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The Story of Ruth: The Kinsman Redeemer

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our relative? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do.” (Ruth 3:1-4)

Naomi knew it was just a matter of time. Once the harvest was over, their livelihood would again be in jeopardy unless…unless a kinsman redeemer[1] would step in and come to their rescue. Boaz, though not the nearest relative, would be their first resort. After all, he already knew Ruth and had shown a concern for her welfare as well as, by extension, Naomi’s own. The time had come for a bold plan.

At the threshing floor

English: Threshing place. The circle is made f...

English: Threshing place. The circle is made from concrete. Harvested straw is put on the concrete surface and a donkey is made to walk on it in circles, which causes the process of threshing. On the left (front of the picture) visible leftovers (mostly tailings and chaff). Around the perimeter there is some threshed straw. On the floor there are some threshed grains. Photo taken near Vlyhada (Santorini, Greece). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Boaz worked alongside his hired men at the threshing floor—a cleared solid surface of hard-packed dirt or rock—preparing for the final stage of the weeks-long harvest.[2] Ruth watched as this kind kinsman, or was it one of his workers, expertly urged draft animals, whether oxen or donkeys is unclear, to drag heavy threshing sledges[3] back and forth over the sheaves, breaking down the stalks into husks, straw, and grain kernels. Then experienced hands wielding wooden pitchforks lifted the straw away so the process of winnowing could begin.

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan (Photo credit: Hadi Zaher)

In the cooling evening breezes, waiting crews used winnowing forks, tossing the remaining grain into the air. Mesmerized, Ruth watched lighter stalks and husks (the chaff) be whisked away on capricious currents of wind, and the heavier kernels plummet back to the floor in a haphazard heap. Then mounds of the tawny pellets were scooped up and sifted through trays to remove any remaining dirt and debris. The clean grain was finally ready for immediate use or storage in sealed clay jars.

As the last rays of sunlight grew dusky, weary workers allowed themselves to relax, enjoying food and drink, celebrating harvest’s end. Bellies full and hearts merry, first one and then another fell silent, except for an occasional grunt and snore. Ruth’s gaze followed Boaz through the dimness as he made his way to the end of a grain pile, spread his blanket, and quickly dropped off to sleep.

Naomi’s instructions had been quite clear: Wash yourself, put on your best garment, go back to the threshing floor, and wait for the moment of opportunity. That time had come. Ruth quietly made her way to where Boaz lay, uncovered his feet, and lay down.

The Kinsman-Redeemer

Naomi’s strategy was one of enlisting the involvement of the kinsman-redeemer.[4] Now Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet, anticipating the opportunity to bring Naomi’s plan to fruition. His sleep suddenly troubled, she watched him awake with a start sensing her presence in the darkness. “Who are you?” he challenged warily. Ruth responded with her request. “I am you servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me,[5] since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (3:9 NIV).

Flattered by Ruth’s request, Boaz commended her for approaching him, since it is likely that he was considerably older than she, and she might well have chosen a younger man. Rather than interpreting her actions as wily and improper, he afforded her only kindness and respect.[6] He encouraged her to wait until morning for the sake of her reputation and for her own protection. Before first light she could safely return to Naomi, and none would be the wiser. Then he would attend to the business at hand.

Following the rules

Boaz knew there was a kinsman closer than he, and his integrity dictated that he go to him first before proceeding any further. By rights, this relative (who, though unnamed in the Bible, was obviously known to Boaz) could redeem Elimelech’s land either by buying it back, if it had indeed already been sold, or he could buy it outright.

Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz had spoken came by. So Boaz said, “Come aside, friend,[7] sit down here.” So he came aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. Then he said to the close relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, sold the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. And I thought to inform you, saying, Buy it back in the presence of the inhabitants and the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am next after you.'”

And he said, “I will redeem it.”

What happened next affords a certain opportunity for speculation. Was Boaz disappointed when the near kinsman quickly accepted the responsibility? He obviously had more than a casual interest in Ruth and her welfare. Or had he anticipated just such a response, and, as the astute business man he undoubtedly was (Scripture describes him as a mighty man of wealth), knew just when to bring up an additional requirement to put the negotiations in jeopardy? Note the various translations of verse 5 below:

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance” (NKJV).

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property” (NIV).

Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (NRSV).

Boaz had just introduced the obligation of a levirate marriage, and the kinsman, recognizing the inherent liabilities that such an arrangement could impose on his own family, quickly forfeited his right of redemption to Boaz.[8] So, in the presence of ten official witnesses and many onlookers, Mr. So and So removed his sandal, thereby signaling the transfer of the property. A communal blessing followed:

And all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman” (vv. 11-12).

The rest of the story of Ruth

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (vv. 13-17). 

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over p...

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over pencil on paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Summary

The book of Ruth, in its four short chapters, gives one of the few detailed glimpses into the everyday lives of Old Testament characters in the Bible, and in particular, women. The reader is exposed to the nuances of the desperate plight of three widows, two of whom found themselves displaced and in foreign lands; and marvels at their courageous efforts to survive by hard work and ingenuity. The reader senses the depth of the bond of devotion to both kin and God, and the bitter anguish of loss. The reader observes the realities and rigors of harvest and manual labor; and sits as one of the collective witnesses to the legal proceedings involving rights of inheritance and preservation of a family line. Lastly, the perceptive reader will recognize and value this book as a beautiful exemplar of kindness, the evidence of which is found on every page.

