Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 3)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


Master of the Threshing Floor

The Hebrew Scriptures offer two related guiding principles for humanity’s sacred relationship to the land and its bounty: (1) The earth is holy and belongs to God (e.g., Psalm 24:1); and (2) people are to cultivate it responsibly (Genesis 2:15). The “four heads” of Eden’s rivers mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis, including the Tigris (Hiddekel), Euphrates, and Kārun (Gihon) conform to the geography of the Persian Gulf when Neolithic sea levels were significantly lower than today. University of Missouri archaeologist Juris Zarins suggests that the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden offers explicit description of its location and represents plausible explanation of agricultural origins in Mesopotamia. These vital systems provided fertile floodplains and water needed to sustain ancient cereal grains mentioned on one of Israel’s oldest inscriptions, the thirteenth century BC Gezer Calendar tablet. Reference in Isaiah (28:25) to wheat “in rows,” barley “in its proper place,” and emmer “as the border,” may imply the ordered significance of these vital grains to the Hebrew diet. Emmer’s significance lives on in its name—derived from Old Saxon, amer, or “hulled [grain],” and Hebrew Em ha Hitah, the “Mother Wheat” of Old Testament Israel. Jericho’s walls were erected in part to protect the city’s granaries which held stockpiles of primitive emmer and einkorn wheats and bearded barley.

Many of the ancient world’s earliest settlements from Egypt to the Caucasus and Central Asia arose as centers of grain storage and trade, and the colorful wheat marketplaces still found in places from Cairo and Aleppo to Bukhara and Samarkand contribute the vitality of their historic “old city” environs. On an early twentieth century collecting trip to wheat market in Basra, near the location of ancient Sumer in present Iraq, USDA plant explorer David Fairchild found a vendor of Kārun, an exceptional bread wheat said by locals to have come from the Garden of Eden. Here at Palouse Heritage we are restoring that ancient landrace grain.

Old Testament writers invoked agrarian imagery familiar to ancient readers and hearers to express spiritual truths through metaphors of grain to represent blessing (e.g., Genesis 27:28, Deuteronomy 33:28) and harvest for the abundance of the land (Genesis 26:12, Psalm 144:13). Grain was cut by sickles in armfuls and either piled for transport by cart to stacks near outdoor threshing floors (Amos 2:13), or bound into sheaves as Joseph mentioned when explaining his fateful dream to his brothers in Genesis 37. (Knowles Shaw’s popular nineteenth century hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” is derived from Psalm 126:6.) Kernels were separated by hand with a flail (Judges 6:11), trampled out by oxen (Deuteronomy 25:4), or by dragging a heavy cart, flint-studded slab of wood, or cylindrical stone (Isaiah 28:27-28). Grain was winnowed, or cleaned, by tossing the mass into the wind with a wooden fork or shovel “fan” (Jeremiah 15:7), as the heavier kernels fell into a pile and ground into meal and flour by women using small handmills.

Numerous references in both Old and New Testaments associate the threshing floor with divine judgment while winnowing signifies the process of spiritual purification. The great religious significance of these essential harvest endeavors is related by some biblical scholars to the divine command to King David (II Chronicles 21) to set up an altar and later establish the First (Solomon’s) Temple upon the threshing floor of Ornan (Arauna) the Jebusite on Mt. Moriah. The location would become Israel’s sacred Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

“Now the angel of the Lord had commanded [the prophet] Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. So David went up at Gad’s word, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. Now Ornan was threshing wheat. …And David said to Ornan, ‘Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lord—give it to me at its full price….’ Then Ornan said to David, ‘Take it, and let my lord the king do what seems good to him. See, I give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for the wood and the wheat for a grain offering; I will give it all’’ (vs. 18-20, 22-23).

Threshing floors were typically set up on high, level ground to avail laborers to open air winds for winnowing kernels from the chaff, and to better protect the threshed grain from looting. Similar locations commonly served as places of sacred altars and groves in the ancient world. Like some biblical scholars, English artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827), who was himself given to mystical visions, saw special meaning in Ornan’s beneficence at a time of the year’s most pressing obligations and his willing surrender of such valuable property. (II Chronicles 21:25 relates that David insisted on purchasing the threshing floor from Ornan for the substantial sum of 600 shekels of gold.) During his last twenty-five years, Blake sought to complete The Last Judgement, an ambitious, detailed rendering of characters from Scripture whose lives represented the journey of each soul throughout a lifetime as representative of humanity’s struggle amidst the forces of good and evil throughout history.

William Blake, The Last Judgement (detail, c. 1809); Ornan the Jebusite holding basket at lower far right; Pen and ink with wash over graphite on paper, 17 ¾ x 13 ⅝ inches; National Gallery of Art

William Blake, The Last Judgement (detail, c. 1809); Ornan the Jebusite holding basket at lower far right; Pen and ink with wash over graphite on paper, 17 ¾ x 13 ⅝ inches; National Gallery of Art

“The nature of visionary fancy or imagination is very little known,” wrote Blake in commentary on this master work, “and the eternal nature and permanence of its ever-existent image is considered no less permanent than things of vegetative and generative nature. …[A plant’s] eternal image and individuality never dies, but renews by seed. Just so the imaginative image returns by the seed of contemplative thought. The writings of the prophets illustrate these conceptions… by their various divine and sublime images.” To exemplify “the vanities of riches and worldly honors,” Blake included in The Last Judgement the figure of Ornan the Jebusite, master of the threshing floor, who is seen among the faithful preparing to empty out a basket of such fruit.