Barley and Blessing (Chapter 4)

He Has Filled the Hungry with Good Things

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter in law, with her, which returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest. (Ruth 1:22)


And Boaz said unto her, At mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar. And she sat beside the reapers: and he reached her parched corn, and she did eat, and was sufficed, and left. And when she was risen up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach  her not: And let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not. So she gleaned in the field until even, and beat out that she had gleaned: and it was about an ephah of barley. (Ruth 2:14-17)

When we began this study, we promised not to reduce the real people in this story to mere symbols, and we are going to keep that promise. However, if we overlook the significance of certain symbols provided in the details of their story, we will miss a major point of the account of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, which is the faithfulness of God to His people through the ages. It was no accident that Naomi and Ruth entered Bethlehem, the house of bread, at the time of the barley harvest. In this lesson we will look first at the significance of the timing of their return and then at the significance of barley itself.

Barley Harvest and the Passover

The first point of significance is found in Ruth 1:22. In the previous lesson, we discussed how Naomi’s return to Bethlehem coincided with the barley harvest, ensuring that she and Ruth would have plenty to eat. That in itself would have been enough, because it meant a reversal of the situation that caused Naomi’s exodus from Bethlehem in the first place. But God’s timing not only provided for Naomi and Ruth’s physical needs, it also provided for their spiritual needs, in that the beginning of the barley harvest coincided with Passover. The self-exiled Naomi had returned to her people at the time of the annual celebration of their freedom from bondage in Egypt, which a paralleled her own deliverance from Moab and journey back to the Promised Land.

If we look at the details of the seventh plague on Egypt, we can see that the barley harvest occurs near the time of Passover. In the violent hailstorm that destroyed everything in the Egyptian fields—humans, animals, and crops—the Scriptures say that “the flax and the barley was smitten: for the barley was in the ear” (Exodus 9:31). But as with the other plagues, God spared the Israelite people and possessions.

Barley was the first of three major crops each year, and God established a feast connected with each crop. The week-long feast that begins with the day of Passover is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. On the second day of the feast, the priest waves the first sheaf of barley cut during the harvest, known as the first-fruits:

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest: And he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. (Leviticus 23:9-11)

The barley was then presented to the priests as food. St. Paul refers to the risen Christ as the firstfruits of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:19-24), showing how the timeline of His life, death, and resurrection fulfill the purpose of the feasts of the Old Testament. Those shadows and types all pointed to the one who is the Passover.

Bringing the discussion back around to Naomi, we can now see how her exile to Moab, her exodus to the Promised Land, and her re-connection with the feasts and fasts established by God’s Law reflect the pattern of God’s dealing with the children of Israel throughout history. It was not until the perfect Son of Man came to earth to walk the path of suffering that mankind could be redeemed.

Barley and the Poor

As a less expensive food source than wheat, barley was the grain that poor people used in baking bread, and it was even used as fodder for horses, donkeys, and camels. Humble yet nutritious, barley sustained life after the cold winter. As widows, Naomi and Ruth were the poorest of the poor, and they were most grateful for the opportunity to glean the fields. There is an interesting connection between God’s commandment about the Feast of Unleavened Bread and a statement that Boaz made to Ruth when he sent her home with an ample supply of barley for herself and Naomi. God’s commandment is as follows:

Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread: (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou camest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty:). (Exodus 23:15)

Boaz uses similar language after Ruth visits him on the threshing floor and he has decided to take up her cause to find a kinsman-redeemer. In describing the evening’s events to Naomi, she said, “These six measures of barley gave he me; for he said to me, Go not empty unto thy mother in law” (Ruth 3:17). Life in covenant is to be a life of plenty, even for the poor, and perhaps especially for the poor: “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Luke 1:53). Whereas famine was a punishment for unfaithfulness, the obedient could be sure of having enough food on the table. This truth is not to be mistaken for the so-called prosperity gospel, but is a natural outcome of having a loving Father who supplies all our needs. As the Psalmist asserts, “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).

The lowly nature of barley is the significance of the barley loaf in the dream recorded in the book of Judges. Gideon had reluctantly agreed to lead God’s army, only to have the number of soldiers drastically reduced at God’s direction. Yet he became convinced that God would lead his army to victory when he overheard a Midianite recounting a dream and another one interpreting it:

And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man that told a dream unto his fellow, and said, Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along. And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the host. (Judges 7:13-14)

Gideon’s small army, represented in a dream by a humble barley cake, won a great victory without striking a blow. Their tactic was to create such confusion in the enemy camp in the middle of the night that the Midianite soldiers began striking out at each other. As in many other circumstances recorded in the Scriptures, God’s purpose in these events was to demonstrate that His strength is made perfect in weakness. We find this expressed beautifully in this passage from the Magnificat:

He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. (Luke 1:51-52)

Finally, in the New Testament we find barley loaves in the basket of a young man who brought five loaves and two fishes. When blessed by Jesus, this small offering was made enough to feed a great multitude, with twelve baskets left over. One of the ways that Jesus demonstrated that He is the Messiah sent from God was to shower the blessings of the covenant onto those who followed Him.

He fed them without money, without price,
As with the barley gleaned by faithful Ruth.
He, the better Boaz, made the sacrifice,
Revealed Himself as Way and Life and Truth.

Daily Bread and Kingdom Come

Journal Prompts

  1. Read the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17). Assuming that the meal or flour she used was made of barley, how does her story resemble that of Naomi?
  2. In 2 Kings 4:38-43, there is a curious account of Elisha trying to feed the sons of the prophets during a famine. At one point, he has to take the poison out of the food that had been gathered, but then he is given a small portion of food, including some barley loaves. How does this story resemble that of Christ feeding the multitudes?
  3. Several of the prophets mention the high price of barley, as does Revelation 6:6. What is the significance of this information?

Recommended Reading:

Bible dictionary entries on barley

The Temple: Its Ministries and Services by Edersheim

The Feast of Unleavened Bread

God as Gardener

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