Let Her Glean
And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi, Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace. And she said unto her, Go, my daughter. And she went, and came, and gleaned in the field after the reapers: and her hap was to light on a part of the field belonging unto Boaz, who was of the kindred of Elimelech. (Ruth 2:2-3)
Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers, Whose damsel is this? And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said, It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab: And she said, I pray you, let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves: so she came, and hath continued even from the morning until now, that she tarried a little in the house. Then said Boaz unto Ruth, Hearest thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens: Let thine eyes be on the field that they do reap, and go thou after them: have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee? and when thou art athirst, go unto the vessels, and drink of that which the young men have drawn. (Ruth 2:5-9)
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)
While some customs found in the Scriptures were also observed in other cultures, the concept of gleaning is distinctly Biblical. Originating in the Garden of Eden, with God allowing Adam and Eve to benefit from His gift of abundant food, it continued in some Christian countries into modern times. It is a pattern of how God would have us provide for the poor, as well as a picture of how grace should be demonstrated in the life of the Church. The laws of gleaning are founded in God’s ownership of the earth, and they reflect His loving and generous response to our utter dependence on Him.
The Earth Is the Lord’s
The gleaning principle derives from the fact that God created the heaven and the earth and is therefore the ultimate landlord over it. As the Psalmist asserts, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Other than our sin, there is nothing to which we can point and say, “That is mine alone and not God’s.” Before the Fall, the Garden of Eden was the most beautiful sacred space imaginable, with bountiful food that God planted specifically for Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:8) and plenty of fresh, running water. Adam was tasked with “dressing and keeping” the garden (Genesis 2:15), but he would not have faced the drudgery of pulling weeds, cutting back thorns, or losing crops to blight, so his work would have been joyous and always rewarding.
To understand the beauty of gleaning, which requires the generosity of the landowner and the diligence of the gleaner, we must understand that out of His great heart of love, God gave mankind a world filled with plenty, along with the dignity of work and the glory of purpose:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. (Genesis 1:27-29)
He also communed with them daily in the garden. In a way, the Garden of Eden was like a continual worship service, combined with meaningful work, plentiful provisions, and perfect relationships. When we see the love, beauty, harmony, plenty, and fellowship of the Garden and realize that it was destroyed by one act of disobedience, we understand why God’s Law had to be so extensively articulated. The Ten Commandments are the foundation of the civil, ceremonial, and moral precepts, and all are intended to show us not only the character of God but also what we lost when we lost Eden. The Law also illustrates what the new heavens and the new earth have in store for us.
The Laws of Gleaning
The instructions for gleaning are given twice in Leviticus, once in a passage that expounds upon the Ten Commandments and begins with the command, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shall not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10)
In Leviticus 23, the same instructions, almost word for word, are repeated in the context of the three major feasts that God ordained, indicating that the ceremonial, sacramental life of the nation is inextricably bound up with the moral life of the nation.
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22)
It was not enough for God just to pronounce the Ten Commandments and leave us to decide how to apply them. Our fallen human hearts would so narrowly define them that we would be like those who passed by the unconscious man who had been beaten by robbers, whom only the Samaritan stopped to help. After all, the priest and the Levite had not done anything to harm the man who lay bleeding by the road. Hadn’t they kept the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”? No, because they had not done everything possible to preserve a helpless life, and for that failure they were guilty of breaking the commandment against murder. Each “thou shalt not” in the law has a corresponding positive side that we must not ignore.
So it is with gleaning. Cynics might look at this law and say that it amounts to coerced theft. Why shouldn’t a hardworking landowner reap the entire benefit of his own field? In the passages from Leviticus that are shown above, the bold letters emphasize the words “your” and “thy,” which acknowledge the concept of land ownership. However, those who possess land and have the means to produce food should not think that their prosperity is all their own doing. It is God who allows the sun to shine and sends rain to water the crops. It is God who gives the farm workers strength enough to plow and sow and tend the crops. To think that the landlord’s success is all his own is to break the first commandment. Therefore, the landowner has no right to think that the entire crop belongs to him. The law allows him to retain more than enough to meet the needs of his household, but he cannot ignore the requirement to bring the firstfruits to God, to tithe on the increase, and to leave part of his crop for the gleaners. This is the price and the privilege of living in covenant.
Why does God require this? Because thou shalt not kill. We see this concept carried over into the New Testament in the words of our parish namesake:
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2:15-17)
It is important to note that in the passage from Leviticus 23, the next verse after the command regarding gleaning reiterates the eighth and ninth commandments, prohibiting stealing and lying. All of the commandments must be balanced among each other. Gleaners must not take advantage of the landowner, nor should the landowner cheat on the provisions of gleaning. Gleaners should be genuinely grateful for the opportunity given to them, and the option to glean should prevent them from resenting the landowner or becoming covetous. Further, the landowner should have enough humility to treat the poor graciously. Biblical charity should be a picture of grace, and it should empower the poor to succeed:
Biblical charity does not attempt to smooth over economic crisis by making privation somewhat more acceptable. It attempts to solve economic crisis. Biblical charity does not attempt to help families adjust to their situation. It attempts to change their situation. Biblical charity does not strive to make poverty and dependence more comfortable. It strives to make productivity and independence more attainable. (Bringing in the Sheaves, page 80)
To bring the discussion back to the plight of Naomi and Ruth, we see how Boaz, a “mighty man of wealth,” was careful not only to obey the laws of gleaning but even to err on the side of grace. Once he found out who Ruth was and in particular that she had been a faithful wife and daughter-in-law to his relatives, he welcomed her graciously, offered her provisions and protection that she would not have received elsewhere, and even told his reapers to drop extra grain for her. Remembering that this was the period of the Judges, when everyone did what was right in his own eyes, it is astounding to find a man so faithful to God’s ways and to the spirit of the covenant, not merely to the letter of the law. Ruth was astounded to receive such kind treatment, given her status as a foreigner:
Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger? And Boaz answered and said unto her, It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust. (Ruth 2:10-12)
When Ruth returned home after a hard day’s work, she told Naomi all that had happened, showed her a substantial amount of barley (at least enough for two weeks gleaned in one day), and they praised God for His provision:
And her mother in law said unto her, Where hast thou gleaned to day? and where wroughtest thou? blessed be he that did take knowledge of thee. And she shewed her mother in law with whom she had wrought, and said, The man’s name with whom I wrought to day is Boaz. And Naomi said unto her daughter in law, Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead. And Naomi said unto her, The man is near of kin unto us, one of our next kinsmen. (Ruth 2:19-20)
We’ve discussed in previous lessons about the plight of the widow in biblical times. Losing a husband and two sons would have been devastating enough, but it also meant additional grief and anxiety in the loss of income. Now that Ruth has “happened” to find the field of Boaz (Ruth 2:3), they have the consolation of knowing they will not go hungry, since the Lord has provided the kindness of a kinsman.
- What would you say to someone who says that the gleaning principle destroys the dignity of poor people?
- How can a church or group of churches apply the gleaning principle to assist the poor?
- What has been the consequence of establishing poverty programs that do not follow God’s solution for poverty?
Bringing in the Sheaves: Transforming Poverty into Productivity by George Grant (free online in PDF format)