« Agricola, Stephan Agriculture, Hebrew Agrippa I and II »

Agriculture, Hebrew

AGRICULTURE, HEBREW: Palestine is praised in the Old Testament as a “land flowing with milk and honey”; and, indeed, with little labor it yielded what the inhabitants needed.

Field and Garden Products.

Of cereals, wheat was and is the most important product; the Ammonite country appears to have been specially noted for it (II Chron. xxvii. 5). The best wheat today is that of the Hauran and Belka, and of the high table-land between Tabor and the Lake of Tiberias. Much wheat was raised by the Hebrews in the time of Solomon, and then and later it was one of the chief articles of export (I Kings v. 11; Ezek. xxvii. 17). Barley was equally common and in the earlier time was the chief material for bread (Judges vii. 13; II Kings iv. 42). With progress in culture and the settled life its use was limited to the poorer classes (John vi. 9, 13; Josephus, War, V. x. 2). Today it is used for fodder only; it was also so used in the ancient time (I Kings iv. 28), and its value appears to have been about one-half that of wheat (II Kings vii. 1). There is no evidence in the Old Testament that beer was made from it. A third and less important cereal (Heb. kussemeth; LXX, olyra, Ex. ix. 32; Isa. xxviii. 25; Ezek. iv. 9; erroneously rendered “rye” in A. V.) was probably spelt. Rye and oats are not mentioned. The chief legume bearing plants were beans (II Sam. xvii. 28; Ezek. iv. 9) and lentils (Gen. xxv. 34; II Sam. xvii. 28, xxiii. 11; Ezek. iv. 9). Both were ground into meal, and were used for bread in time of scarcity (Ezek. iv. 9). Leeks, onions, and garlic were used as seasoning and to give relish to bread. Cucumbers 93 and melons are also mentioned as delicacies of which the Israelites were deprived in the wilderness (Num. xi. 5). Both are particularly refreshing in hot countries, and the poor live for months on bread and cucumbers or melons alone. Of condiments and spices the Old Testament mentions two varieties of cumin (Heb. kammon, ḳeẓaḥ, Isa. xxviii. 25; the former used also as medicine) and the coriander (Ex. xvi. 31; Num. xi. 7, often mentioned in the Talmud). The New Testament adds: dill (Eng. versions, “anise,” Matt. xxiii. 23), mint (ib.; Luke xi. 42), rue (Luke xi. 42), and mustard (Matt. xiii. 31, xvii. 20; Mark iv. 31; Luke xiii. 19, xvii. 6). The mustard-seed was proverbial as the smallest of seeds. The mustard plant grows quickly and reaches a height of ten feet. To these food-producing plants must be added flax (Josh. ii. 6; Isa. xix. 9; Hos. ii. 5, 9, and elsewhere) and cotton. The former of these is not much cultivated today; but it was of great importance to the ancient Israelites, as, together with wool, it supplied the material for their clothing. In the Greco-Roman period it was one of the chief articles of trade. The importance of the flax-cultivation can be inferred from the statement of the Talmud, that it was permissible to put a flax-bed under water on semi-holy days in order to destroy injurious insects (Mo‘ed Katan i. 6). Linen-manufacture was carried on especially in Galilee. How early the cotton-plant was introduced into Palestine is not known. The Hebrew terms shesh and buz do not necessarily mean linen, but include cotton cloth, or a mixed material like the Greek byssos. The foreign word karpas (Gk. karpasos) is used for cotton in Esther i. 6 and in the Talmud. In Greco-Roman times cotton was grown and exported (cf. Pausanias, V. v. 2). For wine and oil see the separate articles.

Climatic Conditions.

