I’VE BEEN THINKING OF THE WORD “GLEAN” LATELY. I was reminded in a recent sermon about the book of Ruth and how she went into Boaz’s fields to glean what was left after the harvest. The leftovers. She asked if she could follow behind the harvesters and pick up what fell to the ground. That got me thinking how we use that word glean in conversation. As in, you can glean something from talking to someone, or hearing a lecture… The etymology of the word comes from the 14th century, originally meaning to gather reaped corn. Reaping is the act of cutting grain(e.g.) for harvest. That got me to wondering then, when we glean something are we receiving the leftovers provided us, or are we picking and choosing that which we want to take? Is gleaning active or passive?
Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, was down on her luck right about then. Ruth was determined to help her, dead husband and all. Back then (oh, and for centuries thereafter) no man in a woman’s life meant no money in a woman’s life. So Ruth was taking what she could glean from the field so that she and Naomi would have something to eat. Well, it turns out that she was in the field of Boaz, a man related to Naomi on her also dead husband’s side. Boaz meets her in the field and — in caretaking fashion circa Biblical times — tells the other workers to keep their hands off her and to let her work in the field as long as she wants. Ruth wonders why the man is being so generous and he says he heard tell of her good deeds as a daughter-in-law.
Well things get even better after snack time wherein Boaz tells the other workers to actually leave some stalks of wheat out of their bundles so that Ruth can take those home, too. (Like when we give our cats a full spoonful of tuna salad instead of just letting them lick our finger, I guess). One Bible commentary reads, “According to the Mosaic law, when the Israelites harvested crops from their fields, they were to leave some plants at the edges and some of the gleanings, the bits of grain that the harvesters would drop or otherwise miss as they went through the fields. The purpose for this legislation was so that the poor and the sojourners traveling through the land could eat from what was left in the fields (Lev. 19:9–10).” So what was gleaned was charity; folks were even gleaning the gleanings sometimes.
I learned, in researching this word, that many different companies are named Glean. There is an electronic note-taking platform, a “work assistant” for finding info on your own company, a “self-service data visualization” company, and a collection of artisanal bath and body products. (Quotes in this case mean I don’t have the foggiest idea what those things actually are). So, clearly a lot of us are taking major poetic license with this word. What I also gleaned is that the majority of people see gleaning as an act of picking through fields of stuff — information, apps, toiletries — and collecting what is needed in the given moment. So that got me to thinking how when I read a book or an article or such, am I simply collecting what is needed in the moment? Like, consider the way we might watch a film one time and get a particular message or feeling from it, and then return to that field of creativity on a different occasion only to gather a whole different armful of thoughts.
So then it seems that what might be important about gleaning is what it is we do with the stuff we have gathered. Whether we were meant to have it through someone else’s doing, or we just stumbled upon the stuff and took it for our own, how will we make the most of that which we have gleaned? Ruth, for one, “threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah” (Ruth 2:17). In other words, she brought a bunch of food home to her mother-in-law. Do we share our food for thought with others, even if it might seem insignificant at the time? Are we actually just a bunch of gleaners going through our days, collecting things only in the way that we can and then sharing our bounty with others? Teachers, authors, scientists… I mean it’s basically what I just did here. I picked through the fields of my mind — and the internet — then threshed all those thoughts and offered them up on this page. Not sure if it even amounts to a bushel (ephah), but just in case you might be hungry for some freshly gleaned thoughts, here you are.