Conclusions as to the type of plow used by Hebrew farmers in Biblical times are dependent on ancient pictures of plows used in neighboring lands and on plows used in recent times by some Arab farmers. Some plows consisted of a simple pointed piece of wood, perhaps metal-tipped, attached to a beam and pulled by an animal or animals. Using such a type, plowing likely only cut the surface of the soil without turning it over. Of course, lack of direct evidence precludes ruling out the possibility that more substantial plows were used in Israel.
With soil baked hard by the hot summer sun, the practice was to hold up plowing until the autumn or winter rains softened the soil. The soil was then plowed and the seed sown. Colder days or times of uncertain weather or threatening clouds would not deter a manly person from work in the plowing season, but a lazy farmer would seize upon such as excuse to avoid work. His neighbors would have no reason to sympathize with him when he had no harvest because of his laziness at plowing time. (Pr 20:4; Ec 11:4) Even in plowing time, though, Israelite farmers were to keep the Sabbath.
A bull and an ass were not to be yoked to the same plow, doubtless because of the inequality of their strength and pace. (De 22:10) Often a pair of cattle pulled the plow. (Lu 14:19; Job 1:14) A number of men, each with a pair, or span, of cattle, might work together, plowing parallel rows one behind the other. In Elisha’s case, as related at 1 Kings 19:19, he was the 12th and last so he could stop without disrupting others following him. He left the field and used his wood plowing instruments as firewood in offering the bulls as a sacrifice. (1Ki 19:21) In The Land and the Book (revised by J. Grande, 1910, p. 121), W. M. Thomson reports that one man could easily sow the area plowed by a group of men.
Illustrative Use. The familiar work of plowing often was used as the basis for an illustration. When Philistines convinced Samson’s wife to obtain from him the answer to his riddle, Samson said they had ‘plowed with his young cow,’ that is, used for their service one who should have been serving him. (Jg 14:15-18) A rocky crag is no place for plowing, and as Amos shows, it was equally irrational for Israel’s leaders to corrupt justice and practice unrighteousness and yet expect to derive benefit from such a course. (Am 6:12, 13) Hosea 10:11 evidently uses plowing (a much harder work for a heifer than threshing was) to represent laborious or slavish labor, likely imposed by foreign oppressors, that was due to come on apostate Judah. What Judah and Israel needed, according to Jeremiah 4:3, 4 and Hosea 10:12, 13, was a change in their way of life, preparing, softening, and cleansing their hearts (compare Lu 8:5-15) as by plowing and removing thorns, so that, instead of wasting their efforts and labor in wrong practices that bring only a bad harvest, they might instead reap divine blessings.
The description of the orderly, purposeful, and judicious methods of the farmer in plowing, harrowing, sowing, and threshing are used at Isaiah 28:23-29 to illustrate the ways of Jehovah, who is “wonderful in counsel, who has done greatly in effectual working.” Even as plowing and harrowing are limited, being merely preparatory to sowing, so, too, Jehovah does not forever discipline or punish his people, but he disciplines primarily to soften them and make them amenable to receiving his counsel and guidance, which produce blessings. (Compare Heb 12:4-11.) Even as the hardness of the soil governs the extent or intensity of the plowing, so the type of grain determines the force and weight of the instruments used for threshing to eliminate the chaff, all of this illustrating God’s wisdom in cleansing his people and getting rid of whatever is undesirable, varying his treatment according to existing needs and circumstances.
A city “plowed up as a mere field” meant a city completely overturned and laid waste. (Jer 26:18; Mic 3:12) Israel’s speaking of those who had ‘plowed upon my very back, lengthening their furrows,’ evidently describes the nation’s sufferings under its many enemies who relentlessly and cruelly overran and mistreated them, as Israel made its back “just like the earth . . . for those crossing over.” (Ps 129:1-3; Isa 51:23; compare Ps 66:12.) In the restoration prophecy at Amos 9:13-15, Jehovah’s blessing is shown to make the soil so productive that the harvest is still going on when the time comes to plow for the next season.
Even as Jesus had said that his disciples should accept food, drink, and lodging from those they served, since “the worker is worthy of his wages,” so the apostle Paul upheld the right of those laboring in Christian ministry to receive material support from others, just as the man who plows does so with the legitimate hope of being a partaker of the harvest to which his labor contributed. Yet Paul personally and willingly preferred not to avail himself of the right to refrain from secular work, so as to furnish “the good news without cost” to those to whom he ministered.
Jesus Christ referred to the work of plowing to emphasize the importance of wholehearted discipleship. When a man expressed his desire to be a disciple but stipulated the condition of being permitted first to say good-bye to his household, Jesus replied: “No man that has put his hand to a plow and looks at the things behind is well fitted for the kingdom of God.” (Lu 9:61, 62) If a plowman allowed himself to be distracted from the work at hand, he would make crooked furrows. Similarly, the person who is invited to Christian discipleship but permits himself to be turned aside from carrying out the attendant responsibilities would become unfit for God’s Kingdom. As the Son of God exemplified in his own case, even the most intimate family ties are subordinate to faithfulness in the accomplishment of the divine will.