Palestine is praised in Deut. viii. 7, xi. 10-11, as a “land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills,” which has no need of artificial irrigation because it “drinketh water of the rain of heaven.” Compared with the neighboring countries, it can not, indeed, be called poorly watered. In normal years the natural precipitation suffices for a great part of the fields. Land thus naturally watered is called in the Mishnah “house of the Baal” or “field of the house of the Baal,” and the name is kept to this day (cf. Smith, Rel. of Sem., p. 97). But the ancient Israelites knew that watercourses and underground water were indispensable (cf. Ps. i.; Deut. viii. 7; Isa. xxxii. 20; Ezek. xvii. 8), and that the rain alone was not always sufficient; they therefore appreciated the pools made by the Canaanites and added to them (see Water Supply in Palestine). For these favors of nature the Israelite ever felt his immediate dependence upon Yahveh (cf. Deut. xi. 14; Jer. iii. 3, v. 24; Joel ii. 23; Zech. x. 1). Yahveh’s blessing shows itself in his sending the first rain and the latter rain in due season; in the rain his mercy is seen, in the drought his anger. Thus he proves himself indeed the Baal of the land, who waters and fertilizes it (cf. Smith, 1.c.).


The Israelites learned agriculture from the Canaanites. How rapidly they made the transition from the nomadic stage can not be determined; it seems to have been practically complete at the beginning of the regal period (cf. I Sam. xi. 5; II Sam. xiv. 30, which indicate that high and low were then engaged in the cultivation of the soil), although certain tribes of the south and the East-Jordan country retained more or less of the nomadic character till the Exile. That the religious observances, preeminently the great festivals, rest upon an agricultural basis is significant. Irrigation was not the only artificial improvement that was necessary. The land had to be cleared of thorns and weeds, and stones had to be removed (cf. Isa. v. 2; Matt. xiii. 3-7), although the fellahs to-day often allow the stones to remain because they help to retain moisture. Extensive terracing was indispensable to retain the thin soil on the steep hillsides. Manuring and burning were practised (Isa. v. 24, xxv. 10, xlvii. 14; Joel ii. 5; Ob. 18), but probably neither extensively nor annually. Dried dung is more valuable today as fuel, and it was so used in the ancient time (Ezek. iv. 15). The usual method of renewing the strength of the soil was fallowing (Ex. xxiii. 11, and elsewhere). The winter crops (wheat, barley, lentils, etc.) were sown as soon as the early rain had softened the ground—from the end of October to the beginning of December. The sowing of the summer crops (millet, vetches, etc.) followed, and lasted (in the case of cucumbers) till after the winter harvest. Well-watered fields bear two crops. The surface of the soil was scratched by a very primitive plow, drawn by oxen or cows (Judges xiv. 18; I Kings xix. 19; Job i. 14; Amos vi. 12), sometimes in light soils by an ass (Deut. xxii. 10; Isa. xxx. 24). The furrow today is from three to four inches deep. The driver’s goad (Judges iii. 31) served also to break the clods. According to the usual assumption, the field which a yoke of oxen (Heb. emedh) could plow in a day was the unit of land-measurement, as the present unit, the feddān (22-23 acres), represents a season’s plowing. It is more probable, however, that they measured land by the amount of seed sown, as is done in the Talmud, and that zemedh is properly a measure of capacity and then designates a piece of ground of such size that it required a zemedh of seed. The surface was evened with an implement resembling a stone-boat or with a roller (Job xxxix. 10; Isa. xxviii. 24-25; Hos. x. 11). The seed was sown by hand; wheat, barley, and spelt were often carefully laid in the furrow. In the time of the Mishnah, as at present, it was plowed in. At present, seed is sown rather thinly. An estimate of the amount of land under cultivation in ancient times is impossible. Large tracts in Palestine can never have been used for anything but pasturage; the “deserts” were extensive, as their frequent mention shows; and there was more wooded land than now (Josh. xvii. 15, 18; II Kings ii. 24). These facts make it probable that the extent of cultivated land did not materially exceed that of today.



