02.03.02 Agriculture

Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 18, 2016  -  Comments Off on 02.03.02 Agriculture

02.03.02 Agriculture. Agriculture was the primary occupation for the majority of Jewish peasants which is why many comments by Jesus alluded to agricultural endeavors. Israel is a diverse land that has five distinct climate zones.[1] Furthermore, there are six divisions in the agricultural year with each zone, each lasting about two months and the every two-month period is somewhat different in each climate zone.  The agricultural divisions are as follows:

  1. Seedtime: In Israel crops were sown late fall, depending upon the climate zone, as this is the beginning of the rainy season (November to April).[2]
  1. Winter (rainy season)
  1. Spring
  1. Harvest: The harvest season is the beginning of the six to seven month period when there is no rain (dry season).
  1. Summer (dry season)
  1. Season of incredible heat (August).

Winter crops and cattle flourish in the Galilee area whereas the southern desert section of Judea is ideal for flat-tailed sheep, goats, and tropical fruits.  Various grapes[3] and olives are in abundance almost everywhere with the exception of the semi-arid southern region. The land was famous for olives, dates, figs, incense, pomegranates, citrons, and almonds. Oils included olive oil, poppy seed oil, nut oil, and palm oil. There were a variety of wines, black wines, white wines, reddish wines, Sharon wines, Carmel wines and spiced wines, all of which were shipped abroad in ancient time.[4]  The diet of the ancients was basically a cereal diet. It was extremely low in fat and calories, but olives made up for this deficiency. Josephus wrote of the productiveness of the land:

Their soil is universally rich and plentiful and full of plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation by its fruitfulness.  Accordingly, it is all cultivated by its inhabitants, and no part lies idle.

Josephus, Wars 3.3.2 (42b)


The historian continued to say,

The country also that lies over against this lake has the same name of Gennesaret (Galilee); its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty.  Its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it, and the inhabitants accordingly plant all sorts of trees there; for the temper of the air is so well mixed that it agrees very well with those several sorts, particularly walnuts, which require the coolest air, flourish there in vast plenty.  There are palm trees also which grow best in hot air; fig trees also and olives grown near them which yet require an air that is more temperate.

Josephus, Wars 3.10.8 (516-517)


Another writer was Marcus Terentius Varro (116 – 27 B.C.), a Roman scholar thought to have been of the equestrian rank, and as such, had the finances for extensive travel and the establishment of his own library. He produced 74 literary works on numerous topics, including agriculture. In his work, Agriculture, he identified three areas in the Roman Empire where crop yields were one hundred fold – in Sybaris in Italy, near Gadara in Syria, and in Byzacium in Africa. Of interest in this study is Gadara. Varro mentioned it as being in Syria because it was under the Roman governmental district headquarters in Damascus, Syria, just as Galilee was at time.  More specifically, he wrote,

Around Sybaris in Italy the normal yield is said to be even a hundred to one, and a like yield is reported near Gadara in Syria, and for the district of Byzacium in Africa. It also makes a great difference whether the planting is on virgin soil or on what is called restibilis — land cultivated every year — or on vervactum, which is allowed sometimes to lie fallow between crops.

Varro, Agriculture 1.44.2[5]


The area Varro described near Gadara is in the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee. The reason the land was extremely fertile is because of the extinct volcanoes in the Golan Heights area. Over the centuries, the rains disintegrated the volcanic rock, called basalt, into extremely fertile soil. Therefore, when Jesus spoke of a hundred fold increase,[6] it was not an exaggeration; it was a multiplication factor with which the Galileans were well acquainted.

The olive tree has been a vital element in all Mediterranean cultures.  Its fruit is crushed and pressed in several stages for its oil, the first part of which is used for religious purposes.  The next oil extracted is used for medical purposes, followed by oil for cooking, lamps, and other uses.[7] 

With the exception of the desert areas, vineyards have been planted throughout the land since the earliest times.  According to the oral tradition, the wine was mixed 1:3 with water.[8] Water stored in cisterns for long periods of time tended to become a haven for micro-organisms and the alcohol in wine purified the water.  The small alcohol content had a purifying effect on the water which was collected in cisterns[9] during the rainy months of November through April for use in the arid summer months.

