Tag Archives: Gleaning

The Ancients Way of Welfare

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:9-10 (NRSV)

The ancient Hebrew legal system had a way of providing food for the poor. Farmers were forbidden from harvesting everything in their fields. The edges of the field (e.g. more easily accessible) were to be left unharvested. In addition, if grapes or grain fell to the ground during harvest they were to be left there. Those who were poor could gather food from the fields.

The thing I find fascinating about this ancient tax and welfare system is that the poor still had to work to gather the fruit or grains themselves. If they were incapable of harvesting themselves, then they had to work to arrange for someone else to do it for them. Once harvested, at least some of that which was gathered still had to be prepared. It wasn’t a “free” handout. It required some effort of the recipient.

This morning I’m thinking about giving and gleaning. Having been raised in the midwest and steeped in the Protestant work ethic, I’ve always known that the value of work goes beyond the paycheck. When you work for what you have you earn self-respect and self-esteem. There are always exceptional situations, but I have always thought it foolish to base societal rules on exceptional situations. In general, I believe there is something subtly and insidiously damaging to a soul when it continuously reaps without having to glean.

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Industrious Generosity

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 left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Deuteronomy 24:19 (NRSV)

It’s harvest time in Iowa. As Wendy and I have been driving through the countryside the past few days the combines are busy bringing in the corn and beans. Look across the horizon at the right time and you’ll see a haze of dust from the corn being harvested. It’s the nearest thing we have to smog in the otherwise clean Iowa air. The silos are full and the corn is being piled up in huge mountains of golden grain.

Perhaps that’s why it struck me this morning when the chapter discussed the harvest. In the law of Moses, farmers were not supposed to take all of the grain from the fields, pick all of the olives from the tree, or harvest every grape. They were to leave some for those in society who have nothing so that they could come and eat or sell what they harvested to make a little money.

The thing that I appreciate about the ancient welfare program was that it still required those in need to be industrious if they wanted to benefit from the farmers’ excess. You still had to make your way to the field and then had to do the work of harvesting what you needed.

I have observed along my life journey that those who are capable of being industrious but are not required to do anything for a handout soon come to routinely expect something for nothing. Today, I am appreciative of the Law of Moses which made provision for those in need, but expected that every capable member of society be industrious in providing for themselves.

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featured photo: catdancing via Flickr

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 19

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“When you harvest your land, don’t harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don’t strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10 (MSG)

It is spring in Iowa and as I drive down the highway I can see the perfectly planted rows of corn and soybeans emerging in bright green dotted lines on a canvas of thick, espresso and black soil. Farmers have planted their fields wisely to get as many seeds in each row and as many rows in each field to ensure, God willing, a high yield and a measureable profit. Come harvest, they will gather as much grain as they possibly can for market.

I found it an interesting contrast to read God’s command to the farmers in the days of Moses. Poverty was as much a social issue and economic reality for people in the days of Moses as it is today. What I find fascinating in today’s chapter is that God’s prescription was for individuals to take personal responsibility for giving of their own means to the poor in their own community. The farmer left some of his field unharvested so that the poor in his community could eat and have a little to trade for their needs. There was a direct transaction of goods between people who knew one another and lived together in community. I also note that God did not command the farmer to harvest the crop and give some his profits to the poor, not did he command Moses and his cabinet of elders to take grain from farmers and administrate a system of distribution among the poor. The crop was left standing and the gleanings left so that the poor had to go to the field and do the work of harvesting it for themselves. It was a constant reminder to those of fewer means that the harder they worked, the more they had to eat and trade. There were no food stamps in the law of Moses, only food available for those who were willing to do the work to harvest it.

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