Customs of Bible Times – Daily Program of Activities

Grinding of the Grain by the Women

The first sound to greet the ear in the early morning in many a Palestinian village will be the sound of the grinding of the grain. Today, as in the long ago, many of these people resort to the handmill for this purpose. A traveler passing by these humble homes will hear the hum of the handmill morning or evening and sometimes after dark. This sound of the grinding is not exactly musical, and yet many love to go to sleep under it. In the mind of those who live in the East, this sound is associated with home, and comfort and plenty. The women are the ones who engage in this task, and they begin it early in the morning, and it often requires half a day to complete. (Anis C. Haddad, Palestine Speaks, The Warner Press, 1937, p. 54, 55.)

When Jeremiah foretold judgment upon Israel for her sins, he said, concerning what God would take from her, “I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, and the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle” (Jeremiah 25:10). From this it can be seen that the sound of these handmills is an indication of life and activity, and the absence of them would be a sign of utter desolation.

The Bible references to the grinding mills are true to Eastern customs. The task is for servants if the family has them, and if not, the women do the job, but the men would consider it beneath them to engage in such a menial task. Part of the judgment upon Israel at the destruction of Jerusalem was that the enemy “took the young men to grind” (Lamentations 5:13).

And the Philistines punished Samson in this way, for it says of him, “and he did grind in the prison house” (Judges 16:21).

Although there are simple handmills made for the use of one person, more often two women operate one together. The mill is composed of two stones eighteen to twenty-four inches in diameter. The two women sit at these stones facing each other. The upper stone turns upon the lower one by means of an upright handle, which the women alternately pull and push. Here is how the process works:

The upper stone rotates about a wooden pivot fixed in the center of the lower. The opening in the upper stone for the pivot is funnel-shaped to receive the corn, which each woman throws in as required with her disengaged hand. The flour issuing from between the stones is usually caught on a sheepskin placed under the mill. Ibid., 56.

Job speaks of a heart being as “hard as a piece of the nether millstone” (Job 41:24). Thomson says that the lower millstone is not always harder than the upper, but he had seen the nether made of a very compact and thick sandstone, while the upper was of lava, no doubt because being lighter it would be easier to drive it around with the hand. (W.M. Thomson, The Land and the Book, Hyperion Books, December 1985, vol. 1, p. 108.)

Weaving Cloth and Making Clothes

The Jewish women were responsible for making the clothing for the family. The wool which was used came from their flocks. It had to be spun into yarn without the use of modern spinning wheels. … The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, being experts in weaving, had large looms, but for the most part the common people of Palestine used a very primitive loom and the weaving process was of necessity a slow and tedious one. Of course, there were no sewing machines or steel needles. Their needles were coarse ones made of bronze or sometimes of splinters of bone that had been sharpened at one end, and with a hole through the other end. … (Harold B. Hunting, Hebrew Life and Times, Nabu Press, August 2, 2010, p. 17–19.)

When the scripture says, “She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff” (Proverbs 31:19), it is the same way as saying, “She is never idle” or, as the Syrians would say, “Her spindle is never out of her hands.” (Abraham M. Rihbany, The Syrian Christ, Cornell University Library, July 8, 2009, p. 360, 361.)

Washing Clothes

The Arab women, in washing their clothes today, usually go to nearby sources of water such as streams, pools, or watering troughs. They will dip their clothes in and out of the water, and then, placing them upon flat stones which abound in Palestine, they will beat them with a club, which is about a foot and a half long. They carry the water in goatskins and have a vessel for rinsing purposes. (Information received during personal interview with Mr. G. Eric Matson, photographer, and long time resident of Palestine.)

That this sort of process was used in the time of David, is indicated by the prayer of his penitential psalm: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity” (Psalm 51:2). His picture here comes from the process of washing clothes.

“The word employed is significant, in that it probably means washing by kneading or beating, not by simple rinsing. The psalmist is ready to submit to any painful discipline, if only he may be cleansed. “Wash me, beat me, tread me down, hammer me with mallets, dash me against the stones, do anything with me, if only these foul stains are melted from the texture of my soul.” Alexander Maclaren [Hebrew and Greek scholar in the late 1800s], The Psalms (The Expositor’s Bible), vol. 11, (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1892, p. 130.)

Going of the Women for Water

Carrying a pitcher of water was all but universally done by women. It must have been a picturesque sight to see them going and coming with the pitcher poised gracefully upon the head or shoulder. When Jesus instructed two of his disciples, “Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him” (Mark 14:13), that would be an easy way of identifying the person, for it is exceedingly uncommon to see a man carrying a pitcher of water, which is a woman’s task.

When larger supplies of water are needed, men use large skins of sheep or goats for carrying the supply. The pitchers are reserved for the use of the women. (A. Goodrich-Freer, Things Seen in Palestine, General Books LLC, January 1, 2010, p. 72.)

Excerpts from Fred H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, The Moody Institute of Chicago, 1953, p. 81–90.