowing instruments

The sheaves of grain are brought to the threshing floor and are unbound and sprinkled over it, until the stalks of grain lie about a foot deep. The simplest mode of threshing is to drive cattle and donkeys over the dry grain stalks, but a threshing sled is often resorted to (2 Sam. 24:22). It consists of thick planks nailed together, making a rectangle about five feet long and four feet wide, with lumps of rough basalt rock set into the under-surface of the boards (Isa. 41:15). Occasionally pieces of iron, instead of rock, were placed in the bottom of the sled (Amos 1:3). Less frequently it is a wooden frame furnished with small wheels below it.

A man holding a threshing sled

A pair of oxen is yoked to the threshing sled, and a man stands upon it, goad in hand, and drives the oxen around from morning until evening. These are the oxen that must not be muzzled, but are allowed to eat the grain as often as they wish to do so (Deut. 25:4; 1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18). When sufficiently threshed, the broken stalks, grain, and chaff are piled up in the center of the threshing floor, more sheaves are sprinkled over the surface, and the threshing is resumed until the work is done, or there is no room for more in the center of the ring.

Threshing was also done by hand if there was only a small amount (Ruth 2:17) or there were extenuating circumstances. Gideon threshed wheat inside the winepress so he could hide the wheat from the enemy (Judg. 6:11). It was common for bands of raiders to rob the threshing floor, because all the harvest could be stolen at once (1 Sam. 23:1).

(D) Winnowing. This is done by the shovel and the “fan” (Isa. 30:24). The “fan” is a simple wooden pitchfork, and most modern versions read “fork.” It is used to toss the stalks, chaff, and grain into the air. The chaff, the small broken pieces of stalk, which is very light, is usually blown away over the hillside, while the heavier, round grains of wheat fall back to the threshing floor. That the unwanted chaff blew away and was gone provided a very graphic illustration that is used many times in Scripture. Psalms says that the righteous are like a tree planted by the waters, while the wicked are like the chaff that the wind blows away—they will not stand in the day of Judgment (Ps. 1:3-5; cp. Ps. 35:5; Isa. 17:13; Dan. 2:35; Hosea 13:3). At the great public threshing floors the chaff accumulates and is burnt up. The burning of the chaff is mentioned in Isaiah 5:24; Matthew 3:12; and Luke 3:17.

In the pile of grain that is left after winnowing there is still a good deal of husk and straw, and it is at this concluding stage of the winnowing that the shovel is brought into use. It is used to toss the grain into the air after the grain is too pure for the winnowing fork to be effective. The work at the threshing floors is carried on all day, and from harvest time until the grapes ripen in the month of August; and in the great grain growing districts it is continued until the close of September. The owners of the grain sleep by the threshing floors or appoint watchmen (Ruth 3:4).

At the larger threshing floors the winnowed grain is often piled into a cone and sealed by having a large wooden seal pressed upon it here and there and all around. The attempt to take any grain would instantly obscure the marks of the seal. The sealing is either in the interests of the working partners or owners, or that the gross yield may remain intact until the government official takes his tithe. It is sealed until the appointed day of weighing and measuring. Seals of different types were used in biblical times, and the use of seals is often referred to in connection with documents and treasures, as well as with the threshing floors, and used to communicate spiritual truth with good effect (Dan. 12:9; Rom. 15:28; Eph. 1:13 and 4:30).

Among the peasantry of the present day any recommendation of a winnowing machine is met by the remonstrance that their fathers did it in this way, and at the winnowing season there is nothing else to do. The further and final cleansing that the grain undergoes by means of the sieve we shall speak of in connection with food and domestic life.

2. The Vineyard. The vine has always had an important place among the industries of Palestine. Growing grapes is one of the leading characteristics of the land, and there are almost 200 verses that mention the vine (cp. Deut. 8:8; Josh. 24:13; Judg. 9:12 and 13; 1 Sam. 8:14;1 Kings 4:25; Neh. 5:3-5; Ps. 80; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 52:16; Matt. 20:1-8).

