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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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In the first ages they parched or roasted their grain; a practice which the people of Israel, as we learn from the Scriptures, long continued: afterward they pounded it in a mortar, to which Solomon thus alludes: "Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him," Proverbs 27:22 . This was succeeded by mills, similar to the hand mills formerly used in this country, of which there were two sorts; the first were large, and turned by the strength of horses or asses; the second were smaller, and wrought by men, commonly by slaves condemned to this hard labour, as a punishment for their crimes. Chardin remarks, in his manuscript, that the persons employed are generally female slaves, who are least regarded, or are least fitted for any thing else; for the work is extremely laborious, and esteemed the lowest employment about the house. Most of their corn is ground by these little mills, although they sometimes make use of large mills, wrought by oxen or camels. Near Ispahan, and some of the other great cities of Persia, he saw water mills; but he did not meet with a single wind mill in the east. Almost every family grind their wheat and barley at home, having two portable mill stones for that purpose; of which the uppermost is turned round by a small handle of wood or iron that is placed in the rim. When this stone is large, or expedition is required, a second person is called in to assist; and as it is usual for the women only to be concerned in this employment, who seat themselves over against each other, with the mill stone between them, we may see the propriety of the expression in the declaration of Moses: "And all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill," Exodus 11:5 . The manner in which the hand mills are worked is well described by Dr. E. D. Clarke, in his Travels: "Scarcely had we reached the apartment prepared for our reception, when, looking from the window into the court yard belonging to the house, we beheld two women grinding at the mill, in a manner most forcibly illustrating the saying of our Saviour: ‘Two women shall be grinding at the mill, the one shall be taken and the other left.' They were preparing flour to make our bread, as it is always customary in the country when strangers arrive. The two women, seated upon the ground opposite to each other, held between them two round flat stones, such as are seen in Lapland, and such as in Scotland are called querns. In the centre of the upper stone was a cavity for pouring in the corn, and by the side of this an upright wooden handle for moving the stone. As this operation began, one of the women opposite received it from her companion, who pushed it toward her, who again sent it to her companion; thus communicating a rotatory motion to the upper stone, their left hand being all the while employed in supplying fresh corn, as fast as the bran and flour escaped from the sides of the machine." When they are not impelled, as in this instance, to premature exertions by the arrival of strangers, they grind their corn in the morning at break of day: the noise of the mill is then to be heard every where, and is often so great as to rouse the inhabitants of the cities from their slumbers; for it is well known they bake their bread every day, and commonly grind their corn as it is wanted. The noise of the mill stone is therefore, with great propriety, selected by the prophet as one of the tokens of a populous and thriving country: "Moreover, I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of mill stones and the light of a candle, and their whole land shall be a desolation," Jeremiah 25:10 . The morning shall no more be cheered with the joyful sound of the mill, nor the shadows of evening by the light of a candle; the morning shall be silent, and the evening dark and melancholy, where desolation reigns. "At the earliest dawn of the morning," says Mr. Forbes, "in all the Hindoo towns and villages, the hand mills are at work, when the menials and widows grind meal for the daily consumption of the family: this work is always performed by women, who resume their task every morning, especially the forlorn Hindoo widows, divested of every ornament, and with their heads shaved, degraded to almost a state of servitude." How affecting, then, is the call to the daughter of Babylon!—"Come down, and sit in the dust, O daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate. Take the mill stones, and grind meal; uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers,"

Isaiah 47:1-2 .

The custom of daily grinding their corn for the family, shows the propriety of the law: "No man shall take the nether or the upper mill stone to pledge, for he taketh a man's life to pledge;" because if he take either the upper or the nether mill stone, he deprives him of his daily provision, which cannot be prepared without them. That complete and perpetual desolation which, by the just allotment of Heaven, is ere long to overtake the mystical Babylon, is clearly signified by the same precept: "The sound of the mill stone shall be heard no more at all in thee," Revelation 18:22 . The means of subsistence being entirely destroyed, no human creature shall ever occupy the ruined habitations more. In the book of Judges, the sacred historian alludes, with characteristic accuracy, to several circumstances implied in that custom, where he describes the fall of Abimelech. A woman of Thebez, driven to desperation by his furious attack on the tower, started up from the mill at which she was grinding, seized the upper mill stone, פלה דכב , and, rushing to the top of the gate, cast it on his head, and fractured his skull. This was the feat of a woman, for the mill is worked only by females; it was not a piece of a mill stone, but the rider, the distinguishing name of the upper mill stone, which literally rides upon the other, and is a piece or division of the mill: it was a stone of two feet broad, and therefore fully sufficient, when thrown from such a height, to produce the effect mentioned in the narrative. It displays, also, the vindictive contempt which suggested the punishment of Samson, the captive ruler of Israel, that the Philistines, with barbarous contumely, compelled him to perform the meanest service of a female slave; they sent him to grind in the prison, Judges 16:21 , but not for himself alone; this, although extremely mortifying to the hero, had been more tolerable; they made him grinder for the prison, perhaps while the vilest malefactor was permitted to look on, and join in the mockery. Samson, the ruler and avenger of Israel, labours, as Isaiah foretold the virgin daughter of Babylon should labour: "Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon: there is no throne," no seat for thee, "O daughter of the Chaldeans. Take the mill stones and grind meal," but not with the wonted song; "Sit thou silent, and get thee into darkness," there to conceal thy vexation and disgrace, Isaiah 47:1-2; Isaiah 47:5 . The females engaged in this operation, endeavoured to beguile the lingering hours of toilsome exertion with a song. We learn from an expression of Aristophanes, preserved by Athenaeus, that the Grecian maidens accompanied the sound of the mill stones with their voices. This circumstance imparts force to the description of the prophet, the light of a candle was no more to be seen in the evening; the sound of the mill stones, the indication of plenty, and the song of the grinders, the natural expression of joy and happiness, were no more to be heard at the dawn. The grinding of corn at so early an hour throws light on a passage of considerable obscurity: "And the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ishbosheth, who lay on a bed at noon; and they came thither into the midst of the house, as though they would have fetched wheat, and they smote him under the fifth rib; and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped," 2 Samuel 4:5-7 . It is still a custom in the east, according to Dr. Perry, to allow their soldiers a certain quantity of corn, with other articles of provisions, together with some pay; and as it was the custom, also to carry their corn to the mill at break of day, these two captains very naturally went to the palace the day before to fetch wheat, in order to distribute it to the soldiers, that it might be sent to the mill at the accustomed hour in the morning. The princes of the east in those days, as the history of David shows, lounged in their divan, or reposed on their couch, till the cool of the evening began to advance. Rechab and Baanah, therefore, came in the heat of the day, when they knew that Ishbosheth, their master, would be resting on his bed; and as it was necessary, for the reason just given, to have the corn the day before it was needed, their coming at that time, though it might be a little earlier than usual, created no suspicion, and attracted no notice.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Mill'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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