In the modern world only a minority are involved in the primary production of food - agriculture. In the ancient world almost everyone had a near daily involvement. Even the potter or smith had a family field and perhaps a few animals. Only the very rich did not work with the soil or keep flocks, but they, as owners, took interest in the management of land and beasts.
The fertile hills of southern Galilee
While those living in areas of abundant rainfall (such as New Zealand) may find it difficult to recognize the dry hills and plains of Palestine as rich land, that was how Canaan was perceived. Biblical descriptions like Dt 8:7-9 are well known:
We also have a similar description of Canaan from Sinhue (a 20th Century BCE Egyptian):
Grain (wheat & barley), grapes, figs and olives as well as legumes (lentils & chick-peas), onions, cucumbers, melons, dates, pomegranates, almonds and spices were grown for food. Flax provided fibers for rope and linen. The seeds were fed to animals.
Terracing on the slopes of the Mt of Olives in Jerusalem
In the plains and on some valley floors the land was already fairly level for planting. On hillsides terraces were first constructed, to retain soil and moisture. Rocks and larger stones were removed from the uphill side and used for a wall on the downhill side (Is 5:2; Ps 80:9).
Picture from Clifford
For annual crops the land was first plowed. Good plows had a metal blade attached to a shaped branch (or specially made wooden frame) and were pulled by oxen or donkeys.
The cycle of rain and dry seasons defined the time when various crops were planted and harvested.
Both wheat and barley were grown for bread, the staple food. Wheat makes better dough, but needs good soil and water. Barley tolerated poor soil and drought better.
Between November and January, seed was scattered (as Jesus describes, Mk 4:3-8) and then plowed or hoed to bury it. Since birds eat seeds and young plants, both human and inanimate scarecrows were used.
Barley matured first, April to early May, wheat a month later. Stalks were cut with sickles then tied in bundles (sheaves).
The sheaves were spread on a flat rock or prepared earth threshing-floor. Animals were walked over the floor, often dragging threshing sledges (Am 1:3), so separating grain and stalk - the more tender seeds of herbs and beans were threshed with sticks (Is 28:27). The chaff (outer covering of the grain) and grain were also detached at this time, but were more difficult to separate by hand.
Tossing in the air allowed the wind to blow the chaff from the grain.
Both sheep and goats were kept for meat and milk as well as wool or hair. Both are hardy animals not requiring shelter and able to find food in marginal conditions which do not permit cattle to survive. Most peasant families would own, at least a few, sheep - making shepherding a common occupation.
The photo (right from Clifford) taken near Tekoa illustrates several features of biblical shepherding. The flock has both sheep and goats (in this case the sheep are pale and the goats black, however the distinguishing feature is the tail - sheep's tails hang down while goats' stick up - cf. Mt 25:32). The land has little vegetation and flocks would be moved from place to place. In such a climate the shepherd's camp would be by the nearest source of water.
Often flocks were moved from one area to another during the year, flocks based in places on the Judean ridge (like Bethlehem or Tekoa) would be moved further down the steep slope into the Judean desert towards the Dead Sea when those areas had received rain and/or runoff allowing some grass to grow. Thus even village based shepherding was almost a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
Cattle have not been common in Palestine in the modern period, though Israel today does have a significant dairy industry, modern Beduin tend to get their milk from goats. In biblical times however cattle seem to have been more common (judging by the number of references in the Bible).
Because cattle require longer and richer grazing than sheep, it is likely that true herds were only common in the lusher areas like Transjordan (especially the Bashan plateau) and Galillee. However, references to cattle as sacrificial animals suggests that many families would have kept a few beasts (rather like the European tradition of the "house cow").
Cattle were rarely penned and fed grain (a staple human food), such animals became fat and provided a luxury meat (cf. Am 6:4).
This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.