Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tilling in Ancient Israel and Among the Nephites

A reader sent in this comment recently and since the answer takes up more spaced than a typical comment, it is included here as a complete post.
Comment: “Your Book of Mormon says that after Nephi’s ship landed that the Lehites “did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds.” Since they brought no cattle with them, at least none are mentioned in the text, and what they found would have been wild, how could they have ploughed the ground and planted seeds sufficient for the size of group you claim?” Ricolby Z.
Response: First of all, in addition to “beasts in the forest” and “all manner of wild animals,” there were “both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat” (1 Nephi 18:25). Now horses, cows, oxen and the ass (the latter being the same genus as the horse, and is widely known as the donkey), which they found on the land when they landed, were available to the Nephites for tilling the ground.
These animals were brought from the area of Mesopotamia by the Jaredites, many of which fled into the Land Southward from the Jaredite lands to the north because of the epidemic of the poisonous serpents mentioned in Ether. By the time the Nephites landed, they had evidently filled up much of the Land Southward. Keep in mind that “wild animals” are those that have never been domesticated, consequently, the cow, ox, horse, goat and ass had been domesticated by the Jaredites and would have been easily re-domesticated, though the horse would have been more difficult. 
All agrarian cultures of the past, and present, are quite familiar with animal husbandry, plowing, planting and harvesting. This was no different in Israel during the time of Lehi.
Also, keep in mind that the ancient Israelites were closely tied to the land and the yearly cycle. An agricultural people, they celebrated annual festivals at times of planting and harvest and made offerings of animals and other agricultural products to God. In fact, agriculture became the basis of the entire Mosaic commonwealth after the Israelites returned from their captivity in Egypt. The six months from the middle of Tisri to the middle of Nisan were occupied with the work of cultivation, and the rest of the year mainly with the gathering in of the fruits. The extensive and easily-arranged system of irrigation from the rills and streams from the mountains made the soil in every part of Palestine richly productive (Psalms 1:3; 65:10; Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 30:25; 32:2,20; Hosea 12:11). In fact, the careful cultivation and application of manure increased its fertility to such an extent that in the days of Solomon, when there was an abundant population, “20,000 measures of wheat year by year” were sent to Hiram in exchange for timber (1 Kings 5:11). Wheat was also sent in large quantities to the Tyrians for the merchandise in which they traded (Ezekiel 27:17). The wheat sometimes produced hundredfold (Genesis 26:12; Matthew 13:23). Figs and pomegranates were plentiful (Numbers 13:23), and grapes and olives grew luxuriantly and produced abundant fruit (Deuteronomy 33:24).
Left: Ancient plowing in Israel; Right: Depiction of ancient plowing in Egypt
Thus it should be understood that by 600 B.C., during the time of Lehi and his raising his four sons, they would have been knowledgeable of tilling, planting and harvesting, not to mention managing the cattle needed for such work.
After all, simple plows were known in the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 22:10), which were drawn by oxen (Job 1:14), cows (1 Samuel 6:7), and asses (Isaiah 30:24), with the manual tilling of men following the plow with hoes to break up the clods (Isaiah 38:24). In highly irrigated places, the seed was trampled in by cattle (Isaiah 32:20). The threshing of the harvested sheaves was done by oxen and cattle walking repeatedly over them (Deuteronomy 25:4; Isaiah 28:28).
As a result of this, it should be understood that the Lehi Colony had a history and background of agriculture dating back a thousand years or more. In addition, Lehi did not live in Jerusalem, but at Jerusalem all his life (1 Nephi 1:4), which meant he had a home in a rural area outside the city walls where agriculture was their way of life. It is the reason they had “seeds of every kind, both of grain of every kind, and also of the seeds of fruit of every kind” (1 Nephi 8:1) when they were called upon to flee secretly into the wilderness (1 Nephi 4:35).
All of this tells us that when the Lehi Colony landed, they were quite knowledgeable about cattle, plowing and planting. So much so, that Nephi merely wrote “we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 18:24).
Having said all that, it should also be understood that tilling the ground does not mean only by animal. Human tillage is a method that has a long history. In fact, “human plowing” is still done by poor farmers today in the Andean area of Puno as is shown in the picture below.
A modern picture showing ancient techniques of “human plowing,” a system in the poorer areas of the Andes that dates back thousands of years and still used today
We do not know what kind of tilling took place for Nephi does not say. However, hand tilling has been accomplished since prehistoric times. And in reality, hand tilling is far better than doing so with a horse and plow, for when you double dig a garden, it is actually better for the soil than machine tilling. While hand tilling soil is labor intensive, it is less likely to compact the soil and less likely to severely disrupt the natural structure of the soil. Certainly, the entire colony would have been involved in planting the “seed they  brought from Jerusalem,” and the labor side would not have been an issue.
Hand tilling has been around for centuries, even in the U.S., where people without machines and animals have always tilled their ground by hand
How the Nephites tilled their ground is not known, but accomplishing the task would not have been impossible for them to do so, either by animal and plow, or by hand with a wooden instrument. It would not have been silly, but necessary—something modern man often has little understanding toward.

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