Public Square & Theology 101

Gleaning – A Guide to Christian Charity?

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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. – Leviticus 23:22

This passage is among several that teach the practice of gleaning. Most commonly understood from the story of Ruth, gleaning is the practice through which a farmer would leave some of his crop in the fields, and afterward the poor would gather some of those crops for their own sustenance.

There are several important points wrapped up in the practice of gleaning which are significantly different than how assistance for the poor is often conducted today.

1. The responsibility was personal rather than corporate. 

The command to leave something in the field went to all of Israel, but it was up to the individual farmer to determine how to implement the command.

The command was not to leave a certain percent of the yield, or a given number of rows of crops at the edge of the field. No, the command was for the benefit of the poor, and the farmer would have to choose how much to leave.

The principle of subsidiarity, of letting more immediate groups address the issue, was applied so that the individual farmer could make the decision that best fit his needs and the needs of the poor in his area.

2. What was given depended on the crops grown by the farmer. 

An implicit part of this command is that the farmer was to contribute what he had to the poor. Instead of requiring cash or a particular type of crop, he would leave gleanings of whatever he happened to grow.

The farmer had an ethical obligation to contribute to the well-being of the poor, but it was as a part of what he was already doing, not an additional burden.

3. The poor had to do the gleaning. 

This third point, perhaps the most important, is that the person who needed the assistance was required to work for it.

Rather than sitting expectantly in his house, the hungry man was required to go to the farmer’s field and pick the produce, then prepare it. This meant that there was a connection between work and providence, a point that could bear some expansion given the present welfare culture.

4. The gleaning could result in a new economic enterprise or in present sustenance.

Because the farmer was leaving produce in the field, the poor could either gather it for food or could gather some of it for seed. In this manner, both the immediate and long term needs of the poor were being met. The poor could be fed, and they gained an opportunity for self-support in the future.

In the future I’ll further explore how the biblical practice of gleaning compares to the contemporary practice of charity.

What implications do you think gleaning has for how Christians practice charity today? Leave your comments here

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  • Dan Burke

    Nice post. It is interesting that this command resulted in a freedom of conscience before God and man. Each one in praying to his creator and judge would experience confidence or lack thereof as his works regarding the command would either accuse or excuse him. Each one would also be known within his community as either liberal or stingy according to his farming/business ethic. In this way private enterprise encourages virtue within a community.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Dan, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It is very interesting that we find what is often seen as a New Testament concept of individual accountability to God found in the Old Testament Law. And yet, much as the New Testament calls Christians to spur each other on to good works (Heb. 10:24), we see the influence that the community can have on the behavior of individuals.

      The people of God are to be a holy community comprised of holy individuals, but what individual holiness looks like may vary depending on a persons conscience. (cf. Paul’s comments about sexual immorality defiling the church in 1 Cor 5 and his discussion on eating meat offered to idols in 1 Cor 8.) This concept appears to be a unifying feature in the Old and New Testaments.

  • JBarton3

    I enjoyed this post, although I’m not sure I agree that gleaning is “personal rather than corporate.” Gleaning is part of the agricultural poor-laws of the Bible. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy are specific about how the practice is to be implemented and Ruth gives a good description of the practice. It was not up to the individual farmer to interpret the law. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia (, the rabbis interpreted the practice and anyone violating the law was punished by stripes (beating).

    • AndrewSpencer

      Thank you for your comment. I certainly could have been more specific in my explanation of the concept. Let me offer two points of clarification.

      First, you are correct that the means of application of the law were strongly influenced by the communal interpretation of the law. However, the text itself does not provide a specific outline for the amount of the crop to be left, and I am commenting on the inspired text rather than a particular community’s interpretation of it. I have little doubt that among the thousands of pages of midrash there were various and specific interpretations but God did not give that to us, it was developed by man. What God gave to Moses was an outline that was open to interpretation. Given the specific detail that is offered for many provisions in the OT Law, the absence of detail here seems noteworthy, which is more to my point.

      Second, despite any communal, extrabiblical standard that was enforced, the command was given to the individual farmer rather than the community as a whole. This is as opposed to a command to, for example, gather all of the
      gleaning together in order to place it in a warehouse in the center of the community. The command to maintain a central warehouse would have been a
      command given to the community. In other words, the command wasn’t for the
      community as an organic whole to take care of the poor, but rather for the
      individuals that comprised the community to take part in the activity. There
      was still, however, a communal responsibility to ensure that the poor were
      cared for.

      A biblical example to illustrate the difference I see between a corporate and personal command can be found in Exodus 25:1-9. God commands that the people of Israel build a sanctuary (v.8), but the resources that were to be gathered to support the building were to be given by “every man whose heart moves him” (v. 2). There was a corporate command to build the sanctuary and to take a collection, but the individual was to determine the type of resource to give (from the list provided in v. 3-7) and the amount.

      I would argue that likewise the gleaning laws provide a corporate command to
      provide for the poor through leaving some crops, but the text itself does not
      provide a specification for how much the individual should leave. One could
      also consider Paul’s command to the Corinthian church to take up an offering (1 Cor 16:1) compared to the individual liberty allowed in determination of the
      amount of the offering (2 Cor 9:6-15).

      I am sure that there is more to think about here in the dynamic between corporate and personal responsibility to do good works. Thank you for helping to sharpen the discussion.

  • bethyada

    I had always emphasised item 3 (and occasionally 1), they had to work for it. Additionally, the work was harder for them in that they got the gleanings and edges, not the first pickings. Probably reasonable given that they did not do the planting or tending. Nevertheless, the farmer was not required to harvest and thresh for the poor person.

    The additional items 2 and 4 are helpful, though I had thought the problem would be land rather than seed.


  • Henry

    We have been attended a wonderful Unicef charity event in London where the organisers managded to raise 190K for Syrian children. I will forward them this blog as it contains very useful information so maybe it will help them to raise even more money for this fantastic case.

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