Separating wheat from chaff

Separate the Wheat from the Chaff Meaning

Definition: Select the valuable things/people and take them away from the non-valuable things/people.

In some contexts, a synonymous phrase is to weed out.

Origin of Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

This expression first appeared in the Bible. It is a metaphor that speaks about how God will separate those who are worthy and those who are unworthy.

  • His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

It comes from the age-old practice of literally separating wheat from chaff. When winnowing grain, farmers wanted to remove all chaff from wheat. In the literal meaning, chaff is the husk around a seed, which one does not eat. In order to eat the wheat, one must remove the chaff.

The expression persists to this day.

Examples of Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

In this conversation, two high-school students are discussing an exam that all high-school students must take.

Lisa: Hey! Are you taking the SAT next week?

Annie: No, not yet. I want to study some more.

Lisa: You can always take it again if you don’t get a good score.

Annie: I guess that’s true. Maybe I’ll sign up for it.

Lisa: You should because this test is really important for getting into university. The more practice you can get, the better you’ll perform. It’s how colleges separate the wheat from the chaff.

Annie: What do you mean?

Lisa: I mean that’s how colleges choose the best students, and know to not accept those who aren’t prepared.

In the dialogue below, two friends are talking about trying out for a soccer team.

Seth: It’s almost soccer season! Are you thinking about starting to play again?

Jimmy: Yeah. I’d like to, but I’m nervous about having to try out for a team. I’m worried that the coach will want to separate the wheat from the chaff, and I’ll be discarded.

Seth: Well, if you’re worried about not being chosen as good enough, you could always join a team with no try-outs.

Jimmy: Maybe I’ll do that.

More Examples

This excerpt uses the idiom in an article about a budget crisis that resulted in laying off teachers.

  • It’s not based on which teachers perform best. It’s called Last-In, First-Out, or LIFO. The LIFO provision means that when the budget ax must fall, it will fall exclusively on the newest teachers. There’s no other metric for eliminating teachers in a crisis — not talent, not energy, not potential. Imagine any other business in which the only consideration for laying off employees is the number of years they’ve worked. In Santa Ana, to paraphrase the old Spanish saying, we separate the wheat from the chaff — and throw out the wheat. –OC Register

This excerpt is from an article about genetically modified food.

  • There’s plenty to worry about when it comes to relying on technology rather than sustainable farming methods. But it won’t be a healthy debate until we separate the wheat from the chaff. –LA Times


The phrase separate the wheat from the chaff is a biblical expression that means a judge will choose the good people and discard the bad people.

The Bible is written in such a way that it is completely and inextricably interwoven with the culture and the customs of the times and places in which its events occur. While the cultural references were well known to the people who lived in biblical times, many of them are unfamiliar to us today. Learning biblical customs has many advantages: it makes reading the Bible more enjoyable when we know about the people and how they lived; it clarifies things in the Bible we would otherwise not readily know, or that do not make sense to us at first; it alerts us to mistranslations or possible mistranslations in the Bible; and it gives us great insight into how to properly apply the Word of God in our lives.

Separating the good from the bad
Grains such as wheat, barley, and millet were staple foods in the biblical culture, and were so essential for life that grain was called a “staff,” (walking stick), because it was necessary for support and defense. It is hard to see the idiom of bread as the “staff of life” in most modern English Bibles. This is because so many people have not understood the phrase “staff of bread,” that versions such as the NIV translate the Hebrew text as, “supplies of food.” Nevertheless, the biblical idiom, “staff of bread” was the source of our modern idiom, that bread is the “staff of life.”

Isaiah 3:1 (author’s translation)
For look!, Yahweh Elohim of the armies is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah the staff and the support, all the staff of bread, and all the staff of water.

Ezekiel 4:16 (KJV)
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment.

It was one thing to grow the grain in the field, but it also took a lot of work after the grain was grown to get it ready to grind into flour. For thousands of years farmers used a basic three-part system of threshing, winnowing, and using a sieve to get the grain to the point where it could be ground into flour. After harvesting, the first stage in making grain suitable for grinding into flour was the process called threshing.

Threshing is the process of removing the grain of wheat or barley from the stalk and husk. The threshing was done in different ways, depending on how much grain there was and the tools the farmer had available to him. Essential to threshing was a “threshing floor,” a flat area of hard dirt or rock on which freshly harvested wheat could be piled. Quite a few verses, from Genesis to the New Testament, mention threshing floors, which makes sense because grain was so essential to life.

When there was only a little wheat, the kernels of grain could be knocked off the stalk with a stick, which is what Gideon was doing when he was trying to hide the fact he had harvested some wheat (Judges 6:11). A much more common way of threshing was to pile it on the threshing floor where cows or oxen were driven back and forth over it. Their feet “threshed” the grain from the stalk. God wanted to make sure the animals that did that work were well kept, and so He commanded, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4). In other words, the ox got to benefit from his labor by eating some of the grain he was threshing. Many farmers owned a “threshing sled,” a piece of equipment that looked rather like a wide toboggan, with pieces of metal or stone set in the bottom so the wheat could be cut off the stalk faster:

Isaiah 41:15
See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.