What a gift to have The Book of Ruth preserved in the pages of the Bible!

 ***

For additional reading please view Mary Hendren’s post,  Levirate Law– in Confusion.

The Writings

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[1] A Ga’al (Strong’s 1350), or kinsman redeemer, could act in several ways. By definition according to http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/gaal.html , the kinsman redeemer could marry a brother’s widow to beget a child for him (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), redeem from slavery (Leviticus 25:47-49), redeem land (Leviticus 25:25), or exact vengeance (Numbers 35:19). In the book of Ruth, Boaz acted as a levir as well as one who preserved claim to the family property.

[2] It is possible that Boaz, and /or others, were overseeing the process. The Archaeological Study Bible, in its cultural and historical note on “The Threshing Floor” (page 608), comments that because the threshing floor was the largest open area within a village,“town elders were typically present to oversee the threshing of the year’s crops.” The threshing floor was also a suitable locale for “legal actions, criminal trials, and public decisions.” The city gate was also used for such proceedings as will later be seen.

[3] Sledges were heavy wooden slabs with teeth made of stone, metal or potsherds fastened to the underside. See Isaiah’s vivid description of the whole process in chapter 41, verses 14-16.

[4] Whether this was simply to assure that Elimelech’s landholdings would be preserved within family lines, or to ensure there would be a son to carry on the family name, or both, are topics for on-going discussion. Leon Wood, in his book, The Distressing Days of the Judges (1982), addresses both: “When an owner was forced to sell property due to poverty, it was the obligation of the nearest relative to buy this property back (thus ‘redeeming’ it), so that it could remain in the possession of the original family” (p. 261). Wood goes on to comment that “it was the obligation of the nearest kinsman, in this instance, not only to purchase the property of Naomi—which really also belonged to Ruth, because of inheritance rights through her dead husband Mahlon—but also to marry Ruth and raise up a son to Mahlon who might then inherit that property in due time” (p. 262).

[5] Scholars do not agree as to the meaning and symbolism associated with this action. Some feel it amounted to a request for protection, while others interpret it as a request for marriage. For a detailed examination of challenges present in the wording of the Hebrew text see

http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/08-ruth/texts/books/leggett-goelruth/leggett-goelruth.pdf, pp. 192-3.

[6] Some have chosen to attribute to both Ruth and Boaz activities or motives of a sexual nature, but others, such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentary in its note regarding Ruth 3:13, write to the contrary: “Both Ruth and Boaz acted virtuously in a situation they knew could have turned out otherwise. Chastity was not an unknown virtue in the ancient world.”

[7] The word friend (NKJV) and kinsman (KJV) in this verse is taken from a Hebrew idiom best translated “Mr. So and So.” It is translated as such in the Tanakh. This idiom is said to have been used when it was not deemed essential to use the person’s actual name. Some think they detect a certain disdain attached to its usage here, since the relative declined to step in to help. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Ruth 4:1-3.

[8] Expositors comments concerning 4:6:”Most scholars interpret the kinsman’s refusal as an awareness that he would be paying part of what should be his own children’s inheritance to buy land that would revert to Ruth’s son as a legal heir of Elimelech.” Others posit he was reluctant to intermarry with a Moabite woman (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-4).

Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament comments on verse 6: “The redemption would cost money, since the yearly produce of the field would have to be paid for up to the year of jubilee. Now, if he acquired the field by redemption as his own permanent property, he would have increased by so much his own possessions in land. But if he should marry Ruth, the field so redeemed would belong to the son whom he would beget through her, and he would therefore have parted with the money that he had paid for the redemption merely for the son of Ruth, so that he would have withdrawn a certain amount of capital from his own possession, and to that extent have detracted from its worth. ‘Redeem thou for thyself my redemption,’ i.e., the field which I have the first right to redeem.”(Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.)

 

The Story of Ruth: New Beginnings

But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Coming home

The small town of Bethlehem was abuzz—Naomi was back after more than ten years! But where was Elimelech? And Mahlon and Chilion? Who was the young foreigner walking beside her? Why did Naomi look so sad?

From the time she entered the gate[1] undoubtedly town elders and townspeople alike plied Naomi with questions. One can only imagine what went through Ruth’s mind, as she, too, encountered first one person and then another, aware of scrutinizing, and sometimes suspicious, eyes. While Israel was enjoying a period of detente with Moab, Ruth was most likely aware of the checkered relationship of their shared past[2] and all that entailed. Now, unfaltering in her pledge of undying devotion to Naomi, she was more resolved than ever to make a new life for herself—Moab, along with its gods and culture, was going to become a thing of the past.

She listened as her mother-in-law told and retold the pitiful story of her plight, lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me” (vv 20-21)? For reasons unstated in scripture, she believed her misfortunes were somehow punishments from her LORD. For that, Ruth could offer no solace.

