Old Testament

Ruth and Boaz, Past and Present

There is much interest these days in “back to the land” efforts to reconnect folks with country life. It is encouraging to see examples here some rural communities in our area of sufficient revival evident in thriving local schools and main streets. Art historians remind us that life back in “the good old days” was not always that “good” for lots of folks, nor especially “sustainable.”  Writings of medieval theologians confirm the view of many present-day researchers that European peasants were practitioners of extractive farming methods who were often deemed unworthy by the Church for anything other than servile labor to await reward in the hereafter. In the main, depictions of harvest from the Middle Ages do not show happy workers gathered together in fields of plenty. Reapers and gleaners still seen in the surviving stained glass, frescoes, and bas reliefs of great European cathedrals typically show a single individual or pair of field workers armed with sickle or scythe in tall, thin stands of grain. The expressionless figures are typically cast in larger theological “Labors of the Months” narratives as emblems of Christian suffering intended to impress parishioners with the need to toil ceaselessly throughout the year as sinful consequence of humanity’s fallen state.

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome,  History of the Holy Bible  (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome, History of the Holy Bible (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

For three millenia the Old Testament Book of Ruth has been synonymous with the abiding theme of divine deliverance associated with gleaning, and served to inspire depictions of her and Boaz throughout the centuries from the vivid images of medieval illuminated manuscripts to the modern dreamy reverie of Surrealist Marc Chagall. The annual harvest of feudal times made possible the exchange of peasant labor for manorial protection and provision. Notions of upward mobility in moral or imaginative terms, therefore, are not found in the French Song of Roland, Slavic Tale of Igor’s Campaign, sermons of St. Francis, or visions of Hildegard of Bingen. (Hildegard did write, however, of the praiseworthy qualities of ancient grains like spelt and emmer.) The very constraints of social stratification fostered a degree of egalitarianism among serfs, who represented some 90% of the population, which significantly altered ancient Judeo-Christian concepts of gleaning intended to benefit the poor.

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.” 

Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 6)

This blog post is part of a series I (Richard) am writing about my past life experiences that helped develop a love and appreciation for agricultural heritage in general and landrace grains in particular. The series is called "Sickles and Sheaves - Farming, Faith, and the Frye" and you can view the other parts of this blog series here.

Trinity Belfry and Sanctuary (c. 1960)

Trinity Belfry and Sanctuary (c. 1960)

Construction of our substantial Trinity Lutheran Church built in 1949 was based on Old World Northern European ecclesiastical design by Edwin W. Molander (1901-1983). The Spokane architect had received prominent regional commissions for Northwest churches and public buildings that reflected his distinctive blend of traditional and modern features characterized by exposed rough-hewn timbers, natural stone, and decorative carvings. A regnant color scheme of Prussian blue, turquoise, and umber with gold filigree and trim was used throughout the vaulted sanctuary and an attached cloister porch featured a substantial frieze of carved wooden panels depicting the life of Christ in symbols and Latin monograms. One approached the church’s main arched entry as if gently entering hallowed space.

The schedule of Pastor Fred Schnaible’s lectionary readings—presented weekly in both German and English, featured associations of such ancient Jewish harvest festivals as the First Fruits “wave offering” of barley sheaves and Feast of Harvest Ingathering with Early Church commemorations of Easter and the Transfiguration of Christ. Pastor Schnaible safeguarded the church’s remarkable library of rare books contributed by his predecessors including a massive volume by Christian Hebraist Johannen Lund (1638-1686) on the Old Testament offerings, Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheitenbound (The Old Jewish Shrines, Worship and Customs). The book, printed in 1701, was bound in vellum and lavishly illustrated with woodcuts by the German engraver Johann W. Michaelis of many biblical scenes related to ancient pastoral and agrarian traditions. Pastor Schnaible learned of local farmer and church member Walter Scholtz’s special skill as a calligrapher and prevailed upon him for years to inscribe countless confirmation certificates and other church documents in his distinct Old World script of red and black with gold embellishments that have become treasured works of art in their own right.

