“Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?” (John 6:9 NET)
Barley (Hordeum distichon). A cereal grass bearing bearded flower spikes and edible seeds. The common barley, Hordeum distichon, the winter barley, H. hexastichon, and the spring barley, H. vulgare, have been cultivated in temperate regions of the world since time immemorial and today still constitute one of the principal grain foods of man. (2) It is referred to under the Hebrew name of seorah or shoreh, and under the Greek name of krithe. It is the Hordeum distichon of botanists, and belongs to the natural order Gramineæ, the Grass family. It is mentioned along with common and spelt wheat. Oats and rye, being northern plants, did not grow in Israel. (4) Barley is a cereal plant with the grain having a nutlike flavor and is high in carbohydrates, with moderate quantities of protein, calcium, and phosphorus and small amounts of the B vitamins. (5)
Barley is sown anytime between November and March. The green ears are boiled and served with milk forming a dish frequently eaten in Egypt. The barley harvest takes place in March or April in Israel depending on the locality. Barley matures faster and produces more prolifically than wheat. It ripens about a month earlier than wheat in Egypt. (2) The hail plague in Egypt destroyed the barley crop because it had ripened; at the same time, wheat and rye had not matured (Exodus 9:31, 32).
Barley is adaptable to a greater range of climate than any other cereal, with varieties suited to temperate, sub-Arctic, or subtropical areas. Although it does best in growing seasons of at least 90 days, it is able to grow and ripen in a shorter time than any other cereal. Barley has a greater resistance to dry heat than other small grains and therefore thrives in the near-desert areas of North Africa, where it is mainly sown in the autumn. Spring-sown crops are especially successful in the cooler, moist areas of western Europe and North America. (5)
Barley produced a crop even in times of famine (Ruth 1:22; 2:17, 23; 3:2, 15, 17) and sold cheaper than wheat (2 Kings 7:1, 16) Barley on the stalk carries a larger husk with long wiry hair (thus the name in Hebrew means “long hair”) making chaff separation more difficult. The greater likelihood of extraneous matter in the flour combined with the less-liked flavor made barley cheaper. (3)
Barley and wheat were the two staple cereal crops of Egypt and the Holy Land. Barley being less expensive was mostly used for feeding cattle, although it was also used by itself or mixed with wheat and other seed as food for man (Ezekiel 4:9–12). Barley is mentioned in the Bible 32 times, either as a plant growing in the fields or in reference to products made from it such as barley meal, barley bread, barley cakes, and barley loaves. (2)
Barley was so well known in ancient times that it supplied a unit of linear measure, 2 barleycorns making a “finger breadth,” 16 “a handbreadth,” 24 a “span,” and 48 a “cubit.” (2)
Barley Represents Spring
“As the first grain to ripen, barley was a symbol of spring (Ruth 1:22).
The end of the barley harvest (and the beginning of the wheat harvest) is associated with the festival of Shavuot [Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (1)] when the Book of Ruth (which takes place during the barley harvest) is read in the synagogue. (VI)
Barley Represents the Poor
As the common food of the poor, barley was also regarded as a symbol of poverty and cheapness or worthlessness (Hosea 3:2). This also explains the use of a small amount of barley meal instead of wheat meal in the jealousy offerings described in Numbers 5:15, indicating to the people the low regard in which the implicated parties were held. It explains the force of the exclamation of shocked insult in Ezekiel 13:19. Present-day bedouins refer to their enemies as “cakes of barley bread” to indicate their utter scorn for them. This helps us interpret the dream of Gideon in Judges 7:13–15: Gideon was a very poor and humble man of the type who would most certainly have been scornfully referred to as a “cake of barley bread” by the haughty Midianites. (2)
Since barley was the staple of the lower classes, failure of the barley harvest or absurdly high prices for barley served as a judgment oracle against the nation (Job 31:40; Revelations 6:6) (6)
It was, and is, grown chiefly as provender for horses and asses (1 Kings 4:28), oats being practically unknown, but it was, as it now is, to some extent, the food of the poor in country districts (Ruth 2:17; 2 Kings 4:42; John 6:9, 13)”. (IV)
“Barley bread was served as food for the common people; and the loaves which were miraculously distributed to the multitude by our Lord were made of barley (John 6:9, 13).” (V)
“Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?” (John 6:9 NET)
The LORD spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites, ‘When a woman produces offspring and bears a male child, she will be unclean seven days, as she is unclean during the days of her menstruation. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised. Then she will remain thirty-three days in blood purity. She must not touch anything holy and she must not enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled. If she bears a female child, she will be impure fourteen days as during her menstrual flow, and she will remain sixty-six days in blood purity. “ ‘When the days of her purification are completed for a son or for a daughter, she must bring a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering to the entrance of the Meeting Tent, to the priest. The priest is to present it before the LORD and make atonement on her behalf, and she will be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law of the one who bears a child, for the male or the female child. If she cannot afford a sheep, then she must take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering, and the priest is to make atonement on her behalf, and she will be clean.’ ” (Leviticus 12:1–8 NET)
Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:22–24 NET)
Barley Represents Jesus
Since Barley was the Firstfruit of the Feast of Firstfruits (1) it typologically represented that Jesus, our Firstfruit, would come from poor common people.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NET)
Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29 NET)
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? (James 2:5 NET)
Barley Represents the Israelites
Barley also represents the people of Israel, the Jews. God did not favor and chose this people group to be His people because they were the largest, most prestigious nation. Israel like barley compared to wheat was the smallest nation. However, it was Jews that were the first to respond to His call, the first fruits (i.e., the first to be born again (Acts 2:1-47).
