Great Texts of the Bible
A Greeting in Harvest
And, behold, Boaz came from Beth-lehem, and said unto the reapers, The Lord be with you. And they answered him, The Lord bless thee.—Ruth 2:4.
1. The greeting took place at Bethlehem. There are two towns of that name mentioned in the Old Testament. This is Bethlehem of Judah. It is situated about six miles south and west of Jerusalem, on a ridge which rises to a height of 2550 feet above sea-level, and falls away in terraced slopes on all sides, the descent to the north and east being specially steep. The terraces, as they sweep in graceful curves round the ridge from top to bottom, give to the little town the appearance of an amphitheatre, and serve to make to the approaching traveller a picture which closer acquaintance does not wholly disappoint.1 [Note: T. Nicol in the Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, i. 195.]
Bethlehem is still “the house of bread,” as its name means, and the way to Bethlehem is still through fields of barley in April as it was in the days of Boaz. A quarter of a mile below the town, on the slope of the hill, the traditional site of the threshing-floor of the great Hebrew farmer is pointed out to the visitor; and its authenticity is exceedingly probable, for it is just in the place where the Bible narrative prepares you to look for it. We read in the advice which Ruth’s mother-in-law gave to her that she said of Boaz, “Behold, he winnoweth barley to-night in the threshing-floor. Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the threshing-floor.” Now threshing-floors are always in the same field where the corn or barley is reaped; for all the threshing and winnowing processes in the East, owing to the fineness of the weather, are done in the open air; and they are always in the highest part of the field which is most exposed to the wind, so that in winnowing the chaff may be blown away from the grain. You might therefore have expected that Naomi would ask her daughter-in-law to go up to the threshing-floor. But her words are true to the local peculiarities, which are different from those of other places. The town of Bethlehem covered the whole top of the hilly ridge on which it was built. It occupied the highest ground in the country, so that any place round about was lower than itself; consequently there was no room for a threshing-floor on the heights where it would naturally be situated. The threshing-floor of Boaz, like his farm, had to be formed at a lower level, in some such declivity as the traditional spot. Ruth had therefore to go down to it, as the sacred narrative tells us; and this little coincidence confirms in a most interesting and unexpected manner the local accuracy of the Bible writer, and shows that he must have written, not from imagination, but from having lived on the spot, and thus having been familiar with its peculiar features.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan.]
2. It was the time of barley harvest. It was a beautiful April day, and the barley-fields of Boaz below the town of Bethlehem—this crop being always the first to ripen in Palestine as in our own country—were lying golden under the blue cloudless sky, and the reapers had begun with their sickles to cut it down. It was a picturesque sight, full of colour and animation; the light blue and red dresses of the women—which are exactly the same now as in the days of Ruth—contrasting with the yellow grain and glowing with intense vividness in the brilliant sunshine. It was a scene that an artist would have loved to paint; as indeed it has often been painted, for who does not remember some artistic representations of “Ruth among the alien corn”?
She stood breast high amid the corn
Clasp’d by the golden light of morn,
Like the sweetheart of the sun,
Who many a glowing kiss had won.
On her cheek an autumn flush,
Deeply ripen’d;—such a blush
In the midst of brown was born,
Like red poppies grown with corn.
Round her eyes her tresses fell,
Which were blackest none could tell,
But long lashes veil’d a light,
That had else been all too bright.
And her hat, with shady brim,
Made her tressy forehead dim;—
Thus she stood amid the stooks,
Praising God with sweetest looks:—
Sure, I said, Heav’n did not mean,
Where I reap thou shouldst but glean,
Lay thy sheaf adown and come,
Share my harvest and my home.1 [Note: Thomas Hood.]
Perhaps nothing links us more closely with generations that are past and with races long departed than the yearly operations of the harvest. Social customs are varied in many lands and differ widely among distinct nations. Society frames one set of rules for its protection in this country and another in that, and so diverse are these conventionalities that what would be the strictest etiquette in one land would sometimes be the grossest outrage in another. It is hard for us, with our modern ideas and western modes of thought, to enter into the spirit of many social and domestic customs of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, or even the Rome of the Cæsars. We even find it hard, unless we dwell long among them, to understand the ways of our continental neighbours to-day. But when we come to consider the operations of the harvest in almost any land or any age, we seem to stand on familiar ground. Change and variety show themselves here also, it is true. Machinery has made a vast revolution in our methods of agriculture. The primitive practices of former years would only produce a smile of contempt if employed in England to-day. But for all that we are on familiar ground when we read the story of the harvests of other days. In the main, the operations of to-day are the same as those of generations long fallen asleep. The same ploughing and harrowing, the same sowing and reaping, the same threshing and winnowing, the same process repeated again and again as years roll on, link us with all lands and all ages in a bond of brotherhood. The Saviour’s parables of the cornfields might almost have been uttered by Him without change of language in our own cornfields to-day. The grain of wheat found in the wrappings of the mummy brings us more closely into touch with the Egypt of olden times than the mummy itself. The harvest-field seems to be the meeting-point, the common ground, of all civilized races and all generations. Elsewhere they may be divided; but in gathering their bread men are one.
