It should be further borne in mind that from about the first of May to the end of October, and in many years until past the middle of November, not a drop of rain falls. Some time in November the geshem, or "gushing rain," descends in long sub-tropical showers, "the former rain." Until the heavy "former rain" comes in "the bare-season" the ground is baked to a pottery-like hardness, and all cultivation is impossible; but when it falls the ground can for the first time be ploughed. This is the time of the scene in the picture.
But here a word becomes necessary as to the nature of arable lands in Palestine and the adjacent districts, and of the primitive laws of land tenure by which they are held. There have from ancient times been no farms in the East as we understand them. When Joshua assigned the lands to Israel by lot, it is certain that they were assigned, not to individuals, but to "families," or "clans," settled in village communities, who held the arable land, not in severalty, or individual holdings, but in common, just as today. This I have proved at length in my paper entitled Land Tenure in Ancient Times as preserved by the Present Village Communities in Palestine, and the reply to an objector, published in the "Transactions" of the Victoria Institute. These lands are Crown lands, ard ameereeyeh, literally "land of [the] Emir," and the whole village as occupiers have only the muzara'a, or "right of sowing," held by them all in common. This right they possess in perpetuity, for they are virtually joint freeholders in common of all the land belonging to their village community, paying a tithe of all the produce to the Turkish Government.
The lands of each village, on an average about 3,000 to 5,000 acres, lie in one unbroken stretch around the cluster of houses, closely built together, where all the population of the place, farmers and farm labourers, dwell together for safety. No fence, hedge, ditch, or wall separates these lands, which appear as one vast, open, undivided piece of ground-the sadeh, or "open common-land" of the Hebrew Bible, translated "field" in our Versions. They are really divided up into a great number of small portions, answering to our "fields," marked off by certain rough natural features, known to the inhabitants, the hhelkath or hhailek of the Hebrew Bible, the hhakel of the modern Palestine Arabs. Indeed, the identical Hebrew word hhelkath is preserved on the Philistine plain today in the Arabic expression, hhalkath-wateh, "a field of ground." Thus we read, Jacob bought the hhelkath ha-sadeh "the field of the sadeh," where his camp had been pitched. These "fields" each bear a name in Arabic, such as "the field of the partridge," "the field of the mother of mice," "the field of the well," just as we have in the New Testament, "the potter’s field," called after the tragedy of Judas's death "the bloody field," in Syro-Chaldaic, Hhakel dama, the Akeldama of the New Testament. (Matt. xxvii. 8; Acts i. 19.)
These open common-lands are assigned afresh each year by lot among all the villagers who possess oxen with which to plough, and in quantity proportioned to the number of the oxen they possess, for it is mainly oxen that are employed for this purpose. As soon, in November, as the first heavy winter rain comes to saturate and soften the soil, all the villagers assemble in the guest-house, or saha, under the presidency of khateeb, or "scribe," the one man in the village who can read and write; and he takes down the names of all who desire to plough, writing against each man's name the number of ploughs he intends to work-each "plough" stands for the yoke of oxen by which it is drawn. The farmers form themselves into parties or groups of ten ploughs each. If they muster altogether sixty "ploughs," or "yokes of oxen," they divide themselves into six parties of ten ploughs, each party choosing a representative or chief. The six elected chiefs parcel out the whole open common-land, or sadeh, into six equal parts; and then the chiefs cast lots, in the first instance, for these six parcels of land. This is done by each of them giving some object to the presiding khateeb, such as a stone or small knob of wood, which he puts into a bag, generally the "scrip" of our Authorised Version, the usual small leather bag of the fellahheen, made out of the skin of a kid. The khateeb then asks to whom one of the six parcels of land is to belong which he names, say, he field of the fox," so called because the field of this name is in that parcel; and a tiny boy, chosen to draw out the object from the bag, puts in his hand, and the ground in question is adjudged to the party represented by the chief who gave the stone or other object which the child brings out. A very young boy is generally chosen to draw the lot, in order that there may be no collusion. Our picture shows the time and manner in which this takes place. The five other parcels are then assigned amongst the other parties in the same way.
