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Barley: the Grain of the Poor

Barley was the grain most commonly used to mak...

Barley was the grain most commonly used to make into flour for bread in Iron Age Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barley was a primary food grain in ancient Israel. The Israelites planted barley in the fall at the time of first rain. The seed over-wintered in the ground, sprouted in the spring and was harvested in March to April. Wheat was planted at the same time but it ripened in May to June. Barley could be grown in poor soil and be broadcast into unplowed ground. Barley was a dependable, disease-resistant crop, easier and less expensive to grow than wheat.

Concerning nutrition, barley surpasses wheat in a few ways: barley has twice as many fatty acids as wheat; it has 40% more fiber than wheat; it contains vitamin E (wheat has none); it contains more thiamine, riboflavin and lysine than wheat “giving barley a more balanced protein.”[1] Barley has less gluten than wheat, which makes it less desirable for making raised breads. The high gluten content of wheat, and the preference for raised bread, caused wheat to become the most important of the ancient grains.

Israel’s bread

Though wheat became the preferred grain in the ancient world, barley still played an important part in the diet of the Hebrews. Israelites ate barley and oats as porridge and flatbreads and fed both grains to their animals. Wheat was not used as animal food. Barley gradually became known as the grain of the poor. “Barley was cultivated in Palestine and Egypt and was fed to cattle and horses. Though the Egyptians used barley to feed animals, the Hebrews used it for bread, at least for the poor.”[2] Barley was fed to horses or mixed with ground lentils, beans and millet to enhance its taste.[3]

It is estimated that bread provided “50-70 % of the ordinary person’s calories, and the bread eaten until the end of the Israelite monarchy was mainly made from barley.”[4] The book of Ruth illustrates the importance of barley as a life sustaining grain for the poor.

Gleaning 

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields o...

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Boaz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Ruth and Naomi had no way of supporting themselves in Moab, so they returned to Israel as impoverished widows. (Ruth 1:20). They arrived at the time of the barley harvest, and found relief through laws established to help the poor (Ruth 1:22, Lev. 19:9, Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19).

When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; there I command you to do this thing.

 Gleaners were allowed into the fields after a farmer had harvested his crop, and farmers were subject to punishment if they frustrated those who wished to collect leftover crops. Ancient rabbinical rules stated that farmers were “not permitted to discriminate among the poor, nor to try to frighten them away with dogs or lions.”[5]

Ruth was blessed to glean in fields belonging to Boaz, a kind and generous man. His reapers purposefully dropped barley for Ruth to pick up, enabling her to gather more than would have been expected. In the evenings, she returned to Naomi with about half a bushel of barley.

Threshing

Each village had a threshing floor that the farmers shared. A threshing floor made of paving stone or hard-packed dirt was located in flat, windy areas. Farmers piled their sheaves on the threshing floor and cattle trampled over the grain to break up the straw. At some threshing floors, farmers hooked oxen to threshing boards embedded with obsidian chips or to spiked rollers. Both mechanical devices were pulled across the sheaves to break the grain heads free of the straw. Because Ruth gleaned a small amount of grain each day, it is likely she threshed by beating the grain with a hinged tool called a flail.

A threshing flail Français : Fléau ‪Norsk (bok...

A threshing flail Français : Fléau ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Slegel (nn), sliul (nn/nb), sloge (nn), tust (nn/nb) Svenska: Slaga Română: Îmblăciu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Farmers tossed the threshed grain into the air with winnowing forks, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff. Women winnowed by tossing and catching the grain in flat baskets. Ruth likely winnowed her grain in a flat basket, keeping her part separate from the harvest.

Grinding

In the evening Naomi and Ruth divided the grain into portions: what would be used immediately, what would be stored and what would be sold for other commodities. They parched grain and ate it warm. They parboiled it for porridge or stew.  They ground most of it into flour for bread.

I imagine that Naomi took care of the grain that Ruth brought home. The most arduous of her duties was grinding. Grinding “was a difficult and time-consuming task…it is estimated that it required at least three hours of daily effort to produce enough flour to make sufficient bread for a family of five. The earliest milling was performed with a pestle and mortar, or a stone quern consisting of a lower stone that held the grain and a smooth upper stone that was moved back and forth over the grains.”[6] Working with a quern or pestle and mortar, it may have taken Naomi an hour or more of grinding to make enough flour for their daily bread.

Busy hands reap bountiful blessings

Ruth and Naomi worked to support themselves. They were grateful for the opportunity to work. Ruth came to the attention of Boaz because she had worked (Ruth 2:11).

It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before.

 God blessed Ruth because she continued to work (Ruth 2:12, 4:13-17).

The LORD repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge. ♦ Mary Hendren

 


[1] AAOOB Storable Foods, Grain Information, “Barley ”

[2] Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, Packer and Tenny, Editors, p. 468

[3] Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob, pp. 35, 163

[4] Wikipedia, “Ancient Israelite Cuisine

[5] Wikipedia, “Gleaning”

[6] Wikipedia, “Ancient Israelite Cuisine”

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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