A friend asked me yesterday about the significant of the threshing floor in Scripture. I briefly sketched a response to his enquiry, but thought that it would be good to fill out this response in the following post. Perhaps some of my readers will be interested in the subject.
Much of the following is highly speculative, and should be taken on board only with considerable caution. In most of the respects that matter, interpreting Scripture is more of an art than a science, so we will need to develop and depend upon an instinct for the text, in communion with the Church’s tradition of engagement, rather than upon some sure technique or method, to settle upon appropriate readings.
Called From the Threshing Floor
In Judges 6:11, we find a scared Gideon threshing wheat in the winepress. In the act of threshing wheat, however, we find Gideon associated with an act that is symbolic of judgment, the role to which God is calling him. God’s judgment involves bringing the nations to his threshing floor, so that they can be threshed by the hooves of his servants. Micah 4:11-13 describes this process:
Now also many nations have gathered against you, who say, “Let her be defiled, and let our eye look upon Zion.” But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD, nor do they understand His counsel; For He will gather them like sheaves to the threshing floor. “Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion; for I will make your horn iron, and I will make your hooves bronze; you shall beat in pieces many peoples; I will consecrate their gain to the LORD, and their substance to the Lord of the whole earth.”
Gideon was involved in the process of bread-making, an activity with great biblical significance. The fact that he was threshing in the winepress brings together the themes of bread and wine, which are so central to biblical symbolism. Having threshed and ground the grain, he produced a large sacrifice of unleavened bread for YHWH (Judges 6:19-21).
Gideon asks for a sign from YHWH, to see whether YHWH will indeed save Israel by his hand. He places a fleece on the threshing floor. God’s dew falls on the fleece only, leaving it sodden, while the rest of the threshing floor is left dry. He seeks a second sign. In the second sign the fleece is completely dry, while the surrounding ground of the threshing floor is wet with the dew. Here the fleece might symbolize the acceptable sacrifice of YHWH, while the threshing floor is Israel (James Jordan’s claim). I would suggest that the fleece is the Spirit-blessed leader, typifying Christ. As the anointed leader is wrung out, the whole nation is washed in the same Spirit. The threshing floor here becomes the site of the heavenly dew of blessing.
As already noted, Gideon is in the business of producing bread. In Judges 7:13 this theme comes to the forefront again. As Gideon approached the camp of the Midianites, one of the Midianites recounted a dream to his companion:
And when Gideon had come, there was a man telling a dream to his companion. He said, “I have had a dream: to my surprise, a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian; it came to a tent and struck it so that it fell and overturned, and the tent collapsed.” Then his companion answered and said, “This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel! Into his hand God has delivered Midian and the whole camp.”
Through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, Gideon had formed the (barley) firstfruits of Israel into a loaf. The work that began at the threshing floor reached its climax as YHWH established Gideon as the ‘baker’ of a new Israel (much as Joseph took over the role of the baker and cupbearer, providing bread to the nation of Egypt and being the one with the special cup). We will return to these themes later.
Sex on the Threshing Floor
The threshing floor was a place associated with sexual congress, both licit and illicit. In Hosea 9:1, YHWH declares: ‘Do not rejoice, O Israel, with joy like other peoples, For you have played the harlot against your God. You have made love for hire on every threshing floor.’
The reduction of the grain obtained through the threshing process to floor was also associated with sexual imagery. There were two millstones, one on top of another. While the lower of the two stones was especially associated with women and the upper especially associated with men (hence the sexualisation of the shame of Abimelech, whose head is crushed by a woman dropping an upper – male – millstone from atop the walls he was trying to penetrate, a sexualized shame that can be compared to Jael’s spike piercing the skull of Sisera, when all was set up for a rape scene with the roles reversed), both upper and lower millstones were connected with women, as the act of grinding the mill was primarily the task of women.
In Job 31:10 we read, ‘Then let my wife grind for another, and let others bow down over her.’ The woman here seems to be symbolically identified with the lower millstone. The point of the verse is not, as some (perhaps more delicate) translations and interpreters would have it, that Job’s wife should become the slave of another man, but that she should be sexually subject to him, as the lower millstone ‘grinds’ beneath the upper millstone.
The elision of the imagery of using a millstone and being a millstone can also be found in Isaiah 47:1-3, where the virgin daughter of Babylon is to be humiliated:
“Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; Sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans! For you shall no more be called Tender and delicate. Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers. Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen: I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man.”