New beginnings

The rules of hospitality[3] ensured that the two weary women had a place to stay at least temporarily until permanent arrangements could be made, so they probably found lodging with some of Naomi’s relatives or friends. It is assumed, though, that she quickly returned to her husband’s property, possibly a house that had been rented in the family’s absence or guarded by relatives who remained in the land. At least they would have shelter. Their means of support and sustenance was quite another matter.

They had arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth soon learned that Israel had provisions in place to care for the poor including widows, orphans and foreigners: the right to follow behind the reapers and glean the fields. It was hard work for all concerned, and for gleaners it likely represented a tenuous hold on survival. “Since prudent workers worked carefully, the gleaning of the fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to eke out survival today by recycling aluminum cans” (The Book of Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard, 1988, Google Books, p. 138). She wasted no time in gaining permission to work one of the fields, the owner of which, she learned, was a man named Boaz.

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: ...

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: Руфь и Вооз (Руфь 2:2-20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A day’s work

 At first light Ruth watched as reapers, men who were either hired laborers or slaves, established a time-worn rhythm, grasping the mature stalks with one hand, and using a sickle to cut off the grain with the other. When an armload of ear-laden stalks became unmanageable, the reaper laid them in rows by standing stalls where women waited to tie them into bundles eventually to be transported to the threshing floor. There threshers separated the grain from the chaff, and sealed it in jars for later use.

Ruth swiftly moved in behind the laborers, scooping up the precious grist as it fell, and before other gleaners, or avaricious birds could claim the prize. It was backbreaking work, and she did it willingly. Naomi was depending on her. What she did not know is that someone was observing her with keen interest.

  ***

 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers,‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered him,‘The LORD bless you!’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,‘Whose young woman is this?’ So the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered and said, ‘It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house” (Ruth 2:4-7).  

A man views his fields

Boaz[4] had come from Bethlehem to oversee his fields, already alive with harvest activity. He saw the usual familiar crews, but one stranger stood out among them—according to his foreman, she was Ruth, a Moabitess, the widow of Naomi’s son, Mahlon. Curious, he studied her as she swiftly cleaned between the rows, back and forth in the warm springtime sun. He had already heard of her widowhood, and her devotion to Naomi—it was the talk of Bethlehem. Now, seeing her in person, something about Ruth touched him, and he ordered his crew to see to it that she had plenty to glean by purposely dropping stalks along her way.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while Boaz sent for her; she came obediently, bowing her face to the ground, struck by the fact that he would take the time to speak to her, a lowly reaper, and a foreign woman at that. After his assurances for her safety, Ruth found herself invited to share the noon meal with the reapers under the shade of a make-shift shelter. She watched as the laborers deftly roasted ears of freshly harvested barley over a ready fire. Boaz himself quickly removed charred husks, and passed parched kernels to Ruth to eat her fill.[5] She must have marveled at his kindness—a man of such wealth and stature.

Ruth gleaned until evening, and had still more work to do—separating the grain from the chaff. By the time she finally returned to Naomi, she had enough barley to last them for several weeks.[6] Her mother-in-law was amazed, and upon further inquiry, learned that Ruth was gleaning in the field of a near kinsman of her husband’s.

Though Boaz’s benevolence continued to meet the widows’ short-term needs, Naomi knew it simply forestalled the inevitable. Unless something was done to ensure their future survival, very difficult times lay ahead. What they needed was a plan.

To be continued….

[1] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Bible Times, p. 21: “In settlements with no inns, local people were expected to invite out-of-towners into their homes. To be invited, out-of-towners would sit in the street or town square …and wait for an invitation by one of the locals (Judges 19:13). This was done probably by the entrance to the village, where people used to pass (Ruth 4:1)….Houses were so close to each other that people could tell when guests were visiting (v22). Further, the village population was small enough that the arrival of an outsider was noticed and quickly broadcast (Ruth 2:11).”

[2] See Numbers 22 and 25, and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 for the historical backdrop.

[3] The Woman’s Study Bible, Topic, “Hospitality: The Gift of Welcome,” p. 2071, comments, “For the people of the Bible, hospitality was not merely a matter of good manners but a necessity in the harsh desert regions. Hospitality was openly rewarded…(Joshua 2:12-14). Lack of hospitality was punished…(1 Samuel 25:2-39).”

See other posts relating to hospitality on this blog: https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/27/a-point-of-focus/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/;

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/29/the-hospitality-of-two-widows/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/pattern-for-hospitality-in-the-old-testament/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2013/07/21/a-hospitality-of-believers/

[4] Watching her was Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, probably a widower or perhaps one who never married—the Bible doesn’t say. There is no record of any children prior to his marriage to Ruth. Chances are he was older than Ruth—perhaps even by quite a bit—and the record indicates that he was successful—“a mighty man of wealth” of Elimelech’s clan (Ruth 2:1 KJV), making him related to Naomi by marriage.

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, comment on Ruth 2:14.

