Gleaning with Ruth


Ruth 2: Gleaning

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 16, 2007 

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. I hope all is well for you and those you love during this festive season of the year. My wife has been playing in holiday concerts with the Salem Community Orchestra this past week. Friday night we decorated the church with cedar garlands and magnolia leaves. It is one of the high points of my year watching young and old working, talking, and laughing together in a common project. I keep reading that Americans are selfish and competitive, but you would not believe that if you were here on Friday watching people work together for no other purpose than to make the church beautiful for the celebration of the feast of the incarnation of Christ. This week I will be the speaker for the annual Rotary Club Christmas luncheon. One member of the Rotary told me that he had to make a choice between hearing me and having a particularly unpleasant medical procedure and he chose the procedure. That builds a guy’s confidence, I tell you.

Gleaning            This week we turn our attention to the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, which involves an obsolete custom known as gleaning. There are several references to gleaning in the law books of the ancient Israelites, particularly in Leviticus (19:9-10, 23:22). Israelite landowners were forbidden to pick their fields clean. Harvesters were supposed to leave any grain that dropped to the ground. They were not even allowed to harvest the stalks growing on the edges of the field. What was left over as a result belonged to the poor, especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. These were people without a household or land. They were of a lower class than the farmhands who harvested the grain.

This was one way that an agricultural society could provide some form of an economic safety net for the poor. Clearly, the Bible was written without the insights of modern American economists, like Milton Friedman, who claim that people should maximize their profits without concern for the social consequences of their actions. Modern economists would point out that the owners of the field could maximize their profits through a more rational harvesting procedure. Then, if they wanted to feel pious, they could give some of their profits to the poor as an act of charity. The Bible works on a different theory of economics. Gleaning was based on the idea that the land does not really belong to anyone other than God. Humans may have possession of it for a period of time, but only if they use the land with respect for the laws of the true landowner, God. Gleaning was a reminder to landowners that they were stewards of God’s property, and that the poor have a right to food. The division between rich and poor was still there, as it is in our day, but gleaning made it clear that the rich have an obligation to the poor. Leaving grain for the poor was an obligation of justice, not an act of charity.

Gleaning was not welfare the way we organize it today, but it was a governmental program to provide food for those whose circumstances prevented them from participating fully in the economic system. Gleaning was not the same as begging. Gleaners worked hard for the grain they gathered. In fact, it was probably harder than harvesting since gleaning involved picking up individual pieces of grain rather than whole stalks. Perhaps we should call it a workfare program, but the most important point of gleaning is that it was part of God’s law that the poor had a right to glean in the fields of the rich. We should remember though, that gleaners were shadow people without a household who were bent over looking for kernels of hope.

Ruth                        Ruth became a gleaner. Though Elimelech had some land, it was not producing crops for Naomi when she returned from Moab. The storyteller doesn’t bother us with the details of what had happened to Elimelech’s land. Ruth is not a legal brief or a history book; it is a story about Hesed and faithfulness. All we need to know is that Ruth was forced to glean. It is possible that someone had taken possession of the land and it would require legal action to get it back. It is possible Elimelech had sold it before leaving for Moab. It is possible that the land was lying fallow since no one had been there to plant grain for the harvest. Preachers and spiritual guides often tell you to live in the moment, which can be good advice, but the truth is that if farmers lived only in the present we’d all starve. You’ve got to plant and harvest long before you get hungry. Ruth is a story about planning for the future and seizing opportunities in the present.

It is interesting that Ruth asked Naomi’s permission to glean. That could be a sign that she recognized Naomi as the head of their little household. Ruth may have also been worried that Naomi would be too proud to live by gleaning. There are people in this world who are simply too proud to do the things that survival requires. There are those who would rather die than enter a nursing home or accept meals on wheels or go to a drug rehab. Pride is a narcotic that can be self-destructive. Many commentators have wondered why Naomi wasn’t in the fields herself. Perhaps she was too old, or she may have simply been too depressed to get out of the house. It is Ruth who takes action. She reminds me of Ruby in the novel Cold Mountain. She is a woman who knows what survival requires and is willing to risk her life to save her life and the life of Naomi. There are many forms of heroism in this world; most of them do not come with medals.

