Ancient History, History, King of Hopelessness: A Study of Ruth

King of Hopelessness, pt 5 (2:1-3)

וּלְנָעֳמִי מוֹדַע לְאִישָׁהּ אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר חַיִל מִ‍מִּשְׁפַּחַת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ וּשְׁמוֹ בֹּעַז׃
וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֶל־נָעֳמִי אֵלְכָה־נָּא הַשָּׂדֶה וַאֲלַקֳטָה בַשִּׁבֳּלִים אַחַר אֲשֶׁר אֶמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ לְכִי בִתִּי׃
וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתָּבוֹא וַתְּלַקֵּט בַּשָּׂדֶה אַחֲרֵי הַקֹּצְרִים וַיִּקֶר מִקְרֶהָ חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה לְבֹעַז אֲשֶׁר מִ‍מִּשְׁפַּחַת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ׃

Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.

Clans. If you went to Sunday School, then you have heard about the tribes of Israel. Unfortunately, the term tribe has taken on a meaning that it did not have when that phrase was coined. The Hebrew word translated as tribe is שֵׁבֶט (shebet) and it is borrowed from the Egyptian word sepat, their primary system of government. The tribe was primarily a geographic designation, although it also seems to have had something to do with the way language was used. For example, the Judahites believed the Ephraimites could not pronounce the Hebrew word shibboleth correctly (Judges 12:1-6).

Within the tribe, various family clans (מִשְׁפָּחָה, mēshpachah) emerged. It was the clan leaders who led the tribes by assembling and acting together. This is actually demonstrated all through Judges and 1 Samuel. Therefore, the fact that Boaz is called a worthy man (אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר חַיִל, ēsh gēbbor chēl) or perhaps more correctly a mighty man of his clan is significant. We do not know Elimelech’s lot in life, but it is clear that Boaz would have been higher up in the clan.

Gleaning. In later Hebrew law, harvesters were commanded not to pick over their fields twice. They were allowed one pass, and the remainder was left behind for the poor. (Deuteronomy 24:19) It is very likely that this passage in Ruth provides the support for this practice. Although most English translations have glean here, the underlying word is simply gather (לָקַט , laqat) and is used throughout Genesis and other books to simply indicate the act of gathering. It is used in Exodus for the gathering of Mannah (Exodus 16).

Ruth decides that the best way to provide for herself and Naomi is to try to pick through the stubble for grain. It is important to realize that what Ruth was looking for was not whole stalks of ripe, waving wheat. She would have probably been on her hands and knees gathering individual, loose spikes of barley.

One of the technological advances of the Bronze Age was the development of barley that did not release its seeds. The trait is recessive, which meant that without genetic engineering the best they could do was to plant fields of barley that mostly did not release their seeds. That meant probably as much as 10% of the barley wound up on the ground. Ruth was gathering these loose grains, probably in the folds of her skirt and then piling them (אָסַף, asaf) somewhere until she could take them home.

This gleaning was distinct from the reaping (קָצַר , qatzar) which involved cutting down the stalks and binding them into sheaves. It was tiring, hard work, and we find out later that she set to it with a will.

Fields. Without knowing it, Ruth gleans into the fields owned by Boaz. The property lines of ancient Palestine were not as clear or as sacred as we treat our lines today. According to the book of Joshua, each clan had designated lands but how those lands were divided among the clans is a bit hazy. Most likely, there were landmarks – rocks and trees, hills, etc. – that the landowners used to distinguish. But when harvest time came, everyone worked everyone’s fields.

Small communities still operate this way. Families helped their neighbors and were helped in turn. It was a matter of survival. Remember that Bethlehem was only a couple hundred people, and many of them were shepherds. The planters would have left their fields to help with the lambing, and now the shepherds would have left their flocks with the youngest sons to help with the harvest. (That little bit of information is helpful in understanding David’s story.)

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