[6] Expositor’s estimates her gleanings measured about an ephah of barley—approximately one-half to two-thirds of a bushel, estimated to be from 29 to 50 pounds. (See comment on verse 17.)

 

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Locusts

After 400 silent years, God was speaking through a new prophet who called people to repentance and promised someone greater to come.[1]

 Before John the Baptist was born, an angel told his father astounding things about his son. He would have the Holy Spirit before birth. He would never drink wine or alcohol. He would become a great man and turn many people to God. He would preach repentance and prepare people for the Messiah.

Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Zacharias prophesied that his son would be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins (Luke 1:76-77).  With responsibilities of such importance, why did John live an austere life in the desert?

An illustration of John the Baptist preaching ...

An illustration of John the Baptist preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, from the 1875 Young People’s Illustrated Bible History (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John’s message was not a soft one. Like the desert itself, his words were challenging, a shaking of the status quo, an awaking to essentials of change.  As Jesus said of John: But what did you go out into the wilderness to see…a man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.” Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:8-11).

Zealous and bold, John poured himself into a brief, galvanizing ministry. He drew crowds of people from Jerusalem. Multitudes came to be baptized and “ with many other exhortations he preached to the people” (Luke 3:18). John’s lifestyle befitted the role of a prophet in the manner of Elijah.

John’s Diet

It’s curious that we remember so readily unusual things about a person. For example, remembering John’s diet of locusts and honey. To most of us in the western world, locusts seem unappetizing. Even in ancient Israel “insects in general were considered dirty and defiling.”[2] However, these insects make it on the list of foods suitable for human consumption (Lev. 11:20-23). Other desert dwelling creatures like snakes, lizards, geckos, toads, hawks, spiders, centipedes, bobcats, turtles, mice, camels, coyotes, John would not have eaten. Locusts were one of the few clean sources of protein available to him in the wilderness. Composed of 60-75% protein, locusts, when combined with honey, made a nutritious diet.

How John prepared the locusts or if he ate them raw, the Bible doesn’t say. Current recipes for cooking locusts feature them boiled in water, toasted over coals, roasted on skewers, fried in oil, stewed in sauces and sun-dried with salt. Directions for the roasted/toasted/fried and salted versions call for removing the heads, wings and insides, leaving just a crunchy exoskeleton. Sun-dried locusts store indefinitely.  Dried and ground into powder, the meal can be mixed into flour or stirred into liquid (a handy protein shake?). http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/faq/ Check out interesting facts about locusts in the linked article, including recipes for cooking locusts—stuffed with peanuts? Mixed into guacamole for stuffing tacos?

English: Skewered locusts to eat, in Donghuame...

English: Skewered locusts to eat, in Donghuamen, Beijing, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Kind of Locusts?

 The Biblical account of edible insects is brief.

Yet these you may eat of every flying insect that creeps on all fours: those which have jointed legs above their feet with which to leap on the earth. These you may eat: the locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind (Lev.11: 22).

 Entomologists have filled out the description. Locusts and grasshoppers have six legs: four of the legs end in feet for creeping on the ground and two of the legs, the hind ones, are tall and jointed for leaping and hopping. Scientists say that grasshoppers and locusts aren’t significantly different. Both eat grass, grains, cotton, leaves, fruits and vegetables. The NKJV gives the edible insects from the grasshopper family four descriptors: locust, destroying locust, cricket and grasshopper. Other translations of the Bible name them bald locust, beetle and katydid. The prophet Joel used four words to describe them: gnawing locust, swarming locust, creeping locust, and striping locust. And still more names: desert locust, migratory locust and Moroccan locust. Most likely, John ate what is known as the desert locust.

John’s Other Diet

I’m not inclined to try a diet of sun-dried locusts and honey. But John’s other diet is compelling. He fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. Like Jesus Christ, his food was to do the will of God and finish the work he had been given (John 4:34).—Mary Hendren


[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, NIV Vol. 8, p. 98

[2] Oded Borowski, “Every Living Thing, Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel,” p. 159

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Wheat

 ‘To everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food,’ and thus it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good (Genesis 1:30-31).

 Commentators state that the word herb is not limited to plants like sage, rosemary and thyme. The phrase every green herb includes leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and grains. All foods that God created for man are good, not just flavorful greens. He didn’t intend for us to become sick as a result of eating food.  And there’s no evidence that the diseases people suffered in ancient Israel were food-related. (See past posts on the diseases of first century Palestine, posted on 11/05/12 and 11/07/12.)

A Problem with Wheat Today

Wheat was one of the grains God said shall make the young men thrive (Zech. 9:17). Almost all biblical references to grain, bread, wheat and flour are positive. Bread made from wheat was a staple in Israel. Fine flour, raised bread and unleavened bread played important roles in Israel’s worship and holyday observances. Jesus referred to Himself as the living bread that came down from heaven—the bread of life (John 6:35, 51). On two occasions, He fed thousands of followers with a few loaves of bread (Matt.16:8-10). Jesus compared the outcome of His death to the fruit borne of a single grain of wheat that dies (John 12:24).