Most crops were planted in October and November at the time of the early rains. After the later rains came in March and April, the crops were harvested. The farming methods included the hand sowing of seed (Mk. 4:1-20), work in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-6), care of fruit trees (Mt. 7:15-20), guarding food from thieves (Mk. 12:1), and storage of food (Lk. 12:13-21).  These vignettes were some of the illustrations used by Jesus to communicate his message.[10]

Wheat was the grain of choice and the primary food staple, whereas barley was the food for the poorer classes and animals.[11]  It requires a shorter growing season than does wheat and grows well in poor farmland east of the central mountains and areas adjacent to the Judean desert south and east of Jerusalem. This was the only land the poor could afford to purchase.[12]  Most other soils were extremely fertile and expensive. The biblical phrase that described the land flowing with “milk and honey” had reference to two areas.  The southern desert area was ideal for milk-producing herds, such as goats and camels, while the northern area produced vineyards and orchards as well as “honey.”

Some villages enjoyed diversity of trades and income.   Capernaum and other villages along the edge of the fresh water lake known as the Sea of Galilee, prospered from both fishing and farming.[13] The lake, called by locals Yom Kinneret, literally “Sea Harp” in Hebrew, is thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. It is the only known lake with fresh water sardines. In spite of that, a vast majority of the population were involved in agriculture.  Hence, the entire social and religious life centered around the agricultural cycles, as can be noted by the Jewish festivals.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a misconception today that the vegetation of modern Israel has not changed since the earliest biblical times. The land, except some desert areas, was heavily forested throughout most of pre-biblical history.[14] When Joshua divided the land he told some Israelites to clear the forested hill country (Jos. 17:15-18). Destruction of the forests came centuries later.  For example, when Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem in 135 A.D. he commanded that every tree within ten Roman miles of the city be cut down to remove the main source of fuel for cooking and heating. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire was in power of this region (1407-1917), they taxed every tree and in the nineteenth century most surviving forests were used for railroad ties and fuel for railroad engines. The reforestation of today is nothing short of a miracle. At the time of Jesus central and northern Israel was covered with rich farmland and forests.

[1]. For example, Jerusalem receives more than 24 inches of rainfall per year while Jericho, which is less than 20 miles to the east, receives barely 4 inches. Therefore, the mount region of Jerusalem has numerous fruit trees and gardens while the Jericho area is a desert – the city itself is located at a huge oasis.

[2]. Today, with the invention of the drip irrigation system, crops are growing year-round in fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos 9:13 that says that the ploughman will overtake the reaper.

[3]. Originally Israel had five kinds of grapes. One kind produces the earliest fruit that only grows well on the ground, not on a grape arbor. Its fruit ripens early and the other kinds ripen later and thereby, people enjoyed fresh grapes from June through October. Many grapes today were brought into the country from France by the Rothschild family in 1882 because Muslims destroyed the vineyards.

[4]. Golub, In the Days. 137.

[5]. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/1*.html  Retrieved July 9, 2011.

[6]. Mt. 13:1-9; Mk. 4:1-9; Lk. 8:4-8.

[7]. See 15.02.01.B. “Illustration of a Beam Olive Press.”

[8]. 05.05.02.Q3 “Did the wine that Jesus created, contain alcohol (Jn. 2:1-11)?’ and 05.05.02.Q4 “What is the difference between wine and strong drink (Jn. 2:1-11)?”

[9]. See “Cisterns” in Appendix 26.

[10]. Packer and Tenney, eds., Illustrated Manners. 263-70; See also Packer, J. I., and M. C. Tenney and William White Jr. eds. Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 1995.

[11]. Ruth 2:17; Ezek. 4:9; Jn. 6:9.

[12]. Hepper, “Grain.” 2:591.

[13]. Packer and Tenney, eds., Illustrated Manners. 263-70.

[14]. It appears that in centuries past, the farmland in Babylon was also more productive than it is today. Herodotus in his work, The Histories (1.93) said that “In grain, it is so fruitful as to yield commonly two-hundred fold; and when the production is the greatest, even three-hundred fold.”

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