Barley (Hordeum vulgare) was the first crop that was harvested. This took place around Passover time, which is celebrated in the early spring, around the months of March or April.

In Deuteronomy 8:8, barley was one of the special seven varieties that God promised that the Israelites would find in the land: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land - a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey".

Barley

Barley PICTURE: Public domain.

 

The barley season begins with the bringing of the first barley offering to the Temple. This was called the bringing of the omer. The omer was a symbolic sheaf offering. It was forbidden to eat the new barley until the first omer was made.

The barley season begins with the bringing of the first barley offering to the Temple. This was called the bringing of the omer. The omer was a symbolic sheaf offering. It was forbidden to eat the new barley until the first omer was made.

The seven week (49 day) period from the barley harvest until the wheat harvest (from Passover to Shavuot), was known as the Counting of the Omer.

In the Bible, the plague of hail that struck Egypt was early enough to destroy the barley harvest but not the wheat crop. As it's recorded in Exodus 9:31: "The flax and seorah (barley) were destroyed, since the seorah (barley) had headed and the flax was in bloom. The wheat and spelt, however, were not destroyed, because they ripen later."

In the story of Ruth and Naomi, Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth at the beginning of the barley harvest. Later Ruth goes out into the harvest to glean what has been left by the reapers, and it was while doing this, that she met her future husband Boaz.

"So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem...”

What are the differences between wheat and barley? At harvest time wheat seed is a different colour to barley; wheat has a brown or golden tinge to it, whereas barley has a more yellow-white hue. Barley has a longer awn, or what is commonly called a ‘beard”, than wheat. Barley is easier to cook with, because wheat needs to be milled (that is, it must be ground down to flour). Wheat tends to be used more in the making of bread.

Wheat is also more nutritional than barley, but more expensive. In II Kings 7:16, wheat is recorded as being twice as expensive as barley. I Kings 4:28 also indicates the poor value that was attached to barley with it used for feeding Solomon’s horses; wheat was not.

Barley was also to be used in the meal offerings as Numbers 5:15 records: "[T]hen the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring her offering for her: the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal. He shall pour no oil on it, nor put frankincense on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to memory."

The Bible also tells us that barley was baked into cakes and bread. 
 
"Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. 'I had a dream,' he was saying. 'A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed'." - Judges 7:13
 
The prophet Ezekiel, meanwhile, was told by God to make and eat barley cakes, while he acted out a parable illustrating the future captivity of the people.
 
"Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side. Weigh out twenty shekels of food to eat each day and eat it at set times...Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people..." - Ezekiel 4: 9-12

In the New Testament the boy with five barley loaves is used to feed a multitude (John 6:1-13).

This is an edited excerpt from Alvin Johnson's iBook 'Biblical Flora', 2017. The book is available for free download on iTunes. A teacher's edition is also available for purchase.