Chapter 11 (Gleaning) pages 195-208
Leviticus chapter 19 is the only chapter within the Biblical book that appears to deal with almost unrelated legislation not very logically strung together. It’s no wonder, then, that North takes the next 9 chapters of his book to develop his teaching as there are many differing statutes that need to be commented on.
The present chapter begins with the quote of Lev 19:9-10 and, though this stands alone, it should really be read in conjunction with two parallel passages in the Law at Lev 23:22 (which is an insertion into the overall thrust of the annual festivals laid upon Israel by YHWH) and Deut 24:19-22 (again located within a series of seemingly unrelated laws).
Both these passages need to be considered along with this Levitical one as they not only support the legislation but provide insights as to the reason for it and an explanation of what God intended to be done because of it.
North is correct when he notes (page 196) that
‘...gleaning is to be our guideline for charity: those in the community who have been called in the West “the deserving poor” are to be allowed to do hard work in order to support themselves and improve their condition. God expects the more successful members of a community to provide economic opportunities for such willing laborers - opportunities for service’
This is indeed the principle behind the gleaning legislation not just here but in the other two passages previously noted but it's not the only principle given within the Law to support the poor which appears to go unnoticed by North throughout his chapter.
North will go on to state (page 204) that
‘Biblical law specified that the man with landed wealth should share his wealth with the deserving poor, but not the poor in general’
‘The idea of morally compulsory, non-conditional charity was foreign to the laws of the Mosaic Covenant’
but, for instance, the legislation of Deut 14:28-29 and 26:12-15 commands the Israelite to provide for the ‘sojourner, the fatherless and the widow’ (the latter two classes of Israelite that were a part of the ‘poor’) out of the third year tithe regardless of work contributed. That is to say, though gleaning necessitated work to achieve food, the distribution of the tithe did not.
Neither did the seventh year provision for the poor (Ex 23:10-11) imply hard work for the poor who were allowed to take from all the cultivated plants any fruit and produce that grew of itself. Though this did imply the necessity to go out into the fields and gather, it did not mean work of the kind that would have been their yearly duty to perform at harvest time.
Therefore, although the legislation under consideration does teach the principle that the ‘deserving poor’ should have opportunity made available to them to work to support themselves even when there’s no substantial work for them, there’s also provision made in the Law for their welfare that’s not dependent upon them working.
But, as North accurately points out in the passage quoted, there’s an obligation for every nation to provide opportunity for the poor in their midst to support themselves.
North asserts (page 196) that
‘...[the poor] had no legal claim on the primary sources of income of an agricultural community...There was no State-financed welfare in Israel’
This is true. Even though the tithe was given every third year to the poor and the harvest of what grew of itself every seventh year, these didn’t represent the ‘primary sources’ of Israelite income. They were provisions for the poor out of items that the contributors were not allowed to participate in.
Just how this works out in today’s society seems difficult to imagine - there should be provision made for the poor to be given (with or without hard work as noted above) that which is not allowed to be used by the general population. But there’s no criteria that can be employed to determine just what these items may be.
We’d be going too far to say that the poor should be given those items that nobody wants as the provision of the Law doesn’t indicate this - it simply states that, though the Israelite may want the extra provision of the fulness of the harvest or the ten per cent of income, they aren’t legally entitled to it and it must be allowed to be passed on to the poor who are in their midst.
That there was no ‘State-financed’ welfare system in Israel is certain and North is accurate when he makes the statement. But North’s idea that there was a kind of State system in effect at this time in Israel’s history is incorrect. I’ve previously mentioned that, at this point in time, the ‘State’ comprised only ruling elders who were over tribes and that the nation regulated itself fairly well without an elected body to oversee general controls and limitations upon the society. As such, the statement that no State welfare system existed is misleading as, being no State until at least the kingdom of Saul, there couldn’t possibly have been one!