(A) Locality. Vineyards are found all over the country, but the position most suitable is the hillside, or the gently sloping ground at the foot of a hill. The vine likes open, loose soil into which it can sink its deep roots and reach the moisture that drips down over the surface of the mountain rock. Above ground it must have plenty of air and sunshine, and by night the dew rests upon its leaves refreshingly, but its source of nourishment and strength is in the deep crevices of the rock beyond the reach of the sun’s heat.

(B) Preparation. The vineyard requires a great deal of preparatory work. A wall has to be built around it. The irregular rocky ground has to be laid out into terraces, one below the other on the slope, varying in width from one to four or five yards; large rocks have to be broken up and built with other stones into these successive rough walls, varying in height from two to six feet. Then, much more thoroughly than is thought of for the grain fields, the ground must be cleared of thorns and thistles. In the case of a large vineyard a wine press has to be dug, and a shelter made for the watchman. The ground has to be gone over well with a hoe, and repairs made on the terraces. Because the vineyards require constant attention, we read that at the time of the captivity of Judah, some of the poorest of the land were left to sow the fields and to keep the vineyards in order (2 Kings 25:12).

The neglected vineyard is described as covered with thorns and strong, hardy weeds, and as having the wall broken down by the rain torrent (Prov. 24:30 and 31). It is in light of all the work necessary to maintain a vineyard that God, calling His people His vineyard, asks the question, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?…” (Isa. 5:4).

(C) Growth of the vine. This is very rapid and luxuriant. The slips are set in the ground about 12 feet or more apart to give space for the running branches. The young vine is cut back and not allowed to bear fruit until after the third year. In April and May the vine blossom is out and gives forth a sweet, delicate perfume (Song of Sol. 2:13). The branches covered with large, richly green leaves rapidly cover the ground; the tendrils droop over the terrace walls and run over rocky boulders, or, taking possession of an oak tree, brighten its quiet foliage with their sparkle and transparency, and wave from its topmost branches in a perfect riot of life and endless energy. It is a very rich, happy, and triumphant life that is described by the metaphor, “I am the vine, ye are the branches…” (John 15:5).

(D) The grapes. There may be many kinds of grapes, even in one vineyard, both of the purple and the green varieties. Some villages are celebrated for the variety of their grapes, one village having as many as twelve or twenty different kinds in its vineyards; others are famous for the perfection to which they have brought one particular kind. There are many forms and varieties of flavor. Names are suggested by something in the size or coloring of the grape or the general appearance of the cluster. Thus we have in Lebanon, Bride’s fingers (of long tapering form, very smooth and translucent), Maiden’s cheeks (with a blush of color on each side), Mule’s head (a large clumsy-looking purple grape), and Hen-and-Chickens (a cluster having large green grapes surrounded by many small seedless ones about the size of currants).

(E) Uses of the grape.

(1) Fresh ripe grapes, eaten with bread, form a chief article of food during September and October.

(2) Raisins. These are dried in a prepared, leveled corner of the vineyard. During the process of drying under the sun, they are frequently turned over and sprinkled with olive oil to keep the skin moist. They are preserved in bunches or separated and dried. Among the peasantry they form an important item of the winter’s provisions, and they seem to have been highly valued in biblical times as a convenient and refreshing article of food (1 Sam. 25:18, 30:12; 2 Sam. 16:1; 1 Chron. 12:40).

A winepress. Sometimes the large pit has a beam or beams like a trellis above it so the people have something to hold on to as they tread the grapes, especially if they are piled up deeply.

(3) Wine and syrup. These were made at the wine press, when the grapes were fully ripe and the vintage season began to near its end in the beginning of October. The wine press consists of two square or rectangular shallow pits cut out of the solid rock, with a partition about 3 inches thick left between them. The bottom of the top one is higher than the bottom of the lower one. The two pits are connected by a hole or tunnel that allows the grape juice to flow from the upper pit, where the grapes are trodden, into the lower pit where the juice is collected. The lower pit is smaller but deeper than the upper pit. A usual depth for the upper pit is about a foot and a half deep, and if it is 6 feet long by 5 feet broad, the lower one will be about 4 feet long by 2 feet broad, but about 3 feet deep. If the position of the rock allows for it, a hole near the bottom of the lower pit can be made to let juice to flow into vessels for collecting it.