In the Jordan valley the barley-harvest begins from the end of March to the first half of April; in the hill-country, on the coast, and in the highlands, from a week to a month later. The cutting of the barley opens, that of the wheat closes, the harvest season. Altogether it lasts about seven weeks and from of old it has been a time of joy and festivity (Ps. iv. 7; Isa. ix. 3). The Feast of the First Fruits, on which, according to the Priest Code, a barley-sheaf was offered (Lev. xxiii. 9-14), ushered in this festive time; the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after the opening of the harvest, when an offering of two wave-loaves of the new wheat (Lev. xxiii. 17-21) was made, closed it. The grain was cut with a sickle (Deut. xvi. 9, xxiii. 25; Job xxiv. 24; Jer. l. 16; Joel iii. 13). With the left hand the reaper grasped a bundle of ears (Isa. xvii. 5; Ps. cxxix. 7), and with the right he cut them fairly close to the head. The binder followed, gathering the cut grain into his arms (Ps. cxxix. 7) and making it into sheaves (Gen. xxxvii. 7; Lev. xxiii. 10; Deut. xxiv. 19; Ruth ii. 7; Ps. cxxvi. 6), which were then collected in stacks (Judges xv. 5; Ruth iii. 7; Job v. 26). The harvesters refreshed themselves during their toil by eating parched corn and bread dipped in a mixture of vinegar and water (Ruth ii. 14). According to old custom and the law, forgotten sheaves and the privilege of gleaning after the reapers belonged to the poor (Lev. xix. 9, xxiii. 22; Deut. xxiv. 19; Ruth ii. 2); the Priest Code provided also that the corners of the field were not to be wholly reaped (Lev. xix. 9, xxiii. 22). In like manner it was permissible to pluck ears from another’s field to eat (Deut. xxiii. 25; Matt. xii. 1).

The reaping was immediately followed by the thrashing. Small quantities of grain, and dill, cumin, and the like, were beaten out with a flail (Judges vi. 11; Ruth ii. 17; Isa. xxviii. 27); but in most cases wheat, barley, and spelt were taken to the thrashing-floor, which, if possible, was placed on high ground so that the wind might carry off the chaff. The kernels were trodden out by cattle or were separated by means of a rude thrashingsled or wagon (II Sam. xxiv. 22; Isa. xxviii. 27-28; Amos i. 3). Both custom and the law forbade the muzzling of an ox in treading out the grain (Deut. xxv. 4); and today it is commonly estimated that an ox will consume from three to four pecks of the grain daily during the thrashing-time. Winnowing was accomplished, with the help of the wind, by means of a shovel or a wooden fork having two or more tines (Isa. xxx. 24; Jer. xv. 7). The chaff is now used as fodder; according to Matt. iii. 12, it seems in ancient time to have been burned. The grain was sifted (Amos ix. 9) and shoveled into heaps. It was usually stored in cistern-like pits in the open field, carefully covered (Jer. xli. 8). Real barns are not mentioned till late times (Deut. xxviii. 8; II Chron. xxxii. 28; Jer. l. 26; Joel i.17). In general, Palestine may be called a fertile land, but its productivity has been greatly overestimated. Today the mountain-lands of Judea yield on an average from two- to threefold; the valleys of Hebron, with fertilization, from four- to fivefold; the very fertile Plain of Sharon, carefully cultivated by German colonists, eightfold for wheat and fifteenfold for barley. There is no reason to believe that the average return was greater in ancient times.


