Food and Agriculture

RUTH 2 As the story of Cain and Abel indicates, the two main sources of food in ancient times were animal husbandry and the cultivation of edible plants. Apart from fishing, the only other way to obtain food was through hunting and gathering wild food; a society that had to rely exclusively on hunting and gathering was either very primitive or in a dire situation (cf. Isa 7:18-25). Farming is already attested at sites from the Egyptian Neolithic period.

Ruth 2-3 reflects the annual cycle of planting and harvesting various crops in Israel.3 The agricultural year is also reflected in Israel's annual festivals (such as Firstfruits and Pentecost),4 as well as in the Gezer Calendar., Plowing and the planting of grains (wheat and barley) began after the "early" or autumn rains in October through November. Plants would grow through the heavy winter rains and the "latter," or spring, rains. At harvest (April — May), work-ers would cut the grain with sickles and bind them into sheaves. After the harvest the grain would be taken to threshing floors, where threshing sledges would separate it from the chaff., The time of winnowing was also a time for celebration, since the task indicated that a successful harvest had been brought in (Ru 3:7; Isa 9:3). Once the grain was winnowed it was stored in silos. Using millstones, women ground the harvested grain into flour. Other crops had their own routines and seasons. Olive trees grow in the thin soil of Israel's hills, but they take many years to mature and bear fruit only every other year. Olives were pressed under heavy weights and the oil extruded into vats, with several pressings of a single batch yielding several different grades of olive oil. Other important crops were date palms, pomegranates, figs and apples (some scholars deny that ancient Israel had apples, but this fruit was widely known in the ancient world and frequently appears in classical artwork).

Viniculture was vitally important in ancient Israel. Vineyards were of great value and had to be protected. Both Greek and Hebrew sources describe how young people were given the task of keeping foxes away from the grapes (SS 2:15), and Isaiah 5:2 notes that a wise vintner would erect a watchtower in his vineyard. Grapes ripened in June or July, and the vintage sea-son carried through to September. At harvest, grape bunches were cut off the vines with pruning knives, and people would press out the grapes in vats, using their bare feet.' Other methods of pressing out grapes are attested in the ancient world as well; there is evidence from Egypt of a method of twisting linen sheets to press out and filter grape juice. The juice was made into wine, the primary beverage of ancient Israel. Egyptians preferred beer.8 For the Israelite, the choice of edible meats was governed by the rules of cleanness (Lev 11; Dt 14).9 In brief, sheep, goats, cattle, certain birds (e.g., doves and geese) and fish with fins and scales were considered ritually clean. Chickens are not mentioned in the Bible until the New Testament (e.g., Mt 23:37, although Pr 30:31 may refer to a rooster), but archaeological evidence suggests that they were in fact eaten in ancient Israel. Pigs, of course, were declared ritually unclean, but outside of Israel swine herding was common. On the basis of statements from certain classical Greek writers, some have argued that the Egyptians did not eat pork, but archaeological evidence suggests that at least some did.

The Kinsman-Redeemer

RUTH 3 In ancient Israelite society the following well-defined legal obligations fell to the next of kin, known as the (go'el) or"kinsman-redeemer":

  • Redemption of property (Nu 27:8 — 11). Family lands could not be permanently sold out of family possession. A destitute relative could sell inheritance land to pay debtors, but landless people were effectively reduced to servitude. It fell to the go'el to redeem lands and family members by payment of outstanding debts. Where no go'el existed, the land could be sold outside the family, eventually reverting back in the Jubilee year., levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-10). In the event of the death of a man without an heir, a surviving brother was obligated to redeem (i.e., marry) the widow and raise up an heir for the deceased.This implied a financial and emotional commitment that not all brothers were willing to undertake. The go'el could seek legal exemption from the obligation, but such exemption was considered a dereliction of duty and involved considerable disgrace.

  • Vengeance for the wrongful death of a family member (Nu 35:9-21). In a society lacking a standing police force, the responsibility for executing a death sentence for the murder of a family member would fall to the go'el haddam or "avenger of blood (guilt)." Mosaic Law prohibited indiscriminate vengeance/ allowing the accused to flee to a city of refuge, where his case would be evaluated by the city elders.3 However, no mercy was shown to those who had deliberately committed murder.

The City Gate

RUTH 4 The city gate played a key role in the city's defensive structure. In fact,"to possess the gate" of a city was to possess the city itself (Ge 24:60).1 The role of such a gate, however, also extended to the economic, legal and civic spheres of life. In Mesopotamia, neighborhoods based upon kin or craft may have been organized around the various city gates. Markets, as well as various legal proceedings, were held by the gates (2Ki 7:1). For example, Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah (Ge 23:3ff.) at a city gate, and Boaz was granted the right to obtain both real property and Ruth as a wife at such a location (Ru 4:1ff.).

Kings frequently held public audiences there, and prophets addressed both royalty and commoners at these gates (2Sa 19:8; 1Ki 22:10; Jer 17:19). At Tel Dan, excavations inside the outer gate complex have uncovered a raised platform for the canopied seat of a king or judge, as well as a bench for the elders. This arrangement illustrates the Biblical descriptions of legal cases being brought before the elders (Dt 22:15; 25:7) and judgments being carried out (Dt 17:5; 22:24) at such a location. To sit in the city gate among the elders (Job 29:7-8; Pr 31:23) denoted honor, while the right to enter a gate indicated citizenship (Ge 23:10,18), even in the new Jerusalem (Rev 22:14).