Even so is it when men are brought into relationship with Him who, as a corn of wheat, fell into the ground and died, that He might produce the harvest of world-wide salvation. The Bread of Life is the common need of man, and in gathering that Bread, in seeking and following that one Saviour, men are ever drawn more closely to each other. Apart from Him they may be separated, scattered, divided, hostile; in Him they become brethren; they are “all one in Christ Jesus.”
3. The intercourse of Boaz with his reapers shows us that the relations between them were not commercial but patriarchal. He took a warm interest in themselves and their doings, and they in turn were kindly affectioned towards him. He not only supervised the work of his servants, but gave them assistance in it. He partook of the same food with them, and quenched his thirst from the vessels which the young men had drawn for common use. It was no niggardly hand that dispensed the provisions of the harvest-folk; and an injunction was given to the reapers to allow the poor strange gleaner to glean even among the sheaves where the ears were more plentiful, and to let fall handfuls of the grain on purpose that she might pick them up innocently and increase her store.
I have been interrupted by the visit of a lady of my congregation, who came to take leave; one, it appears, who has been warmly attached to the instruction given there. She told me the delight, the tears of gratitude, which she had witnessed in a poor girl to whom, in passing, I gave a kind look on going out of church on Sunday. What a lesson! How cheaply happiness can be given! What opportunities we miss of doing an angel’s work! I remember doing it, full of sad feelings, passing on, and thinking no more about it; and it gave an hour’s sunshine to a human life, and lightened the load of life to a human heart—for a time!1 [Note: F. W. Robertson, Life and Letters, 210.]
There was a time, not so long ago, when the same simple and generous manners prevailed in Scotland among the agricultural class: when those who tilled the soil together fared alike, and masters and servants sat at the same table without any sense of incongruity or unfitness, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The harvest-field was looked upon as a kind of communion-table in which master and servant recognized their common dependence upon the bounty of the universal Father, and acknowledged the sameness of their human nature and the sameness of their wants and destinies. And we cannot imagine that this kindly custom, any more than the sitting down together of master and servant at the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the church, and partaking together of the holy symbols, lessened the respect of the servant for the master, or weakened the interest of the master in the servant. So far from putting either of the parties out of their proper place, it drew the relation between them closer, and imparted to it a more gentle and sacred character, of which neither could possibly take advantage. And assuredly, if the employer in every case treated his workmen as Boaz treated those who laboured in his harvest-field, there would be fewer grievances to complain of between them.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan.]
I give thee joy! O worthy word!
Congratulate—A courtier fine,
Transacts, politely shuffling by,
The civil ceremonial lie,
Which, quickly spoken, barely heard,
Can never hope, nor e’en design,
To give thee joy!
I give thee joy! O faithful word!
When heart with heart, and mind with mind
Shake hands; and eyes in outward sign
Of inward vision, rest in thine;
And feelings simply, truly stirred,
Emphatic utterance seek to find,
And give thee joy!
I give thee joy! O word of power!
Believe, though slight the tie in sooth,
When heart to heart its fountain opes
The plant to water that with hopes
Is budding for fruition’s flower—
The word, potential made, in truth
Shall give thee joy.
Shall give thee joy! Oh, not in vain,
For erring child the mother’s prayer;
The sigh, wherein a martyr’s breath
Exhales from ignominious death
For some lost cause! In humbler strain
Shall this poor word a virtue bear,
And give thee joy!2 [Note: Clough, Poems, 3.]
4. Boaz came down from his residence in the town to see how the harvest work was going on, and his salutation to his people and their response show to us a state of things truly idyllic. In all the beautiful story there is not a finer touch than this devout and fervent greeting between master and servants in the barley-field. It is a most charming picture of the simple piety and pleasant manners of the early days. It appeals to the heart and quickens the imagination.
