Biblical Charity: Gleaning

9 ”When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
~ Leviticus 19:9-10 ~

The gleaning laws of Scripture express the Lord’s concern for the well-being of the poor. This is a concern that he requires us to share with him—and not in words only, but also in deeds. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:17-18). The Lord looks kindly on those who are themselves kind to the poor.

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,
            and he will repay him for his deed (Prov. 19:17)

Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed,
            for he shares his bread with the poor (Prov. 22:9)

The gleaning laws given in Leviticus 19:9-10 were a very practical way to assist the poor in a pre-industrial, agriculture-based society. The two verses correspond to each other in content and structure. Let’s set them side-by-side for an easier comparison:

When you reap the harvest of your land,
you shall not reap your field right up to its edge,
And you shall not strip your vineyard bare,
neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 
neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard.
You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

In this passage we have two settings:  field (v. 9) and vineyard (v. 10). Each setting has two prohibitions:  (1) do not harvest all the produce, and (2) do not gather up the produce that has fallen to the ground during the harvest. The rationale given for the prohibitions is stated in the positive command:  “You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” All of this is enforced with the solemn declaration:  “I am the Lord your God” (v. 10).

The subject is revisited in an abbreviated form in chapter 23, where only the harvest of the field is mentioned.

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner:  I am the Lord your God (Lev. 23:22)

You shall not reap your field right up to its edge (v. 9). As Levine observes, “There is no limit or minimum as to the space or quantity to be left unharvested in the corners of the field.”[1] Biblical law leaves this to the discretion of the landowner. However, the second tractate of the Mishnah, entitled Pe’ ah, meaning “the corner or edge” (of the field), deals with these matters at length. There it is said, “They may designate as peah no less than one-sixtieth [of a field’s produce].” It also teaches that the quantity designated “should always accord with: (1) the size of the field, (2) the number of poor people, (3) and the extent of the yield.”[2]

Nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. The gleanings are defined in the Mishnah as “that which falls [to the ground] during the harvest” (Pe’ ah 4:10).The harvest, of course, was done by hand with a sickle.[3] “Inevitably, stalks [would] be dropped during the harvesting.”[4] The reapers were forbidden to go back and pick them up. They belonged to the poor.

The same principles applied to the grape harvest. The vine was not to be “stripped bare.” Some of the crop was to be left on the vine for the poor to gather. Further, “what has fallen on the ground of its own accord or has been dropped by the reaper is to be left there.”[5]

Deuteronomy 24 gives us an expanded view of the subject.

19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this (Deut. 24:19-21)

This passage mentions not only the field and vineyard, but also the olive grove. And instead of speaking merely of the poor and the sojourner, this passage mentions “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” The sojourner was a resident alien, a non-Israelite living in Israel. The fatherless and widow comprised the largest share of the native poor in a preindustrial, agriculture-based economy. As Wenham observes, “These people [the sojourner, fatherless, and widow] rarely had land of their own, and had to rely on selling their labor to buy food. This law entitled them to a small amount of free food each year at the expense of the more affluent members of society.”[6]

The gleaner had three options with the fruit of his labor. He could use it himself or he could exchange it for money or other goods.

We have a fine example of the importance of gleaning in the story of Ruth. She and her mother-in-law, Naomi, were both childless widows and therefore without any form of support (see Ruth 2:1-23).[7]

No penalty is ever specified for a failure to comply with the requirements of this law—no penalty imposed by the civil government, that is. Presumably, the Lord himself would see to the matter.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Ex. 22:21-24)

Failure to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor is not the same thing as oppression. It’s more a matter of neglect rather than of injustice. But such neglect meets with God’s disapproval. “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). God loves a large heart and an open hand.

7 If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be… 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deut. 15:7-8, 11)

Some further observations are in order.

1.       This law required poverty relief in the form of voluntary donations from private individuals. There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture of God requiring a state-sponsored redistribution of wealth. In fact, such a system is inherently unjust.

2.      There was no centralized, impersonal, bureaucratic authority charged with the responsibility of providing assistance to the poor. The poor dealt personally with the local landowners, and the landowners personally with the poor.

3.      The poor had to go and gather the gleanings for themselves. They could not be idle and expect others to do for them what they ought to do for themselves. The food was in the field for the taking. The landowner was not required to deliver it to the doorstep of the poor; the poor were required to go get it for themselves. In other words, there was a work-requirement to receive the assistance (2 Thess. 3:6-12). “In modern terminology, this might be called a workfare program instead of a welfare program. The gleaner was not a passive recipient of someone else’s money.”[8]

4.      The requirement to work preserved the dignity and self-respect of the poor. They were as self-sufficient as their circumstances permitted. Mere handouts to otherwise able-bodied people are notoriously de-humanizing and create a mentality of dependence.

5.      Those who were disabled were of course exempt from the work-requirement. The law shows special consideration for the disabled (Lev. 19:14).


Application
How might the gleaning laws apply in the modern world? In a non-agricultural society, fulfilling the literal requirements of the law will not provide much help to the poor. Many of the poor in modern society live nowhere near a farm; and even if they did, they would have no idea what to do with the gleanings of the field. This doesn’t mean, however, that the principle behind the gleaning laws is not applicable or that we cannot find new ways of expressing it. Andrew Sandlin has some helpful suggestions in this regard.

What would it look like today? It would mean that grocers and restaurant owners invite the poor to take their unsold and soon-expired food. It means that pharmacies should offer surplus medicines to the ill who cannot afford to pay for them. It means that software companies offer shareware of obsolete but usable versions of their products. It means that phone and computer hardware retailers donate slightly defective merchandise to the poor. In these and many other ways, God’s law governing care for the poor applies to contemporary culture.[9]

We are only limited by our lack of will and imagination to find creative ways to apply the gleaning laws of Scripture to modern poverty.[10]




[1] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Leviticus (New York, NY:  The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 127
[2] Pe’ ah 1:2 in The Mishnah:  A New Translation, ed. Jacob Neusner (New Haven, CN:  Yale University Press, p. 15)
[3] See:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06edzfeznHM
[4] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, (CCS) (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2004), p. 225
[5] John D. Currid, Leviticus, (EPSC) (New York, NY:  Evangelical Press USA, 2004), p. 251
[6] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT), (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 266
[7] Notice that Boaz commanded his reapers to go above and beyond the law. “Boaz instructed his young men, saying, ‘Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do no rebuke her’” (vv. 15-16).
[8] Gary North, Leviticus:  An Economic Commentary (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1994)
[9] Andrew Sandlin, Christian Culture:  An Introduction (Mount Hermon, CA:  Center for CulturalLeadership, 2013), p. 51
[10] George Grant has written an excellent book on the subject, Bringing in theSheaves:  Replacing Government Welfarewith Biblical Charity (Franklin, TN:  Ars Vitae, 1995)

Comments

Excellent lesson, Doug. The perspective of the poor being helped by themselves within their ability with the opportunity created by those with enough is lacking today. The free handout of welfare is, in some sense, enslaving to both the giver and the receiver. for the very reasons you pointed out. Great post!

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