I grew up on a wheat/sheep farm in western New South Wales, Australia. When I started reading and re-reading the parable of the sower a week ago, I naturally started to think about the farming practices involved behind the parable. So here is a summary of my research into the Galilean wheat farming practices that all the parable’s audience would have intuitively understood, but of which we are largely ignorant today.
Before we start, please remember that these people invented wheat farming! The transition from hunting and gathering straight after the global flood to cultivating wild grasses like wheat, rye and barley took place in the very spot where Jesus told the story, the Fertile Crescent between Iraq and Egypt. This land had already been cultivated for thousands of years before Jesus told the story, two thousand years ago! Wheat growing was in their blood.
Growing Wheat in Galilee
The land in Galilee was also very fertile, the best in Israel because of its excellent rainfall on rich red soils. The further north you go from Jerusalem the better the rainfall. The rainfall in Nazareth was about 600mm or around 23 inches and mainly fell in the winter. This was perfect for winter wheat and barley cultivation. In European and American latitudes wheat is grown in summer, but in the hot Mediterranean climate of Israel and Australia wheat is a winter crop.
As a province, Galileans were about 80-90% farmers and Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth would have been no different as the largest tract of arable land in Galilee is just to the south of Nazareth. Down in Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum by the great lake, the rainfall was a little lower at around 400mm or 16 inches. However, this was also the rainfall of my hometown, and we were a very successful wheat farming family. So, grain growing would have, and still does, extend across Galilee and down to the shores of the great lake.
This near saturation of farmers suggests that some of his earthly cousins and family members would surely have been wheat/barley growers. It is also likely that at least one or more of his sisters married a farmer. I would be not at all surprised if Jesus was called out to help with sowing and harvest duties for extended family members when needed before his ministry started. From personal experience on our farm, I can tell you it must have been all available hands to the plough and sickle during the two busy periods of sowing and harvest all over Galilee. This is because all grain growing in ancient Israel relied on manual labour for sowing, weed control, harvesting, and thrashing so it was extremely labour intensive for the whole community. No fossil fuels, no tractors, no harvesters, no artificial fertiliser, and no chemical insect and weed control. Just muscle power.
How Good Was The Harvest?
The return on all this hard labour was usually about tenfold. One unit of seed in the ground for ten units out at harvest time. The use of animal manure was widespread (excuse the pun) as this kept the fields from being flogged out. Its also why the weeds were included in the parable. Animal manure is full of undigested seeds which grew with the wheat when the rains came.
A good crop only came when the natural rains were good. This would push the yield up to around 20-30-fold. An exceptional crop of up to 100-fold had to combine these perfect early and late rains (Jeremiah 5:24, James 5:7) along with plenty of manure fertilisers. These exceptional harvests were known but very uncommon. The seventh-year rest for the whole land also aided in restoring the fertility of the Galilean wheat belt (Leviticus 25, Josephus: Wars, 1:54–66).
The Autumn and Spring Rains
Why were the early and latter rains important for wheat growing? Well, you need moisture to sow and germinate the seed. You also need moisture to plough the ground otherwise the oxen-powered, iron tipped, single-pronged ploughs would only bounce off the hard dry ground. On our farm we had to wait for these early winter rains as well, and there was much consternation if they didn’t come on time. In springtime you also need late rains to fatten the seed and to fill the head up to 3-4 seeds wide for a bumper crop. If the latter rains didn’t come the harvest would be half its potential with fewer and smaller grains, but higher protein levels in the meagre harvest. High protein wheat (above 13%) can be made into bread while low protein wheat (below 11%) goes into cakes and the like.
The annual calendar
The annual rhythm for working the land is succinctly recorded in the Gezer Calendar, a limestone tablet dating from around a millennium BC, the time of Solomon. It describes the agricultural cycle month by month, giving the tasks to be performed at certain times of the year.
Two months gathering (October-November)
Two months planting (December-January)
Two months late sowing (February-March)
One month cutting flax (April)
One month reaping barley (May)
One month reaping and measuring wheat (June)
Two months pruning (July-August)
One month summer fruit (September)
From experience I can tell you that barley ripens up to a month before wheat (but has slightly lower nutritional value) and that is why the two separate entries on this calendar.
The major Jewish feasts and festivals followed this agricultural rhythm: Passover and unleavened bread in the spring just before the barley harvest (March/April), Pentecost seven weeks after the Passover and during the wheat harvest, and the feast of Tabernacles when all harvests were completed (September/October). That’s when food was abundant so that’s when people celebrated and gave respect to their creator for his provision. This is something modern city-based westerners have completely forgotten, to their loss.
Who lived in Galilee?
The region of Jesus’ youth and ministry was often known as Galilee of the Gentiles (Matthew 4:15) as it had many foreigners living alongside the local Jews. The foreigners were more often than not Greek settlers and Roman occupiers. The Greek presence was the result of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Israel and subsequent removal of Jews from their farmlands. Galilee’s best farmland was handed over to the conquerors and that is why there were still ten Greek cities on the other side of the Jordan during Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 4:25). The Hasmonean revolt in 167-164BC removed the Greek farmers from Galilee as it was mainly a Galilean farmers revolt. They got their farms back. The Greek invasion is also why the New Testament was written in Greek.