As it happened            One of the reasons Ruth belongs in the Wisdom literature of the Bible is because it is a story about virtue. In addition to the virtues of loyalty and kindness, Ruth displays courage and prudence by going into the field to glean. She knows that the harvest will not last long and she must seize the opportunity. She plans for the future, and she is willing to work hard in the present. These were some of the fundamental values of our Moravian ancestors as well. Women and men alike should work hard and be wise in their dealings with the world. We didn’t build a town like Salem in the wilderness simply by singing hymns and writing liturgies.

Another reason this book belongs in the wisdom literature is that it has a slightly different understanding of God than some of the books of the Old Testament. There are no miracles in Ruth, but this doesn’t mean that God is absent from the story. All of the characters in the story talk about God and invoke his blessings, but it is ambiguous as to whether it is God or humans who are responsible for what happens. Thus, the storyteller says that “it happened that” Ruth chose the field of Boaz to glean in. That phrase “it happened that” may be pregnant with meaning or it may be just be good rhetoric. The storyteller does not say that God led Ruth to Boaz’s field; merely that it happened that she was there. Was this simply good luck, a chance encounter, or was God at work? The reader has to decide.

In many ways, the difference between coincidence and providence is a matter of perspective. I’m reminded of the old adage about seeing a glass as half empty or half full. A optimist sees the glass as half full; a pessimist as half empty. A realist might point out that it doesn’t matter which is true if you do not drink the water. We waste a lot of time and energy arguing over whether an event is divine providence or coincidence rather than simply receiving it in gratitude. It happened that Ruth found herself in the field of Boaz, a member of Elimelech’s clan. Does it matter how it happened? What matters is that she was there. Ruth accepts the grace that she has received and works hard to be worthy of that grace. We should also be grateful for providence, including the providence that we help make happen.

Boaz                        After Ruth had started working, the owner of the field appeared. He was checking on the progress of the harvest, as a wise landowner should. He greeted his reapers with the accustomed pieties, saying “The Lord be with you,” and they responded in kind. Our first picture of Boaz is that of a well-respected and respectful man. One of the pillars in Solomon’s Temple was named Boaz, a fact that the first hearers may have known. By using the name Boaz, the storyteller may have been painting a picture of Boaz as a “pillar of society,” a man of strength who had standing in the community. Or, the storyteller could have just been telling us what the owner’s actual name was. That is one problem with literary criticism. Sometimes a name is just a name, but Boaz’s name fits his character. He is portrayed as a pillar of the community, a respected landowner who displays the type of wisdom valued in the book of Proverbs. It is possible that he was even a warrior chieftain or a knight.

Boaz notices Ruth. We aren’t told why he noticed her. Romantics like to portray the meeting as love at first sight. Boaz was captivated by the beautiful Ruth who was like a rose among the thorns, according to many paintings. Historians are more apt to note that Ruth was probably dressed like a foreigner and in a small town any strange woman would have been noticed. It is also possible, perhaps even likely, that Boaz was on the look-out for Ruth since he had already heard the amazing story of her devotion to his kinswoman Naomi. It is also possible that Boaz asked who Ruth when he saw how hard she was working. Perhaps all of these things excited Boaz’s interest. The key point is that he noticed her.

The foreman tells Boaz that the Moabitess from Moab has worked without taking a single break. That no doubt impressed Boaz. The foreman gives another pertinent detail about Ruth. She had asked permission to glean. Based on the laws in Leviticus, foreigners and widows, like Ruth, had a right to glean in the fields, and some commentators think it is odd Ruth asked permission. This may be an indication that Ruth did not know Israelite custom, but I think it simply demonstrates that Ruth was always respectful. It is wise and courteous to ask permission even when you have a right to something. We should also keep in mind that people do not always obey the law and observe rights. I imagine there were many landowners in those days who did not allow gleaning, just as there are employers today who discriminate against people because of sex or race. Ruth wanted to make sure that the owner of this field believed in equal opportunity gleaning before she risked herself in the fields with the workers.  

Boaz and Ruth            Once he has gotten a good report on this stranger in his fields, Boaz takes the initiative to talk to Ruth. He calls her daughter, which is both a term of endearment and a reminder that he is older and more powerful than her. He tells her to keep close behind his female harvesters and that he will treat her almost like one of his servants. At this point in the story, we might wonder if Boaz was considering adding Ruth to his household as a servant. There is no indication he is viewing her as a future spouse, but he does reward her for her sacrifices. He gives her permission to drink from the water jars that the men use, which was a great benefit to someone laboring under the Mediterranean sun.

