The Poor and Unfortunate – Leviticus 23:22
I am continuing this week on the topic of how the Mosaic Law required Israel to treat the poor (see last week’s post here). Today I am going to post on only one of those mitzvots (commands) which is given in Leviticus 23:22. Following last week’s formula I will provide the command as treated in the Concise Book of Mitzvot (a Jewish book dealing with how to follow the Mosaic Law) followed by Christian commentaries on the passage by Gary Kukis and Matthew Henry. Since the Kukis and Henry quotes are short I am going to add two more sets of comments by Gary North and Lee Smith on this passage. Both of the additional sets of comments are interesting but speculative.
Mitzvot 41 (CCI6)
6. It is a negative commandment that one should not reap the whole field, entirely, but should leave a small part for the poor
as scripture says, you shall not reap the very last edge of you field in your harvesting (Va-yikra [Leviticus] 23:22).And just as this is to be left in afield, so with trees: When their fruit is gathered, a little is to be left for the poor. Its required amount, by the law of the Sages, is not less than one sixtieth; and whoever increases the leftover part, his [heavenly] reward will be increased.
This applies to every field that is grown from the soil and is guarded, and is harvested at one time and gathered to be kept. Some rule, though, that by the law of the Torah it applies to nothing but grain, wine and oil.
Gary Kukis commentary (link here) states the following about this passage:
“‘And when you reap the harvest of your land, you will not complete the corner of your field when you harvest and the gleanings after your harvest you will not gather—you will leave them for the poor and for the stranger. I am Yahweh, your God.'” [Lev. 23:22]
We have seen this before. God’s welfare system (and one did need to be in place) allowed those in need to harvest from the corners of the fields and from the produce which was not taken in the first sweep of a field. Therefore, the poor person did have to do some kind of work in order to eat.
Matthew Henry’s commentary (link here) says:
To the institution of the feast of pentecost is annexed a repetition of that law which we had before (Leviticus 19:9), by which they were required to leave the gleanings of their fields, and the corn that grew on the ends of the butts, for the poor, Leviticus 23:22. Probably it comes in here as a thing which the priests must take occasion to remind the people of, when they brought their first-fruits, intimating to them that to obey even in this small matter was better than sacrifice, and that, unless they were obedient, their offerings should not be accepted. It also taught them that the joy of harvest should express itself in charity to the poor, who must have their due out of what we have, as well as God his. Those that are truly sensible of the mercy they receive from God will without grudging show mercy to the poor.
Now for the additional commentary that I would like to add. The first one is by Gary North, a Calvinist economist, who wrote an “economic commentary” on the book of Leviticus (you can download the commentary at this link). I suppose that I should state up front that I don’t care much for some of Gary North’s writings. He makes no bones that he doesn’t like dispensationalism and, as far as I am concerned, hasn’t been too careful in painting dispensationalists with a very broad, and unflattering, brush. Being a dispensationalist I don’t like that very much.
Now that I have said that I will also state that Calvinists, like North, have spent time digging into Old Testament passages like this one that few others have bothered to study. Last week I posted on Leviticus 19:9-10 which is almost identical to this week’s passage of Leviticus 23:22. Why did the command get repeated? North seems to think he has the answer:
Leviticus 23:22 is a recapitulation of the gleaning law of Leviticus 19:9. The question is: Why did God here remind the Israelites of the landowners’ responsibility to the landless poor, at the end of the passage that set forth the laws governing Pentecost (“weeks”)? This question has baffled orthodox Bible commentators. S. H. Kellogg offers comments on Pentecost (vv. 15-21), but then skips verse 22 to begin commenting on the convocation of trumpets (vv. 23-25). Andrew Bonar refers back to Leviticus 19:9 and concludes: “In this manner, love to man was taught in these thanksgiving feasts, at the very time that love to God who so kindly gave them their plenty was called forth and increased.” He then goes on to offer an allegorical interpretation, with the gleaners as members of a remnant: gentiles in the Old Covenant, Jews in the New Covenant. “A feast is coming on that will unite Jew and Gentile in equal fulness.” But this does not explain why the gleaning law for the fields was repeated here, or perhaps more to the point, why it first appears in Leviticus 19:9 rather than here. Gordon Wenham thinks that the connection between Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22 may be the requirement to care for the poor: the Levites, the poor, and the stranger. There may be a link here: shared poverty. But why should the Levites and priests have been poor? They received the tithes and sacrifices of the tribes. They could also own real estate in the cities. The commentators are confused about the reason behind the recapitulation.
