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Agricultural and Food Production Implements

September 6, 2018

“Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge,new, sharp, and having teeth;you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff”(Isaiah 41:15 ESV)

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”(Matthew 3:12 ESV, cf. Luke 3:17) 

 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42 ESV, cf. Matthew 18:6; Luke 17:2; Isaiah 3:15; Revelation 18:21-22)




Some of the greatest Scriptural insights derive from fully understanding the often-humble daily lives and monotonous, but crucial tasks carried out by Old Testament Israelites and Jews during the first century.  Because they comprised the first audiences spoken to by the prophets and Jesus Christ and the initial readers of the biblical texts, these initial addressees totally empathized with teaching and examples taken directly from their culture. Indeed, the process of harvesting and food preparation were complex responsibilities, with inherent risks and never taken for granted (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3; Hopkins 1985: 227-227).  Thus, these three objects provide us with a glimpse into how these ancient people lived and related so well to biblical ‘object’ lessons.


A Threshing Sledge:


A threshing sledge (môrāg) consists of a platform made of two or three wooden boards, usually upturned in the front to prevent jamming against irregular surfaces while being pulled by one or two draft animals around the threshing floor (goren).  The bottom surface of the sledge is full of numerous indentations filled with imbedded pieces of hard stone, such as basalt or flint, or iron in later periods.  Sledges broke up, separated grain from the stalks as well as opened the grain spikelets (Borowski 1987: 64-65; 2 Samuel 24:22; 1 Chronicles 31:23; Job 41:30; Isaiah 28:27; 41:15; Amos 1:3; Micah 4:12).


A Winnowing Fork:


Closely related to the pitchfork, a winnowing fork (ptuon, mizreh) is a wooden rake typically having five or seven splayed tines. Threshing floors typically sat atop hills or in other locations with considerable airflow.  When the threshing sledge finished its many circuits of the threshing floor, the process of winnowing (Ruth 3:11; Jeremiah 4:11) began.  When a favorable breeze or proper wind blew (e.g., Hopkins 1985: 81), workers threw threshed material up into the air with a winnowing fork, where the wind blew the light chaff and straw away, leaving the heavier grain to drop back to the threshing floor.  Like the sledge, the winnowing fork remained in limited use into the twentieth century (Borowski 1987: 65-67; Isaiah 30:24; Jeremiah 15:7).


An Upper Millstone for Grinding Grain:


A millstone (mulos, rekev, recheh) came in various shapes and sizes during the biblical period.  The most commonly used grain-grinding implement was the household sized upper stone or handstone, an oblong stone shaped like a semi flat loaf of Italian bread.  Vigorously rubbing the handstone back and forth against a lower stone or saddle quern while introducing grain kernels between the two typified the arduous daily milling process usually done by women (Matthew 24:41; Luke 17:35).  For the daily needs of a family of six, this process took an estimated four hours to complete (e.g., Dever 2012: 170). Larger and more sophisticated grindstones followed.  Carefully matched flat upper and lower millstones, circular in shape and secured with a center shaft, allowed a ready access for grain.  Easily turned with a small dowel or stick inserted into a hole near the outer edge, these mills helped to ease the daily burden of grinding grain.  Still later, larger millstones powered by animals as well as humans markedly reduced the labor of grinding and introduced a novel concept in biblical period homes; the possibility of significant leisure time for women and household workers.

Basalt, a black, porous volcanic rock found in various regions throughout the Levant, became the preferred material used for grinding implements early in antiquity because its vesicles maintain a rough, hard surface, minimizing attrition and the introduction of grit into the flour (Ebeling and Rowan 2004: 108).  


Relevance to the Biblical Account:


Throughout antiquity until today in the Near East, wheat and barley are food staples.  Harvesting and milling grain to bake into bread or flat cakes was a demanding, but necessary task for food production.  Bread plays a prominent role in Scripture; the LORD even instructed Ezekiel (4:9) how to make a multi-grain bread.  Predictably, the Bible refers to various styles of baked bread (e.g., Genesis 18:6; Exodus 12:15; 15:31; 29:2; Leviticus 24:5; 2 Samuel 13:6; and 1 Kings 17:12; Borowski 2004: 99-100; Feinberg Vamosh 2007: 22-30; MacDonald 2008; Dever 2012: 169-173; Shafer-Elliot 2013: 11-32). The voracious intake of food by Solomon and his royal bureaucracy provides a staggering example of the high consumption of grain in ancient Israel.  The Israelite king and his court demanded 19,800 liters of regular and fine flour daily (2 Kings 4:22-23).  