Here we see the connection of sexual and millstone imagery once again.
The Go’el and the Grain
An appreciation of the close connection between sexual symbolism and the imagery of grain and the threshing floor will help us as we come to the book of Ruth. The crucial scene in the book of Ruth is that of chapter 3, a passage which is packed with sexual symbolism.
We have already seen that the threshing floor is associated with sexual activity and is the trysting place of lovers and sexual partners. In Ruth 3, Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor to meet with Boaz, where he sleeps. An account in which a man drinks and is uncovered might remind us of Genesis 9:21 (Ham and Noah), but perhaps more significantly of Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19:30-38, the event from which the Moabite people came (Ruth is a Moabitess). Ruth’s (righteous) action echoes that of her (unrighteous) ancestress.
A number of commentators observe that the ‘uncovering’ of the ‘feet’ in Ruth 3:7 is language that is euphemistic elsewhere in Scripture. In Deuteronomy 28:57, Isaiah 7:20, and Ezekiel 16:25, ‘feet’ seemingly refer to genitalia (perhaps Exodus 4:25 and Isaiah 6:2 are further examples). The language of ‘covering’ feet can be found in Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:3, where Eglon and Saul seek privacy to ‘attend to their needs’, as some modern translations render it. While I believe that there is good reason to question whether Ruth actually uncovers Boaz’s genitalia in Ruth 3, we really should not miss the sexual connotations of the language. The threshing floor is the place where the grain is trodden out by the cattle. Ruth uncovers the ‘feet’ of Boaz and lies at them, as if as one to be trodden. While I do not believe that Ruth 3 speaks of sexual intercourse occurring between Boaz and Ruth, the action of Ruth symbolized a sexual relationship with Boaz.
Ruth comes to Boaz at the time of harvest and fertility. Boaz himself is lying at the end of the ‘heap’ of grain. At the conclusion of the scene, Boaz gives Ruth six ephahs of barley (3:15). The visual imagery here is worth noting. Boaz pours his seed into Ruth’s cloak, which she presumably carries in front of her in a manner similar to that of a woman with child. This all occurs at the time of First-fruits, suggesting a promise of more seed and harvest to come. The fact that this whole story is occurring in Bethlehem – the ‘House of Bread’ – might also be worth reflecting upon.
In Song of Solomon 7:2, the waist of the Shulamite is compared to a ‘heap of wheat set about with lilies.’ As I recently commented, ‘The heap of wheat is associated with abundance and with sustenance, with fertility and vitality.’ The seed of the bridegroom given to the bride leads to fruitfulness and life.
The Ox Treading out the Grain
The sexual connotations of the uncovering of the feet may come into sharper focus through a reflection upon the meaning of the threshing floor in the broader symbolism that is opened up in the context of the levirate commandment in Deuteronomy 25.
Immediately preceding the teaching concerning the levirate, we read a commandment that appears peculiarly out of place in its context: ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ We have biblical warrant for a symbolic interpretation of this particular verse – ‘Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written…’ (1 Corinthians 9:9b-10a). I would suggest that the meaning becomes clearer as we view the passage through the lens provided to us by the book of Ruth.
The treading out of the grain on the threshing floor refers to the relationship between the go’el or kinsman redeemer and the widow of his near relative, for whom he is raising up seed. The kinsman redeemer is the ox on the threshing floor and the ‘treading’ is the sexual act through which ‘seed’ is produced for the widow and her deceased husband.
In the book of Ruth we see the themes of Deuteronomy 25:4 and those of 25:5-10 closely aligned (not least in bringing the context of the elders at the gate and the context of the threshing floor into close proximity). Ruth is the grain to be ‘trodden’ by Boaz, the ox on the threshing floor, at whose uncovered feet she lies. As the genitalia of the kinsman redeemer symbolically perform the same action of the oxen’s feet on the threshing floor, I believe that we can hear the full euphemistic character of the language of ‘uncovering the feet’, without saying that Boaz’s genitalia were actually uncovered by Ruth. Rather, Ruth enacted the euphemism of the ox treading out the grain, as a symbol of the role that she was calling Boaz to perform for her.