As the oxen or threshing sled went over and over the large pile of harvested wheat, the stalks would be cut up into pieces, and the heads of grain knocked off the stalk and often even separated from the husk. Then the grain was ready to be winnowed.

Winnowing was the process that separated the mixed up pile of grain, stalk, and husk so that the edible grain could be sifted and eaten. To winnow the grain, the farmer scooped up the pieces of the crop he had just threshed and threw it all up into the air. The wind blew the light pieces of stalk to the side, while the grain, which was both heavier and roundish, fell almost straight back down. Thus, over time, the threshing floor was covered with three quite distinct piles of material. The kernels of grain fell almost straight down or were not blown far at all. The larger pieces of stalk, or “straw,” had blown a little ways off to the side, and the small pieces of stalk, called the “chaff,” had blown even further away.

The farmer used a “winnowing fork,” or a “winnowing shovel” to throw the threshed grain into the air. The winnowing fork and shovel were used in a similar way as people today move loose hay with a pitchfork or broad shovel. The winnowing fork was usually about the size of a pitchfork, but with flat wooden tines to catch more of the grain. Isaiah 30:24 (ESV), mentions animal fodder “which has been winnowed with shovel and fork.”

Since the grain crops ripened in April, May, and June, it was not unusual that during the daytime there was too little wind to winnow. That meant the farmer had to wait until there was a slight wind, which often came in the evening. That is why when Naomi was looking for a husband for Ruth, she told her to go see Boaz, saying, “This evening he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor” (Ruth 3:2 HCSB).

After winnowing, the valuable grain was gathered and stored, while the straw and chaff were handled in different ways. Sometimes it was ignored and left to blow away. Thus, Jeremiah 13:24 says, “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind.” Sometimes the straw and chaff were used in making mud bricks because it helped bind the mud together. That was why Pharaoh forced the Israelites to make bricks with “straw” (Ex. 5:7-18). Sometimes the straw and chaff were used as fuel for household ovens, because it burned fast and hot, and got the ovens hot quickly. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble” (Mal. 4:1 ESV).

The process of winnowing provided a clear picture of how God will treat people on Judgment Day. The people who have believed in Him and have lived obedient lives will be treated like wheat—they will be gathered together and be safely kept. In contrast, the unbelievers and disobedient will be treated like chaff—they will be burned up in the lake of fire just like chaff is burned up in an oven. Matthew says: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12).

The Sieve
Just before the grain was ground into flour, it was sieved. This was necessary for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was common in the harvesting that weed seeds got mixed in with the wheat, and threshing and winnowing did not separate the different seeds (cp. The Parable of the Seeds in the Field: Matt. 13:24-30). Furthermore, the winnowing process did not get all the chaff from the grain. Also, in picking the grain off the threshing floor, dust and pebbles were mixed in with the grain.

In the biblical culture, a grain sieve was round and fairly large, usually two to three feet in diameter. The sides were wood, often 3-5 inches high with a bottom that was often made of woven reeds, grasses, or thin interwoven pieces of wood. Sieving was one of those parts of life that was so common that people felt no need to describe it. In fact, when James Neil wrote Peeps into Palestine (c. 1915), he remarked, “The process…has never to my knowledge been described by any previous writer.” Due to the paucity of written material on the process, it is appropriate to extensively quote Neil on the subject of sieving.

“The woman servant—for it is only women who sift—sets herself on the ground with her feet spread widely apart, taking in her hands a large but shallow sieve called ghurbal, some two and a half feet across. Having placed a small amount of wheat in the ghurbal, or sieve, she commences by giving it some six or seven sharp shakes, so as to bring the chaff and short pieces of crushed straw to the surface, the greater part of which she removes with her hands. After this the main part of the work begins, which is done with much skill. Holding the sieve in a slanting position, she jerks it up and down for a length of time, blowing across the top of it all the while with great force. In a word, she turns herself into a regular winnowing machine! Three results follow. In the first place the dust, earth, small seeds, and small, imperfect grains of wheat, etc., fall away through the meshes of the sieve. Secondly, by means of the vigorous blowing, any crushed straw, chaff, and such-like light refuse is either blown away to the ground, or else collected in the part of the ghurbal which is furthest from her. Thirdly, the good wheat goes together in one heap about the center of the sieve, while the tiny stones or pebbles are brought into a separate little pile on that part of it which is nearest to her chest. The pebbles, chaff, and crushed straw thus cleverly removed from the corn , mainly by the angle at which the sieve is held and the way in which it is jerked up and down, are then taken out of the ghurbal with her hands. Finally, setting the sieve down upon her lap, she carefully picks out with her finger any slight impurities which may yet remain, and the elaborate and searching process of sifting is complete.”

