Food and agriculture (Ruth 2)

Bilderesultat for olive press

Illustration: Olive press

As the story of Cain and Abel indicates, the two main sources of food in ancient times were animal husbandry and the cultivation of edible plants. Apart from fishing, the only other way to obtain food was through hunting and gathering wild food; a society that had to rely exclusively on hunting and gathering was either very primitive or in a dire situation (cf. Isaiah 7:18). Farming is already attested at sites from the Egyptian Neolithic period.

Ruth 2-3 reflects the annual cycle of planting and harvesting various crops in Israel. The agricultural year is also reflected in Israel’s annual festivals (such as First-fruits and Pentecost), as well as in the Gezer Calendar. Plowing and planting of grains (wheat and barley) began after the “early” or autumn rains in October through November. Plants would grow through the heavy winter rains and the “latter”, or spring, rains. At harvest (April – May), workers would cut the grain with sickles and bind them into sheaves. After the harvest the grain would be taken to threshing floors, where threshing sledges would separate it from the chaff. The time of winnowing was also a time for celebration, since the task indicated that a successful harvest had been brought in (Ruth 3:7, Isaiah 9:3). Once the grain was winnowed it was stored in silos. Using millstones, women would ground the harvested grain into flower.

Bilderesultat for millstone

Illustration: a large millstone

Other crops had their own routines and seasons. Olive trees grow in the thin soil of Israel’s hills, but they take many years to mature and bear fruit only every other year. Olives were pressed under heavy weights and the oil extruded into vats, with several pressings of a single batch yielding several different grades of olive oil. Other important crops were date palms, pomegranates, figs and apples (some scholars deny that ancient Israel had apples, but this fruit was widely known in the ancient world and frequently appears in classical artwork).

Viniculture was vitally important in ancient Israel. Vineyards were of great value and had to be protected. Both Greek and Hebrew sources describe how young people were given the task of keeping foxes away from grapes (Song of Solomon 2:15), and Isaiah 5:2 notes that a wise vintner would erect a watchtower in his vineyard. Grapes ripened in June or July, and the vintage season carried through to September. At harvest, grape bunches were cut off the vines with pruning knives, and people would press out the grapes in vats, using their bare feet. Other methods of pressing out grapes are attested in the ancient world as well; there is evidence from Egypt of a method of twisting linen sheets to press out and filter grape juice. The juice was made into wine, the primary beverage of ancient Israel. Egyptians preferred beer.

For the Israelite, the choice of edible meats was governed by the rules of cleanness (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14). In  brief. sheep, goats, cattle, certain birds (e.g. doves and geese) and fish with fins and scales were considered ritually clean. Chickens are not mentioned in the Bible until the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 23:37, although Proverbs 30:31 may refer to a rooster), but archaeological evidence suggests that they were in fact eaten in ancient Israel. Pigs, of course, were declared ritually unclean, but outside of Israel swine herding was common. On the basis of statements from certain classical Greek writers, some have argued that the Egyptians did not eat pork, but archaeological evidence suggests that at least some did.


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