Therefore, though North’s statement is correct, we’d hardly expect there to be made mention of any such welfare system in the Law - but we do find legislation that lays upon the nation the need to provide for the less well off Israelites and foreigners who were in their midst.
This is important, because North immediately goes on to note (page 197) that
‘The text specifies no negative institutional sanction that had to be imposed on a landowner who refused to honor the gleaning laws. God is indirectly revealed as the agent who would bring negative sanctions against a landowner who refused to honor the gleaning laws. The State was not authorized by the text to bring these sanctions’
but, more alarmingly, he concludes the paragraph by stating that
‘God would curse the owner [the one who did not allow the poor to glean] directly...’
even though God doesn’t state that any negative sanctions would be brought to bear upon those farmers who refused to provide for the poor. Rather, the only statement we have is that God would bless those who did provide for the poor. Deut 24:19 states that (my italics)
‘When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten 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 YHWH God may bless you in all the work of your hands’
Here we’re probably not going too far to say that those Israelites who left gleanings for the poor and who were careful not to remove their entire harvest, would have more than those who gathered every last scrap of their harvest - solely because God would bless the generous but there’s no indication that He’d curse the tight-fisted.
When North sees in the text the implication that God would take it upon Himself to curse the transgressor, he’s observing the antithesis of what is actually there. The person who would not provide for the poor would gain a good harvest - but the person who did provide for the poor would get a better harvest and, in my opinion only, grow richer than his brother because of God’s blessing - rather than as a result of God’s curse.
North concludes the section by noting (page 197) that
‘The law applied only to agriculture: field and vineyard. Field and vineyard are the sources of bread and wine: Melchizedek’s meal for Abram...and also the Lord’s Supper’
Actually, the gleaning laws were also to be applied to the olive crop (Deut 24:20) - a symbol of the Holy Spirit. About these three symbols - wine, bread and oil - see on their inclusion on all sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle here.
North devotes a fair section of his chapter to definitions of piece-rate employed harvesters and salaried harvesters and their relationship to the poor and to the farmer who’d employ them. Unfortunately, all three passages of Scripture cited in my short introduction to this section don’t mention the existence of any hired hands.
That there may have been ‘reapers’ in existence who had a seasonal job of harvesting fields is suggested by Scripture in, for instance, Ruth 2:3-5 and Mtw 13:30 but the Scripture makes no mention of the treatment of such workers (apart from general statutes regarding all types of hired hands - Deut 24:14-15). Besides, if such seasonal work did take place, it leaves the question open as to what type of employment the reapers undertook during the months when no harvest was ripe and ready for harvest.
It’s equally possible that, instead of hired hands, family members were the ‘reapers’ of the land - but the point isn’t worth pressing here. The fact that the Law doesn’t envisage a set up that subsequently took place should not concern us, but to stay within the bounds of the commandment should.
The gleaning laws are concerned to outline the relationship that was to exist between the land owner (who had the right to grow crops on the land either by inheritance or by payment of a ‘crop-price’ until it’s release back to its rightful owners in the year of Jubilee) and the poor of the land. The Law isn’t aiming to comment on the relationship between any hired hands that may or may not be needed but to provide a way for the less well off Israelites to find provision for their lives from God through their brother.
Additionally, the ‘Welfare State’ is seen not to be an organisation under the Law but is comprised of the individuals who make up the community - whether locally or nationally. That is to say, provision for the poor is not only a right of the poor but an obligation of the better off who gain an increase from their own possessions.
Today (and I can only speak for the situations I know in the UK where I live) taxes are compulsory deductions made from reluctant contributors. Even if the statutory taxes were removed from off the necks of the masses, the desire to feed the poor would unlikely to find much adherence amongst the population. While men and women are willing to be free from any economic burden from purely selfish considerations, they aren’t equally willing to be constrained to provide for the poor.
If we were to return to a situation that the Law envisages as being necessary for the survival of the poor, then there would need to be a radical shift in the mind-set not only of the present day State system but in the heart and outlook of mankind.
