The Land of Milk and Honey – Agriculture in Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel, like all other nations in antiquity, was agricultural. Understanding the agriculture is fundamental to understanding the Bible

By Mark D. Harris

In Exodus 33:3 God promised to take the Hebrews, recently freed from slavery in Egypt, to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” During my trip to Israel in March of 1995 when I approached Jerusalem, I was a little skeptical of the “milk and honey” description. Much of the land is dry and hilly, and it was warm even that early in the year. Israel more resembled where I grew up, arid Southern Calfornia, than the watered paradise I had envisaged. After many years and much study, I have come to realize that Israel truly was “a land flowing with milk and honey”, especially compared to the Arabian Desert and Egypt (beyond the Nile).

Even more important, it is impossible to understand much of the Bible without understanding the agriculture that it describes. Unlike modern industrial and information societies, in which food is so plentiful that only a small minority are involved in its production, Ancient Israel was agricultural. So was every nation around them. Every aspect of their lives, economies, religion, pleasure, and even war revolved around the cycles of nature in a way that few of us can understand.

Agriculture was the main economic activity in the ancient Near East, including Israel. The dry climate and hilly terrain provided only a few broad valleys for growing, including the Jezreel Valley in the north, the Plain of Sharon in the south and the Transjordan plateau (Gilead). Springs around Jericho allowed the region to the west of the Jordan River to be planted as well. Canaan is a fertile area, as attested in the Egyptian Story of Sinuhe, written in the 20th century BC: “It was a good land called Yaa. Figs were in it and grapes. It had more wine than water. Abundant was its honey, plentiful its oil. All kinds of fruit were on its trees. Barley was there and emmer, and no end of cattle of all kinds.”

The diet of the ancient Israelite was comprised primarily of barley, wheat, grapes and olives. In Israel, winter barley was usually harvested in May and winter wheat in June. Grapes were picked in August and September, and olives were harvested from mid-September to mid-November. The Gezer Calendar, inscribed in the 10th century BC on a limestone tablet near the Canaanite city of Gezer, records the annual cycle of agricultural work.

Gezer Calendar Time of Year Typical Rainfall
His two months are   the olive harvest mid-September to   mid-November Early rains
His two months are   planting grain mid-November to   mid-January
His two months are   late planting mid-January to   mid-March
His month is hoeing   up of flax mid-March to   mid-April Later rains
His month is   harvest of barley mid-April to mid-May
His month is   harvest and festivity mid-May to mid-June
His two months are   vine tending mid-June to   mid-August
His month is summer   fruit mid-August to   mid-September

“Late planting” also included supplemental crops such as garlic, cucumbers, melons, lentils, chick peas, sesame, millet, and other vegetables. Fig trees were especially valuable as figs provided an important source of vitamins, calcium and fiber. The trees are hardy, growing in areas unsuitable for other crops. Pomegranates were another vital adjunct. Pomegranate trees require little tending and the seeds are a rich source of C and B vitamins.

In Israel the agricultural calendar corresponded closely with the religious calendar. The beginning of the barley harvest corresponded with Passover, the start of the wheat harvest occurred with Pentecost, and the grape, fig, pomengranate and olive harvest closed with the Feast of the Tabernacles. Livestock also had an important role to play in the religious life of the people.

To plant the grassy crops such as wheat and barley, farmers would first plow the top 3-4 inches of ground with an ox-drawn plow. They would sow the grain by hand, casting it over a wide area (Luke 8:4-8), and then plow a second time to force the seed under the ground. Wheat would be sown in the most fertile fields and other crops in the less fertile ones. At harvest time, the men would cut the stalks with a sickle. Farmers with livestock would cut the stalks close to the ground to use the stalk itself as animal feed, and those without livestock would cut the stalks close to the seed to minimize the amount of threshing. Children would gather the stalks into bundles and take the bundles to the threshing floor, a cleared and compacted parcel of ground up to 40 feet in diameter. Sometimes one threshing floor would serve a whole village.

Threshing sledges were made of wooden boards with iron or stone projections on the bottom. They were pulled by horses or oxen over harvested stalks of grain that had been brought to the threshing floor. The projections cut the stalks and allowed the grain to separate and fall to the floor. Farmers could also use an ox-drawn disc harrow which would cut the stalks and not crush the grain (Isaiah 28:27-28). Once the grain and the chaff were separated, winnowers would go out when the wind was steady, usually early evening, and toss the mass into the air with pitchforks. The heavier grain would fall to the ground and the lighter chaff would blow away. Finally the grain would be gathered into jars for storing and the chaff would be burned (Matthew 3:12).

