Two grain crops are prominent in the Scriptures-barley and wheat. In several verses it is not possible to determine if wheat or barley is meant. In others, the distinction is very clear. Both are called corn in several well known English versions-a name which causes some confusion. Even today in Britain, "corn" refers to small grain and includes barley, wheat, and rye.
In Bible times, barley was much more widely cultivated than now and was the main food of the poor. It was always valued less than wheat (II Kings 7:1; Revelation 6:6). Although barley was sometimes used as fodder in Bible days (I Kings 4:28), its main use was as a staple food. It was ground and baked into round cakes (eg Judges 7:13). The importance of barley as a food crop began to change about the sixteenth century when farmers in the Middle East began growing wheat for food and barley as a fodder crop because better varieties of wheat became available. Barley is planted about December, the exact time depends upon the beginning of the rainy season that can vary considerably. The grain can be planted on soil without plowing and for this reason can be planted in tiny plots in areas inaccessible to draft animals. Barley can be grown in areas too dry for wheat. So it is often seen in semi-arid regions as for example on the edge of the Wilderness of Judaea east of Bethlehem. The grain matures as much as a month before the wheat (Exodus 9:32 about the end of April or beginning of May (corresponding with the Jewish month Abid). In the bright sun the mature barley field looks white as noted by Jesus in John 4:35.
Barley is still an important crop in the vicinity of Bethlehem.The small plots of barley are still harvested by hand as described in the book of Ruth, a book with many references to barley. The peasant women cut the grain, then tie it into bundles to dry. When dry, the barley is taken by donkey to the threshing floors where it is threshed using modern equipment or with an old fashioned threshing sledge pulled by an animal (see Deuteronomy 25:4).
Boaz was a very successful farmer and barley was one of his important crops. No doubt he was successful because he sought to honor the Lord in his daily work. For example, we know that he left some grain for the poor (Ruth 2:2 in accordance with Leviticus 23:22). In this way Ruth, a Gentile, came to know her "kinsman redeemer."
In Leviticus 23:1 the Israelite is instructed to ..."bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest". This is barley because it is the first grain to mature. In I Corinthians 15:23 the Apostle Paul applies this to Jesus. The jealousy offering (Numbers 5:15) is the only offering which specifically required barley flour.
In two places barley bread was multiplied. The man from Baalshalishah brought barley bread and barley grain for Elisha (II Kings 4:42) but Elisha ordered that it be provided as food for the people. Much was left over prefiguring the multiplication of the barley loaves by Jesus in John 6:9.