the First Week of Advent
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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
The antiquity of agriculture is intimated in the brief history of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2-3). But of the actual state of agriculture before the deluge we know nothing. Whatever knowledge was possessed by the old world was doubtless transmitted to the new by Noah and his sons; and that this knowledge was considerable is implied in the fact that one of the operations of Noah, when he 'began to be a husbandman,' was to plant a vineyard, and to make wine with the fruit (Genesis 9:20). There are few agricultural notices belonging to the patriarchal period, but they suffice to show that the land of Canaan was in a state of cultivation, and that the inhabitants possessed what were at a later date the principal products of the soil in the same country. In giving to the Israelites possession of a country already under cultivation, it was the Divine intention that they should keep up that cultivation, and become themselves an agricultural people; and in doing this they doubtless adopted the practices of agriculture which they found already established in the country.
As the condition of the seasons lies at the root of all agricultural operations, it should be noticed that the variations of sunshine and rain, which with us extend throughout the year, are in Palestine confined chiefly to the latter part of autumn and the winter. During all the rest of the year the sky is almost uninterruptedly cloudless, and rain very rarely falls. The autumnal rains usually commence at the latter end of October or the beginning of November, not suddenly, but by degrees, which gives opportunity to the husbandman to sow his wheat and barley. The rains continue during November and December, but afterwards they occur at longer intervals; and rain is rare after March, and almost never occurs as late as May. The cold of winter is not severe; and as the ground is never frozen, the labors of the husbandman are not entirely interrupted. Snow falls in different parts of the country, but never lies long on the ground. In the plains and valleys the heat of summer is oppressive, but not in the more elevated tracts. In such high grounds the nights are cool, often with heavy dew. The total absence of rain in summer soon destroys the verdure of the fields, and gives to the general landscape, even in the high country, an aspect of drought and barrenness. No green thing remains but the foliage of the scattered fruit-trees, and occasional vineyards and fields of millet. In autumn the whole land becomes dry and parched; the cisterns are nearly empty; and all nature, animate and inanimate, looks forward with longing for the return of the rainy season. In the hill country the time of harvest is later than in the plains of the Jordan and of the sea-coast. The barley harvest is about a fortnight earlier than that of wheat. In the plain of the Jordan the wheat harvest is early in May; in the plains of the coast and of Esdraelon it is towards the latter end of that month; and in the hills, not until June. The general vintage is in September, but the first grapes ripen in July; and from that time the towns are well supplied with this fruit.
Soil, etc.—The geological characters of the soil in Palestine have never been satisfactorily stated; but the different epithets of description which travelers employ enable us to know that it differs considerably, both in its appearance and character, in different parts of the land; but wherever soil of any kind exists, even to a very slight depth, it is found to be highly fertile. As parts of Palestine are hilly, and hills have seldom much depth of soil, the mode of cultivating them in terraces was anciently, and is now, much employed. A series of low stone walls, one above another, across the face of the hill, arrested the soil brought down by the rains, and afforded a series of levels for the operations of the husbandman. This mode of cultivation is usual in Lebanon, and is not infrequent in Palestine, where the remains of terraces across the hills, in various parts of the country, attest the extent to which it was anciently carried.
In such a climate as that of Palestine, water is the great fertilizing agent. The rains of autumn and winter, and the dews of spring, suffice for the ordinary objects of agriculture; but the ancient inhabitants were able, in some parts, to avert even the aridity which, the summer droughts occasioned, and to keep up a garden-like verdure, by means of aqueducts communicating with the brooks and rivers (Psalms 1:3; Psalms 65:10; Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 30:25; Isaiah 32:2; Isaiah 32:20; Hosea 12:11). Hence springs, fountains, and rivulets were as much esteemed by husbandmen as by shepherds (Joshua 15:19; Judges 1:15). The soil was also cleared of stones, and carefully cultivated; and its fertility was increased by the ashes to which the dry stubble and herbage were occasionally reduced by burning over the surface of the ground (Proverbs 24:31; Isaiah 7:23; Isaiah 10:17; Isaiah 32:13; Isaiah 47:14; Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17). The dung, and, in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, the blood of animals, were also used to enrich the soil (2 Kings 9:37; Psalms 83:10; Isaiah 25:10; Jeremiah 9:22; Luke 14:34-35).
That the soil might not be exhausted, it was ordered that every seventh year should be a sabbath of rest to the land. There was to be no sowing or reaping, no pruning of vines or olives, no vintage or gathering of fruits; and whatever grew of itself was to be left to the poor, the stranger, and the beast of the field (Leviticus 25:1-7). But such an observance required more faith than the Israelites were prepared to exercise. It was for a long time utterly neglected (Leviticus 26:34-35; 2 Chronicles 36:21), but after the Captivity it was more observed. By this remarkable institution the Hebrews were also trained to habits of economy and foresight, and invited to exercise a large degree of trust in the bountiful providence of their Divine King.
Fig. 9—Modern Syrian Plow
Syria, including Palestine, was regarded by the ancients as one of the first countries for corn. Wheat was abundant and excellent; and there is still one bearded sort, the ear of which is three times as heavy, and contains twice as many grains, as our common English wheat. Barley was also much cultivated, not only for bread, but because it was the only kind of corn which was given to beasts; for oats and rye do not grow in warm climates. Hay was not in use; and therefore the barley was mixed with chopped straw to form the food of cattle (Genesis 24:25; Genesis 24:32; Judges 19:19, etc.). Other objects of field culture were millet, spelt, various kinds of beans and peas, pepperwort, cummin, cucumbers, melons, flax, and, perhaps, cotton. Many other articles might be mentioned as being now cultivated in Palestine; but, as their names do not occur in Scripture, we cannot with certainty know which of them were grown there in the ancient times.
Anciently, as now, in Palestine and the East the arable lands were not divided by hedges into fields, as in this country. The ripening products therefore presented an expanse of culture unbroken, although perhaps variegated, in a large view, by the difference of the products grown. The boundaries of lands were therefore marked by stones as landmarks, which, even in patriarchal times, it was deemed a heinous wrong to remove (Job 24:2); and the law pronounced a curse upon those who, without authority, displaced them (Deuteronomy 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:17). The walls and hedges which are occasionally mentioned in Scripture belonged to orchards, gardens, and vineyards.
Of late years much light has been thrown upon the agricultural operations and implements of ancient times, by the discovery of various representations on the sculptured monuments and painted tombs of Egypt. As these agree surprisingly with the notices in the Bible, and, indeed, differ little from what is still employed in Syria and Egypt, it is very safe to receive the instruction which they offer.