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth. It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you—for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So realize that the Lord your God is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, but who pays back those who hate him as they deserve and destroys them. He will not ignore those who hate him but will repay them as they deserve! So keep the commandments, statutes, and ordinances that I today am commanding you to do. (Deuteronomy 7:6–11 NET)
Israel was a small group of people without great culture or prestige. They possessed no unique personal qualities which would warrant such a choice. The election was an act of God alone. The ultimate cause for that choice lay in the mystery of divine love. (XVII)
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. This I command you—to love one another. (John 15:16–17 NET)
Biblical Typologies Series:
- The Old Leaven of the Kingdom of Darkness
- The New Leaven of the Kingdom of Heaven
- Finely Sifted (Wheat) Flour
- Olive Oil
- Waving and Heaving
(Peace, Wholeness, Success)
Dear friend, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. (3 John 1:2 NET)
(1) Select the link to open another article in a new tab with additional information.
(2) Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Plants. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1704). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
(3) Congdon, R. D. (1988). Bread. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 377). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
(4) Balfour, J. H. (1885). The Plants of the Bible (p. 211). London; Edinburgh; New York: T. Nelson and Sons.
(5) Barley. (2015). In Compton’s Encyclopedia. Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia.
(6) Perkins, P. (2011). barley. In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, pp. 80–81). New York: HarperCollins.
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(III) Sklar, J. (2013). Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary. (D. G. Firth, Ed.) (Vol. 3, p. 101). Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
(IV) Masterman, E. W. G. (1915). Barley. In J. Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Vol. 1–5, p. 405). Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company.
(V) Balfour, J. H. (1885). The Plants of the Bible (p. 212). London; Edinburgh; New York: T. Nelson and Sons.
(VI) Eisenberg, R. L. (2004). The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed., p. 670). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
(VII) Hannah, J. D. (1985). Exodus. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 153). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
(VIII) Easton, M. G. (1893). In Easton’s Bible dictionary. New York: Harper & Brothers.
(IX) Singer, I. (Ed.). (1901–1906). In The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes (Vol. 9, p. 568). New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls.
(X) Hamilton, M. W. (2000). Elevation Offering. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (p. 392). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
(XI) (2016). The Lexham Figurative Language of the New Testament Dataset. In J. R. Westbury, J. Thompson, K. A. Lyle, & J. Parks (Eds.), Lexham Figurative Language of the Bible Glossary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
(XII) Larson, K. (2000). I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Vol. 9, p. 331). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
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(XIV) Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 19, p. 617). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
(XV) Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & customs of the Bible (p. 143). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.
(XVI) Wuest, K. S. (1961). The New Testament: an expanded translation (1 Co 5:6–8). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
(XVII) Thompson, J. A. (1974). Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 5, p. 147). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
(XVIII) Keach, B. (1858). An Exposition of the Parables and Express Similitudes of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ(pp. 239–240). London: Aylott and Co.
(XX) C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 236–37.
(XXI) Hall, K. D. (2000). Libation. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (p. 807). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
(XXII) Rogers, A. (2017). Back to Bethel. In Adrian Rogers Sermon Archive (Ge 35). Signal Hill, CA: Rogers Family Trust.