Emmer, “Mother Wheat” of the Ancient World

Ancient grains like emmer have become quite popular these days for both nutritional and culinary reasons. Northwest artisan bakeries sell breads made from emmer while several regional craft breweries market einkorn ales. While nutritious wheats were free-threshing grains that more easily surrendered their fibrous hulls when threshed, the “pre-wheats” like emmer and einkorn required more laborious processing to separate kernel from husk so were often milled with rough hulls intact. This was done by briefly soaking the grain in water and then allowing it to dry in the sun. Emmer’s significance lives on in its English name—derived from Hebrew Em ha Hitah, the “Mother Wheat” of Old Testament Israel, and Old Saxon, amer, or “hulled [grain].”

Emmer Bread Loaves
Emmer Bread Loaves

Barley was widely used as a hardier, more widely grown milling grain but of lesser baking quality. Loaves made of barley are mentioned honorably in ancient literature as the common bread of the humble masses, and the object of specific reference in the miracles of Elisha (II Kings 4:42-44) and Jesus (John 6:1-14) to feed the multitudes. The account of Elisha’s provisioning begins with reference to a man from Baal-shalishah who presented Elisha with a firstfruits offering of “twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain.” Since Baal was a Canaanite god of fertility, the story carried ironic significance to ancient Hebrews who saw deliverance through Yahweh for one coming from a place likely named for the chief deity of Land of Shalishah.

Grain was cut by a sickle (hermēš) wielded by teams of reapers (Ruth 2:3) who were led by a foreman (Ruth 2:5-6). (Long-handled scythes were unknown in biblical times.) Stalks of cereal crops were carefully gathered in armfuls (Ruth 2:16, Psalm 129:7) and either placed in piles (Exodus 22:5, Judges 15:5) for transport by cart to be stacked near outdoor threshing floors (Job 39:12, Ruth 3:1-6, Judges 6:37), or bound into sheaves as Joseph mentioned when explaining his fateful dream to his brothers in Genesis 37. (Knowles Shaw’s popular nineteenth century hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” is derived from Psalm 126:6, also a time of great rejoicing.) Kernels were separated by hand with a flail (Judges 6:11), trampled out by oxen (Deuteronomy 25:4) led around a hardened outdoor threshing ring (Hebrew goren, Job 39:12), or by dragging a heavy sledge (morag), flint-studded slab of wood, or cylindrical stone (Isaiah 28:27-28). Daniel’s account of the prophet Habakkuk providing him bread and stew while in the lion’s den (Daniel 14:33-29) is told in the context of a landlord’s responsibility to feed his reapers.

Numerous references in both Old and New Testaments associate the threshing floor with divine judgment (Micah 4:12, Matthew 3:12) while winnowing signifies the process of spiritual purification. The religious significance of these essential harvest endeavors is related by some biblical scholars to King David’s divine command (II Chronicles 21) to set up an altar and later establish the First (Solomon’s) Temple upon the Mt. Moriah threshing floor of Ornan (Arauna) the Jebusite. In return for the magnificent cedars and cypress of Lebanon that Solomon used to construct the temple, he traded “20,000 cors of wheat” (approximately 120,000 bushels) to King Hiram of Sidon (I Kings 5:10). The temple’s location would become Israel’s sacred Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Now the angel of the Lord had commanded [the prophet] Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. So David went up at Gad’s word, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. Now Ornan was threshing wheat. …And David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lord—give it to me at its full price….” Then Ornan said to David, “Take it, and let my lord the king do what seems good to him. See, I give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for the wood and the wheat for a grain offering; I will give it all” (II Chronicles 21:18-20, 22-23).