When Jesus was born, the Israelites had been in Judea for many hundreds of years. The Lord had told them that they were in “a good land,” where they would “not lack any thing” (see Deut. 8:7, 9).
Even so, the Judeans had to work hard to provide for themselves and their families. There were no factories and few machines to produce the things they needed to survive. Pottery-making, farming, weaving, carpentry, fishing, and other things were done with handmade tools. Three important ways to make a living were growing wheat, producing olive oil, and catching fish.
Grains were a common crop. Judean farmers used plows pulled by animals to prepare the land for planting. Later, the farmers had to watch their crops carefully because the stalks of wheat and barley were very tender.
When it was harvesttime, usually in the late spring, reapers went into the fields and cut the wheat stalks down with wooden sickles, which had sharpened pieces of flint embedded in the curved part to form blades. As reapers cut the wheat, binders followed and tied bundles of stalks together. Both groups of workers moved very rapidly, often dropping small bunches of wheat stalks and missing the corners of the fields. This apparent wastefulness was done deliberately so that the poor could glean, or gather, the leavings for themselves (see Lev. 19:9).
Taken to the threshing floor, a large level area of hard-packed earth, the bundles of wheat were untied and spread over the floor. Oxen dragged sleds weighted with people over the wheat to break the stalks and loosen the wheat kernels from them. Next, winnowers separated the wheat from the chaff (stalks and leaves) by tossing the wheat into the air. The heavy wheat fell straight down; the lightweight chaff was blown away by the breeze. Any remaining chaff was separated out through sieves. Then the wheat was brought into the garner for storage until the women ground portions of it into flour and made bread for their families.
Harvesting was difficult labor, and after a day of threshing, the workers celebrated with a feast. Feast days were times to relax and to thank Heavenly Father, who had blessed them in their labors.
Judeans also harvested olives and produced olive oil. In late September the olives were ready to be harvested. Workers beat the branches of the trees with sticks, then gathered the olives from the ground. They were smashed in a stone basin by animals or humans pushing a wheel-shaped grinding stone. The olive pulp was put into stone vats and covered with stone lids. A wooden lever weighted with a heavy flat stone was placed on top to press the olive oil out of the pulp. The oil drained through a hole at the bottom of the vat. Any impurities in the oil were strained out before bottling it for the market. Today we use olive oil in our cooking. But in the Church, we also use olive oil for a very special purpose—for anointing and healing the sick—just as people did in biblical times.
Fishing was another important industry, especially for those who lived near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus often went to the Sea of Galilee, and there he called several of his Apostles. At least six of them were fishermen by trade.
Fishermen had to be strong, capable men. Not only did they have to cast out nets and pull them in heavy with fish, but they also had to navigate, steer the boat, avoid difficult weather, and predict where the most fish would be.
During the day, fishermen prepared for catching fish by mending their nets and sails, checking their boats for problems, and making repairs. Night was the best time for fishing because large schools of fish swam in the dark, calm waters.
The fishermen sailed out on the sea, cast out their nets, then waited until they were full. Sometimes that took only a few minutes; other times it took the entire night. When the nets were full, they were very heavy. The fishermen worked together to pull them back into the boat and empty them into the hold. At the shore, the fish were either sorted into baskets and taken to the market, or they were salted, dried, and shipped to other countries to be sold.
Today we can harvest grain, produce oil, and catch fish faster and more easily, but one thing is still the same: Heavenly Father blesses us with the fruits of the earth, and we should give thanks to him for them.