Ruth, gleaning, and providing for the Future

In the beginning of Ruth 2, we come across Ruth and Naomi, two intrepid widows joined by the bonds of love, yet dealing with a practical problem: they don’t have food and they don’t have money, so how are they going to survive in Bethlehem, where they recently returned? They have fallen in a gap and there is no financial plan for the future which covers them.

They are in this situation primarily because their husbands have died, they have been absent to a different country for a decade, and they don’t have clear access to what they need. The land that Naomi owns, which we will find out about only in chapter 4, has somehow fallen either into disuse or into the de facto control of someone else. If in disuse, it was not planted so they would get no food from it for an entire calendar year (they are at the beginning of harvest time now, and there would not be another harvest for a year). Or someone else from within the clan of Elimelech is using it, and they are loath to give back from the work they have put into it. Whatever the case, Naomi and Ruth don’t have food, don’t have a job, and don’t have a husband, so they fall back on the social safety net to stay alive.

Social Safety Nets

In today’s terms, the social safety net involves webs of governmental programs, non-government organizations, and charitable groups (like this church) who help through food, finances, provision of places to stay, training, etc., when someone is in a position like Naomi and Ruth. In our time, the logical place for Naomi and Ruth to begin would be to go and apply for food aid through some governmental program. But nothing like that existed in ancient Israel. What to do?

Ruth comes up with a plan falling back on a well-known and oft-practiced practice in their time and place: gleaning. Gleaning refers to going through a field which has been harvested and picking up the leftovers from the harvest. There is certainly food to be had, but it is long, hard work and the returns for the efforts are quite small compared to those returns from harvesting.

Gleaning Laws

The right for widows, orphans, and destitute to glean in ancient Israel is enshrined in the Law. Leviticus 19.9-10 is one of the many places which say the same thing:

9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (NIV)

During harvest, the owners of the field were to leave a certain amount of the field—probably around the edges—standing. The gleaners could go through here. Also, in the harvesting process, anything that got dropped as the harvesters used their sickles or bound the stalks into bundles, was to be left for the gleaners. While a far cry from a social security check or a WIC card, these provisions accomplished the same basic outcome: those who had resources were to provide for those who didn’t.

All these commands rest on the same basic premise: God is the owner of the land. God gives land to the different tribes and families as their possessions, but he does not forfeit ownership of the land. He still reserves the right to tell them what they may and may not do with it. And one of the things that all owners of the land are required to do is to allow gleaning so that those like Ruth and Naomi who are socially destitute and don’t have land and don’t have the means to survive are still able to get food.

So that’s what Ruth is up to. She is falling back on the social safety net as a means to survive in her destitution.

Provision for the future

I want to take this as a jumping off point for a brief comment about planning for the future. Ruth and Naomi are in a pickle because the social means they had to plan for future security have failed. Their husbands died and they have no children. Thus, their only recourse is the social safety net of picking up stray heads of grain which happened to fall in a field.

There is nothing desirable about Ruth and Naomi’s position at this point. Imagine with me, for a minute, how Elimelech and Ruth’s former husband (Mahlon, as we find out in chp 4), would feel about what is going on. They certainly didn’t plan on dying, but if they could have prepared some way so that their widows did not have to suffer, I imagine they would have. Now, in an agrarian society there is not much you can do to prepare to provide for your loved ones in the event that you die. We are in a different situation today.

Financial preparation for the future

I just want to encourage you to think about those who are financially dependent on you and what ways, if any, you are planning to provide for them in the event you die or become unable to work in some other way.

Did you know, Social Security estimates that roughly one of every four people in their 20s today will experience some sort of physical disability limiting or removing their ability to work for a year or longer in the course of their lifetime? How many of us are financially prepared for losing a year of income? Are you prepared to provide for your loved ones in the event that you lose the ability to work or die? These questions are worth thinking about as we see this example of Ruth and Naomi scrambling to survive because that’s the only thing they’ve got.

Planning for future hardships

Making financial plans for the future is a sensible part of being good stewards of the money and resources God has given to us. In church, there’s often talk about what you do with 10% of your money and the importance of giving. And that’s all important and there needs to be a time to talk about that. But consider that God expects us to do wise and faithful things with 100% of the money and possessions that we have, not just 10%. And one wise principle to follow from scripture and seen from life is to plan on a loss of ability to work and possibly the loss of your life prematurely. What ways can you lessen the impact such an event will have on loved ones who are dependent upon you?

This calls for thinking about things like savings accounts, life insurance, disability insurance, and investments. Not everyone can afford such things, but if you have margin to do so, they provide a wise way to limit the likelihood that your family members will be falling into poverty and desperation in the even that you die or lose the ability to work. In fact, it is worth considering how to make margin in our lives to afford such tools.