Some of the laws have already been mentioned. Of greater importance in their effect upon agriculture were the laws aiming to prevent the alienation of landed property. The ancestral field was sacred (cf. I Kings xxi. 3). This provision explains the law of Lev. xxv. 25, according to which, if an impoverished Israelite had to sell his field, his kinsman had the first right of purchase (cf. Jer. xxxii. 6-12). The law also gave the original owner a perpetual right of redemption, and restored the field to him in the year of jubilee without compensation to the purchaser; a city house could be redeemed only within a year, and did not return in the year of jubilee (Lev. xxv. 27-34). The underlying thought here is that the land is not the private property of the Israelites, but belongs to God, and the Israelites have only the right of use. It may be questioned how far such laws were carried out; they are closely connected with the year of jubilee (see below). The same desire to preserve family possessions shows itself in the law of inheritance. In ancient time daughters did not inherit; if there were no sons, property passed to the nearest relative of the father, with the obligation to marry the widow (cf. the Book of Ruth). The Priest Code allows daughters to inherit when there are no sons, but they must marry within the family or, at least, within the tribe of the father (Num. xxxvi.). Still more important in its effect upon agriculture was the development of the Sabbath idea. It was an old custom and a law of the Book of the Covenant that every field should lie fallow one year in seven (Ex. xxiii. 10-11). The custom fell into disuse and Deuteronomy knows nothing of it. But the Priest Code revived it, imposed it upon the entire land at the same year (cf. Josephus, Ant., XII. ix. 5), and added the theoretic and impracticable yeas of jubilee (see Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee). Lastly, laws arising from ideas of ceremonial impurity must be mentioned, such as the prohibition of sowing unclean seed (Lev. xi. 37-38), of plowing with an ox and an ass together, and of sowing different kinds of seed in one field (Lev. xix. 19; Deut. xxii. 9-10). Of the age of these customs nothing is known. The Mishnah developed and added to these laws with great detail.

I. Benzinger.

Bibliography: J. L. Saalschütz, Das mosäische Recht, Berlin, 1853; E. Robinson, Physical Geography of the Holy Land, Boston, 1865; J. G. Wetzstein, in F. Delitzsch, Commentar zu Jesaia, pp. 399-599, 705-713, 2d ed., Leipsic, 1869 (treats of winnowing; neither in last ed. nor in Eng. transl.); idem, Die syrische Dreschtafel, in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, v. (1873) 270-302; F. Hamilton, La Botanique de la Bible, Nice, 1871; H. B. Tristram, Natural History of the Bible, London, 1873; idem, The Fauna and Flora of Palestine, in Survey of Western Palestine, ib. 1884 (authoritative); J. Smith, Bible Plants, their History and Identification, ib. 1878; C. J. van Klinggräff, Palästina und seine Vegetation, in Oesterreichische botanische Zeitschrift, xxx., Vienna, 1880; W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, 2 vols., New York, 1880-82; I. Löw, Aramäische Pflanzennamen, Leipsic, 1881; E. Boissier, Flora orientalis, Geneva, 1884; J. H. Balfour. The Plants of the Bible, London, 1885; G. Anderlind, Ackerbau und Tiersucht 95 in Syrien, insbesondere in Palästina, in ZDPV, ix. (1886) 1-73; S. Schumacher, Der arabische Pflug, ib. iv. (1881) 70-84, ix. (1886) 1-73, xii. (1889) 157-166; A. E. Knight, Gleanings from Bible Lands . . . Occupations of their Inhabitants, London, 1891; V. Hehn, Kulturpflanzen und Haustiere, Berlin, 1894; H. Vogelstein, Die Landwirtschaft in Palästina zur Zeit der Mischna, ib. 1894; H. C. Trumbull, Studies in Oriental Social Life, Philadelphia, 1894; DB, i. 48-51; EB, i. 76-89; JE, i. 262-270; E. Day, Social Life of the Hebrews, New York, 1901 (a useful book, based largely on a study of the book of Judges). Consult also the works on antiquities and archeology by De Wette-Räbiger, Leipsic, 1864; H. Ewald, Göttingen, 1866, Eng. transl., London, 1876; C. F. Kell, Frankfort, 1875; Schegg-Wirthmüller, Freiburg, 1887; I. Benzinger, ib. 1894; W. Nowack, ib. 1894; and PEF, Quarterly Reports, particularly the earlier numbers.

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