The treading out of the grain yielded both sustenance and seed. The symbolic commandment of Deuteronomy 25:4 teaches that the ox should not be denied his part in the sustenance produced by his labours. In terms of the levirate commandment, the application should be clear: while raising up seed for his brother through sexual relations with his widow (‘treading out the grain’), the ox (‘the kinsman redeemer’) should not be prevented from enjoying the usufruct of the inheritance that he is holding in trust for his future nephew (which equates to his not being ‘muzzled’).
The Removed Sandal
A further fascinating detail of the levirate commandment comes in Deuteronomy 25:8-10, where the one who refuses to play the role of the kinsman redeemer is shamed by the act of removing his sandals. From that point on, he is referred to as ‘the house of him who had his sandal removed.’ While this could merely be regarded as a generic act of shaming, I believe that more is going on here.
If we connect the unmuzzled ox law of Deuteronomy 25:4 with that which follows we can see that: 1) feet are already in view within the passage; 2) the action of the feet is symbolic of the action of the genitals. Connecting this with Ruth 3, even more can be teased out. A contrast and parallel can be drawn between the removal of the sandals of the unwilling kinsman, and the ‘uncovering of the feet’ of the willing kinsman. Both have their feet uncovered, but one is shamed, while the other is blessed.
The ‘feet’ of oxen are worth reflecting on. The distinction between clean and unclean animals lay in their hooves – their possession of sandals (Leviticus 11). The clean animals had cloven hooves that were like sandals protecting them from the cursed earth. As they were not polluted by the cursed earth, they had access to sacred space. Sandals were protection against the cursed earth, but were to be removed in holy places (Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15).
I believe that this provides us with an important clue to the significance of both the shameful removal of the sandals of the unwilling kinsman and the uncovering of the feet of the willing go’el. The man with his sandals removed becomes as one of the unclean beasts, without the cloven feet or sandals of the priestly oxen. However, the priestly go’el, whose feet are treading on the undefiled ground of the bride, has his sandals removed and feet uncovered as an act of blessing. As Boaz is ‘treading’ on the holy ground of Ruth, his sandals are appropriately removed.
There might also be sexual imagery at play here again. Through the removal of his sandal, the unwilling kinsman is symbolically castrated, while the willing go’el has his genitals uncovered for sexual intercourse.
Threshing Floor and Temple
The connection between the threshing floor, sex, and holy ground takes on a further dimension through its connection with temple imagery.
In 1 Chronicles 21, David takes a forbidden census of Israel. The Angel of the Lord comes to Jerusalem to destroy it, but in an event that powerfully echoes the Aqedah (Genesis 22), the Angel is instructed to restrain the sword in his hand at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (1 Chronicles 21:15-16; cf. Genesis 22:10-12). Both the Aqedah and the staying of the hand of the Angel of the Lord occur at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:2; 2 Chronicles 3:1). Instead of destroying Jerusalem, the Angel’s sword is sheathed as the threshing floor becomes a site of animal sacrifice.
The Solomonic Temple is later constructed on the site of the threshing floor of Ornan (2 Chronicles 3:1). The threshing floor is the site of judgment and testing, the site of terrifying divine presence, the site of divine provision and deliverance. It is at the threshing floor that wheat is separated from chaff, the latter being prepared for burning, and the wheat gathered in. It is at the threshing floor that the bridegroom meets with the bride and produce seed. The temple is the trysting place of YHWH and his bride, Israel. The threshing floor is worked by God’s priestly oxen, who produce seed for him through their ministry. It is a place where food and seed are produced, and where separation and judgment occurs.
The divine threshing floor is holy ground, a place where sandals are removed. Coming to the threshing floor to meet with her bridegroom, Ruth washes and anoints herself and puts on her best clothes. The parallels with the description of the preparation of the priests for service in the sanctuary in Exodus 40:12-13 should be clear: the threshing floor is holy ground and the one entering it must be washed and prepared for activity within its realm. Like Ruth, we are prepared for activity in God’s threshing floor as we are washed in baptism (Hebrews 10:22), as we put on Christ (Galatians 3:27), and are anointed in the Anointed One (2 Corinthians 1:21).
The Purging of the Floor
Our first introduction to Christ in the New Testament through the testimony of John the Baptist is as the one who winnows at the threshing floor (Matthew 3:11-12):
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Christ is the one who works the threshing floor, much as he is the one who treads out the grapes and the winepress in Isaiah 63:1-6 and Revelation 14:14-20 (where he also reaps the wheat). In our worship we meet with Christ our kinsman redeemer on the threshing floor where the wheat and the chaff are separated by the Word of God.