Plan of the Camps of the Children of Israel and Gathering of Manna    (detail);   J. W. Michaelis (engraver) and Johannen Lund (author);    Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheiten    (1701);   Ames Library Archives, Seattle Pacific University

Plan of the Camps of the Children of Israel and Gathering of Manna (detail); J. W. Michaelis (engraver) and Johannen Lund (author); Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheiten (1701); Ames Library Archives, Seattle Pacific University

Weekly worship services at Trinity featured “All Praise the God of Harvest” (“… with head and heart and voice. All praise the God of harvest; creation all rejoice”) and “Where Are the Reapers” (“sheaves of good, sickles of truth”) choir cantatas and hymns as well as sermon texts from Ruth about barley gleanings and her Kinsman Redeemer, Boaz. Our old brown hymnal featured considerable music of classical origin including John Galloway’s “Lord of the Harvest, Thee We Hail,” based a Franz Haydn tune from his 1798 oratorio Creation. Architect Molander’s majestic panels also included broad window base panels displaying carved grain sheaves as if homage to pre-literate medieval times when clerics valued visual expressions of biblical history and spiritual truths in cathedrals and chapels throughout Europe. We heard Psalms on “abundant wheat throughout the land” (72:16), prophetic words on nations giving up war and beating “swords into ploughshares and their spears into scythes” (Isaiah 2:6), and the weekly-sung offertory: “Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown, that we may be fed with the bread of life….” Jesus’ familiar parables told of grain seed, bushel baskets, sickles, and harvest—these in the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel alone. 

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 4)

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.

Sacred Ways and Field Labors

Recent studies of earthenware ostracha from the fortress of Arad near the Dead Sea discovered in the 1960s date to approximately 600 BC during the reign of King Jehoiakim (II Kings 24) and reveal the prevalence of grain, flour, and bread deliveries along with wine and oil to the remotest desert reaches of the Kingdom of Judah. Written in ancient Hebrew using the Aramaic alphabet, these pottery shards served as vouchers presented to the commander to issue supplies from the fort’s storehouses. The Prophet Ezekiel served as a priest among the Jewish exiles to Babylon during this period and makes specific reference to wheat, emmer, barley, lentils, and other crops (e.g., 4:16, 5:16) in the context of early references to the “staff of bread,” which was life’s great sustainer in the ancient world. Basic units of common linear measurement owe their origin to grain; as the length of two barley kernels represented the Old Testament “finger-breadth” of three-tenths of an inch, twenty-four were an eight-inch “span,” and forty-eight a “cubit” of sixteen inches.

Anglican scholar-priest Rev. Philip Carrington (1892-1975), Metropolitan of Canada, undertook extensive study on the relationship between the first century arrangement of Mark’s gospel into a lectionary series that relates the ancient Jewish ritual year and Galilean lunar agricultural cycle to key events in the life of Christ. Carrington proposes that this sequence of Christ’s public Galilean ministry—the culmination of his life on earth, involving the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Seed-time and Harvest Parables, and other agrarian-related discourses and happenings significantly shaped the “Primitive Christian Calendar” that in turn gave rise to the Early Church’s liturgical calendar. 

In commentary on Mark’s culminating New Testament message of resurrection, Carrington writes of the “mystical and symbolical way of thought which was natural to men at that time, and found expression in art and poetry and ritual and drama and religion. In the springtime life returns from the underworld in leaves and grasses and flowers; when the harvest comes, it is cut down in the shape of fruit and grain; it dies, but it will come again. Such is the destiny of man. Old Nature, who is the mother of mankind, reflects on her many-coloured drama on the destiny of her divine son. Such is the truth that underlies the old way of thought.” Carrington concludes that the culture of the disciples was connected to the old festivals, and that their memories “would tend to arrange themselves in the order of the Calendar Year; and seeing that the Lord chose to express himself in these surroundings in the terms of the old agricultural and festal mysticism. And, if so, we may ourselves enter into the tradition and gain some understanding of it, not merely by literary and critical study along these lines, but by passing through the devotional course of the Christian Year, as it has come down to us in the Church.”

Agricultural laws that guided ancient Hebrew spiritual and civil life are described in the third century AD Mishnaic collection of oral traditions and include blessings for foods and landowner obligations to provide produce for the Levites of the temple, priests, and the poor. In a medieval commentary on Jewish piety, Hokhmat ha-Nefesh, Rabbi Elezar Ben Judah of Worms (c. 1126-1238) celebrated the Hebrew agrarian ideal: “God created the world so all should live in pleasantness, that all shall be equal, that one should not lord over the other, and that all may cultivate the land.” Faith-based perspectives on creation stewardship were expressed by 16th century French theologian John Calvin: “The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that… we should take care of what remains. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly yield, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated.”