Understanding the sieving process helps us understand its use in biblical illustration. For example, Amos 9:9 says, “For I will give the command, and I will shake the house of Israel among all the nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, and not a pebble will reach the ground.” This verse has been widely misunderstood because the sieving process itself has not been clearly understood. Sieving separates the grain from the pebbles, but both of them stay in the sieve. The translators of the KJV could not understand why the verse would say that “pebbles” would remain in the sieve, after all, the sieving process was supposed to separate the pebbles from the wheat. So the KJV reads, “For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.”

The KJV translation seems to make sense, but the Hebrew word the KJV translates “grain” is clearly a rock or pebble. The message in Amos is a subtle but profound one. Amos was written before any of the great deportations and scattering of Israel occurred, and the point God was making via Amos’ prophecy is that even though Israel would be shaken among the nations like grain is shaken in a sieve, the grain and the pebbles would still be together. The godly Israelites, “God’s grain,” if you will, would survive, and so would the obstinate and hard-hearted Israelites, the “pebbles.” Even in God’s judgment upon Israel and the scattering of the Israelites among the nations (which happened when Israel was scattered by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans), the godly and ungodly Jews survived together, just like there were always pebbles found with the grain.

The other notable use of sieving as a biblical example occurred when Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31, 32 ESV). The illustration was clear to Peter because all the wheat that was sold in the marketplace had pieces of chaff, dirt, and pebbles mixed with it. Just as when wheat is sifted in the sieve and pieces of dirt and chaff show up, Satan was demanding to be able to pressure Peter until a lot of unwanted stuff showed up in his life. Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail and that no chaff or pebbles would ruin Peter’s life.

Threshing, winnowing, and sieving grain was a part of daily life from Genesis until the early 1900’s. The fact that there are dozens of allusions to it in the Bible reflects both the daily life of the people, and the fact that God expects us to learn spiritual lessons from our daily lives.


Isaiah and Ezekiel use different Hebrew words for “staff,” but they both can refer to walking staffs.
Some include: Gen. 50:10; Num. 15:20; Deut. 15:14; Judges 6:37; Ruth 3:2; 2 Sam. 6:6; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Kings 6:27; Job 39:12; Jer. 51:33; Hos. 13:3; Micah 4:12; Matt. 3:12.
The ESV does a good job in Malachi 4:1 in using the word “oven.” Some modern versions use the word “furnace,” which is misleading. There are words in Hebrew for different types of furnaces (though none were used to heat homes). A kibshan (#03536 כִּבְשָׁן) was a smelting furnace or lime-kiln (Gen. 19:28); a kur (#03564 כּוּר) was a refining furnace (Prov. 17:3); an attun (#0861 אַתּוּן) was a large furnace that was used in extracting ore. The word in Malachi is tanur (#08574 תַּנּוּר; pronounced tan-noor), a household oven.
The translation, “unquenchable fire,” which occurs in most versions of Matthew, is very accurate. The fire in the Lake of Fire is “unquenchable,” it cannot be put out. That does not mean, however, that it burns forever. As with any fire, when the fuel is gone, the fire goes out. When the last person is annihilated, totally consumed, in the Lake of Fire, it will go out. For more information on annihilation in the Lake of Fire, see REV commentary on Revelation 20:10 at
James Neil, Peeps Into Palestine (Billings and Sons, Great Britain, c. 1915), pp. 58, 59. Neil, who lived in the Middle East for years, gives us a clear example of why the pre-World War I customs books are such a treasure. After WWI, customs in the Middle East that had been the same since the time of Abraham began to change, and change rapidly. Old customs, like sifting grain, soon died, and no amount of arm-chair sociology or archaeology is able to tell us how the ancient customs were actually done. Thankfully, people like Neil wrote what they often got to see with their own eyes, and had Neil not recorded it in such detailed fashion, a vital part of what went on in basically every household for thousands of years would now be lost to us.
The Arabic word is ghurbal, the Hebrew word is kebarah (#03531 כְּבָרָה; cp. Amos 9:9).

A hands-on lesson in separating the wheat from the chaff

Leo Tolstoy, his long beard white, stood beside a horse in a photograph on a screen under the Yale Farm’s Lazarus Pavilion. A second image showed an aerial photograph of the author’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana. A bungee cord tied to a cinderblock anchored the screen against gusty wind. Rain pattered against leaves.

It was not the nicest day for a wheat-threshing lesson, but 19th-century Russian peasants never got to take a rain check. Fifteen students were seated on wooden benches around two large tables. One of the tables bore four bunches of wheat and a skep hive of coiled straw.