Only a fairly dull ear would miss the heavy allusion to Malachi 3:1-3:
“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” Says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness.
The temple of Malachi 3 is replaced with the threshing floor in Matthew 3. Christ, however, is the one who purges both the temple and the nation of Israel. He is the one who separates wheat from chaff, burning the latter and gathering the former.
Given our previous observations about the significance of the removal of sandals, I would be surprised if it were accidental that John the Baptist consistently mentions the fact that he is unworthy to carry or to loose the sandals of Christ (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:27). The impression given is that Christ’s sandals are being removed for some reason. I suggest that this removal of the sandals has to do with Christ’s treading out of the grain in the holy place.
‘For Our Sakes … this is Written’
Paul twice uses the obscure Old Testament law of Deuteronomy 25:4 – ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain’ – to refer to the duty to pay ministers (1 Corinthians 9:9-11; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). At first blush, it seems strange that Paul should regard such a commandment as having such relevance. However, as we understand the manner in which such a commandment was to function, its use begins to make more sense. Such commandments concerning animals (not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, unequally yoking, dietary requirements, etc.) are primarily to be read as symbolic for human beings: the animals themselves aren’t the real point (Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10).
I have already argued for a connection between this commandment and the practice of the levirate, the levir being the one who ‘treads out the grain’ of his brother’s widow, raising up seed for the dead kinsman. While performing this duty, the near kinsman is entitled to partake of part of the gain of his deceased kinsman’s property, while waiting for his nephew to reach the age where he will inherit.
Paul’s use of this verse to refer to appointed ministers in the church would draw upon this background: priestly workers on the threshing floor are God’s oxen (cf. Leviticus 4:3), and are also tasked with guarding the inheritance and raising up seed for the absent Husband (the priest is aligned with Christ as the husband). While doing so it is right and proper that they should be permitted to receive a reward for their labours – the usufruct of the realm of their labours in the Church.
The idea that Paul might have such a connection in mind might be given further weight by the fact that in 1 Corinthians 9 he immediately goes on to observe: ‘Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?’ The connection between the priests and the altar/temple and the oxen on the threshing floor is quite clear in the fact that it was the threshing floor of Ornan that became the site of the temple (although David built an altar there first – 1 Chronicles 21:18) and there is the suggestion that the grain and oxen there were taken out of agricultural use and immediately put to sacrificial use. The priests of the temple correspond to the oxen on the threshing floor that preceded it, and the grain that the unmuzzled oxen partake in corresponds to the sacrifices of the people of God.
The Making of Bread
The story of the Scriptures is a story of the making of bread and wine. The Eucharist – the Marriage Supper of the Lamb – is the event in which the themes of the Scripture arrive at their telos and climax. It is a story which goes through many stages, from planting to harvest, to threshing, to grinding, to baking, to feasting, each with its own symbolism.
The story of the Scriptures is the story of Christ, the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies, but overcomes the barrenness of the soil to produce a bountiful harvest. It is the story of the threshing floor on which the barefoot Husband and his priestly oxen thresh the grain. It is the story of the separating of the wheat from the chaff and the falling of judgment upon the wicked, who are burned up or driven away by the wind (Psalm 1:4). It is the story of the grinding of the grain to produce pure flour. It is about the relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church as his fruitful Bride under these images.
Through these processes, the Church is created into an eschatological loaf, through the waters of baptism, the kneading of the Holy Spirit, his purging of the old leaven of wickedness, his presence as the new leaven, and his transforming fire. Our participation in the bread of the Church is a symbol of communion in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17), a sign that YHWH’s breadmaking work over history is for our sake.
Beneath the entire temple and festival system (and in turn beneath the entire gospel narrative and the life of the Church), lies the agricultural pattern of the field of barley or wheat, the harvest, the work of the threshing floor, the making of bread, etc. When we recognize the connection between the agricultural feasts of Leviticus 23, the redemptive historical festivals of Israel, the events of the Gospels, and the worshipping life of the Church, what might otherwise appear to be weak metaphorical relationships are filled out, revealing in themselves something of the deep grammar of God’s work in history.