(1) What a fine example of courtesy does the greeting offer. It was with no haughty airs or rough speech that Boaz entered the harvest-field that lovely April day, bringing a shadow over the innocent gladness of the reapers, and giving them a painful sense of their inferiority. “The Lord be with you,” was his courteous salutation; and they, with the reaping-hooks in their hands, and the sweat of honest labour streaming from their faces, paused in their toil among the golden sheaves, and standing up respectfully welcomed him with the equally courteous response, “The Lord bless thee.”
Something that abode endued
With temple-like repose, an air
Of life’s kind purposes pursued
With order’d freedom sweet and fair.
A tent pitch’d in a world not right
It seemed, whose inmates, every one
On tranquil faces bore the light
Of duties beautifully done,
And humbly, though they had few peers,
Kept their own laws, which seemed to be
The fair sum of six thousand years’
Traditions of civility.1 [Note: Coventry Patmore.]
(2) The courtesy is not a superficial thing; for it is the outcome of consideration. In the story of this old-world harvest there is the mutual kindliness of disposition pervading the scene. Master and men seem alike interested in each other’s welfare. The employer shows a kindly spirit towards those in his service, and they reciprocate it in the expression of good wishes for their master’s prosperity. “The Lord be with you.” “The Lord bless thee.” There is kindliness, and mutual benediction, and identity of interests in that harvest-field.
How little regard some masters have for the feelings of their dependants! What rough and harsh language do they address to them—a cowardly as well as an unchristian thing; for the servants cannot retaliate without the risk of losing their situation. It is of the very essence of Christianity to be tender and considerate, and so to regulate our speech and behaviour that those who are under us may manifest their individuality, act in character, and forget their inferior condition. And no one who loves the Lord Jesus, who humbled Himself and became our servant, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and so made service the highest dignity and blessedness of life, can possibly act otherwise than in the same spirit of meekness and tender courtesy towards others; with that gentleness which makes those who serve us try to do their best, and makes them great and not mean in their own hearts; which arouses them to a truer self-respect, and leads them into a higher life. The master is as much indebted to the servant as the servant is to the master; even more, if we consider that the servant gives time and health and strength and skill, in return for wages—the life for the means of living—things for which no money can be equivalent, and which can only be repaid in kind by courteous treatment and kindly sympathy and consideration.
It is related of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, the hero of Aboukir, that, mortally wounded, he was carried on board one of his ships and a soldier’s blanket placed under his head. He expressed relief, and then asked whose blanket was at his head. “Only a soldier’s blanket,” was the reply. “Whose blanket, did you say?” he queried earnestly. “Only one of the men’s,” came the reply a second time. “I wish to know the name of the man to whom this blanket belongs,” he persisted. “It is Duncan Roy’s, of the Forty-second, Sir Ralph.” “Then,” said the dying general, “see that Duncan Roy gets his blanket this very night. He will be cold without it, and I shall not need it then.”1 [Note: G. C. Peck, Old Sins in New Clothes, 269.]
It is not wise as a rule to make comparisons between classes, but I am inclined to think that if it comes to the spirit of courtesy, which lies behind all manners, respectable working people, say, our artisans and their wives, will make a better show than their masters and their wives. They will be less concerned about their own dignity—which is always a sign of vulgarity; they will have more regard to the claims of other people; they will be more anxious not to hurt another’s feelings, and they will be quicker to render services in the little exigencies of life; and all this is the fruit of courtesy. Were any woman (and I count this a perfect test) travelling with a young child and some articles of luggage, it would be better for her as a rule to take a place in a third-class rather than in a first-class carriage. The chances are that the richer people—unless they gathered from something she said or from her name upon a dressing-case that she was a person of distinction, in which case they would take any trouble in exact proportion to their own meanness—would eye her with displeasure, convey to her that the child was a nuisance, ignore the struggle with her luggage, and make her glad to leave the compartment. Were she to travel with an artisan and his wife, they would bid her welcome, and make her feel at home, and anticipate her wants and encompass her with observances, because she was a lonely woman with a child. And the service of a woman and a child is more than manners—it is the climax of courtesy.1 [Note: John Watson, The Homely Virtues, 165.]
