Question: "What is the meaning of gleaning in the Bible?"
Answer: The Hebrew word for “glean” is laqat, and it means “to collect, gather up, pick up.” Gleaning is the gathering of grain or other harvested material left behind by reapers. In the Bible, the Israelites were commanded to allow the poor to follow behind reapers and pick up leftover spears of grain and fallen grapes. In this way, the Law of Moses provided food for the poor, orphans, widows, and resident aliens. The law specified that land owners must leave some of the harvest for gleaners: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9–10).
Gleaning is important in the story of Ruth, the Moabite widowed daughter-in-law of the widow Naomi in Bethlehem. To stave off complete destitution, Ruth gleaned grain in the fields of Boaz: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.’ Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter’” (Ruth 2:2).
The landowner Boaz was so moved by Ruth’s concern for her elderly and grieving mother-in-law that he instructed his harvesters to go beyond what the law required to help her: “As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, ‘Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her’” (Ruth 2:15–16). The harvesters’ dropping “handfuls of purpose” (KJV) for Ruth to glean is a wonderful illustration of God’s grace.
Gleaning is also used figuratively in the Bible to describe the slaying of men who fled from battle: “And they turned and fled toward the wilderness unto the rock of Rimmon: and they gleaned of them in the highways five thousand men; and pursued hard after them unto Gidom, and slew two thousand men of them” (Judges 20:45, KJV).
The prophets often used gleaning figuratively in the Bible. In the book of Jeremiah, gleaning takes on the imagery of complete devastation and destruction. Israel had been utterly stripped of its possessions, like grapes that had been completely plucked from the vine: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Let them glean the remnant of Israel as thoroughly as a vine; pass your hand over the branches again, like one gathering grapes’” (Jeremiah 6:9).
Again, in Jeremiah, God’s judgment on the Edomites was going to be more thorough than a grape-gatherer in a vineyard. Grape pickers at least left some gleanings: “If grape pickers came to you, would they not leave a few grapes? If thieves came during the night, would they not steal only as much as they wanted? But I will strip [Edom] bare” (Jeremiah 49:9–10).
The prophet Micah described the world as a gleaned vineyard, with the godly having been entirely plucked from the land: “What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains. Everyone lies in wait to shed blood; they hunt each other with nets” (Micah 7:1–2).
The prophet Isaiah applied gleaning symbolically in a message about the ultimate day of judgment and salvation for all the people of God: “In that day from the river Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt the LORD will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel” (Isaiah 27:12, ESV).
Gleaning in the Bible is an important concept that believers ought to take to heart. We should remember to cheerfully and generously allow others in need to glean from the blessings we have received. In turn, we do well to realize that our blessings have been gleaned through God’s goodness and grace from His abundant fields. And finally, as God’s people we ought to live in readiness for a great gleaning in the future harvest when the Lord returns to thresh out the grain, gather up His people, and dispense with the chaff.