Threshing & Winnowing
Threshing & Winnowing
Sometimes, in order to fully appreciate a Biblical passage, it is helpful to understand the customs of the day. Threshing or winnowing are mentioned in at least forty different Bible contexts. Most are concerned with the literal process, but several are metaphorical.
In the ancient world, before harvesters and combines and other heavy machinery, farmers cut the fields of grain with sickles. Then, they bound the grain into sheaves for transportation to the threshing floor.
A threshing “floor” was a level circular space in the countryside, usually about fifty feet in diameter, which had been pounded solid for the purpose. There, the sheaves of grain were spread out for threshing. A special sled was often used, about three feet wide and six feet long, with rows of stone or metal studding the bottom. Oxen were used to pull the threshing sled over the sheaves, with the driver standing on the sled for additional weight. The oxen were not prohibited from nibbling as they accomplished this task (Deut. 25:4, 1 Cor. 9:9). As the sled was dragged over the sheaves, it separated the grains from the straw and husk.
Sometimes, a simple flail was used to beat out the sheaves, as Ruth did with her gleanings (Ruth 2:17). Gideon once did his threshing in a deep winepress, to hide his harvest from the marauding Midianites (Judges 6:11).
Once the threshing was complete, there was still the matter of separating the nourishing grains from the worthless chaff. A large shovel or a broad “winnowing fork” was used to scoop up a mass from the threshing floor and toss it into the air. This was usually done in the evening when there was a substantial and reliable wind (Ruth 3:2). The heavy grains would fall right back down to the ground. But the wind would carry the light chaff off to the side, into a pile called a “windrow.” Sometimes this chaff would be mixed with animal feed, but often it was simply burned, the flame quickly and spectacularly consuming the loose, dry straw (Fred Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, pp. 180-185).
Bible References to Threshing and Winnowing
What objects could be more opposites than life-sustaining grain and lifeless chaff? Psalm 1 speaks of the great blessings given to the one who meditates on God’s word: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” But then the psalmist contrasts the green productivity of the righteous with the dry fruitlessness of the wicked: “The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away...”
Since threshing is a grinding, pulverizing process, threshing can serve as a picture of discipline which removes chaff and reveals blessing. God, the perfect parent, knows exactly
how heavily to apply the discipline. certain fragile grains can endure only the slightest threshing with gentler tools. Too
much threshing of any grain will ruin it. God knows the best ways to correct, and not correct, His children.
Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge / Nor is the cartwheel driven over cumin; / But dill is beaten out with a rod, and cumin with a club. / Grain for bread is crushed, / Indeed, he does not continue to thresh it forever. / Because the wheel of his cart and his horses eventually damage it, / He does not thresh it longer. / This also comes from the LORD of hosts, / Who has made His counsel wonderful and His wisdom great (Isaiah 28:23-29).
Finally, most of all, threshing and winnowing is an apt image of God’s judgment. John the Baptist said of Jesus,
He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove his sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And his winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:11-12).
Jesus Christ is both Savior and Judge! He has come to provide salvation, but His word also divides mankind into two groups—the grain and the chaff. He goes through the whole world and gathers the grain, but when that is done, He will not hesitate to put the chaff to the flame (read also Isaiah 27:12-13, 41:15-16, Jeremiah 15:6-7). Please note that being baptized with fire not something to desire. While the image of fire can sometimes be used positively (2 Peter 1:13, Acts 2:3), here in Matthew 3 it is very clearly part of the winnowing metaphor: baptized with the Spirit connects with wheat gathered into the barn, but baptized with fire connects with chaff burned up with unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48). So, don’t pray for God to baptize you in fire; it refers to being plunged into the fires of Hell!