The grapes are thrown into the upper pit and are usually trodden by people who have a joint interest in the vineyard. As they tread they keep time with hand clapping and snatches of song (Isa. 16:10; Jer. 48:33). Such social gladness contrasts with the case of solitude and sorrow referred to in Isaiah 63:3, “I have trodden the winepress alone….”

After being juiced by foot as much as possible, the grapes are collected into a heap or a sack and a large flat stone is laid upon them and they are subjected to pressure from a large weighted beam. This process recovers more juice from the grape. Some of it is allowed to become sour for use as vinegar. The juice of the dark grape is generally made into claret of a somewhat sour, astringent taste, and that of the white or green grape is boiled a little and made into sweet wine. Some of it is distilled and made into a liquor, which the modern Jews call by a Hebrew name, burning wine.

The people of the land know nothing of unfermented wine. There is no custom of drinking newly strained grape juice such as might be suggested by the dream of Pharaoh’s butler. The meaning evidently is that, dream-like, the wine making process was in the vision as rapid as the ripening of the grapes. Drunkenness is too far-reaching and deep-seated an evil to be settled by the etymology of a word or the customs of one people or country. [5] Easterners are not inclined to intemperance. The warm climate very quickly makes it a cause of discomfort and disease, and under the influence of wine the excitable Easterners are easily tempted into quarreling and crime. It is regarded as a shameful vice of rare occurrence, and when it does occur is kept out of sight (1 Thess. 5:7). Wine is forbidden to the Moslems on account of the moral evil so often connected with it. In the recitation of poetry and the stories of the heroes of Islam the bringing in of wine is constantly referred to, but it is regarded merely as a stage expression that has nothing to do with real life. The Arabs in their proverbs speak of it as expelling reason and putting remorse in its place. When used by Easterners it is in the winter season and at meals, but while its strengthening value at certain times is recognized, the habit of wine drinking is generally associated with excessive festivity and abuse. [6]

In the Jewish prayer book one of the thanksgivings is for the creation of the vine, and on the return from the synagogue, to which in the morning they go fasting, a glass of wine is drunk with the blessing pronounced over it. Peter perhaps alluded to this custom on the Day of Pentecost as showing the impossibility of intoxication at 9 AM—an hour when Jews had but newly returned from morning prayer.

Syrup is made by boiling the juice of the grape until it reaches the consistency of honey. It is intensely sweet, and, having much the same color and consistency, it is in Hebrew called by the same name as honey. [7]

(F) Dangers to the vineyard. The chief enemies are locusts; the east wind withering the grapes with dry heat; the southwest wind bringing up soft mist and moist warmth from the sea; wild animals such as jackals, foxes, and bears; robbers; and the petty thefts of passing travelers. Against men and animals a watchman is appointed over a vineyard or group of vineyards. He is there day and night to frighten away animals and to challenge and report upon intruders. He roams about at night, and in the daytime he has in a conspicuous spot a booth made of four stout poles fixed into the ground, with a boarding lashed across halfway up, and a covering of oak leaves. Here the watchman sits and watches by day. When the season is over and the vineyard bare, the booth gets stripped and bent by the wind and rain, and is a picture of neglect and desolation.

Such was the daughter of Zion in the time of Isaiah (Isa. 1:8; the KJV has “cottage,” but “booth” or “shelter” is more accurate). Sometimes a permanent stone shelter takes the place of the booth. It serves both as a watchtower and a place of shelter in which the wine can be boiled and syrup made if the weather should prove cold and rainy at the time. Such was the tower of the parable (Matt. 21:33).

Pruning has to be done in December or January, not when the vine is in blossom and foliage, because it bleeds so profusely.

Vineyards are either tended by their owners, or are rented to husbandmen who receive for their labor half of the produce. The promise of fruitful seasons (Lev. 26:5) made the time of grain threshing in July and August run into the grape harvest of September and October, and this again reached the time of plowing and sowing in November.