But wheat in the 21st century has been linked to health problems.[1] A number of doctors and nutritionists believe that wheat shouldn’t play such a starring role in the today’s diet. They question what’s happened to wheat in the last fifty years and how it’s different from wheat grown 3,000 years ago. They speculate that commercial milling may affect human digestion of wheat.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Step Back in Time

Considering these questions in a biblical setting takes us to the book of Ruth, a romance set in the grain fields of ancient Israel.  As the narrator tells the story of a young widow and her devoted benefactor, readers get a sense of how grain was grown and harvested during the time of the Judges.

Ruth supported herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of Boaz, her relative. Six times in reference to his property, the narrator used the word “field” (singular), and once the phrase, “part of the field belonging to Boaz” (Ruth 2). A wealthy man like Boaz may have owned only one field or parts of a field. Boaz called his reapers “my young women” and “my young men, suggesting that his grain business was small enough to manage with workers he knew.  He supervised the fieldwork, ate meals with the workers and joined in the harvest activities. Reaping and gathering were done by hand with the assistance of ox carts to carry bundles to the threshing floor.[2] Ruth carried her own grain to the threshing area and beat out the kernels with a rod. For an owner’s larger harvest, oxen pulled heavy sledges or a millstone over the stalks to separate the seed heads. Using pitchforks and baskets, workers winnowed the seed from the chaff. If Ruth were dropped into a Kansas wheat field today, she wouldn’t recognize uniform stalks bred for mechanical harvesting. It would amaze Boaz to watch high-tech harvesters mowing, threshing, winnowing, and separating grain in one continuous operation.

Left: Hulled wheat (einkorn), with spikelets. ...

Left: Hulled wheat (einkorn), with spikelets. Right: Free-threshing wheat (common wheat). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wheat grown 3-4000 years ago was domesticated wild grass, probably emmer or einkorn wheat. Both emmer and einkorn have different genetic structures than the wheat grown today.[3] Dr. William Davis states that wheat today “is not the same grain our forebears ground into their daily bread.”[4] He adds that from the original strains of wild grass such as emmer and einkorn, “wheat has exploded to more than 25,000 varieties, virtually all of them the result of human intervention.”[5]  As part of a worldwide effort to reduce hunger, “wheat strains have been hybridized and crossbred…to make the wheat plant resistant to environmental conditions, such as drought, or pathogens such as fungi…and to increase yield per acre.”[6]

Storage and Milling

Grain stored as kernels keeps indefinitely without spoiling. Ruth would have stored her barley and wheat as kernels and ground them into porridge or flour when it was time for a meal.

Author Sarah Ruszkowski explains that each wheat grain is “made up the endosperm, the bran, the fiber, and the wheat germ. The milling process grinds all these parts together to create a flour. However, the wheat germ is very oily and can become rancid rather quickly when broken and exposed to air. Flour manufacturers must remove the wheat germ for preservation and longer shelf life.”[7] In short, commercial milling sacrifices some nutritional benefit to produce flour with a long shelf life.

She adds, “Unfortunately, the wheat germ is the most nutritious part of the wheat berry. By removing the wheat berry, fiber, and bran twenty-eight of the thirty known vitamins and minerals in a single wheat berry are lost leaving only the endosperm,”[8] although millers do add four vitamins back into the flour to enrich it. The fresh flour Ruth made by grinding wheat berries as needed contained all 28 vitamins (especially the B vitamins, vitamins A and E) thought to be important for proper digestion of wheat.

The Future

The work of Norman Borlaug in the 1940’s and 50’s introduced a variety of short, high-yield wheat that revolutionized feeding the world. But changing the genetic code of wheat might have its downside.  It’s not likely that scientists can further the green revolution and simultaneously eliminate any resultant side effects.

A time is coming when things will balance. God will return all things to how they should be, a Divine reset that restores the creation to proper functioning. God, man and the land will relate in what Isaiah envisions as marriage.

But you will be called, “My delight is in her,” And your land, “Married;” For the LORD delights in you, And to Him your land will be married (Isa.62:4).

by Mary Hendren

 


[1] William Davis, “Wheat Belly,” Rodale Press, 2011; David Perlmutter, “Grain Brain,” Little, Brown and Company

[2] Oded Borowski, “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” pp. 59-60

[3] Same source, pp. 88-89

[4] William Davis, “Wheat Belly,” Rodale Inc., 2011, p. 14

[5] Same source, p. 16

[6] Same source, p. 14

[7] Sarah Ruszkowski, Yahoo! Voices, “Health Benefits of Grinding Whole Wheat Flour at Home”

[8] Same source.

Pomegranates

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue…and upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around (Exodus 28:31-34).

When the tabernacle was built in the wilderness and Bezalel was selected to make the priestly garments, had he ever seen a pomegranate or held one in his hand? He might have—it’s possible. Pomegranates grew wild in Persia as early as 3000 to 2200 BC. Pomegranates were imported into Egypt from Mesopotamia for wealthy Egyptians.  Archeologists have found pomegranates and drawings of pomegranates in Egyptian tombs, confirming the Egyptian belief that the fruit symbolized prosperity and a prosperous afterlife.[1]

We remember the fish, which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (Numbers 11:5).

