In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Agriculture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Environment
  • Village Planning and the Israelite House
  • Calendar
  • Soil Fertility and Crop Yield
  • Animal Use

Biblical Studies Agriculture
Oded Borowski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0002


Agriculture is the cultivation of the soil for the production of food and other useful and valuable growth from the land, including products of fields, gardens, and orchards. Its practice includes all activities, installations, and tools used by the farmer in connection with the cultivation, caring for the land, and the plants, and the production of all foodstuffs and by-products. In biblical times, agriculture was the main source of livelihood, followed by animal husbandry. Practiced by villagers and to a certain extent by city dwellers as well, the influence of agriculture on many facets of daily life was very strong. Echoes can be discerned not only in the economy but also in religious beliefs and practice, customs and law, and social behavior as well.

General Overviews

For an understanding of how agriculture was practiced in the ancient world, it is necessary to look at the history of plant domestication. In addition, we must compare the terminology extant in ancient texts with the realia of archaeology and present-day botany, study the different methods implemented in different regions, and wherever possible, compare all of these with ethnographic studies of living societies still practicing agriculture at that level. Renfrew 1973 covers the history of the domestication of crops and conditions for proper cultivation. Duke 1983 has an in-depth discussion on medicinal uses of plants, and Zohary 1982 identifies biblical terms with the actual flora. The study of ancient agriculture also requires the study of the different methods employed in agricultural production. The practice of agriculture in certain regions, such as the Negev, required the introduction and implementation of runoff agriculture (see Evenari, et al. 1982); while in the hill country agriculture was possible because of the wide use of terracing (see Edelstein and Gat 1980–1981, cited under Terracing). Avitsur 1976 examines the tools used, as well as the installations and their development. This area of study also relies heavily on examination of ancient texts (literary, administrative, instructive, legal) and analysis of remains recovered through archaeological excavations. For the student of the Hebrew Bible, there are several works that deal with the multiple aspects of this field. Stager 1976 is brief, while Borowski 2002 is more elaborate; Hopkins 1985 specifically focuses on the settlement of the Israelites in the land during the period known as Iron Age I (c. 1200–1000 BCE). One way of understanding ancient agriculture is by conducting ethnographic studies comparing present-day societies living in conditions similar to those in Antiquity with ancient societies. For a comparison of biblical with premodern practices in the Near East, Dalman 1964 is essential because it describes agricultural practices in Palestine before the introduction of modern methods and machinery.

  • Avitsur, S. Man and His Work: Historical Atlas. Jerusalem: Carta and Israel Exploration Society, 1976.

    Well-illustrated description and discussion of all aspects of agriculture, including tools, installations, and other facets of daily life from Antiquity to the preindustrial Levant. In Hebrew.

  • Borowski, O. Agriculture in Iron Age Israel. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2002.

    Synthesizes much valuable information from the Bible, extrabiblical sources, and archaeology in a manner that places the information at the disposal of a wide audience. This edition contains a thorough bibliography.

  • Dalman, G. Arbeit und sitte in Palastina. 7 vols. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1964.

    This work is the author’s magnum opus, in which he presented an enormous amount of ethnographic materials gathered in Jerusalem before World War I. A highly important source for Bible students, especially those interested in daily life. In German.

  • Duke, James A. Medicinal Plants of the Bible. New York: Trado-Medic, 1983.

    Many wild and domesticated plants have medicinal properties, which were used by the people of the ancient Near East. Here is a presentation, in words and drawings, of over 140 plants and their potential uses, including pharmacological uses. Each plant is introduced by its scientific name followed by its English and biblical appellation; the latter is followed by a biblical citation illustrating its textual context.

  • Evenari, M., L. Shanan, N. Tadmor, and Y. Itzhaki. The Negev: The Challenge of the Desert. 2d rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    The Negev was settled during several periods, including the Iron Age, the Roman, and the Byzantine periods. Being an arid zone, the Negev required special methods to maintain its agricultural production. This work describes some of these special methods.

  • Hopkins, D. C. The Highlands of Canaan: Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age. Sheffield, UK: Almond, 1985.

    Settlement in the highlands of Palestine helped form biblical Israel but encountered many difficulties. This study enumerates these difficulties and describes the solutions employed by the Israelites.

  • Renfrew, J. M. Palaeoethnobotany: The Prehistoric Food Plants of the Near East and Europe. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

    In premodern times, each plant had its cradle and limited area of cultivation. Using archaeological data, this work details the history of each domesticated plant, the conditions it can be cultivated in, and its uses.

  • Stager, L. E. “Agriculture.” In Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume. Edited by Keith R. Crim, 11–13. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.

    Brief but thorough discussion of the subject. It covers topics such as plant variety, methods of cultivation, tools and installations, and more.

  • Zohary, M. The Plants of the Bible. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    While dealing with the question of the identification of biblical plants, this work presents some of the factors related to agriculture (e.g., topography, climate, vegetal landscape). Plants of the Bible are presented by categories such as fruit trees, field crops and garden plants, and wild herbs. Entries include both their English and scientific nomenclature, a biblical verse, a thorough description of the plant, and its habitat and potential uses.

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