The class, “Ecology and Russian Culture,” is co-led by Molly Brunson, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, and Isabel Lane, a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in the same department. The course covers Russian literature, art, and film from the 19th century onward. Several class sessions are held at the farm and involve hands-on activities led by Jeremy Oldfield, manager of field academics for the Yale Sustainable Food Program (YSFP). In this session, based on the theme “The Estate and the Landowner,” the students threshed and winnowed wheat.

Winnowing produced clouds of chaff fluttering through the air.

Lane began by describing what inspired her to utilize the farm, which occupies an acre on Edwards Street. She was a teaching fellow for “Masterpieces of Russian Literature 1,” and the class was reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which contains detailed sections on Russian agriculture, particularly on agricultural reform and applying technology to wheat production.

“People don’t generally like these sections of the book,” Lane said, adding that the sections’ main character, Konstantin Levin, has been cut from film adaptations of the novel.

She wanted to reinvigorate the novel’s agricultural sections and, more broadly, make literary works touching on ecology and agriculture more comprehensible and interesting to her students. She enlisted support from YSFP, which routinely collaborates with Yale faculty and graduate students to incorporate food and agriculture into courses of study. Each semester, classes from across disciplines utilize the Yale Farm for “hands-on” learning in the same way they would the university’s museum galleries and libraries.

For this course, the farm provides Lane and Brunson a setting for offering their students a fresh perspective on the works of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and other Russian writers and artists. Lane urged the students to think of the peasants and serfs depicted in short stories by Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol — the day’s assigned reading — as they participated in the day’s activity.

The 10,000-year history of wheat

Oldfield provided a concise summation of the 10,000-year history of wheat. He presented four examples of wheat — all grown on the farm — beginning with einkorn wheat, which was one of the first grains humans cultivated domestically. Einkorn represented the moment when people began to breed agricultural grasses and base a substantial portion of their nutrition, trade, and power on grain, Oldfield said, though that specific variety produced a low yield.

Oldfield, who manages the farm, explained that people began to breed desirable traits into wheat. He presented a variety popular in Eastern Europe in the 1800s that produced larger berries than einkorn and seed heads that come apart more easily. He noted that the variety grew on tall stalks and that its non-edible structures were used to thatch roofs or craft useful things, like the skep hive — a dome-shaped basket that attracts honeybees and other pollinators — built by a Yale Farm intern from straw grown onsite.

He concluded the talk with examples of two modern “dwarf” varieties, which were bred to grow to a lower and uniform height to facilitate harvesting with a combine. Then it was time for the students to work like 19th-century Russian peasants.

Oldfield directed the class to two metal washtubs set on a table piled with bunches of wheat — a variety called “Red Russian,” developed in the mid-19th century by European immigrants in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

“As we go, you’ll see why threshing became a figure of speech for expending a lot of energy to produce very little,” Oldfield said.

He instructed the students to “thwack” the wheat bunches against the sides of the tubs to knock loose a slurry of wheat berries and chaff.

“Get a little bit crazy with it,” Oldfield said.

The students assaulted the wheat with a will, thwacking it against the tubs, producing a cacophony but yielding few wheat berries. Some students, frustrated, started plucking the berries loose with their fingers.

“It would probably take us until 9:30 tonight to finish this,” Oldfield said before moving on to winnowing, the process of separating the berries from the chaff.

Each student had a turn tossing the slurry in a wicker basket before a small fan — a slight modern touch. Chaff started swirling in clouds like dandelion spores.

“This hands-on element is revelatory,” Brunson said. “To know how much labor goes into this process is important. It opens up an argument that the artists and writers we’re studying aren’t necessarily depicting reality. They’re providing an interpretation, perhaps a wistful interpretation, of reality.”

The class discussed “The Threshing Barn,” a painting by 19th-century artist Grigory Soroka.

Following the activity, students — some with bits of chaff in their hair — returned to the benches and engaged in a discussion with Brunson and Lane.

They discussed “The Threshing Floor,” a painting by 19th-century artist Alexei Venetsianov that depicts serfs in a barn containing a heaping pile of wheat berries.

“This is the work you’ve just done,” Brunson said. “So what do you think of Venetsianov’s representation?”

The students pointed out that the barn is strangely clean given the amount of work it would have taken to produce the large mound of grain and that the serfs lack personality and appear listless.

The discussion eventually moved to the short stories, “The Old-World Landowners” by Gogol, and “Master and Man” by Tolstoy, which portray life on Russian estates in the 1830s and 1890s, respectively. They discussed the roles of food and ecology in the stories and the relationship of the serfs and peasants to the nobles.

At the end of class, Brunson reminded the students that they would meet the next week in a traditional classroom, provoking a collective plea of “No!”
“The students have been on board since day one,” Brunson said. “I think they recognize the experimental nature of the course and they are excited to be the part of it. It’s wonderful to have that.”