The biblical references to winnowing forks (e.g., Isaiah 30:24; Jeremiah 15:7) signify analogies of God separating the wheat (believers) from the chaff (non-believers), which is an oft repeated, but often misunderstood concept (Jeremiah 23:28; Amos 8:6).  Similarly, John the Baptist refers to a winnowing fork to illustrate Jesus Christ purging the wicked from the righteous (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17).

While nearly all of the population of the ancient Levant were intimately familiar with grinding implements, biblical references to grindstones are infrequent.  The sound of two grinding stones was a daily occurrence in Israelite villages, homes and farmsteads (Ecclesiastes 12:4; Jeremiah 25:20).  Women are often associated with grinding (Exodus 11:5; Isaiah 47:2; Job 31:10) and a woman killed Abimelech by dropping an upper  (hand) millstone on his head from atop the wall at Thebez (Judges 9:53; 2 Samuel 11:21).  Millstones were essential for baking bread and for the livelihood of a household (Deuteronomy 24:6).  Communal grind mills with larger, stationary lower millstones existed during the Old Testament (Judges 16:21; Isaiah 47:2; Psalm 107:10-16; Lamentations 5:13) and often replaced smaller, less efficient household grindstones by New Testament times. When sharing His brief homiletical notice about the millstone (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2), Jesus and His audience envisioned an upper millstone similar to or even larger than the Horn Museum example.


Physical Description


The Threshing Sledge reportedly comes from northern Jordan and most likely dates to the early twentieth century.  While modern, this sledge faithfully preserves, in nearly every detail, its ancient equivalent.  Fashioned from two pieces of wood with basalt stones embedded in nicely cut cavities in diagonal rows across the bottom, the sledge measures 62 inches long and 20-30 inches wide.  A wooden rod serves as a crosspiece.  With iron hardware and rings, this provides mounting points for leather straps or rope lines to harness a draft animal and offers additional structural strength for the sledge.

The Winnowing Fork, purchased in Jordan, is fashioned of wood and measures 68 inches long.  The fork is modern, but also closely represents the implement used in biblical times.  The fork has seven tines tightly bound with leather to strengthen this inherently weak connection point.  

The Upper Millstone (87.0423) is of very well worked basalt with a raised boss around the center hole.  It measures nearly 20 inches in diameter.  This stone once sat atop a larger, but matching lower millstone.  An animal probably turned the upper stone via a vertical wood shaft connected to a longer horizontal handle (e.g., Dalman 1902: 15-16).  From its size and stylistic features, it appears to date from the Roman or Byzantine period.  However, its unknown provenance makes this dating largely conjectural.  




Borowski, Oded

1987    Agriculture in Iron Age Israel.  Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

1998    Every Living Thing:  Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel.  Walnut Creek: AltaMira.

2003    Daily Life in Biblical Times.  Archaeology and Biblical Studies 5.  Atlanta: Society of                  Biblical Literature.

2004    Eat, Drink and Be Merry:  The Mediterranean Diet.  Near Eastern Archaeology67: 96-                107.


Dalman, Gustaf

            1902    Grinding in Ancient and Modern Palestine.  The Biblical World19/1: 9-18.


Dever, William G.

2012    The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel:  Where Archaeology and the Bible                      Intersect.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.


Ebeling, Jennie R.

            2010    Women’s Lives in Biblical Times. London:  T & T Clark.


Ebeling, Jennie R., and Rowan, Yorke M.

2004    The Archaeology of the Daily Grind:  Ground Stone Tools and Food Production in the                  Southern Levant. Near Eastern Archaeology67: 108-117.


Feinberg Vamosh, Miriam

2007    Food at the Time of the Bible:  From Adam’s Apple to the Last                                                      Supper.  Herzlia: Palphot. 


Hopkins, David C.

1985    The Highlands of Canaan:  Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age.  The Social World of              Biblical Antiquity Series 3.  Sheffield:  Almond.


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LaBianca, Øystein S., and Hopkins, David C., editors

1988    Early Israelite Agriculture:  Review of David C. Hopkins’ Book, The Highlands of                          Canaan.  Occasional Papers of the Institute of Archaeology Andrews University                          1.  Berrien Springs:  Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University.


MacDonald, Nathan

2008    What Did the Ancient Israelites East?  Diet in Biblical Times.  Grand                                              Rapids: Eerdmans.


Shafer-Elliot, Cynthia

2013    Food in Ancient Judah:  Domestic Cooking in the Time of the Hebrew Bible.  The                        Biblical World.  Bristol and New York:  Equinox and Routledge. 


Yasur-Landau, Assaf; Ebeling, Jennie R.; and Mazow, Laura B., editors

2011    Household Archaeology in the Bronze and Iron Age Levant.  Culture and History of the              Ancient Near East 50.  Leiden:  Brill.

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