During this New Testament era the average farm size was about 2-4 hectares or up to ten acres. This figure comes from Eusebius’s account (Historiae Eccleseastiea, 3:20) of the two grandsons of Judah, brother of Jesus, who declared to the Roman government that they derived their sustenance from an area of 39 plethra (3.4 hectares) which they cultivated with their own hands. This was the farm of two families, so it suggests that the average family derived its livelihood from 1.7 hectares. Several passages from the Talmud refer to about 2.3 hectares as a large field and a substantial inheritance. Multiply those figures by 2.5 to get acres.
Sowing the crop: December-January
The story of the sower has the farmer broadcasting the grain by hand on a cold December or January day. Perhaps that’s when the parable was told as it was current and relevant, but we will never know. I can personally verify this January sowing time for wheat in Israel. In January of 2019 I was visited Beersheba and they had just sowed their grain crops after good rains.
Sowing was done at the rate of about 13 kilos or 30 lbs. per acre or 1/4th of a hectare, about half our modern rates. This lower rate is because we have better wheat varieties and better artificial fertiliser. The land would probably have been ploughed a few times before sowing whenever rains came. Ploughing several times produced a fine textured seedbed, and therefore it was easier for the tiny seeds to make contact with the moist soil, triggering germination. Ploughing after earlier pre-sowing rains also got rid of sprouting weeds. This process has not changed for dryland farming for 2,000 years. We just did it with huge machines over hundreds of hectares…with little human effort.
The grain landing on four different soil types in the parable is explained by the fact that the Galilean fields were very small and nearly all had walking tracks around them for animal and human movement, and as boundary markers. I lived in India in 1981 and can vouch that these narrow tracks are still the norm today around third-world farming villages and fields.
With one single vigorous broadcast a farmer could cover about five lateral metres. If his broadcasting was near the edge of the field, you could have had a few seeds land on the walking track, and a few on the stony edges of that track. Lots of seed would have fallen on the ploughed but weed/thorn infested ground on the edge of the field. Why was this space full of headache plants? It’s because this zone next to the track was where humans and animals would often drop weed and thorn seeds stuck to their garments or their animal’s manure while passing along these tracks. The farmer would make sure lots of seed would was broadcast on the good soil a few metres further in the field that was not contaminated with weeds.
This scenario is probably what the listeners imagined while Jesus spoke. The idea of a Galilean farmer deliberately looking for stony paths, rocky soil and weedy soil separately to sow precious grain into doesn’t make sense and would ruin the message behind the parable.
Once the seed was broadcast it was still sitting on top of the damp soil and had to be ploughed under to a depth of about 7cm or 3 inches. To do this the farmer typically ploughed again perpendicular to the last direction ploughed to cover the seed. This was often accompanied by branches, or a log dragged behind the plough to smooth the soil. Then, when the grain and weeds germinated it was time for periodic weeding after each rain to remove any competition to the small wheat and barley seedlings.
Harvest time (April)
Harvest was the most exciting, busiest and exhausting time of the year. For me growing up on the farm it was a super-special event with large machinery going 14 hours a day, heavy trucks running everywhere, silos full, storage at a premium, and meals constantly driven out to family members and itinerant workers every day. My whole town would lift if the rains were good and it was a bumper harvest. I am sure it was no different in ancient Galilee, Nazareth and Capernaum.
Reaping was a team effort, and backbreaking work. Teams of people would complete a field, then move to their neighbour’s field until the harvest was complete. Then each family would take care of their own grain from that point on. The faster the harvest, the safer the harvest, both then and now. A corner of each field had to be left for the poor people to glean from and feed themselves. This was a form of self-motivated ancient welfare for which Naomi and Ruth were grateful to be a part of (Ruth 1:22-2:2, Leviticus 19:9, 23:22).
Try to think of their ancient wheat crop as a collection of uneven short spindly plants and not our beautiful scientifically bred, perfectly aligned monoculture of hundreds of hectares in today’s farms. Two thousand years of plant breeding has made a big difference to what wheat looks like.
Threshing the grain from the wheat stalks came next, and wheat does not like to give up its grain! Threshing was extremely laborious and monotonous. To save human effort, an animal was often tied to a pole and would walk around in a circle on a stone base with its feet slowly grinding the grain free from the wheat head. If a farmer was too poor for to own an animal, the family would belt the wheat talks against a rock by hand. After separation the grain was tossed into the air and winnowed in the wind. The chaff would land a few metres away and the heavier grain would land at the labourer’s feet. The chaff became animal feed for the dry season through summer or was used for brick making. I’m sure, as a builder, Jesus was familiar with this practice. Having built a mudbrick home in the 1980’s I can assure you that straw is absolutely essential for mudbrick making.
At this point the wheat was double checked to remove any last remaining stalks and taken to a family silo inside, under or next to their home. I saw many of these mudbrick wheat silos inside courtyards in Panjabi villages in 1981. Each typically contained around 100-200 kilos of grain and would be sealed to prevent vermin from getting inside. A family would need several of these to get through to the next harvest. In Galilee grain was often stored in very large clay pots or in silos dug into the ground beneath the floor of houses.
Most of the harvest was consumed by the family as the year progressed, while some had to be kept for next year’s sowing. They did not buy bread from supermarkets! They made it themselves. Some grain was paid in taxes to the occupying Romans, some went to the priests, and some went to specialists like Jesus who was a builder in the local village of Nazareth before starting his ministry.