The harvest and preparation of grain for use as food requires the separation of the kernels from the stalks on which they grow. Because most harvesting today is done mechanically, the significance of a threshing floor and its usefulness as a symbol is somewhat lost to us. A threshing floor was a large, open, hard surface, so threshing floors were often located on hilltops. After bundles of stalks were laid on the surface of the floor, oxen were repeatedly led over the piles until the dried plants were broken up. Then the wind was used to separate the heavier kernels from the chaff by tossing the mixture in the air, an action called winnowing.
The threshing floor formed a backdrop to the love story of Boaz and Ruth in the book of Ruth. This was a departure from its frequent association with sexual promiscuity (Hosea 9:1). Another famous threshing floor in the Old Testament is the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite ( who is also called Ornan in 1 Chron 21), which became the location of Solomon’s temple (2 Sam 24).
After observing people, the psalm writer used the process of threshing as a symbol to demonstrate that, while differences may not always be obvious, the winds of adversity in life will separate people with substance from those who have no true connection with God. “Wicked people are not like that. Instead, they are like husks that the wind blows away” (Ps 1:4).
ABUNDANCE OR JUDGMENT
A busy threshing floor was a symbol of a plentiful harvest; a bare one indicated famine, and perhaps God’s judgment. Joel 2:24 speaks of that abundance as a sign of God’s blessing if the people repent: “The threshing floors will be filled with grain. The vats will overflow with new wine and olive oil.” And in 2 Kings 6:27, the king in Israel laments that he is helpless to supply food to his starving people: “If the LORD doesn’t help you, how can I help you? I can’t give you something from the threshing floor or the winepress.” He is using the presence of food as a symbol of God’s providential care.
The Old Testament includes a number of instances where threshing is specifically used to describe the results of conflict between nations, sometimes carrying out the ultimate judgment of God. Isaiah 21:10 says, “You, my people, have been threshed and winnowed. I make known to you what I heard from the LORD of Armies, the God of Israel,” as the prophet describes in symbolic terms the fall of Babylon. And Amos 1:3 anticipates God’s retribution against Syria: “This is what the LORD says: because Damascus has committed three crimes, and now a fourth crime, I will not change my plans. The Arameans have crushed the people of Gilead with iron-spiked threshing sledges.” Those who cruelly treat others will themselves be judged harshly.
The New Testament age opens with John the Baptist applying this threshing floor picture to God’s plan for humanity. When he announces the coming Messiah, John pictures him as a farmer who is about to finalize his harvest: “His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clean up his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into a barn, but he will burn the husks in a fire that can never be put out” (Matt 3:12).
MUZZLING THE OX
Later, in explaining the value of financially supporting those whose calling makes them ministers and teachers within the church, Paul appeals to the simple principle God spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:4 about allowing the oxen who were harnessed on the threshing floor to remain unmuzzled, so they might eat part of the grain they were helping produce. Paul notes, “Moses’ Teachings say, ‘Never muzzle an ox when it is threshing grain.’ God’s concern isn’t for oxen. Isn’t he speaking entirely for our benefit? This was written for our benefit so that the person who plows or threshes should expect to receive a share of the crop. If we have planted the spiritual seed that has been of benefit to you, is it too much if we receive part of the harvest from your earthly goods? (1 Cor 9:9-11). Although the original command in Deuteronomy applied to animals, Paul pointed out its symbolic application to preachers, who should be financially compensated for their work.