In the Old Testament, the Feast of Pentecost is called the "Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field" (Exodus 23:16). It culminated a grain harvest that began with the "Feast of Firstfruits," which we know as the day of the wavesheaf, when the firstfruits of the barley harvest were offered before the Lord (Leviticus 23:10-14). As we understand, Jesus Christ fulfilled the wavesheaf offering, being the first of the firstfruits of God's spiritual harvest, which ultimately includes those He calls into His church (I Corinthians 15:23).
Because it parallels Israel's spring grain harvest as opposed to the fall harvest of fruits and vegetables, this "harvest of the firstfruits" has often been referred to as the early harvest of the children of God. Throughout God's Word, the writers use agricultural imagery to explain what God is doing. Many of the festivals have agricultural themes, and God's holy days spell out His plan for mankind.
The harvesting of grain in biblical times was not just a one- or two-day chore as it is today, when a modern combine harvester can cut, thresh, and clean the grain in a large field in a matter of a few hours. In addition, within a very short time, the grain can be hauled to storage bins for later use. Today, this process is done when the grain is fully ripe and ready for immediate use, yet such was not the case in ancient times.
When fully developed and ready for use, grain is golden brown in color. Most of us have observed fields of grain at harvest time, and waves of that golden brown color is what we see. Farmers know that the grain must be this color to be mature and ready to be released from the husk that attaches it to the head of grain. At this stage, it is hard and can be ground into fine flour.
Unlike today's method, in early times the grain harvest had to begin before the grain was fully ripe so that it would not fall out of the husk prematurely, for instance, while it was being cut. Even though it was harvested earlier, the grain was sufficiently developed to ripen on its own, but the important element to note is that the husk still held the grain securely until it dried, hardened, and was ready to go through a process known as threshing.
Determining when the time was right for the grain to be cut was of prime importance, since cutting it too early would result in immature grain and cutting it too late would mean losing some or all of the harvest. The landowner had to decide when the grain was developed enough but not yet fully ripe, that cutting it would not cause it to be loosened from the husk.
Christ provides a clue as to when it was the best time to cut the grain in John 4:35: "Do you not say, 'There are still four months and then comes the harvest'? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!" Obviously, in an agricultural year, there are many more crops to be harvested after the barley, which would take as many as four months to accomplish. However, Christ refers to the early harvest of His church, which He says is ready to harvest.
His statement gives us information about when the harvest began in those days: The cutting, no doubt, began when the crop was "white." This is the transition color between the green of immature grain and the golden brown of fully ripe grain. At this stage, when the grain is still white, a reaper, using a very sharp sickle, cut down the standing grain.
At this stage, one might ask, what happened to the grain until it reached full maturity? Did the farmer just leave it lying in the field after it was cut? The answer is a resounding, "No!" To have done so would have subjected it to the ground moisture, causing it to rot before it was dried and ready for threshing.
The solution to this problem was relatively simple. After the stalks were cut and lying on the ground, harvesters came along and gathered them, tying them into small bundles known as "sheaves." The sheaves were then stood upright by leaning several sheaves against each other, the resulting shape resembling an Indian tepee. These groups of sheaves were called "shocks." Normally, between 15 to 20 sheaves made up one shock.
The cone shape of the shock provided support for the sheaves, keeping them from falling to the ground, and allowed the air to pass through the standing stalks, giving the grain the opportunity to age to maturity. It also allowed any moisture from rain or dew to drain from the heads of grain.
Many shocks were scattered around the field, where they would stand until it was determined after a period of many days that they were ready to be threshed. Then, the shocks would be carefully hauled to the threshing floor, and once there, the fruits of grain were secure. Once inside the threshing floor, the grain was ready for the next step in the process, threshing, when the grain was separated from the husks.
The stalks were held and shaken to remove the grain from the husks, and if they proved stubborn, the grain heads were gently beaten with an instrument. Once removed, the next and final step, winnowing, had to be done to prepare the grain for food. Winnowing is done by throwing the grain up into the air on a breezy day and letting the wind blow any remaining chaff from it. Any foreign matter—tares or any other unwanted substance—would be removed, and only clean, ready-to-use grain would remain.
Incredibly, this method of harvesting was used until the early 1900s, when a machine called a "Binder" was invented. This machine, pulled around the field by draft animals, cut and bound the sheaves and deposited them behind it to be picked up by harvesters and put into shocks. They used the same method to dry and mature the grain as had been done for centuries.
A threshing machine had also been invented to thresh the grain. Unlike the more modern combine, however, the shocks of grain had to be carried to it and fed into it in order to be threshed. These were the precursors to the modern-day combine.
Bill Keesee (1935-2010)
The Harvesting of the Firstfruits