Enhancing understanding of class material

Lane and Brunson have worked closely with Oldfield to provide the students meaningful experiences that enhance their understanding of the class material. A workshop on identifying tree species supplemented readings on hiking through the forest. A discussion of artificial interventions that trigger tomato blight complemented a story of a little girl who creates unnatural physical environments. A talk in the farm’s orchard augmented a discussion of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

They also had a session at the Landscape on Yale’s West Campus in which Justin Freiberg, the farm manager, led a foraging session, showing the students how to identify edible plants. Later this semester, the class will visit the Peabody Museum of Natural History where exhibition preparator Michael Anderson will discuss his work creating lifelike bird models with a 3-D printer.

“Honestly, this is one of my favorite classes,” said first-year student Chayton Pabich. “Every week we’re doing something new; every week it’s something more exciting. I had never considered threshing wheat before. Doing that for hours and hours every day would explain why the serfs were unhappy.”

Pabich said the hands-on component provides him a deeper understanding of the material being covered.

“The class discussions always involve some new interpretation of whatever we’re reading,” he said. “Most people probably don’t read Tolstoy and ask about the trees. It’s interesting and I love it.”

Seed And Chaff Separation – How To Separate Seed From Chaff

Have you heard of the phrase ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’? It’s likely that you didn’t give too much thought to the saying, but the origins of this adage are not only ancient but essential to harvesting cereal crops. Basically, it refers to separating seeds from chaff. What is chaff and why is seed and chaff separation important?

About Separating Seeds from Chaff

Before we get to the definition of chaff, a little background on the make-up of cereal crops such as wheat, rice, barley, oats and others is helpful. Cereal crops are made up of the seed or the grain kernel that we eat, and an inedible hull or husk surrounding it. Seed and chaff separation is imperative because in order to process and eat the grain kernel, the inedible hull needs to be removed. This is a two-step process involving threshing and winnowing.

Threshing means loosening the hull from the grain kernel while winnowing means to get rid of the hull. Winnowing can’t very well occur without threshing first, although some grains have a thin papery hull that is easily removed so little threshing is required. If this is the case, traditionally, farmers would

just toss the grain into the air and allow the air current to blow the thin hulls, or chaff, away in the wind or to fall through the slats of the basket.

This wind assisted process of removing the chaff from the grain is called winnowing and the grains with little to no hull are called ‘naked’ grains. So, to answer the question of what is chaff, it is the inedible hull surrounding the grain.

How to Separate Seed from Chaff

Obviously, if you are growing naked grains, removing the chaff is as easy as described above. Keep in mind that this works best if there is a significant difference in the weight of the seeds and the chaff. A fan will also work to blow the chaff from the seeds. Before winnowing in this manner, lay a tarp on the ground. Place a cooking sheet on the tarp and then from a few feet up, pour the seed slowly onto the baking sheet. Repeat as necessary until all the chaff is gone.

Another method of separating the seed from the chaff is called “roll and fly.” It works best for round ball-like seeds. Again, it uses moving air to clean the seeds but a fan, your breath or a cool blow dryer work best. Lay out a tarp or sheet and put a flat box in the center. Put the seed and chaff on a cookie sheet and place the cookie sheet on the box. Turn a fan on so the air blows across it and lift the end of the cookie sheet so the seeds roll down. If need be, repeat until the chaff has blown off.

Sieves can also work to winnow the chaff from the seed. Stack the sieves with the largest at the top and the smallest underneath. Pour the seed and chaff mix into the upper sieve and shake it around into the smaller sieve. The smaller sieve should collect the seed while the chaff remains in the larger sieve.

There are certainly other methods for separating the seed from the chaff, none of them particularly complex. If, however, you have a larger crop of seed that needs to be winnowed, it might be helpful to have a friend or two to assist since the time to winnow in this manner can be time consuming.

What methods are used to separate chaff from wheat?

What methods are used to separate chaff from wheat?

The process of separating the kernel of wheat (or other grain such as barley and oats) from its outer protective husk, the chaff, is called threshing. To be threshed, the grain must be mature, completely ripe and dry. Over time and across geography, many different methods of threshing have been used. The basic principle is to get the chaff to loosen its hold from the stem of the head of grain. The grain kernel is much heavier than the chaff. When the chaff is loosened, the kernel falls down while the chaff is encouraged to blow away by a process called winnowing.


One can do this with one’s hands or feet or with a lash of leather or thin wood. Place the kernels in an appropriate container or on a clean floor and apply the threshing method. Do this by agitating the grain vigorously so that the chaff is loosened.


Use a natural breeze. Standing in the path of a breeze, pour the grain and chaff mixture from one container into another. The wind has to be strong enough to carry away the chaff but weak enough not to blow away the grain kernels. Pour grain back and forth from containers until all chaff is removed and carried away by the breeze. Be sure to choose a spot where no one downwind minds a pile of chaff because the ground downwind will be chaff-strewn.