Vineyards were often located on terraced hillsides rather than flat valleys. In the spring farmers would repair terrace walls, prune dead branches, clear the ground of rocks and weeds, and plow around the vines (Isaiah 5:2). Such plowing would disrupt the ground, allowing it to capture more water during the spring rains. The farmer would build a wall around the vineyard to protect the grapes from wild animals and set up a lookout tower where he could keep watch over his crop (Song of Solomon 2:15). At harvest time the farmer and his entire family would leave their house and live in temporary huts (“booths” or “tabernacles”) in the vineyards so that everyone could pick grapes. Some were eaten raw, some dried into raisins, but most grapes were crushed underfoot in a winepress to separate the juice. The juice was then placed into jars and allowed to ferment into wine.
The dry and hilly topography of Palestine provides excellent areas for raising sheep and goats. The primary livestock in ancient Israel were sheep, goats, cattle, and donkeys. Camels were used by nomads and traders while horses were used by kings so they played less of a role in day to day life in the Holy Land. Sheep were valued for meat and for wool. Goats provided meat, milk, hair (for coarse cloth and tents), and skins (for containers for wine and other liquids). Donkeys were beasts of burden and cattle (oxen) pulled the plow. Cow milk and meat do not seem to have been large parts of the Israelite’s diet.

With little means of reliably storing food, protecting it from rot, frost, scorching heat, wild animals, and other people, the annual harvest was a life or death matter for ancient peoples such as the Israelites. Food was not often left to rot, frost damage could be minimized by planting on hills in the lee of the desert winds, and wild animals and other people could be dealt with. The two biggest threats to the food supply, and therefore to the survival, of the Israelites were drought and locusts (2 Chronicles 7:13).

Egypt could rely on the annual flooding of the Nile River to irrigate crops, and Mesopotamia on an intricate system of canals between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Palestine, on the other hand, depended on rain. Drought was caused by a combination of high temperatures and poor rainfall. Heat caused plants to wither on the stalk and quickly evaporated surface water. If the moisture containing clouds were then blown elsewhere by the winds, the land became drier. Droughts and subsequent famines devastated the land of Canaan throughout the Bible (Genesis 41:54-57, Ruth 1:1, 1 Kings 17:1, 1 Kings 18:2).

Locusts (גוב gowb) were another deadly threat to the lives of the Israelites, being mentioned 54 times using nine different Hebrew words in the Old Testament. They survive over three years in dry ground but eggs hatch after only 10 days when moisture is present. The Desert locust and the Morroccan locust were the most common, usually blowing in with the wind from the Arabian deserts to the southeast of Palestine. Swarms could number in the millions and appear as black clouds on the horizon. One desert locust swarm that crossed the Red Sea in 1889 covered an estimated 2,000 square miles. A swarm could devour every green leaf from a mature tree in less than 15 minutes. During the 8th plague, an east wind from the Arabian Desert carried a locust swarm into Egypt, devastating the country (Exodus 10:13) and a west wind from the Sahara carried them back into the Red Sea (Exodus 10:19). The Prophets frequently refer to locusts as destroyers (Joel 2:25). Locusts were also eaten by the Hebrews during the Exodus (Leviticus 11:22) and in the New Testament (Matthew 3:4).

In summary, Israel is a “land flowing with milk and honey”, though not precisely what visitors might expect. More importantly, to understand the Bible we must understand the dominant activity in their lives. Our lives, understanding, and faith will be enriched as a result. For more information, please see Agriculture, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1976, pp 71-78, written by G.J. Jennings.

Learn more about Hezekiah and the Assyrian War with historical fiction in Head of the Lion.

7 thoughts on “The Land of Milk and Honey – Agriculture in Ancient Israel

  1. This is a good article. What are your sources?

  2. This was a good article. What were your sources?

  3. Hi,
    I’ve read a text that says Israel and indeed the entire region was a rich and fertile land, supporting millions of people, but that agriculture disturbed the soil and then raids by nomadic tribes interrupted the cycle of planting. Without planting a new crop, the disturbed soil was left bare; wind and water erosion then depleted the top soil. This cycle repeated itself over the centuries until what remained was the rocky and inhospitable ground we see today. Is this true?

  4. Audrey,

    The richest agricultural areas in Canaan (later Palestine, modern Israel) are the Plain of Sharon on the Mediterranean Coast and the Plain of Jezreel to the north. The area was very fertile under the Canaanites and Hebrews but declined as each conqueror passed through (Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Muslim Arabs). With the commensurate declines in population, more of the land went to waste. Overfarming was a problem throughout the Fertile Crescent, as was lack of water. I have never seen credible evidence that “millions of people” lived in Palestine (west of the Jordan River). Until the Israeli administration since 1948, the land has improved.

    Even during the time of David, the south eastern lands near the Dead Sea and the Negev Deserts were good for ranching but poor for agriculture.

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