The meaning of gleaning
The Bible warns us that an obsession with the ‘good’ of productivity actually prevents us from doing real good.
23 JULY 2019 · 14:30 CET
‘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
The Bible gives various instructions to farmers – that is, most of the early Israelite population.
Some, like the ban on mixing crops in Leviticus 19:19, seem irrelevant for today (though, assuming other articles in this series are to be believed, they are not). Others, like the laws that ensure there is produce left to be gleaned by the needy, appear only of tangential importance.
Since very few poor people now attempt to glean grain and fruit from farmers’ fields, why should the agricultural industry not use its land to full effect?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is not a great deal of overt guidance about how we should treat the environment in the Bible. There are some relevant laws, but little on the issues we might consider most pressing.
In a world with a fraction of today’s population and decidedly limited use of fossil fuels (though not zero – Noah did coat the Ark with bitumen), consumption of coal and oil was not a major concern.
But that doesn’t mean the Bible is disinterested in sustainability. In fact, some of the key laws about land and finance – the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 25 – point to an intense concern for both economic and agricultural sustainability.
The ideas of financial justice and care for the land are woven together in the Sabbatical laws, where the land rests (lies fallow) every seventh year, but also slaves are freed and debts are forgiven.
There is a sense in the Bible that humans are predisposed to overwork – not because we’re innately hard-working, but because we like accumulating wealth. And when you don’t put limits around that, it inevitably results in injustice and oppression.
Amos describes this in his graphic depiction of the lengths traders will go to in order to make money: ‘Hear this, you who trample on the needy, who do away with the poor of the land, asking, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain? When will the Sabbath end, that we may market wheat? Let us reduce the ephah and increase the shekel; let us cheat with dishonest scales. Let us buy the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the chaff with the wheat!” (Amos 8:4-6)
When money is the most important thing in life, everything else by definition comes second – including other people. One of the purposes of the Sabbath rest was to serve as a brake on that human tendency to let the wrong thing take priority.
There is a parallel here with Leviticus 19:9-10. Just as the Sabbath and Sabbatical laws limited the time in which the Israelites should do productive work, so the gleaning laws limited the space of their productivity.
Leviticus does not say, ‘Harvest to the edge of thine fields, and take a second – yea verily an third – pass of thine olive trees with the beating sticks, for this is good stewardship and an efficient use of the land the Lord thy God has given thee.’
The intentional wastefulness of Leviticus 19:9-10 may not sit well with the modern mindset. Productivity and efficiency are vital for maintaining our ever-rising GDP. Time is money, as Benjamin Franklin said – an utterly corrosive idea that has permeated almost everything we do.
So, too, are we indoctrinated with the idea that we must get the most out of every resource – including the land, with intensive farming methods that use up the soil and require the constant addition of new fertilisers, and chemicals to maximise yields.
But in the Bible, wringing the most out of the land was like wringing every hour and minute out of the week: something that was not just unnecessary, but undesirable.
The Bible warns us that an obsession with the ‘good’ of productivity actually prevents us from doing real good: looking after the alien, the orphan and the widow. Permitting gleaning served a kind of double purpose in this respect.
It offered direct benefit to the most marginalised in society, who could come and gather leftover crops – just as Ruth does in Boaz’s fields.
But it also served as a visible and tangible reminder to better-off Israelites that they were not to prioritise their own harvest and prosperity at the expense of those who struggled to find their next meal.
21st century gleaning
The Bible’s teaching on gleaning is also a reminder to us that the way we treat scarce commodities – whether time, land or non-renewable resources – has ethical as well as financial implications.
A clear link has now been established between environmentally harmful and unsustainable practices and injustice.
It is the poorest in the world who will be most affected by climate change, including extreme weather events and rising temperatures and sea levels brought about by our consumption of fossil fuels.
It is those who have no voice, and no money for legal redress, who are most disadvantaged by pollution of their water sources and land. It is also the poorest – often children – who are exploited to mine the metals and create the goods that underpin our western lifestyles.
Where there is no brake on consumption, neither can there be a brake on the productivity that fuels it.
Unlike the Israelites, these issues won’t be addressed by tinkering around the edges (or in their case, simply leaving the edges alone).
For decades – centuries even – our prosperity has been predicated on selling the future. And there isn’t much of that future left to sell. Our 21st century version of gleaning needs to be correspondingly radical.
Guy Brandon is the Senior researcher for the Jubilee Centre.