Israel’s Seven Species: Barley


Deuteronomy is a book of expectations. In this final book of the Pentateuch, God stokes the Israelites’ expectations concerning their entrance into the long-awaited “Promised Land”, while at the same time, He explains the rules that they are expected to follow.  One of these expectations is the agricultural bounty of the land of Canaan, often summed up by the so-called seven species.  During the time of Jesus, only these seven varieties[1] were presented in the Temple at Jerusalem as offerings of the first fruits festival (Ex 34:26).

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates, of olive oil and honey (Dt 8:7-8).”

BARLEY is a cereal grain and the first of the seven species harvested after winter.  Barley was an essential Israelite staple for making bread and porridge.  In Egypt and Mesopotamia, barley was used in the production of beer, though little evidence has been found for beer drinking among the Israelites.  A coarse cereal, barley, in comparison to wheat, was cheaper, less desired, and even fed to animals.[2]  Barley is a hardier crop than wheat, able to grow in poor soil, less water, intemperate weather, and even quicker to harvest.

So, when the Bible commanded that a first sheaf or “omer” of grain be brought before the Lord as a wave offering on the day after the Sabbath of the Passover (Lev 23:5-11),[3] that sheaf was barley.[4]  After this first “omer”, the next fifty days are then numbered[5] until the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, when two loaves of wheat bread are presented before the Lord as “first fruits” of the grain harvest (Lev 23:15-17).

The story of Ruth poignantly represents these fifty days of crescendoing grain harvest.  Ruth, a poor, foreign widow, entered Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest (Ruth 1:22; 2:23).  After she started by gleaning barley, the food of the impoverished, she ended by gathering during the wheat harvest--symbolic of her new status.  Now married to Boaz, Ruth had become a rich, adopted Israelite, and mother of the Davidic dynasty.

[1] Mishna Bikkurim 1,3

[2] 2 Kgs 7:1; Rev 6:6; Ps 81:16; I Kgs 4:28

[3] That day is designated by rabbinic Jewish tradition as the second day of Passover (16th of Nissan).

[4] The harvesting of barley is specifically mentioned prior to the greater harvest (i.e wheat) in the Gezer calendar, a three thousand year old tablet that lists the twelve months of Israel’s agricultural year.

[5] “Counting of the Omer”

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