North is accurate when he says (page 201-2) that
‘Had it not been for the gleaning system, the only rural alternative would have been starvation or beggary in the country. They would have moved to the cities, as starving people all over the world do today’
This is clear evidence that the reality of the legislation is not a present day reality. But, more than this, when men and women found themselves drawn to the big cities of their nation in search of prosperity, the majority of them have found a meagre existence awaiting them, often becoming enslaved in occupations that have exploited and destroyed them.
This may well have been a very real danger in the nation of Israel once they’d gained access to Canaan - therefore a side provision of the law would have been to protect the Israelite society from moral decay by ensuring that an over-population of city-dwellers didn’t come to depend on insufficient resources.
North is right when he says (page 202)
‘While a rich man might move permanently to a city, the poor person was encouraged by the gleaning law to stay closer to home...This law was a means of retarding the growth of an unemployed urban proletariat’
North envisages the landowner/farmer as having a right to exclude gleaners from his field. He notes (page 203 - my italics) that
‘The poor person who was poor as a result of his own bad habits did not have to be subsidized by the landowner and the professional harvesters who worked his fields. The landowner had the right to exclude some poor people from access to his fields’
but this is purely fanciful. The farmer is given no right under the law to exclude any poor from his land when they came to glean in accordance with the legislation. Regardless of his own preferences or of their personal habits, the onus was upon him to open his fields (though there could have been very little security in those days to prevent anyone from entering the land-holding) to all those who fell into the relevant category.
Therefore North’s (page 203)
‘...the gleaning law was a form of conditional charity in each individual recipient’s case...’
is misguided along with his absolute statement in the same paragraph that
‘Biblical charity is always conditional. Charity is not to subsidize evil, for it is an act of grace. Unconditional charity is antinomian’
Of course, this isn’t true. This passage is not moral, categorical law (such as the ten commandments) that lays down punishments for transgressors and divides up people into the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ but it’s relating what’s necessary to be done for the classes of people who’re still within the land - that the poor were still dwelling within the land and hadn’t been excluded from the camp of Israel through expulsion or execution was proof enough that they were law-keepers and not law-breakers.
Had the gleaners been the latter, then Israel (if it was living in obedience to the Old Covenant) would already have dealt with them in accordance with the legislation received from God. The gleaners had to be presumed innocent unless there was certain evidence that they stood guilty before God - but, if they did, then they would have been dealt with before they managed to reach the field where they were expected to glean.
Therefore, the landowner/farmer had no right to withhold access to his field to anyone who fell into the categories outlined - to do such a thing would have been to make divisions and distinctions that would have been based upon personal relationships and opinions and not sound precepts of the Law.
Pages 204-6 provide some interesting insights into the gleaning legislation, even though North’s insistence that the Law made all provision for the poor conditional is incorrect as previously shown. His summation of the laws is good when he says
‘Gleaning provides a lesson to the poor: there are no free lunches in life...If there had been any other source of income, other than begging, [the poor] would have taken it. The hard work and low pay of gleaning was an incentive for the individual to get out of poverty’
That the effort needed to obtain a decent measure of food was excessive compared to other forms of employment is correct and it’s unlikely that very much in the way of excess would have been collected that could have been sold in the markets for other products that were needed. Therefore North’s (page 201)
‘...the gleaner was enabled to obtain a competitive market price for the output of his labor’
is probably misguided. It would have been unlikely that such a resource of grain would have been achieved that there was a possibility that a surplus could be sold.
Further, when North states (page 205) that
‘Gleaning gave the poor Israelite an opportunity to gain management and other skills as a landowner prior to the time that he or his children would be given back the original family land grant through the jubilee land law’
it should be asked how the simple act of gleaning trains a person in land management. Gleaning would not have been a skill that would have been used when the land was returned under the jubilee laws, so how could this skill have benefited the poor gleaner?
Leviticus Home Page
Old Doctrines Home Page