It’s possible, on the other hand, Bezalel never saw or tasted pomegranates. They were not among the foods the Israelites remember eating in Egypt. Slaves lived on a simple diet of fish, vegetables and melon, and pomegranates were a labor-intensive delicacy. If he had no first hand experience with the fruit, Bezalel must have fashioned Aaron’s robe from a pattern God gave Moses. The tiny poms on the robe’s hem were woven from scarlet, blue and purple linen threads—colors that contribute to a complexity of red—shades ranging from pink, to rose, to magenta—commonly seen in the pomegranates grown in the United States. The fruit’s gorgeous colors, its pleasing roundness, and its early appearance in eastern Iran have led some scholars to speculate: Was the pomegranate the tempting fruit in the Garden of Eden?[2]  The Bible doesn’t say.

Whether the Israelites were familiar with pomegranates when they were slaves, we don’t know. But scriptures confirm they knew about pomegranates by the time they entered Canaan (Numbers 13:23).

Then they [spies] came to the Valley of Eshcol, and there cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes; they carried it between two of them on a pole. They also brought some of the pomegranates and figs.

Scriptures show that after settling in Canaan the Israelites cultivated pomegranates: pomegranate trees were common, the juice was an important drink and the fruit was a popular decorative motif. Saul sat under a pomegranate tree surrounded by his army (1 Sam. 14:2). Solomon used pomegranate imagery in his love poem (Song of Solomon 4:3, 6:7, and 8:2). Rows of carved pomegranates decorated the entry pillars of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 7:18). Joel mentions the pomegranate tree withering like the wasting away joy (Joel 1:12). Haggai cites the pomegranate tree marking the onset of God’s blessings (Haggai 2:19).

Phenomenal Fruit

Today we can substantiate by chemical analysis what the Israelites learned through experience: the tree is an extraordinary resource. The juice is a refreshing drink and can be fermented into wine.[3] Tannins extracted from tree bark and fruit rind condition leather. Pomegranate seeds, juice and bark have medicinal uses: an astringent poultice of the bark draws out bee stings; seeds and juice treat diarrhea, dislodge tapeworms and boost vitality; juice reduces symptoms of fever and eases severity of some disease.[4] 

An opened up pomegranate.

An opened up pomegranate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Labor Intensive

To extract juice from the pomegranates, women in that day rolled the pomegranates on a hard surface until the seeds inside stopped cracking. The juice extracted during rolling was held in the leathery “cup,” then the skin was punctured to release the liquid. It is said that travelers carried pomegranates as a convenient way quench thirst. (I tried the rolling method as a traveler might have done but ended up splitting the skin and spilling juice, so it must take a deft, experienced hand.) Juice was also extracted by stomping on the pomegranates, much like smashing grapes. The juice drained out of the stomping trough and was strained through cloth to catch the seeds, pith and skin. Juice extracted by the stomping technique contained tannins that affected the taste. The website http://theshiksa.com/ illustrates gentler ways our Israelite mothers may have handled pomegranates.

When boiled in water, cooled and strained, the pomegranate’s red flowers and rinds yield a “richly colored dye bath” [5] for coloring natural fibers into shades of dull gold and yellow. Similar to other vegetable dyes, pomegranate dye, does not color linen, cotton, silk and wool as brilliantly as animal-based dyes. Today pomegranates are valued less for making poultices, dyes, and ink than for their beauty, taste and health benefits.

In ancient cultures pomegranates represented fertility, righteousness, prosperity and wisdom. In keeping with tradition, many Jews eat pomegranates on the Jewish New Year, “to wish for good deeds and a year as plentiful with goodness as the seeds of the pomegranate.” [6] Apart from the symbolism surrounding the pomegranate, I think of it as a reminder of God’s delightful providence. Isaac Watt composed a hymn in 1784 in praise of God’s provision of the earth. So rightly it says, “There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known.”—Mary Hendren

 

 

 


[1] “The Incredible Pomegranate: Plant and Fruit,” Richard Ashton, p. 3

[2]  Edibleparadise.com, “Pomegranate—The Original Forbidden Fruit,” Annaliese Keller (online resource)

[3] “Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible,” Packer and Tenny, p. 255.

[4] Phytochemicals, “Pomegranates” (online resource)

[5] Folk Fibers, Maura Grace Ambrose, “Natural Dyes—Pomegranates,” Feb. 19, 2013 (online resource)

[6] Hebrewlessonsonline, “Israeli Symbols”

Land of Milk and Honey

Manna was the perfect food for wilderness travel. It didn’t need cultivation, refrigeration or preservation. It was free. It could be eaten as porridge or bread. Manna was healthful. Every morning it blanketed the ground like a dewy nutritional snow. It had a mild taste that hinted of coriander and honey. It was Israel’s desert food for forty years. It was the last food the older generation would ever eat.

English: A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, i...