Threshing and Winnowing by Hand

Mechanized Threshing

Threshing has long been mechanized. Threshing machines and combine harvesters are common machines that do both the threshing and winnowing. The grain plant (complete with straw stem, chaff, and kernel) is deposited into the machine in one end and separated inside the machine.

Clean kernels pour out one spout, straw and chaff blow out another. The farmer supplies the appropriate receptors such as trucks or bins for the stuff coming out of the machine. In some cases, straw stacks may be made in the field to be baled later for the barn.

Threshing machine in operation

Combine Harvester combines reaping, threshing, and winnowing.


Separating chaff from the wheat is also a metaphor used when meaning to separate the meaningful from the meaningless in life or discussions. To do that, one must do one’s research and make decisions based on one’s own values and goals, etc.

How Do Farmers Sift Wheat?

Manual Threshing

Allen Stoner/iStock/Getty Images

The first step in the process of sifting wheat is to loosen the chaff from the edible grain, which is called threshing. The old-fashioned way to do this is to spread the wheat onto a floor made from stone, concrete or tamped earth and to beat it with a flail. This is no longer done in the developed world. But in some places where machines are expensive and human labor is cheap, manual threshing is still common.

Winnowing Wheat

Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

The next step is called winnowing, where the loosened chaff is removed from the grain. The old-fashioned way of doing this is to throw the grain in the air, where the lighter chaff is blown off by even a decent breeze. The heavier grain falls back to the ground below.

Using Combines

vschlichting/iStock/Getty Images

In the developed world, threshing and winnowing are performed by a machine called a combine. Combines perform multiple farm tasks in one process — in this case, harvesting and threshing. These machines are among the great workhorses of industrialized agriculture, allowing one man to do the work formerly done by many. The combine goes through the fields, cutting and scooping the wheat into a machine that separates it from the stalk and then from the husk. The grain is fed into a group of horizontal cylinders called rasp bars, which guide the grain upwards through grates and sieves, combining threshing and winnowing into one short process. The finished grain is then dumped into a trailer or truck.

Lexicon His
οὗ (hou)
Personal / Relative Pronoun – Genitive Masculine Singular
Strong’s Greek 3739: Who, which, what, that.
winnowing fork
πτύον (ptyon)
Noun – Nominative Neuter Singular
Strong’s Greek 4425: A simple wooden pitchfork; a winnowing-shovel or fan. From ptuo; a winnowing-fork.
ἐν (en)
Strong’s Greek 1722: In, on, among. A primary preposition denoting position, and instrumentality, i.e. A relation of rest; ‘in, ‘ at, on, by, etc.
αὐτοῦ (autou)
Personal / Possessive Pronoun – Genitive Masculine 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 846: He, she, it, they, them, same. From the particle au; the reflexive pronoun self, used of the third person, and of the other persons.
χειρὶ (cheiri)
Noun – Dative Feminine Singular
Strong’s Greek 5495: A hand.
to clear
διακαθαριεῖ (diakathariei)
Verb – Future Indicative Active – 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 1245: To cleanse thoroughly. From dia and katharizo; to cleanse perfectly, i.e. winnow.
αὐτοῦ (autou)
Personal / Possessive Pronoun – Genitive Masculine 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 846: He, she, it, they, them, same. From the particle au; the reflexive pronoun self, used of the third person, and of the other persons.
threshing floor
ἅλωνα (halōna)
Noun – Accusative Feminine Singular
Strong’s Greek 257: A threshing-floor. Probably from the base of heilisso; a threshing-floor, i.e. the grain.
καὶ (kai)
Strong’s Greek 2532: And, even, also, namely.
to gather
συνάξει (synaxei)
Verb – Future Indicative Active – 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 4863: From sun and ago; to lead together, i.e. Collect or convene; specially, to entertain.
αὐτοῦ (autou)
Personal / Possessive Pronoun – Genitive Masculine 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 846: He, she, it, they, them, same. From the particle au; the reflexive pronoun self, used of the third person, and of the other persons.
σῖτον (siton)
Noun – Accusative Masculine Singular
Strong’s Greek 4621: Wheat, grain. Also plural irregular neuter sita of uncertain derivation; grain, especially wheat.
εἰς (eis)
Strong’s Greek 1519: A primary preposition; to or into, of place, time, or purpose; also in adverbial phrases.
τὴν (tēn)
Article – Accusative Feminine Singular
Strong’s Greek 3588: The, the definite article. Including the feminine he, and the neuter to in all their inflections; the definite article; the.
ἀποθήκην (apothēkēn)
Noun – Accusative Feminine Singular
Strong’s Greek 596: A repository, granary, barn, storehouse. From apotithemi; a repository, i.e. Granary.
δὲ (de)
Strong’s Greek 1161: A primary particle; but, and, etc.
He will burn up
κατακαύσει (katakausei)
Verb – Future Indicative Active – 3rd Person Singular
Strong’s Greek 2618: To burn up, consume entirely. From kata and kaio; to burn down, i.e. Consume wholly.
τὸ (to)
Article – Accusative Neuter Singular
Strong’s Greek 3588: The, the definite article. Including the feminine he, and the neuter to in all their inflections; the definite article; the.
ἄχυρον (achyron)
Noun – Accusative Neuter Singular
Strong’s Greek 892: Chaff. Perhaps remotely from cheo; chaff.
with unquenchable
ἀσβέστῳ (asbestō)
Adjective – Dative Neuter Singular
Strong’s Greek 762: Inextinguishable, unquenchable. Not extinguished, i.e. perpetual.
πυρὶ (pyri)
Noun – Dative Neuter Singular
Strong’s Greek 4442: Fire; the heat of the sun, lightning; fig: strife, trials; the eternal fire. A primary word; ‘fire’.
(12) Whose fan is in his hand.–The scene brought before us is that of the large hardened surface which was the “threshing-floor” of the East, the sheaves of corn thrown over it, the oxen treading on them, the large winnowing fan driving on them the full force of the strong current of air, leaving the wheat in the middle, while the chaff is driven to the outskirts of the field to be afterwards swept up and burnt. The metaphor was a sufficiently familiar one. (Comp. Job 21:18; Psalm 1:4; Psalm 35:5; Isaiah 17:13; Isaiah 29:5; Hosea 13:3.) The new features here are (1) that the “coming One,” the expected Christ, is to be the agent in the process; (2) that the Old Testament imagery rests in the “scattering” of the chaff, and this passes on to the “burning”; (3) that the fire is said to be “unquenched,” or perhaps “unquenchable.” The interpretation of the parable lies on the surface. The chaff are the ungodly and evildoers. The unquenched fire is the wrath of God against evil, which is, in its very nature, eternal, and can only cease with the cessation or transformation of the evil. The word translated “chaff” includes, it may be noted, straw as well, all but the actual grain.