Watching over the vineyard

3. The Olive Tree. The olive tree is a very characteristic feature of Eastern landscape. It is of a dusty silvery gray, and contrasts with the bright pure green of the mulberry, apricot, orange, and other trees. It presents many changes of color as it is seen with the light upon or against it, in the morning, at midday, or at evening. A grove of olive trees resembles a clump of willows or silver birches in foliage, though inferior in the grace of form and movement of the branches. The dark stems shine through the branches, and the light red soil, which it likes best, gives the warmth of tone that the tree itself lacks. Such is the beauty of the olive.

Olive Press

The olive tree bears fruit after seven years, and is at full fruit-bearing strength in its fourteenth year. It bears fruit in alternate years, and one tree will yield from a dozen to twenty gallons of oil. The olives are gathered in October, about the time of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. As the trees have seldom any enclosing wall around them, or those in one enclosure may have different owners, the sheikh appoints a day for the gathering, so that each may attend to his own.

The tree is about twenty feet high and is easily climbed. Olives are harvested by beating the branches with sticks just as Deuteronomy indicates: “When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow” (Deut. 24:20. cp. Isa. 17:6-NIV, 24:13-NIV). Beating the olive tree with sticks was the only effective way that the ancients had to dislodge the olives. Unfortunately it is very hard on the tree, and as a result many of them only produced a harvest every other year. As the branches are beaten, the olives fall to the ground, which the harvesters cover with pieces of cloth so that the olives can be easily retrieved. Any one could glean olives that remained on the tree after the harvest.

Old trees have suckers rising from the trunk or roots, close to the ground, six or seven, or a dozen or more of them rising in a circle around the old and gnarled trunk. These are the “olive branches” springing up to take the place of the parent tree (Ps. 128:3).

Sometimes a graft of a better olive tree is inserted into the stem of a wild olive, which for the purpose is cut down near to the ground. Everything below the graft is reckoned as only root and feeder. Hence the grafting of the heathen Gentile upon the good stock of the Bible-taught Israelite was contrary to nature or custom (Rom. 11:24). Even the planted slip of a fruitful olive is improved by being cut down and grafted. It is remarkable for the multitude of blossoms that it produces then sheds (Job 15:33).

Olives form the principal accompaniment and relish of the bread of the laboring man. Bread and olives in Syria correspond to the porridge and milk of Scotland. Huram’s workmen were supplied with them (2 Chron. 2:10). Olive oil is extensively used in soap making and cooking. One of the primary uses of the olive oil was as fuel in the oil lamps that everyone used for light at night, and which was used in the Menorah in the Tabernacle and Temple (Exod. 25:6, 27:20; Matt. 25:3). It was also used for anointing people and objects (Exod. 29:7, 40:9;1 Sam. 16:3 and 13). Olive wood was used in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:31), and is still used for ornamental purposes in Jerusalem.

4. Fig Trees. In biblical times the fig tree was next in rank after the vines and olive trees in number and fruit bearing value, although at the present time the mulberry tree is most important after wheat and barley because its leaves are the food of the silkworm.

(A) Appearance. The olive, fig, and pomegranate trees, and also the larger walnut and locust-bean trees, while differing in the color of their foliage, are all wide spreading, well filled trees. At a distance they resemble large apple and pear trees, the pomegranate being usually somewhat smaller and more like an elder tree in form and size. When stripped of its leaves the fig tree looks like a mere tangle of ropes, but by this multitude of small branches a great many points are presented to the sunlight, and in summer these are all studded with figs and screened over with large leaves. The tree affords a pleasant shelter beside the house, and in this connection is mentioned in the Bible along with the trained vine (1 Kings 4:25; Mic. 4:4; John 1:48).

(B) Fruit. There may be said to be three fig seasons:

(1) Early figs. These are few in number, and it is not every tree that has them. They are ripe a month before the regular crop. They are not really better than the ordinary summer figs, being indeed rather inferior in flavor though large and juicy, but they are esteemed a delicacy because they are the first of the season and limited in quantity. The owner of the tree often sends them as a present to his friends. This appreciation, as well as the fact that they fall off easily, are noticed in the Bible, and are made to point to moral resemblances (Jer. 24:2; Hosea 9:10; Nah. 3:12).

(2) Ordinary summer figs. These are extensively used for food in August and September, and when dried on the flat housetops are stored for winter use (1 Sam. 25:18, 30:12).