English: A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop’s 1894 “Treasures of the Bible” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the younger generation entered the Promised Land, “the manna in the wilderness”[1] ceased. The miracle food was no longer needed because the people ate from fields, trees, vines and gardens in the land.  God called Canaan a land flowing with milk and honey.[2] It was a “ribbon of fertile land between Desert and Sea.”[3] Canaan had adequate water, excellent pastures, plentiful fruit trees and vineyards…great affluence of all sorts of good things…for the necessity and delight of human life.”[4]

Shepherd and author Phillip Keller wrote, “In the Scriptures the picture portrayed of the Promised Land, to which God tried so hard to lead Israel from Egypt, was that of a land flowing with milk and honey. Not only is this figurative language but also essentially scientific terminology. In agricultural terms we speak of a milk flow and a honey flow. By this we mean the peak season of spring and summer when pastures are at their most productive stages. The livestock that feed on the forage and the bees that visit the blossoms are said to be producing a corresponding flow of milk or honey. So a land flowing with milk and honey is a land of rich, green, luxuriant pastures.”[5]

Milk

Others who saw the land firsthand support Phillip Keller’s description. “And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere…like the garden of the LORD” (Genesis 13:10). Also Dathan and Abiram said it was an “inheritance of fields and vineyards” (Numbers 16:13-14). The ancient Israelites must have taken possession of the land with joy because they recognized its suitability for farming and herding. Herds were important in that economy. Animals provided meat, milk, leather, and fabric.

Goats were the hardiest of the herd animals and gave  considerably more milk than sheep. Milk “was regarded as a substantial food for all ages,” and “as a food it ranked next in importance to bread.”[6] Preparing milk, butter and cheese became an important part of women’s work in Canaan. They made a popular soured milk called leben, similar to yogurt or kefir. They “churned” butter by shaking and swinging leather bags of milk until the butter solidified. Women made cheese curds, similar to cottage cheese, by squeezing moisture out of salted leben. In making hard cheese, they shaped curds into cakes and dried them in the sun. The sun-dried cheese is likely what David carried to his brothers’ encampment (1 Samuel 17:18). Sarah and Abraham prepared a meal for the LORD that included roast beef, unleavened bread, milk and butter (Genesis 18:8). The LORD and His companions probably dipped bread into the soft butter, and drank leben with the beef.

Honey

The Israelites ate bread often topped with curds and honey. It was as basic as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Isaiah wrote that as a child Immanuel would eat curds and honey (Isaiah 7:15), and in a time of trouble Israel would revert to a simple diet of curds and honey (verses 21-22). A diet of milk and honey was appropriate for weaning a child, for treating illness, and for a time of dearth. Honey had medicinal and grooming uses. It disinfected wounds, killed bacterial infections, and eased sore throats. Women made lotions and cosmetics with honey because of its astringent and softening qualities.

Honey was the primary sweetener for baking and for making fermented drinks. Women made honey cakes for religious purposes (Jeremiah 44:19; 7:18) and for celebrations. “Tradition says that when King David made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem with the Ark, the treats he brought with him were honey cakes. And he distributed to all the multitude of Israel, both men and women, to everyone a ring-shaped cake of bread and a date cake and a raisin cake.”[7]

Initially the Israelites depended on wild honey from hives in trees and caves…and other interesting places. Samson found a cache of honey in the carcass of a lion, prompting his riddle for wedding guests (Judges 14:8). In time honey production became a business.

In the Jordan Valley, archeologists uncovered a 3000-year-old city, Tel Rehov, the “oldest known commercial bee-keeping city in the world.”[8] It is believed to have housed two million bees in cylindrical hives made of straw and clay. Bits of preserved bee DNA indicate the bees were imported from Turkey. It is thought that the Turkish bees were less aggressive and produced more honey than the wild bees of Canaan.

Land of Milk and Honey Today

Looking at Israel today, we might wonder how much has changed since Israel first walked into the land. More than half the nation today is desert. Israel’s success in providing food for its citizens and exporting agricultural products depends on extensive irrigation. Judged by its efforts and exports—avocados, mangoes, persimmons, dates, grapes, plums, melons, citrus, olives, herbs, cotton, sunflower seed—Israel retains a reputation for agricultural productivity.

In checking out a website about Israel today, I found a farm restaurant called Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash (Land of Milk and Honey). Although it’s not far from the Ben-Gurion Airport, it is portrayed as a garden with birds, fish pond and grazing sheep.

The owner, Aharon Markovich, believes that “rare is better.” He raises sheep rather than goats, even though sheep produce only half the amount of milk that goats produce. So sheep’s milk is better for making cheese. The Land of Milk and Honey dairy produces forty different kinds of original cheeses, using such ingredients as wine, fig leaves, rosemary, and bay leaves. The morning buffet serves food the ancients would have enjoyed: flavored cheese balls, breads, salad, roasted peppers, marinated eggplant and spicy carrots.

 Sounds delicious.—Mary Hendren 


[1] John 6:48

[2] Numbers 13:27, 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9 (and many more examples!)

[3] Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 36

[4] Gill’s Online Bible Commentary,  note on Exodus 3:8

[5] A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,  Phillip Keller, p. 54

[6] Bible History Online, Manners and Customs: Dairy Products

[8] Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2010, “Ancient Bees Found in Israel Hailed from Turkey”

Barley: the Grain of the Poor

Barley was the grain most commonly used to mak...

