Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 5)

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.

Angelic Reapers, Lord of the Harvest

Jesus himself enjoins gleaning in Mark 2:23-26 when, “One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.” Although the Pharisees condemn this act as unlawful for taking place on the Sabbath, Jesus uses their reaction to remind His followers of God’s provision: David had consumed consecrated bread for his own sustenance and that of his friends. “The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus says, “not man for the Sabbath.” In an explanation to the Corinthians on the mystery of resurrection, Paul likens the buried dead to seeded kernels of wheat: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain” (I Corinthians 15:36-37). Life in a grain seed tangibly shows forth hope against pagan whispers of ultimate twilight.

The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth has many associations with the symbolic and cultural significance of life-giving grain which was expressed in Old and New Testament accounts and religious observances by the Early Church. The words of the Isaiah recorded seven centuries before Christ’s birth and often quoted at Christmas time (Isaiah 9:2-6) prophesy, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given...” that would bring rejoicing “as with joy at the harvest.” Luke’s Gospel relates the familiar details of “shepherds out in the fields” at the time of Christ’s birth and Mary and Joseph’s placing the child in a manger built for hay and grain to feed livestock. Rural folk throughout the ages have identified with these humble circumstances which many believers also see as emblematic of spiritual blessing available by faith without regard to status. The story continues to inspire. A Handful of Straw, a 1958 collection of verse by Florence Hynet Willette, features the popular Catholic country poet’s All Nature Labored:

Some man in his few acres scattered seed

And scythed and flailed it as of ancient law;

And unaware how hallowed was the deed

Bedded his stable with the broken straw.

No lodgings at the inn… but here were rest

And humbler shelter; here were kine and sheep

To warm the chill about the strawy nest

Whereon the newborn Child lay hushed in sleep


Christ’s appearance on earth is accompanied by the Bethlehem star, “the heavenly host,” and “God in the highest.” These associations with “things that are above” represent a fundamental redirection from other ancient people’s religious preoccupation with underworlds and spiritual access through rank and priestly intermediaries. Christ’s agrarian parables introduced other important distinctions of the new faith that liken spiritual truth to grain, fields, harvest, and reapers. The Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30) left the Disciples wondering about the story’s meaning, which led to the Master’s interpretation: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are the angels” (Matthew 13:36-39).

Attributed to G. Eric Matson,  In the Field of Boaz near Bethlehem  (c. 1930);   Glass negative, 5 x 7 inches;   G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Attributed to G. Eric Matson, In the Field of Boaz near Bethlehem (c. 1930); Glass negative, 5 x 7 inches; G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With these words, Jesus ascribes apocalyptic significance to harvest as a time of fearsome judgement when the wheat (believers) shall be winnowed from the chaff (evildoers) to consummate the age. The Apocalypse of John suggests a related scene: “Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat upon the cloud, ‘Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe” (Revelation 14:14-15). Emphasis of this duality using familiar terms to relate profound spiritual concepts appealed to many first century listeners of the Christian message. Wheat and weeds, chaff and grain, and light and darkness brought new meanings about good and evil to the lives of the oppressed, and to others as well. The emergent spiritual egalitarianism empowered commoners with a sense of personal authority that had long been the realm of high priests, pharaohs, kings, and emperors.

Persecution of early Christians along with destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD led many believers to think that God’s final judgement was imminent. Repression of the new faith was widespread for at least two more centuries and Jews were dispersed throughout the empire. As Christians fled to other regions to pursue occupations other than farming, some traditional agrarian aspects of the Jewish Feast of the Harvest—Christian Pentecost, and other festivals were replaced with other ways of commemoration and sometimes at other times given seasonal variations in different places. Yet amidst relocation and acculturation, the dichotomy of good and evil in sowing grain amidst tares, winnowing seed from chaff, and consuming fire or secure barn remained a vital aspect of Christian worldview. American Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon writes of bread as the great sacrament of life made possible only through death: “Unless the seed has died there would have been no wheat; unless the wheat had been ground, no flour; …and without the finishing off of the bread by you and me, no accomplished us at all. But the crucial point is that without this whole tissue of deaths at every moment, there simply would be nothing.”

Mattias Scheits and François Halma, “Discourse of the Lord Jesus on the Heads of Wheat”;    Tableux de Vieux et Nouveau Testament    (Amsterdam, 1710);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Mattias Scheits and François Halma, “Discourse of the Lord Jesus on the Heads of Wheat”; Tableux de Vieux et Nouveau Testament (Amsterdam, 1710); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

In addition to providing insight into spiritual mysteries, the harvest metaphor is also invoked in the Gospels to inspire the Disciples and other converts to share their faith and explain anticipated hostile responses. Following his rejection in a Samaritan village, Luke records that Jesus commissioned the seventy-two witnesses in terms they could readily comprehend: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest. Go your way; behold I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:2-3). In James, the ill-gotten wealth of the privileged few through exploitation of the laboring masses is further phrased in terms that equate justice with the Christian message: “Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. …Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:3-5).

Considerable commentary on these and other verses with agrarian imagery is found in the writings of Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240 AD), Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), and other Early Church Fathers who saw Christian martyrdom as the ultimate sacrifice of faithful workers for the kyrios therismou (Lord of the Harvest). The letters and sermons of Augustine and others provided dynamic narrative to the secular experience of all believers and in preparation of the coming judgement when the angels would reap humanity in the End Times and winnow out the tares of heresy and unrighteousness from the good grain. Reference in these writings to the sickle as a threatening instrument of death and judgement would carry powerful connotations in western literature and art. So, too, would cares for comfort in this world, characterized by Augustine as “the anxieties of an ill-ordered life” in his sermon on Luke’s plentiful harvest: What is more miserable, than by caring for life, to lose Life? What more unhappy, than by fearing death, to fall into death? Let the thorns be rooted up, the field prepared, the seeds put in; let them grow unto the harvest, let the barns be longed for, not the fire feared.” 

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.