Most important, he orders the men not to bother Ruth. It is not clear what this means. It could simply mean that the men should allow Ruth to drink from their water jars, but it may be more significant than that. Although there were laws to protect woman in ancient Israel, we know that women are vulnerable throughout the world. Ruth had no male to protect her. If she were raped, there would be no one to insist on justice. We have terrible stories in the OT of women being raped, sometimes even to the point of death. The original hearers of Ruth’s tale knew that she was taking a great risk in going into the fields alone, and they would have recognized the import of Boaz’s command that no one should touch her. He has assumed the role of father-protector for Ruth. His order reassured Ruth that she was safe. Why did he do this? It was because he was a righteous man who lived by the code of wisdom.

Boaz tells Ruth that he has heard about all that she has done for Naomi. He knows about her Hesed, her loving-kindness for her mother-in-law, and he wants to reward her for doing the right thing. He knows the risks Ruth has taken and how difficult her life will be, and he has compassion on her. Unlike Ruth, Boaz is not vulnerable. He has power and status and plenty to eat. He draws upon his strength to assist the one who was merciful even though she was weak. In this way, he can also assist Naomi, a member of his clan. Here is one of those great moments in the Bible where worldly wisdom and compassion come together. Just think of how much better the world would be if the Boaz’s of today would voluntarily reward the Ruths around them. Just think if an employer said to an employee, I know how you are taking care of your invalid aunt and are volunteering in school, and I want to make your life a little easier by raising your salary.

The Lord’s Reward                        Boaz blesses Ruth in the name of the LORD and asks the LORD to reward her for her devotion. Such a blessing is really a prayer. Boaz prays that God will take Ruth under his wing and protect her. This is a beautiful maternal image of God, by the way. God is a bird protecting her young from the elements and predators. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that the OT only portrays God as a male. Here God is a mother hen looking over her vulnerable chicks. What I find most fascinating about Boaz’s blessing or prayer is that he is the answer to his own prayer. He prays that God will protect Ruth, but he is the one who has given instructions that she is to be unmolested. He is the one who has taken Ruth under his wings and has become the refuge for Ruth. Keep this in mind when you pray. It is possible that God will use you as the answer to your own prayers.

Ruth responds with appropriate gratitude. Though she has a legal right to glean, she recognizes that Boaz is treating her with loving kindness. He is going beyond a grudging compliance with the law and is showing Ruth true Hesed. She will still have to work hard, but she will not be risking her life to bring home food for Naomi. She will have water and protection from assault. At mealtime, Boaz shows her even more kindness and lets her eat bread and wine with the reapers. In front of them all, Boaz heaps grain for her to eat so that all will see that she has been blessed because she has been good. In this way, Boaz was also able to give Naomi charity without sacrificing her pride. He knew Ruth would take the leftovers home. Like God, Boaz is subtle and good. He tells his male reapers to let Ruth take grain from the sheaves they have already harvested and to drop a few stalks for her to pick up.

Conclusion                        We will leave Ruth working in the fields gathering food for her and Naomi, but before we go we should take a moment to consider the lessons in this story. We have a picture of a woman who seizes the opportunity to live a meaningful and moral existence in a dangerous world. She risks everything to go out into the fertile fields and bring home some of the bounty. She labors hard and without complaint. And Boaz notices her. There is not a word about Ruth being beautiful, but she is compassionate and devoted. Boaz admires Ruth before he loves her. Boaz is a good model for men. He is a pillar of strength who uses his power for good. If only we had more examples of manhood like this today. This chapter gives us something else to ponder today. Think of hard-working foreigners in our country who are struggling against great odds to provide the necessities of life for their families. Could we today show Hesed to those who labor in our fields? Finally, let me say that it may be impossible to tell the difference between providence and coincidence, but we should go ahead and receive all grace with gratitude. Most of all, remember that you may be the answer to your prayers. Be prepared to be an agent of God’s loving kindness and justice today.

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  • Ted Seeber  On August 13, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I would point out that gleaning is not obsolete. I found this article because I was looking up the definition of gleaning to explain a fundraising event I was involved in for the Tualatin Valley Gleaners in Washington County, Oregon.

    Yes, modern harvest techniques make gleaning harder- but other gleaning opportunities have shown up because of them also. One common one is bread from supermarkets, due to the perishable nature some is taken off the shelves every day, and can be collected by gleaners for redistribution to the poor.

  • odette  On May 20, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    I love this report

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