(3) Winter figs. These mature slowly, and remain along with the deep-green leaves on the tree until late in autumn, or even to the end of the year. They are large and fleshy, but inferior in flavor to those of the summer season. The quantity of them is comparatively small, though much larger, of course, than that of the early figs. While good figs are very good, bad figs can be very bad. They may become dry and shriveled, gluey and insipid, or infested by small worms (Jer. 24:2-8).

(C) The fig tree as a sign of the season. The fig tree comes into foliage later than the almond, apricot, and peach trees, and when its tender leaves are unsheathed and expand and deepen in color, it is a sign that summer days are at hand (Matt. 24:32; Mark 13:28). At the time of opening buds and blossoms the fig tree sends out a peculiar odor, like sweetly perfumed incense. It is this fragrance, like that of the sweet spices used in embalming, that seems to be indicated among the signs of approaching summer in Song of Solomon 2:13. There the literal meaning of the word translated “putteth forth,” and “ripeneth” (RV), is that of perfuming and giving scent. The phrase, “The fig tree putteth forth her green figs…” is literally, “The fig tree spices her unripe figs.”

(D) The fig tree that withered (Matt. 21:19; Mark 11:12-21). We have all at times had secret feelings of sympathy towards this tree even as we have also had at times towards Esau, Saul, Joab, and a few others. In order to understand the case of the fig tree, the first thing to pay attention to is the fig tree’s law of growth and fruit bearing. What is that? It is that leaves and fruit appear together and disappear together. As soon as the leaves begin to bud the figs begin to form.

At the end of summer some of the figs may survive the leaves around them at the tips of the branches, but the presence of leaves is uniformly a guarantee of fruit. It is instructive to compare this tree and its fate with the other fig tree mentioned in the parable (Luke 13:6-9). It also was unfruitful, and had been so for three years, but it was a case of simple failure under ordinary circumstances, at the ordinary season. It is made to teach a different lesson—a lesson of forbearance and encouraging trust.

But with regard to the tree on the Mount of Olives, we are told that it was not yet the time of figs (Mark 11:13). This fact, which seems at first to excuse the tree, was what really led to its condemnation. If it was not the time of figs, it was not the time of foliage. The tree was in advance of its companions as to leaves, and by its own law of life, that is, the custom of having foliage and figs at the same time, such leadership in outward show should have been accompanied by a similar forwardness in fruit bearing. But he found nothing thereon, but leaves only. It was a vegetable Sanhedrin. It seemed to be possessed by the spirit that created the long robe and large phylactery-box—making a fruitless show before men. Sins against God were bad enough, but Pharisaism claimed to be for God. Pharisee and fig tree were alike as to outward show without practice. It was the only thing that called forth the stern indignation of Christ. “Scribes, Pharisees, [and this unnatural fig tree], hypocrites!” [8]

In contrast to the fruitless show of the Pharisees and fig, our Lord said, I am the Truth (John 14:6). To love him is to become like him. Among the things that we are to think upon, the first one mentioned is “…whatsoever things are true…” (Phil. 4:8).

5. Gardens. Gardens of all types can be found in the East. The Garden of Eden was overflowing with vegetation of all types, and there were gardens in which herbs were grown (Deut. 11:10; 1 Kings 21:2; Song of Sol. 5:1), gardens with flowers (Song of Sol. 6:2), and gardens with trees (Song of Sol. 6:11). It was common for palaces to have gardens (1 Kings 21:2; 2 Kings 25:4; Neh. 3:15; Esther 7:7). The garden of Gethsemane (Aramaic: gat semanim = oil press) was an olive tree garden. Gardens were walled and entered by a gate, and it was common that they had a cistern or source of water (Isa. 58:11). Because gardens were considered very lovely and valuable, and were privately owned and enclosed, gardens were fittingly compared to chaste women (Song of Sol. 4:12).