Correlation of Ancient Ritual and Agricultural Calendars with Crop Sequences,   GC: Gezer Calendar, HR: Hebrew Ritual, PC: Primitive Christian

Correlation of Ancient Ritual and Agricultural Calendars with Crop Sequences, GC: Gezer Calendar, HR: Hebrew Ritual, PC: Primitive Christian

American Country Life Movement leader Liberty Hyde Bailey elaborated on this ethic in his 1915 classic, The Holy Earth: “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it….. We are to consider it religiously: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ …I do not mean all this, for our modern world, in any vague or abstract way. If the earth is holy, then the things that grow out of the earth are also holy.” A landowner’s obligation as steward of the earth’s bounty also extended to the less fortunate. One of the earliest biblical references to gleaning (Leviticus 23:22) appears in instructions on the principal Hebrew feasts and ritual thank offering (Todah) of the first grain harvest sheaves to be waved and presented to the priests: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.” From these and related Mosaic references (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:19), Jewish laws developed that were fundamentally different than prevailing customs in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world where such rights were not extended to the poor. These customs guided the process of gleaning, a practice that still continues in some rural areas of Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East. (English “glean” is from Anglo-French glener, “to collect, gather,” a word derived from Latin glennāre which is probably of Celtic origin.)

Old Testament prohibitions of representational art influenced the rich expression of literary imagery in Hebrew literature. While Greek aesthetics were occupied with spatial unity and static forms of sculpture, the Hebrew mind understood God as the ideal so such literature often incorporates mixed metaphors for more tactile expressions of meaning, often in the context of agrarian experience that marked the seasons with times and festivals for planting, harvest, threshing, and winnowing. One of the finest examples is the c. 10th century BC story of Ruth which relates her rescue by a kinsman-redeemer, Boaz, after her travels to the land of her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the aftermath of famine in Israel. The author’s imagery is as much about Hebrew culture as theological doctrine, and forthrightly describes the women’s sojourn, fidelity, and redemption amidst opening scenes that follow the workers’ harvest: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of field belonging to Boaz...” (Ruth 2:2-3).

Crusader (Maciejowski) Bible (c. 1240s); illuminated vellum, 15 ⅓ x 11 ⅘ inches;   Left: Folio 6— An Ironic Turn of Events  (Genesis 42), with Joseph supplying his brothers with grain (top right);   Center: Folio 12— Gideon, Most Valiant of Men  (Judges 6), with Gideon threshing wheat (bottom left);   Right: Folio 17— Ruth Meets Boaz  (Ruth 2), with reapers cutting grain followed by Ruth gleaning (top right);   The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Crusader (Maciejowski) Bible (c. 1240s); illuminated vellum, 15 ⅓ x 11 ⅘ inches; Left: Folio 6—An Ironic Turn of Events (Genesis 42), with Joseph supplying his brothers with grain (top right); Center: Folio 12—Gideon, Most Valiant of Men (Judges 6), with Gideon threshing wheat (bottom left); Right: Folio 17—Ruth Meets Boaz (Ruth 2), with reapers cutting grain followed by Ruth gleaning (top right); The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Early Modern Woodcuts of Ruth and Boaz;   Left to right: Gerard de Jode (1585); Mattias Scheits and François Halma (1710);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Early Modern Woodcuts of Ruth and Boaz; Left to right: Gerard de Jode (1585); Mattias Scheits and François Halma (1710); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Beneath the familiar tale rests a complex doubling motif in theme and between poor and rich, women and men, and threshing and waiting. The interplay is evident throughout the narrative and poetic couplets to amplify the contrast between destitution and bounty. The famine experienced by Naomi and her family was in Bethlehem—literally “House of Bread,” but her sons perish in Moab, the land of bounty. Divine deliverance is timeless and confounds human reason. Cereal provisions were an important indication of blessing. Wheat (hittim) and barley (s’orim) breads likely made up almost half of the Hebrew diet and was served in some form at virtually every meal that also may have featured parched or boiled grains in mixtures with fruits and in gruels. The ubiquity of wholesome grains in Ruth throughout the Bible speaks of their nutritional, intellectual, and spiritual significance in Hebrew culture. Harvest time happenings, familiar to most any inhabitant of Moab or Judah, provide the context for lessons on how God provides deliverance to the ordinary faithful in a world of injustice and chaos.

The short four-chapter book’s timeless theme of redemption from deprivation and distress to promise of new life has inspired generations of believers, authors, and artists with styles ranging from the Baroque formalism of Barent Pietersz Fabritius to Marc Chagall’s richly flowing Surrealism. An early 14th century Jewish prayer book from Germany illustrates Ruth’s story in lush gold, red, and blue tones. Although the scene depicts the grain rakes, threshing flails, and clothing of medieval Europe, it faithfully depicts Boaz’s care and the blessing of the harvest. Thomas Rooke’s idealist 19th century interpretation shows the couple and Naomi as they might have appeared in the garb of ancient times, but other renderings like Jean-François Millet’s evocative Harvesters Resting (1850) are cast in settings of the artists’ lifetimes to suggest the ancient story’s abiding relevance.

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.