When I teach a course in Biblical Hebrew, I always base it on the Book of Ruth. Why? Because it’s a short book, uses simple and poetic language and is very down to earth. There are no miracles or divine appearances, no angels and no visions. It is about ordinary people, how they deal with hardship, their feelings of loyalty and love, and their customs and way of life.
Naomi and her husband and two sons left their hometown, Bethlehem (which means House of Bread) during a famine. They went to live in Moab, which was a different country, with different customs and ways of life. The sons married local women. But the family fell on bad luck. The husband and the two sons got sick and died, leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to go back to Bethlehem, because she has heard the famine was over. She suggests to her two daughters-in-law that they leave her and go find themselves some new husbands. One daughter-in-law agrees. But the second one – – Ruth – – decides to follow Naomi home. “Whither thou goest I shall go …” This is the best remembered line from the book and is sometimes quoted in a romantic context, but it was originally spoken by one woman to another.
So they go back to Bethlehem, where the barley harvest is currently in progress. And because they are poor and hungry, Ruth goes a-gleaning after the reapers. What is gleaning? That is actually what I want to talk about. It is a way to feed the poor that does not rob the rich.
And that’s what I really want to focus on here: not Ruth’s romantic encounter with Boaz, which occurs in the context of gleaning – but the context itself. The people who wrote this book of the Bible took it for granted that everybody hearing the story would know the customs of the times, but today we could gain a lot of perspective by reviewing them.
During the harvest, after all the bulk of the grain had been reaped, there were some grains left unharvested. If it were up to the wealthy landowners, these grains would simply go to waste. So the poor were allowed to come on the property and follow the reapers and pick up the left over, squandered grain. However much they gathered in a day was theirs to keep. They were even allowed to roast it and eat it on the spot. It made a good meal, because the grain contained fats, proteins and carbohydrates, enough to supply all the body’s needs. Nothing went to waste, and nobody lost anything by following this custom. The rich did not lose money, and the poor did not get rich, but those who really needed it got something to eat, without hurting anyone else. And they got it by their own efforts. They worked for it!
Notice that when Naomi came back to her hometown, nobody said she was a parasite. Nobody thought it was bad that she had left during a famine and came back when the harvest was good. Nobody tried to shame her. It is natural to leave your hometown during a famine. It is right to take your family to where there is plenty of food. You do not help anyone by sticking around and starving. But it is also natural that when things get better, people want to return home. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
The reason today so many supporters of the welfare state think it’s not okay to drop out of the system when it suits us and then drop back in when that seems right for us is because their system is based on taking from one person and granting another. But under gleaning, nobody was robbed in order to feed anyone else. Nobody exploited anyone else. And one person’s salvation did not come at a cost of another’s life. It was a win/win situation.
We don’t have to hate the rich to help the poor. And we need not despise the poor to save ourselves.That is what we can all glean from the Book of Ruth!