The ground is made level, or arranged in a series of levels by low terrace walls, it is then laid out in narrow, shallow trenches and irrigated. As each furrow gets its sufficiency of water it is closed at the end by the hoe and naked foot. This may be the reference to watering by the foot in Deuteronomy 11:10; or the contrast between Palestine and Egypt there indicated may point to some kind of tread mill wheel for lifting water from the river or canal that it might be distributed over the land. Near towns, and where the water supply is abundant, there are gardens for vegetables, which are cultivated in great abundance and variety.

The usual garden trees are olive, fig, orange, lemon, citron, pomegranate, palm, almond, apricot, peach, banana, and occasionally apple and pear trees. Olive and fig trees are planted sufficiently apart to allow wheat or barley to be sown between them. Olive trees are thus seen in the garden at the foot of “the green hill,” where a rock cut tomb is situated that is thought by many to have been the tomb of Christ (John 19:41).

The almond tree bursts into blossom in the short, dark, cold days of January and amid the blustering winds at the beginning of February. The Hebrew word “almond” is “the watchful” or “the wakeful,” an appropriate name because the almond has blossoms while the other trees are still in their winter’s sleep. In Jeremiah 1:11 God showed Jeremiah a rod made from an almond tree, an appropriate illustration and play on words because God said He was “…watching to see that my word is fulfilled” (Jer. 1:12-NIV). Because the flowers of the almond tree are out before its leaves appear, its snowy array seems to emphasize the leafless desolation of the world around it. In Ecclesiastes 12:5 the almond tree is an apt symbol of the white hair of old age.

The identity of the fruit that the KJV translates “apple” has puzzled scholars for years. The modern apple was not native to Palestine, and the primitive wild apple does not match the elegant biblical descriptions of the fruit in question. The biblical “apple” was sweet, attractive, had a pleasing fragrance, was golden in color, had silvery leaves (or perhaps silvery flower petals), and its juice was refreshing and rejuvenating. The tree itself was large enough to give good shade. What biblical tree fits that description? The citron has been often considered a possible candidate, but the tree affords little shade and the fruit is bitter. The quince has also been suggested, but the fruit is acrid to the taste. The orange is a good candidate, but it seems not to have been grown in Palestine in Solomon’s time (cp. Song of Sol. 2:3 and 5, 7:8, 8:5). The only fruit that seems to meet all the biblical requirements is the apricot. The tree reaches 30 feet and gives good shade. The fruit is sweet, has a pleasing fragrance and golden color. The juice is refreshing, the flower petals are white with a pink tinge, and the leaves are pale with the underside covered with down enhancing the somewhat silvery appearance.

The palm tree towers aloft among the foliage of the seaside plain, and rises picturesquely among the villages in the lower valleys. In Arabic poetry and compliments it is the standard simile with regard to stateliness and elegance (Ps. 92:12; Song of Sol. 7:7 and 8; Jer. 10:5). The walnut and locust bean trees are often found outside of garden enclosures, either belonging to the owner of the ground or the common property of the village. Locust beans are ground like olives and the boiled syrup is mixed with figs for winter use. The walnut or nut tree is found in many localities, but prefers a mountain valley with its roots beside the brook or spring (Ps. 1:3). It affords a dense and delightful shade, the leaves being refreshingly aromatic (Song of Sol. 6:11).

Sycamore trees are often encountered growing alone by the roadside, of gigantic size, and with wide spreading arms. Their figs are insipid in taste, about the size of a gooseberry, and growing thick upon small leafless twigs springing out from the trunk and principal branches. They are eaten only by the poorest of the people (Amos 7:14).

6. Gleaning. Gleaning is gathering the grain or the fruit left behind by reapers. Today’s machinery leaves little behind to glean, but when reaping is done by hand there are stalks of grain all over the field that were missed. They may have been stepped on and left lying on the ground, or simply missed. In biblical times, poor people were allowed to glean in other people’s fields, vineyards, and orchards. The Bible said, “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:9 and 10. cp. Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:21; Ruth 2:7).

