Threshing and Winnowing in Biblical Times
In today’s reality of fast food restaurants and supermarkets, we often forget about where our food comes from and how it makes it onto our tables. This is especially true of seemingly simple staples, such as bread. Wheat and barley, sometimes as parched grain or in the form of loaves or cakes, were the cornerstones of the average person’s diet in Biblical times. Large amounts of time and energy were expended to get bread on the table: plowing, seeding, waiting and praying (for the right amount of rain, at the right time!), harvesting, threshing, winnowing, storing, milling, and baking.
All parts of this process are re-employed, symbolically, by the prophets of the Bible to illustrate and unpack Spiritual truths and deliver prophetic messages.
Let us focus in on threshing and winnowing.
Threshing is the process by which grain is broken apart into its constituent parts: wheat—the kernels, chaff—the husks that held the kernels, and the straw—the stocks on which the heads of grain grow. Winnowing is the process by which the grain is separated from the other elements in preparation for storage and use.
In a pinch, we can simply rub the heads of grain between both hands, and blow away the chaff with our breath. This is the method that was being used by Jesus’ disciples when they were hungry and on a journey with Jesus through a field on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1 // Matt. 12:1) “…his disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands.”
Another small-scale method was to beat out the heads of grain with a stick or rod. We have two examples of this in scripture: when Ruth “beats out” her gleanings at the end of the day (Ruth 2:17), and in Judges 6:11—when the angel of the LORD first appears to Gideon – as he is “beating out wheat in the wine press” in order to save it from being stolen by the Midianite raiders.
The most efficient and large-scale operation requires a threshing floor (a large, flat, hard, circular area), a threshing sledge, and animals—oxen or mules are preferred, although donkeys can also be used. There are different designs for the sledge – but the most probable (and common) design in Biblical Israel was a wood rectangle, approximately 1×1.5 meters (3×5 feet), with stones or flint chips or iron spikes inserted into the bottom side. These teeth speed up the threshing process helping to cut and crush up the wheat. (2 Sam. 4:22; Isa. 41:15)
Finally, we take a winnowing fork and throw the threshed wheat mixture into the air: the wind blows away the lighter parts – the chaff and straw, and the wheat—which is heavier—falls down and is collected for storage and use.
As you can see, threshing, by its very nature, is a violent process—where the grain is beaten, cut, and crushed—and so it is often used in scripture to represent destruction and judgement. We, as God’s people, also experience difficult times, but we have the good hope of knowing that this is a necessary preparatory step—leading to our being gathered into “God’s barn”, our eternal home in heaven (Matt. 3:12 // Luke 3:17). The place where all tears will be wiped away from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Halleluya!
(Written by Nathaniel Wiseman – guide at Nazareth Village)