While the patriarchs were in Canaan, they led a pastoral life, and little attended to tillage; Isaac and Jacob indeed tilled at times (Genesis 26:12; Genesis 37:7), but the herdsmen strove with Isaac for his wells not for his crops. The wealth of Gerar and Shechem was chiefly pastoral (Genesis 20:14; Genesis 34:28). The recurrence of famines and intercourse with Egypt taught the Canaanites subsequently to attend more to tillage, so that by the time of the spies who brought samples of the land's produce from Eshcol much progress had been made (Deuteronomy 8:8; Numbers 13:23). Providence happily arranged it so that Israel, while yet a family, was kept by the pastoral life from blending with and settling among idolaters around. In Egypt the native prejudice against shepherds kept them separate in Goshen (Genesis 47:4-6; Genesis 46:34). But there they unlearned the exclusively pastoral life and learned husbandry (Deuteronomy 11:10), while the deserts beyond supplied pasture for their cattle (1 Chronicles 7:21).
On the other hand, when they became a nation, occupying Canaan, their agriculture learned in Egypt made them a self subsisting nation, independent of external supplies, and so less open to external corrupting influences. Agriculture was the basis of the Mosaic commonwealth; it checked the tendency to the roving habits of nomad tribes, gave each man a stake in the soil by the law of inalienable inheritances, and made a numerous offspring profitable as to the culture of the land. God claimed the lordship of the soil (Leviticus 25:23), so that each held by a divine tenure; subject to the tithe, a quit rent to the theocratic head landlord, also subject to the sabbatical year. Accumulation of debt was obviated by prohibiting interest on principal lent to fellow citizens (Leviticus 25:8-16; Leviticus 25:28-87). Every seventh, sabbatic year, or the year of Jubilee, every 50th year, lands alienated for a time reverted to the original owner.
Compare Isaiah's "woe" to them who "add field to field," clearing away families (1 Kings 21) to absorb all, as Ahab did to Naboth. Houses in towns, if not redeemed in a year, were alienated for ever; thus land property had an advantage over city property, an inducement to cultivate and reside on one's own land. The husband of an heiress passed by adoption into the family into which he married, so as not to alienate the land. The condition of military service was attached to the land, but with merciful qualifications (Deuteronomy 20); thus a national yeomanry of infantry, officered by its own hereditary chiefs, was secured. Horses were forbidden to be multiplied (Deuteronomy 17:16). Purificatory rites for a day after warfare were required (Numbers 19:16; Numbers 31:19). These regulations, and that of attendance thrice a year at Jerusalem for the great feasts, discouraged the appetite for war. The soil is fertile still, wherever industry is secure. The Hauran (Peraea) is highly reputed for productiveness.
The soil of Gaza is dark and rich, though light, and retains rain; olives abound in it. The Israelites cleared away most of the wood which they found in Canaan (Joshua 17:18), and seem to have had a scanty supply, as they imported but little; compare such extreme expedients for getting wood for sacrifice as in 1 Samuel 6:14; 2 Samuel 24:22; 1 Kings 19:21; dung and hay fuel heated their ovens (Ezekiel 4:12; Ezekiel 4:15; Matthew 6:30). The water supply was from rain, and rills from the hills, and the river Jordan, whereas Egypt depended solely on the Nile overflow. Irrigation was effected by ducts from cisterns in the rocky sub-surface. The country had thus expansive resources for an enlarging population. When the people were few, as they are now, the valleys sufficed to until for food; when many, the more difficult culture of the hills was resorted to and yielded abundance.
The rich red loam of the valleys placed on the sides of the hills would form fertile terraces sufficient for a large population, if only there were good government. The lightness of husbandry work in the plains set them free for watering the soil, and terracing the hills by low stone walls across their face, one above another, arresting the soil washed down by the rams, and affording a series of levels for the husbandman. The rain is chiefly in the autumn and winter, November and December, rare after March, almost never as late as May. It often is partial. A drought earlier or later is not so bad, but just three months before harvest is fatal (Amos 4:7-8). The crop depended for its amount on timely rain. The "early" rain (Proverbs 16:15; James 5:7) fell from about the September equinox to sowing time in November or December, to revive the parched soil that the seed might germinate. The "latter rain" in February and March ripened the crop for harvest.
