Israel’s Seven Species: Wheat

By GARY ALLEYJune 2014

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).”

WHEAT is a cereal grain and the second of the seven species harvested after winter.  Like barley, wheat was an essential Israelite staple for making bread and porridge.[2]  In contrast to the more durable and coarser barley, wheat’s high maintenance made it more expensive and, oftentimes, food of the privileged.  Wheat was mostly grown in Israel on its Mediterranean coastal plain (which was often dominated by the Philistines), its depressed, warm Jordan Valley, and its fruitful valley of Jezreel.

With the beginning of the barley harvest (late April), Israel began counting the “omer” or sheaves of grain that were harvested from the field.  The Gezer Calendar, a three thousand year old tablet that lists the twelve months of Israel’s agricultural year, also speaks about measuring the wheat harvest.  This measuring of the grain harvest was crucial in dry food preparations for the coming year.  The counting of the barley harvest and then the wheat harvest would continue for fifty days, starting the day after Passover and finishing with the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot).  This completion of counting was commemorated by a presentation of two wheat loaves before the Lord as “first fruits” of the grain harvest (Lev 23:15-17).

Grain’s prevalence throughout the Bible attests to its daily significance as food for the ancient world.  Bread was a symbol for subsistence and life—“Man shall not live by bread alone”...“Give us this day our daily bread.”[3]  The essence of life became defined by this cyclical pattern of grain’s cultivation.  It began every year with the sowing of seed in a plowed field which had been softened by rain.  The resulting harvest was cut down, threshed on a threshing floor, winnowed in the wind, and sifted by a sieve.  And ultimately, after its collection and storage, the grain was ground into flour by mill, mixed into dough, and baked into bread.  It is not surprising, therefore, that this life-sustaining work filled the Bible with lucid and meaningful metaphors for prophetic and parabolic communication.[4]

[1] Mishna Bikkurim 1,3

[2] Wheat was prolifically grown throughout Egypt and Mesopotamia and used in beer-making.  Little evidence of beer production has been found among the Israelites.  It would seem Israel’s rough, hilly landscape might best explain this lack of beer and, instead, its proliferation of grapevines and winemaking.

[3] Dt 8:3 (Mt 4:4; Lk 4:4); Mt 6:11

[4] Judg 14:18; Lk 8:5-8; Mt 13:24-30; Jer 51:33; Lk 3:17; Lk 22:31; Job 31:10; Mt 13:33; Ezk 4:9-13

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