“hand-mill…upper millstone.” It was the custom in biblical times to make bread every day, which is one reason Jesus prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). The women, or slaves, ground the grain into flour, and the most common way they did that was with a hand-mill made of two circular stones, one set on top of the other. The lower stone did not move while the upper stone turned and the weight of the upper stone put pressure on the grain and ground it. Most often two women would sit across from one another and turn the upper stone together, which is why Jesus said that two women would be grinding at the mill when one was taken and the other left (Matt. 24:41; Luke 17:35). The upper stone was lighter than the lower stone, but still quite heavy, and Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons, received a deadly wound when he was attacking a city and got too close to the wall and a woman threw an upper millstone that hit him in the head (Judg. 9:53). Pictures of these hand-mills can be found in most books on the customs of the Bible.
Bread was the staple of life for most people, and the Bible refers to it as the “staff” upon which people lean to sustain them (see commentary on Lev. 26:26). That is why here in Deuteronomy the Law of Moses did not allow a person to take a millstone as security for a debt or pledge. People had to be allowed to live even if something happened and they could not repay a debt or return what they borrowed. Almost every house ground grain daily, so the sound of the hand-mill was a joyous sound in a village and signaled that life was normal and good. When Babylon attacked Judah and burned the Temple, Jeremiah portrayed the extent of the destruction by saying that the sound of the millstones would be heard no more (Jer. 25:10), and centuries later the apostle John portrayed the destruction of “Babylon” the same way (Rev. 18:22).
Grinding grain was always the work of the women of the house or of slaves, and that custom is highlighted in a few different verses in Scripture. For example, when Job was professing his innocence to his three friends, he said that if he had committed adultery, “then let my wife grind for another, and let others bow down upon her,” referring to his wife being with another man (see commentary on Job 31:10).
When the Philistines captured Samson and blinded him, they made him grind grain like a woman to heap indignities on him and break his spirit (Judg. 16:21). Some pictures portray Samson pushing a huge grain mill like the kind normally turned by animals, but that is not at all what happened. First, Samson had lost his strength and would not have been able to turn the commercial grain mills; they were just too heavy. Second, Samson ground grain, “in the prison house,” and there would not have been a commercial grain mill in the prison. Lastly, the Philistines were not interested in testing Samson’s strength, they were interested in demoralizing him and breaking his spirit by making him do women’s work. The Babylonians did the same thing to the young men they deported from Judah when they captured Judah and sacked and burned Jerusalem; they made the young men use the hand-mills and grind the grain (Lam. 5:13). Also, Isaiah foretold that when the Persians conquered Babylon, they would make the high-born women grind grain (see commentary on Isa. 47:2).
If a person lived in a larger city, there likely would have been a baker with a large commercial grain mill. The commercial mills had very large stones that were turned by donkeys or oxen. The commercial mills had upper and lower stones like the small hand-mills used by the women. The bottom stone did not move and looked sort of like a huge stone ice-cream cone turned upside down, except it did not come to a sharp tip, but was rounded off. The upper stone was like another ice-cream cone that fit over the top of the bottom stone, but it too was rounded off and had a hole in the top. The grain was poured into the hole in the top of the upper stone, and as the animal turned the mill, the grain was ground and sifted down through the stones and was collected at the bottom. The large commercial mills ground the grain much more finely than the small hand-mills used by the women, and the miller was paid for grinding by taking a percentage of the flour. Commercial millstones weighed many hundreds of pounds, and they were the millstones that are mentioned by Jesus Christ when he spoke of having a millstone tied around the neck (see commentary on Mark 9:42; cp. Matt. 18:6).