A typical pledge that, as there has been the early outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, so there shall be a latter outpouring previous to the great harvest of Israel and the Gentile nations (Zechariah 12:10; Joel 2:23; Joel 2:28-32). Wheat, barley, and rye (and millet rarely) were their cereals. The barley harvest was earlier than the wheat. With the undesigned propriety that marks truth, Exodus 9:31-32 records that by the plague of hail "the flax and the barley were smitten, for the barley was in the ear, and the flax was bolled i.e. in blossom, but the wheat and the rye were not smitten, for they were not grown up." Accordingly, at the Passover (just after the time of the hail) the barley was just fit for the sickle, and the wave sheaf was offered; and not until Pentecost feast, 50 days after, the wheat was ripe for cutting, and the firstfruit loaves were offered. The vine, olive, and fig abounded; and traces everywhere remain of former wine and olive presses.
Cummin (including the black "fitches," Isaiah 28:27), peas, beans, lentils, lettuce, endive, leek, garlic, onion, melon, cucumber, and cabbage also were cultivated. The Passover in the month Nisan answered to the green stage of produce; the feast of weeks in Sivan to the ripe; and the feast of tabernacles in Tisri to the harvest home or ingathered. A month (Veader) was often intercalated before Nisan, to obviate the inaccuracy of their non-astronomical reckoning. Thus the six months from Tisri to Nisan was occupied with cultivation, the six months from Nisan to Tisri with gathering fruits. The season of rains from Tisri equinox to Nisan is pretty continuous, but is more decidedly marked at the beginning (the early rain) and the end (the latter rain). Rain in harvest was unknown (Proverbs 26:1).
The plow was light, and drawn by one yoke. Fallows were cleared of stones and thorns early in the year (Jeremiah 4:3; Hosea 10:12; Isaiah 5:2). To sow among thorns was deemed bad husbandry (Job 5:5; Proverbs 24:30-31). Seed was scattered broadcast, as in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-8), and plowed in afterward, the stubble of the previous crop becoming manure by decay. The seed was trodden in by cattle in irrigated lands (Deuteronomy 11:10; Isaiah 32:20). Hoeing and weeding were seldom needed in their fine tilth. Seventy days sufficed between sowing barley and the wave sheaf offering from the ripe grain at Passover. Oxen were urged on with a spearlike goad (Judges 3:31). Boaz slept on the threshingfloor, a circular high spot, of hard ground, 80 or 90 feet in diameter, exposed to the wind for winnowing, (2 Samuel 24:16-18) to watch against depredations (Rth 3:4-7). Sowing divers seed in a field was forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:9), to mark God is not the author of confusion, there is no transmutation of species, such as modern skeptical naturalists imagine. Oxen unmuzzled (Deuteronomy 25:4) five abreast trod out the grain on the floor, to separate the grain from chaff and straw; flails were used for small quantities and lighter grain (Isaiah 28:27).
A threshing sledge (moreg), Isaiah 41:15) was also employed, probably like the Egyptian still in use, a stage with three rollers ridged with iron, which cut the straw for fodder, while crushing out the grain. The shovel and fan winnowed the grain afterward by help of the evening breeze (Rth 3:2; Isaiah 30:24); lastly, it was shaken in a sieve. Amos 9:9; Psalm 83:10, and 2 Kings 9:37 prove the use of animal manure. The poor man's claim was remembered, the self sown produce of the seventh year being his perquisite (Leviticus 25:1-7): hereby the Israelites' faith was tested; national apostasy produced gradual neglect of this compassionate law, and was punished by retribution in kind (Leviticus 26:34-35); after the captivity it was revived. The gleanings, the grainers of the field, and the forgotten sheaf and remaining grapes and olives, were also the poor man's right; and perhaps a second tithe every third year (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 14:28; Deuteronomy 26:12; Amos 4:4). The fruit of newly planted trees was not to be eaten for the first three years, in the fourth it was holy as firstfruits, and on the fifth eaten commonly.