It has been difficult for many of us to get outside and see the beauty of nature for ourselves, apart from in our gardens, where it’s a shame we have to do the hard work of keeping it tamed in order to enjoy it. We must be grateful for the blessing of a garden if we have one, but nature needs to be seen on a grand scale for it to really take our breath away.
It would be wrong of us if we looked at Bible plants without mentioning wheat, which takes such an important place in the daily life of ancient Israel and in the teachings of scripture. Wheat was one of two grain crops grown; the other was barley which could be grown on poorer soil and needed a shorter growing season but did not make the same standard of bread and was not valued as highly. Today’s picture is an English wheat field and therefore a modern, short-stemmed variety; older varieties grew much taller.
The agricultural cycle dominated the Israelite year, and the various festivals reflected this, although they also held great religious and prophetic significance. Ploughing began in autumn, when the rains came and softened the ground so that the ploughshare could break it up. Oxen were the animals preferred to pull the plough, and mixing an ox and a donkey was prohibited (Deuteronomy 22:10); imagine how the weaker animal would suffer if they were ‘unequally yoked’ (2 Corinthians 6:14). Sowing usually took place at the same time, by broadcasting (scattering seed by hand), to make sure that the seed was buried and not eaten by birds (Matthew 13:4). Paths separated each person’s field.
The wheat was the last major grain harvest to be brought in, around early summer. Lines of harvesters cut and bound sheaves, but were not allowed to go back for grain that they had missed, or reap to the edges of the field, as this was to be left for the poor to gather (Lev 23:22, and see the story of Ruth – she was ‘gleaning’ the leftover grain when Boaz took notice of her, Ruth 2:2-3ff). After reaping came threshing, done on a hard threshing floor (Judges 6:37, 2 Samuel 6:6, 24:21-24 and other places), where the grain was bashed to loosen the edible part of the grain from the chaff (the dry protective casing around the seeds). Then came winnowing, where the mixture of wheat and chaff was tossed into the air. The lighter chaff would blow away in a slight breeze, whereas the heavier grain would fall back to the ground. Finally the grain had to be sifted through a sieve to get rid of any bits of chaff or straw that remained. All this took a very long time to do properly by hand, and therefore the resulting bread was perhaps valued more highly than if it was bought in a trolley dash at the supermarket.
The Bible uses these processes to describe the actions of God in the lives of people. John the Baptist said that Jesus had come to separate the wheat from the chaff (Matt 3:12), and Jesus said that satan had asked to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31); he certainly must have felt like he had been bashed around a fair bit after he had denied his Lord. Jesus used agricultural pictures in His parables so that His hearers could readily understand the context of them, and would therefore just have to concentrate on the hidden meaning. The most famous of these is the Parable of the Sower, in Matthew 13.
When we pray, ‘give us today our daily bread,’ we can see it as a spiritual thing (see Matt 4:4), or a prayer that everything we need for 21st Century life might be available to us. The early disciples saw it as the literal provision of something to eat by Yahweh Jireh, the Lord our Provider. Praise God that He has added so much to us here in our country, even during the initial panic of lockdown, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that He has only promised to provide everything we need.