Ploughing and sowing were often one operation. The grain was scattered from an open basket and replenished from a sack tied on the back of a donkey. It took about thirty pounds of seed to the half acre, although the Babylonians had invented a primitive seed drill that was in use in some places and was more economical with the seed. The seed was then ploughed in so that it would not be taken by the birds (Matthew 13:4). This method of

sowing underlies the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, where there was a hard path and thorns awaiting the plough.

The plough itself was made of two wooden beams, jointed T-fashion. The horizontal stroke of the T formed the handle for guidance, and the spiked end was to break the surface of the ground. The vertical section of the T was attached to the yoke that went over the necks of the animals. The yoke itself was simply a rough beam tied across the necks of a pair of animals and held in place by two vertical sticks that came down each side of the neck and tied beneath (see Jeremiah 28:13).

The animals used were oxen if possible, and if a bull was used it was castrated. The law forbade a mixture of animals such as ox and donkey (Deuteronomy 22:10), presumably because there would be an unequal pull that might cause suffering for the weaker animal. The regulation prohibiting partnership between believers and unbelievers in 2 Corinthians 6:14 (“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers”) was not simply exclusivist; it was made out of the knowledge of the suffering that could be caused.

The amount of land that a pair of oxen could plough in a day became a standard measurement (1 Samuel 14:14; Isaiah 5:10). In the early days of agriculture, the sharp end of the plough was little more than a heavy pointed stick. A great advance was made when copper was able to be smelted and a copper sheath or blade attached to the spike. An even greater advance was made when the Philistines brought iron to the land, even if this meant the Jews had to get their ploughshares sharpened by the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:20).


man-plowing-with-oxen-team-940x4601 A farmer of Bible times ploughs with a team of two oxen. in this artist’s impression, notice the blade of the plough and the farmer’s sharp goad.




The early ploughs were light. Although they were portable and could be carried for some distance on the shoulder, they could scratch the surface of the ground to a depth of only three or four inches (7-10 centimetres). The reason the ploughman must not look back (Luke 9:62), was not because he would fail to plough in a straight line. Rather it was because he needed all his concentration so that he might push down hard and dig deep enough into the ground. He had to watch for stones and boulders, too, since they could wreck so light a tool, although the lightness did mean that he could lift the plough over the obstacle.

Ploughing was sometimes done in a team, each team contribution its own plough and oxen until the fields of the whole village were covered. Elisha was ploughing with eleven other people and twenty-four oxen when he was called to his prophetic ministry (1 Kings 19:19).

Ploughs could not be used on the hillside, near trees, or on exceptionally hard land. In such cases a mattock was used-a hand tool like a hoe, with a blade set at right angles to the shaft (Isaiah 7:25). There was an alternative method of sowing and ploughing where the ground would be ploughed first and sown afterwards. This would require a further ploughing at right angles to the first, or else a harrowing by pulling a large bush behind a team of oxen.

If the oxen were unwilling to move or were too slow for the farmer, he would encourage them to move by prodding them with a sharp pointed stick, or goad. It was heavy enough to be used as an effective weapon (Judges 3:31). Jesus used a symbolic goad to push Paul forward to the point of conversion. “It is hard for you kick against the goads,” he said (Acts 26:14). The wheat (often called “corn” in the King James Version of the Bible) was sown first, then the barley, and the other crops followed-millet, lentils, peas, melons, and cucumbers. It was necessary to keep the ground free of weeds by hoeing from December until February. This was a time when, except in the hill country, movement from place to place was impossible because the rains turned the plains into a muddy morass. Then, as the temperature began to rise at the end of March and the beginning of April, the spring rains came (see Joel 2:23 again). The rains caused the grain to swell, and by the end of April the barley was ready for harvesting.

Harvest fields were divided by paths and it was permitted to pick the ears of the growing corn beside the path. This was particularly enjoyed in the spring before the grain had hardened. The twelve disciples who were with Jesus ate the ripening grain one Sabbath day (Luke 6:1-2). They were not criticized for taking the grain because this was allowed in the law (Deuteronomy 23:25). It was thought by some people, however, that even picking the grain could be considered “working” on the Sabbath.

5915797077_0644c31fa2 This plough is similar to those used in Bible times.







     The flax was harvested in March and April by cutting the stems with a hoe at ground level. As soon as that was completed the barley was ready for harvesting. The standing grain was cut by sickle-a hand-held crescent shaped tool with a sharp inner cutting edge. In early times the implement would be made of wood or even the large jaw-bone of an animal, and flints would be set alone the inner edge. Later in time, metal sickles were available (Jeremiah 50:16; Joel 3:13).

The stalks were cut near to the top and the remainder left in the ground for the grazing of the sheep. They were tied into bundles (Genesis 37:7 and Psalm 129:7) and loaded onto the backs of donkeys (Genesis 42:26-27) or put into a cart to be taken away for threshing.

Occasionally the grain would be pulled out of the ground. The grain was normally cut by a group of people working together, but the corners of the fields had to be left for the poor (Leviticus 23:22). The poor were also allowed to walk behind the reapers to pick up or “glean” anything the reapers had missed (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The story of Ruth is set against such a background. She was able to fill the large skirt of her robe with what she had collected (Ruth 2).

The grain was tinder dry at the time of reaping, and there was danger of fire (see Exodus 22:6). That danger was often exploited by enemies in war in the knowledge that such burning would seriously weaken the condition of the people who owned the crops (see Judges 6:1-6; 15:4-5).


The separation of the grain from the straw was done on a threshing floor. This could be any hard, compacted surface. It may have been made of smoothed rock (as, presumably, was the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, 1 Chronicles 21:18-26) or of compacted earth. The earthen threshing floors were often covered with grass and became an ideal place to pitch a tent. They were known as “summer threshing floors.”

Threshing was sometimes done by beating the grain with a fail (a long flexible stick) if small quantities were involved. Ruth used this method (Ruth 2:17), and Gideon did the same when he was using the stone bottom of a winepress (Judges 6:11). The psalmist imagines doing  this to his enemies (Psalm 18:42).

Oxen were the other means of threshing grain. A pair was yoked together and the yoke attached to a vertical pole set in the middle of the threshing floor. They were driven round and round by a boy, and their sharp hooves did the rest. The law said that the oxen should not be muzzled when doing this kind of work so that they could eat (Deuteronomy 25:4), and the New Testament uses this to lay down the principle that ministers of the gospel should always be able to live from their ministry (1 Corinthians 9:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:18). The root meaning of the Hebrew word for “thresh” is “to trample,” which comes from this second threshing practice (Job 39:15; Daniel 7:23).

Later the threshing sledge was invented, which the oxen pulled behind them rather as they would have pulled a plough. Sledges were made of long planks of wood fixed side by side. Flints were sunk into the underside of the timber and fixed there by pitch. The sledge was driven over grain about 18 inches (50 centimetres) in depth and was a much quicker way of getting the job done. The grain fell through the straw to the hard surface beneath, but the straw was chopped up by this method. Chopped straw made excellent fodder for animals, for mixing with the grain. Later still a more sophisticated sledge was invented in which sets of toothed rollers replaced the flints.




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