When the six divisions of land are thus allotted, they are further subdivided, in the case of each of the six parties, among the owners of the ten ploughs in a similar way. For this purpose each field of each parcel of land is divided into ten equal strips, which are now generally, on the mountains, measured out roughly with an ox-goad, about eight feet long. On the plains they use for this purpose a rope, about half an inch thick, called hhabaleh, evidently the Hebrew hhevel, "rope," or "measuring-line." Each of these strips is called in Arabic a maress, from maras, "a rope," or "cable." This measuring with the hhevel, or "rope," is shown in the picture. The fields are taken separately, and the ten mawaress, or "strips," are apportioned among the ten ploughs by lot.
A deep furrow divides these "strips," or, more commonly, a large stone or small heap of stones is placed at each side of each end of the strip as a landmark. It is held to be a heinous offence amongst this simple, agricultural people to remove one of these landmarks. Doubtless, with reference to this particular case, the solemn anathema was yearly pronounced on Mount Ebal against a secret fraud, which could be so easily committed, would be so difficult to detect, and would be attended with such serious injury to a people who lived entirely from the land –"Cursed be he who removeth his neighbour’s landmark." (Deut. xxvii.17; Job xxiv. 2.)
What a vivid light this throws on the Scriptural allusions to the "lot" and "line." David, rejoicing in the favour of God, cries:--
"Thou are taking hold of my lot.
The measuring-lines [or ropes, hhavaleem] have fallen to me in pleasant [places]." (Ps. xvi. 5,6.)
Written as this was among a people wholly given to agriculture, it will be seen, in the light of the foregoing facts, to contain a far more graphic and familiar figure than has been hitherto supposed. The word "taking hold of," toameek, the present participle kal of tamak, translated in our Versions "maintaining," may possibly be rendered "holding up," but its first and commonest sense is "taking hold of," and that is clearly the meaning here. David is not speaking in these verses of Jehovah’s protecting or maintaining him in the enjoyment of his prosperity, but of His bestowing it upon him. This highly figurative passage bears the following interpretation: "Thou art taking hold [‘drawing out for me’] my lot [from the bag, and so assigning to me the right of ploughing in the richest parcel of land]; the measuring-lines [‘the strips marked out by the measuring-lines’] have fallen to me in pleasant [places].: That is, "My strips have been allotted to me in the fattest fields, and the best part of those fields." Under this exceedingly familiar and suggestive figure—for did not all Israel live by cultivating the land, and witness year by year with absorbing interest its redistribution by the lot and the line—David records his own rich and highly prosperous lot in life, and acknowledges it as the assignment of Him Who took him from the lowly calling of a shepherd to make him a king.
How pointed and full of meaning the figure now becomes in those words of enticement, put by the wise man into the lips of sinners—
"Cast thy lot amongst us," (Prov. i. 14.)
that is, "Take part in the joint husbandry of our village"; in other words, "Join our community."
Again it is said:--
"For Jehovah’s field [hhelek] is His people,
Jacob is the measuring-line [hhevel] of His inheritance," (Deut. xxxii.9.)
That is, His allotted maress, or "strip of land"; for here, by metonymy, the measuring line stands for that which it measures out. In this bold representation the inhabitants of earth are compared to a sadeh, or "open stretch of common, arable ground," consisting of a number of hhalakeem, or "fields," each divided out into mawaress, or "strips," of which Israel, His own, peculiar, elect nation, is the allotted maress that falls to Jehovah!
For other fine instances of this figure, explained in my Land Tenure in Ancient Times as preserved by the Present Village Communities in Palestine, see 1 Chron. xvi. 18; Ps. lxxviii.55, cv. ll; Isaiah xxxiv. 13-17; Amos vii.17; Micah ii. 4,5.