Barley was the grain most commonly used to make into flour for bread in Iron Age Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barley was a primary food grain in ancient Israel. The Israelites planted barley in the fall at the time of first rain. The seed over-wintered in the ground, sprouted in the spring and was harvested in March to April. Wheat was planted at the same time but it ripened in May to June. Barley could be grown in poor soil and be broadcast into unplowed ground. Barley was a dependable, disease-resistant crop, easier and less expensive to grow than wheat.

Concerning nutrition, barley surpasses wheat in a few ways: barley has twice as many fatty acids as wheat; it has 40% more fiber than wheat; it contains vitamin E (wheat has none); it contains more thiamine, riboflavin and lysine than wheat “giving barley a more balanced protein.”[1] Barley has less gluten than wheat, which makes it less desirable for making raised breads. The high gluten content of wheat, and the preference for raised bread, caused wheat to become the most important of the ancient grains.

Israel’s bread

Though wheat became the preferred grain in the ancient world, barley still played an important part in the diet of the Hebrews. Israelites ate barley and oats as porridge and flatbreads and fed both grains to their animals. Wheat was not used as animal food. Barley gradually became known as the grain of the poor. “Barley was cultivated in Palestine and Egypt and was fed to cattle and horses. Though the Egyptians used barley to feed animals, the Hebrews used it for bread, at least for the poor.”[2] Barley was fed to horses or mixed with ground lentils, beans and millet to enhance its taste.[3]

It is estimated that bread provided “50-70 % of the ordinary person’s calories, and the bread eaten until the end of the Israelite monarchy was mainly made from barley.”[4] The book of Ruth illustrates the importance of barley as a life sustaining grain for the poor.

Gleaning 

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields o...

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Boaz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Ruth and Naomi had no way of supporting themselves in Moab, so they returned to Israel as impoverished widows. (Ruth 1:20). They arrived at the time of the barley harvest, and found relief through laws established to help the poor (Ruth 1:22, Lev. 19:9, Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19).

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 for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; there I command you to do this thing.

 Gleaners were allowed into the fields after a farmer had harvested his crop, and farmers were subject to punishment if they frustrated those who wished to collect leftover crops. Ancient rabbinical rules stated that farmers were “not permitted to discriminate among the poor, nor to try to frighten them away with dogs or lions.”[5]

Ruth was blessed to glean in fields belonging to Boaz, a kind and generous man. His reapers purposefully dropped barley for Ruth to pick up, enabling her to gather more than would have been expected. In the evenings, she returned to Naomi with about half a bushel of barley.

Threshing

Each village had a threshing floor that the farmers shared. A threshing floor made of paving stone or hard-packed dirt was located in flat, windy areas. Farmers piled their sheaves on the threshing floor and cattle trampled over the grain to break up the straw. At some threshing floors, farmers hooked oxen to threshing boards embedded with obsidian chips or to spiked rollers. Both mechanical devices were pulled across the sheaves to break the grain heads free of the straw. Because Ruth gleaned a small amount of grain each day, it is likely she threshed by beating the grain with a hinged tool called a flail.

A threshing flail Français : Fléau ‪Norsk (bok...

A threshing flail Français : Fléau ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Slegel (nn), sliul (nn/nb), sloge (nn), tust (nn/nb) Svenska: Slaga Română: Îmblăciu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Farmers tossed the threshed grain into the air with winnowing forks, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff. Women winnowed by tossing and catching the grain in flat baskets. Ruth likely winnowed her grain in a flat basket, keeping her part separate from the harvest.

Grinding

In the evening Naomi and Ruth divided the grain into portions: what would be used immediately, what would be stored and what would be sold for other commodities. They parched grain and ate it warm. They parboiled it for porridge or stew.  They ground most of it into flour for bread.

I imagine that Naomi took care of the grain that Ruth brought home. The most arduous of her duties was grinding. Grinding “was a difficult and time-consuming task…it is estimated that it required at least three hours of daily effort to produce enough flour to make sufficient bread for a family of five. The earliest milling was performed with a pestle and mortar, or a stone quern consisting of a lower stone that held the grain and a smooth upper stone that was moved back and forth over the grains.”[6] Working with a quern or pestle and mortar, it may have taken Naomi an hour or more of grinding to make enough flour for their daily bread.

Busy hands reap bountiful blessings

Ruth and Naomi worked to support themselves. They were grateful for the opportunity to work. Ruth came to the attention of Boaz because she had worked (Ruth 2:11).

It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before.

 God blessed Ruth because she continued to work (Ruth 2:12, 4:13-17).

The LORD repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge. ♦ Mary Hendren

 


[1] AAOOB Storable Foods, Grain Information, “Barley ”

[2] Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, Packer and Tenny, Editors, p. 468

[3] Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob, pp. 35, 163

[4] Wikipedia, “Ancient Israelite Cuisine

[5] Wikipedia, “Gleaning”

[6] Wikipedia, “Ancient Israelite Cuisine”

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