The ancient rules about gleaning are not observed as carefully as they used to be. On the small farms the fields are harvested very thoroughly by the owners, but a small corner is sometimes left unreaped out of religious scruple. Recently a Scotch engineer took an American reaping machine to the great wheat plain between the Lebanon ranges, to exhibit its powers to the assembled sheikhs and landowners. He astonished and delighted them, but was mobbed by the poor laborers and gleaning women, who saw that such clean, quick work left nothing for them. In a grove of olive trees belonging to several owners and where no walls ever separate one person’s property from that of another, gleaning is allowed after the day or days publicly announced for the beating of the tree and the gathering of the fruit. Permission to glean is usually also given for the vine and fig trees after the Feast of the Cross, which occurs towards the end of September.

From the above information it can be seen that the people living in Syria and Palestine do not usually need a commentary to explain the pastoral and agricultural life in Bible times. Their traditional customs and surrounding conditions not only explain and confirm many biblical references, but help to make the spiritual lessons that can be drawn from them more interesting and impressive.


[1] The Anti-Lebanon is the mountains just north of Mt. Hermon. The Great Rift Valley that runs from Africa into Syria lies between the mountains of Lebanon to the west, and Syria to the east. There are expansive plains just north of the city of Dan, just as there are plains in the Huleh Valley just south of Dan.
[2] Depending on the specific time in history, the Hebrew year began either with Nisan (April) or Tishri (October). In both cases, the first rain of the year, the “former rain,” fell in the autumn, and the “latter rain” fell in the spring, later in the Hebrew year. Occasionally Western commentators become confused and say that the autumn rains are the “latter rains” since they come later on the English calendar than the spring rains do, but that is incorrect.
[3] As Mackie says, the plowing in most of the East is opposite of what we do in the West. We plow first and drop in the seed, while the Easterner scatters the seed and then plows it in. The plow of the ancient world only scratched the surface of the dirt, it did not turn the soil over as our modern plows do.
[4] In John 4:35 Jesus said to his disciples, “…look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.” He was speaking of the harvest of people, who would have been generally dressed in lighter colors, and making an analogy to the fields. Unfortunately, the NIV leaves out the reference to the color.
[5] Mackie is referring to the fact that some denominations, realizing that the Hebrew and Greek words for “wine” and for “grape juice” are the same, assert that no godly person in the Bible ever drank wine. They also say that, at the wedding in Cana, Jesus Christ turned the water into grape juice. The words for grape juice and wine are the same, true, but it is because the Easterners, not having refrigeration, had no way to keep the juice of the grape as “grape juice.” In a few short weeks it would either turn to vinegar or wine. Thus Mackie is quite correct when he says, “The people of the land know nothing of unfermented wine.”
[6] Moslem law forbids the use of alcoholic beverages. However, in the biblical culture there was both wine and fermented drinks, and drunkenness was a common vice and serious social problem. Noah got drunk after the ark landed (Gen. 9:21), and it is prototypical that his drunkenness caused family problems, something alcohol does with regularity. Lot (Gen. 19:33-35), Nabal (1 Sam. 25:36), Amnon (2 Sam. 13:28), Elah (1 Kings 16:9), and the king and princes of Syria (1 Kings 20:16) are just some of the people the Old Testament mentions as drunk. Eli thought Hannah was drunk, showing that people even showed up drunk at the Tent of Meeting (1 Sam. 1:14 and 15). Drunkenness was a special problem of the wealthy, since they could afford the alcohol, and it affected women as well as men (Amos 4:1). Alcohol clouds the judgment and corrupts morals (Isa. 28:7; Hosea 4:11; Hab. 2:15). Ultimately, alcoholism bites like a serpent, and leads to poverty, woe, and sorrow (Prov. 23:21-32). By Roman times, alcohol had become even more of a social problem. The disciples were accused of being drunk in the Temple on Pentecost (Acts 2:13-15). Christians are commanded not to get drunk (Eph. 5:18).
[7] The fact that the same Hebrew word, debash, is used for honey from bees as well as grape syrup has caused some uncertainty in the biblical text. There was no beekeeping until Roman times, so, during the Old Testament, bee honey was from wild bees. It was therefore difficult to harvest and, while not scarce, it was not abundant either. Scholars debate which uses of debash in the Old Testament refer to honey and which refer to grape syrup. Opinions vary greatly.
[8] Stern indignation is right! Christ repeated the phrase seven times in Matthew 23 (Matt. 23:13-15, 23, 25, 27 and 29).

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