It seems right briefly to direct the reader’s thoughts here to what is recorded of the Baptist’s ministry in the other Gospels; the questions of the priests and Levites (John 1:19-25); the counsels given to publicans, soldiers, and others (Luke 3:10-14); the presence, among the crowd, of Galileans, some of whom were afterwards Apostles (John 1:35-42). A curious legendary addition, found in the Apocryphal Gospel according to the Hebrews, is worth noting, as preparing the way for what follows: “Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brethren said unto Him, ‘John the Baptist baptiseth for the remission of sins; let us go that we may be baptised by him.’ But He said unto them, ‘In what have I sinned that I should go and be baptised by him? unless, perhaps, even that which I have thus spoken be a sin of ignorance.’ “This was obviously an attempt to explain the difficulty of the Sinless One seeking a baptism of repentance. It was, of course, probable enough that the household of Nazareth, cherishing, as they did, hopes of the kingdom of heaven, should be drawn with other Galileans to the Baptist’s preaching.

Verse 12. – Whose fan. The pronged winnowing-fork (see Pal. Expl. Fund Statem; Ap. 1891) which throws up the grain against the wind. The Coming One is to put an end to the present mixture of chaff and corn. He will thoroughly purge the threshing-floor of this world, gathering the good into one safe place, and destroying the evil. The figure of winnowing comes not unseldom in the Old Testament (e.g. Jeremiah 15:7; Jeremiah 51:2), but generally with the sole idea of destruction of the ungodly, not with that of separating so as to also preserve the godly (yet cf. Psalm 139:3, margin; Amos 9:9). Is in his hand. The figure is stronger than that in ver. 10, where the instrument was only lying ready to be taken up. But that was an instrument of destruction alone. And he will throughly purge; cleanse (Revised Version); permundo (Vulgate); διακαθαριεῖ, the preposition is intensive, not local. His. Observe the threefold αὐτοῦ, referring to hand, flour, corn – personal agency, sphere, ownership. In the Vatican and some other manuscripts it is found also after “garner;” but this is, perhaps, introduced from the parallel in Luke. Floor; threshing-floor (Revised Version). Not the barn that English-men think of, but an open and level space (for the figure, cf. especially Micah 4:12). Here the threshing-floor is equivalent to the scene of the Lord’s operations, i.e. the world, or rather the universe (cf. Epbraem (? Tartan) in Resch, ‘Agrapha,’ p. 295). The present mixture of good and evil shall be brought to an end. And gather together, from different parts of the threshing-floor, or from intimate association with the chaff, into one heap. All true believers shall finally be brought to perfect unity (cf. Matthew 13:30). His wheat. The term is adopted by Ignatius (‘Ram.,’ §4): “I am the wheat of God, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread .” Into the garner. The final home of the saints, hidden away and safe from all marauders. Garners in the East are generally subterranean vaults or eaves (but cf. Luke 12:18). But will burn up. Utterly consuming it (contrast Exodus 3:2), as the tares (Matthew 13:30, 40) and the books of magic (Acts 19:19). The chaff. For, as Jeremiah says (Jeremiah 23:28) when comparing a mere dream with a message from the Lord,” What is the chaff to the wheat?” The Targum even interprets Jeremiah’s words of the wicked and the righteous. The chaff in Jeremiah includes the straw, for in the East everything except the actual grain is generally burnt, and is sometimes used for heating fireplaces (Mishna, ‘Sabb.,’ 3:1; ‘Parah,’ 4:3). With unquenchable fire. “Unquenchable” shows that John is here thinking not of the figure of chaff but of the persons figured by it. But what does the word mean? In itself it might mean that the fire cannot be overcome by the greatness or the nature of the mass that it has to consume; i.e., to drop the figure, by either the number or the character at’ the wicked. But from its usage it seems rather to be equivalent to not being overcome by the lapse of time. It is used, e.g., of the perpetual fire of Vesta, of the fire of the Magi, of the fire upon the Jewish altar (vide references in Thayer). The whole expression in itself says nothing