The Daily Grind

The events recorded in the Bible are, by definition, events and to comprehend them fully it is sometimes useful to set them against the norm, or non-events of daily life. If you were living in Palestine what would your day consist of? If you were travelling through Palestine what would you see? The aim of this paper is to try to answer some of those questions.

The first thing to note was that the day would start very early. The heat of the day makes work difficult and therefore it is best to start at or before sunrise. The Bible is replete with examples of this early rising spanning from Abraham (Gen 22:3), Moses (Ex 34:4) and Job (Job 1:5) down to the time of Jesus (Luke 21:38) including the Lord Himself (Mark 1:35). This early start is then mitigated by a siesta or rest period when the heat was hardest; usually during the middle of the day. Thus Abraham would rest during the heat of the day (Gen 18:1) and Saul's son would lie upon a bed at noon (2Sam 4:5).

If you arose a little later than your neighbors then you would probably awake to a mild humming sound; this was the sound of the 'daily grind' which literally started with the daily grind! I have noted previously that bread was by far the dominant food group in Palestine. The preparation of bread requires flour and the production of flour requires that the grain be ground. Grinding was so essentially to Israeli life that it was forbidden to take a millstone in pledge(Deu 24:6). For many women the first half of their day would be spent in the process of producing this flour. It would have been extremely uncommon to find a man grinding flour although this indignity was sometimes heaped upon prisoners of war (Lam 5:13)

The traditional view of the grinding process proffered by Wight, Easton, Fausset and Smith is that the grinding mill consisted of two round stones some two feet in diameter and six inches thick one of which sat upon the other. The lower was called the nether stone and the upper the rider. The upper stone had a hole through the center allowing it to sit upon a shaft attached to the nether stone. A handle on the rider stone could then be pushed and pulled, usually by two women, to rotate the stone. Grain was fed into the hole in the center of the stone and would slowly be ground as it moved towards the outer extremities of the disks. The disks would probably be set upon a sheepskin to allow the ground flour to be collected.

ISBE offers some more and somewhat different detail. First they suggest that evidence of the 'two round stone' mill only appears in later Biblical times. In earlier times it is suggested that the nether stone was flat and rectangular and slightly indented. The rider stone was a smaller rectangle and that it was rubbed back and forth across the nether stone rather than being rotated. It is quite easy to see this as the more natural way of producing a big pestle and mortar. ISBE also notes that to produce fine flour the process has to be repeated twice and then the resulting twice ground flour is sifted.

Once the grinding had been done and perhaps the midday meal produced the women would probably turn their attentions to clothing. Their responsibilities in this area stretched from spinning the yard to make the clothing all the way through to keeping the clothing clean. The spinning would usually be done by the older women who could sit in groups and spin as they talked. The spun yarn would then be woven using a horizontal loom and a needle made from Bronze or bone[1]. Washing is usually achieved in a local stream or river. The principle process is to dip the clothing into the water and then place it onto a flat surface to pound it with a club; this gives a graphic visual to the Psalmist's request to be 'washed of his iniquity' (Psa 51:2). Soaps of the quality we know today did not exist but a vegetable alkali (lye in the KJV) is referred to in the Bible on a number of occasions (Jer 2:22, Mal 3:2).

The wool for weaving was usually culled from a flock of goats; the care of which was often the responsibility of the younger girls. The goats would usually eat the local pasture but drinking water often had to be obtained for them by hand. This could be an onerous task especially as the wells were shared with the men who were watering the camels which could lead to conflict of interest. Moses befriended Jethro's daughters by assisting them during one such altercation. Water also provided the principle evening task for the womenfolk; the fetching of water for the following day. Water was fetched in a pitcher which could be carried upon the head or upon the shoulder. The water was extracted from the well by a portable leather bucket which each woman carried with her. This explains the 'woman at the wells' surprise which the Lord said he could provide water; he was not even carrying a bucket with which to extract it.

Of course, in between the labor there would be extensive social interaction; much as there is in Western society today. That said the detailed contents of the interaction might surprise and even shock a Western observer in the following ways:

  1. The invocation of deity. In Western Society God's name is usually used even as a curse or in the making of some theological point. In Eastern society the invocation is a formulaic part of normal speech. Thus 'marshallah' or 'what God has wrought' as an exclamation. The response to 'will you do X' is usually 'if God wills'. A new baby would naturally be referred to as 'the gift of God'. A manager might address employees with 'God be with you' to which the response 'God bless thee' is expected. Of course the genuine spiritual depth of the people using this formula varies; which can often render it blasphemous.
  2. Visual Expression and Hyperbole. As an Englishman learning to fit into American culture I am often surprised by the largesse of the statements made and the positions taken. Americans are significantly louder, gesticulate more and are more assertive than their English counterparts. A similar step would need to be taken for an American living in the Middle-East. It is not necessarily a sign of emotionalism and certainly not of inherent dishonesty; it is simply the case that some cultures use figures of speech that would be misconstrued in another place. Thus a Palestinian claiming that he would 'pluck out his right eye if a promise failed' would be expressing the same sentiment as an Englishman stating that he would 'do everything within his power' to ensure something happened.
  3. Crudeness. Again Americans will discuss matters which would have most English people blush; a Palestinian could probably place an American into a similar predicament. Particularly in the area of childbirth and other bodily functions the close physical proximity in which people lived left little room for privacy or discretion.

In concluding one might first note that the majority of this essay upon the daily grind has focused upon women. It was the woman's responsibility to weave the fabric of society together in much the same way that she wove her cloth. The sound of her grinding was the reassuring hum that a dwelling place was thriving and that all was well. Her work was monotonous but vital and allowed the men to focus upon agriculture, building, religion, politics or war as needs required.


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