There is a reason for this recapitulation: a shared economic link. There is also a reason for the confusion of the commentators. The reason is their lack of knowledge about, or interest in, economic theory. This lack of knowledge has left gaps in our understanding of biblical law.
Leviticus: An Economic Commentary
North then comes to this conclusion:
The gleaning law was recapitulated in this section because gleaning was connected judicially to the Levites, the mandated participants and beneficiaries at the national feasts. Gleaning pointed to the priests and Levites as God’s designated agents of enforcement for the gleaning law. There was a mutually beneficial relationship between the Levites and the gleaners. The gleaners could serve the Levites as monitors of the size of the landowner’s crop. This assured the priestly tribe of receiving a more honest tithe. The gleaners also had to pay the tithe, but they had allies in the Levitical priesthood. Their priestly beneficiaries possessed the authority to declare a person excommunicate, including a cheating landowner or a landowner who refused to honor the gleaning law.
Leviticus: An Economic Commentary
However, Lee Smith at the Old Doctrines New Light webpage disagrees with Gary North’s conclusion as to why the command to leave the fields ungleaned is repeated. The quote below provides Smith’s logic for rejecting North’s conclusion. Smith came up with his own reason for the “recapitulation” of the command not to harvest the entire field and he relates it to the Church (I have bolded the link to that discussion in the quote below). At any rate it is interesting to read such different interpretations of this passage:
After citing a few commentators and their interpretation of Lev 23:22, North concludes (page 358)
‘The commentators are confused about the reason behind the recapitulation…There is also a reason for the confusion of the commentators. The reason is their lack of knowledge about, or interest in, economic theory’
The subsequent problem here is that the theory proposed by North doesn’t interpret Scripture but adds to it! It takes Scripture beyond the bounds of what it plainly says, adds modern day economic laws to it and then reinterprets it in the light of present day knowledge – throw in the Levites which are never mentioned, either, and whatever the truth of the theory may be, it’s largely unprovable and has to remain supposition.
Instead of interpreting a Biblical passage in the light of other Biblical passages, what’s arrived at will suffer from being ungrounded within Scripture.
I’ve commented on this verse in the context of the festivals here where I’ve attempted to show the reason for the gleaning law insertion here – namely, that the Intermediate Festival which isn’t mentioned until much later in the Torah would have occurred in this gap between the two festivals. Not only this, but the bulk of the harvest took place at this time as well so a reminder to the nation (Lev 23:2 shows us that the laws were directed at all Israel not just a section within the nation) is appropriate.
So, the appropriateness of the verse isn’t in doubt even though modern day writers would probably have edited it out and consigned it to a footnote rather than interject it into a passage in which, at first glance, it appears to be out of context.
Leviticus chapter 23 discusses the Jewish festivals and the recapitulation of the no gleaning rule occurs in the section discussing the ‘First Fruits’ festival. Mr. Smith believes that this is the key:
The Intermediate festival is indicative of the Church age in which all believers live, where they’re the ‘First Fruits’ of God’s new creation who lay their lives down before God to serve Him as He shows them Himself, through the revelation that’s given to them.
By rejecting the possibility of receiving fresh revelation from God (that is, revelation that’s not anti-Biblical and which, indeed, is, for the majority of times, revelation that has been given to believers in former generations), the Church stagnates and can’t worship and bring thanksgiving to God as He intends.
The entire christian life is based upon a direct and continued revelation of God to individuals. Therefore Jesus pointed out to Peter that it would be upon the revelation of who He is that His Church would be built (Mtw 16:15-18).
Who Make’s More Sense: North or Smith?
I included the North and Smith quotes because they are interesting and not at all typical of commentaries on Leviticus. However, I don’t think that either commenter has correctly interpreted this passage. First off I think that Smith’s critique of North’s commentary is solid. Nowhere in Leviticus 23 are the Levitical priests mentioned but Gary North has them being used as a police force who use the poor to inform on property owners. I have never heard of such a practice in ancient Israel. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen but I am deeply skeptical.
However I just don’t believe Smith’s idea that the no gleaning rule, and the ‘First Fruits’ Festival, were foreshadowing the Church. The Church was a mystery that wasn’t revealed until after Christ’s ascension. For the Mosaic Law to foreshadow the Church just doesn’t make any sense to me.
Also, when Smith says that “By rejecting the possibility of receiving fresh revelation from God […] the Church stagnates” I think he is way off base. Why do we need the possibility of fresh revelation to prevent stagnation? Aren’t following the eternal truths found in scripture what makes us the salt of the earth? I probably need to read that section again (it is in the form of notes and is difficult for me to get a complete understanding of) but if I understand him correctly I reject that statement.
At any rate this is food for thought.