about the everlasting duration of the punishment; i.e. it does not decide for “everlasting punishment” or for “annihilation,” but seems rather to exclude the possibility of amelioration under it (cf. Isaiah 1:31). Jump to Previous Barn Burn Chaff Clean Cleanse Fan Fire Floor Fork Garner Gather Gathering Good Grain Granary Hand Instrument Purge Store Storehouse Thorough Thoroughly Threshing Threshing-Floor Throughly Unquenchable Waste Wheat Winnowing Winnowing-ShovelJump to Next Barn Burn Chaff Clean Cleanse Fan Fire Floor Fork Garner Gather Gathering Good Grain Granary Hand Instrument Purge Store Storehouse Thorough Thoroughly Threshing Threshing-Floor Throughly Unquenchable Waste Wheat Winnowing Winnowing-ShovelLinks Matthew 3:12 NIV
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Alphabetical: and barn burn burning but chaff clear fire floor fork gather gathering hand he His in into is the thoroughly threshing unquenchable up wheat will winnowing with
NT Gospels: Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand (Matt. Mat Mt) Christian Bible Study Resources, Dictionary, Concordance and Search Tools

Separating Wheat and Chaff

Bible Reference: Matthew 3:12

In John the Baptist teaching, wheat referred to the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist discussed separating wheat from chaff. According to John wheat will be taken into God’s storehouse while weeds and chaff are destroyed.

Wheat was the first grain identified in the Old Testament (Genesis 30.14); and one of seven species that Moses told Israelites that they would find growing in the promised land (Deuteronomy 8.8). Wheat was valued because of its high nutrition content. Although an important food source, growing, threshing, winnowing, and grinding wheat required effort.

John referred to Jesus when he said: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather and store his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3.12 ESV). In ancient Judea, wheat was emmer or einkorn; not the wheat grown in Israel today, nor the wheat grown in the United States.

At harvest, men cut wheat stalks with a sickle. Farmers with livestock cut stalks close to the ground to use stalks as animal fodder. Farmers without livestock cut stalks close to the seed head to minimize amount of threshing. Children gathered stalks into bundles and took bundles to the threshing floor, a cleared and compacted parcel of ground up to 40 feet in diameter. Sometimes, one threshing floor served an entire village.

On threshing floors, farmers used an ox-drawn disc or threshing sledge to cut wheat stalks, but not crush grain (Isaiah 28.27-28). Threshing sledges were made of wooden boards with iron or stone projections on the bottom. The projections cut the stalks and allowed grain to separate and fall to the floor. Horses or oxen pulled sledges over grain stalks spread on the threshing floor.

The farmer separated wheat kernels from chaff (dirt, grain hulls) using winnowing. Winnowing consisted of throwing the threshed materials (chaff and grain) into the air with a fork or a basket. Wind separated valuable wheat grains from chaff. Because wheat kernels were heavier than chaff, they fell to the ground or back into the basket. The lighter chaff, dirt, etc., were blown away by wind. At times, farmers used fans to create air currents to separate chaff and other impurities away from valuable wheat kernels. Often, threshing floors were located on a hill top or side to take advantage of wind currents. Finally, the grain was gathered into jars or bins for storage; chaff was burned (Matthew 3.12).

John preached personal acknowledgement and repentance of sins followed by baptism—full body emersion—in water as an outward sign of repentance. Mostly, John baptized individuals in the Jordan River. Figuratively, the water of baptism washed sins away. John didn’t stop with a message of repentance and physical act of baptism. John exhorted those baptized to change their behavior and bear fruit consistent with repentance (Luke 3.8-14).

Reflection: God doesn’t want any individual to perish. He gives each person time to repent. Regretfully, individuals who don’t repent and trust in Jesus as their Savior are going to be pulled up, bundled, and destroyed.

Copyright: July 24, 2018; Carolyn A. Roth


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