Nothing becomes a lady better than courtesy; and as to this word, let not the vulgar herd—poor wretches!—be deceived, who think that courtesy is only another name for open-handedness; for to be open-handed is not courtesy in general, but a special form of it. Courtesy is the same as goodness; for, inasmuch as in the courts of old virtue and good manners were cultivated (as to-day their contraries are), this term was derived from the word court, so that courtesy meant the usage of the court. But if it were to be derived from the courts of the present day, especially in Italy, it would only be another term for what is base.2 [Note: Dante, Convivio, II. ii. 54–68, tr. by Toynbee.]
Livingstone treated every black man as if he were a blood-relation. He saluted the poorest with a very pleasant smile, and raised his gold-laced cap (the badge of his high office) a little above his head. Before the poorest African he maintained self-restraint and self-respect as carefully as in the best society at home.3 [Note: Life of James Stewart of Livingstonia, 90.]
Once when Dr. Stewart and Mr. Mzimba were travelling together to attend a meeting of Presbytery, they had to spend a night at a wayside inn. Knowing that hotel-keepers as a rule do not give up a bedroom to a native, Dr. Stewart, after being shown his room, asked the landlady what accommodation Mr. Mzimba was to have. “Oh,” she said, “I will let him sleep in the loft outside.” “Well, well,” was the quiet rejoinder, “just let me see the place.” They were taken to the loft above the stable. Dr. Stewart turned to Mr. Mzimba and said, in presence of the landlady, “You go and occupy my room, and I will sleep here.” “Oh, no,” was her reply, “I cannot allow that.” “But I insist upon it,” continued Dr. Stewart; “if you have no bedroom in the house to give my friend, he must take my room.” The upshot was that Mr. Mzimba was shown into a comfortable room. During many years this landlady told this wonderful story to her guests. It seemed to have been the only experience of the kind she had known.1 [Note: Life of James Stewart, 274.]
(3) But there is more than courtesy and consideration in the greeting. There is genuine piety. We are struck most of all by the religious spirit which pervades the salutation. No doubt the words were the common Eastern salutation. Be it so. They still compare very favourably with many of our own salutations, and are vastly different in spirit from the language occasionally heard in the harvest-field to-day. They may be even the more significant because they were phrases in such ordinary use. A man’s commonplace remarks will reveal his character more than his more studied and formal speeches.
Boaz, as we see in the course of the whole narrative, was habitually a devout man. He set the Lord always before his eyes, and acknowledged him in all his ways; and therefore it was a perfectly natural thing for him to introduce God’s Name into the midst of his ordinary pursuits. He felt that it was by God’s blessing that the barley crop had grown and ripened under the favouring heavens, until the reapers were now cutting it down with their sickles, and piling up its golden sheaves on the field. And with his own lips and language Boaz set before his servants an example of piety so beautiful that they could not but admire and imitate it.
The master blesses the men, and the men bless the master. It is like our church service, where the priest and the people mutually pray for one another:” The Lord be with you,” “And with thy spirit.” And indeed, perhaps, that very verse and response were in the first place taken from this simple salutation of Boaz and his reapers. They little thought, when with kind and devout hearts they so bade good day to each other, that they were setting a pattern for a holy service, which the Church of God, guided by His Spirit, would take up from them and use for ever. Yet so it is. They have somewhat of the same honour given them as David in the Old Testament, the blessed Virgin, Simeon, Zacharias, and others in the New—the honour of having their words appointed to be used by all Christians in their solemn offices of praise and thanksgiving—one of the greatest honours, surely, on this side the grave.1 [Note: J. Keble.]
Abraham reckoned the servants of his household as so many “souls.” He valued them by what was best in them—the distinctively human and immortal part. A modern master or farmer reckons his servants as so many “hands.” He values in them only what subserves his purpose, and holds the rest as of no account; therefore it need not be wondered at that men so rated sometimes behave in a manner as irrational as if they were hands and not souls, and break out into those lawless revolts which convulse industry and are disastrous to all concerned. Long experience as well as Scripture teaches us that he who feareth not God regardeth not man; that the fear of God is the only sure foundation of truth among men in their dealings with one another; and that where this fear is absent the issue is invariably want of mutual confidence and selfish alienation. The brotherhood of man must grow out of and be nourished by the same root as the Fatherhood of God. The commandment is binding, is absolute, that he who loveth God love his brother also.
The world in these days is full of loud assertion about rights. But in the Bible we read not about rights, but about duties. He to whom all rights belong came not to assert any rights, but to fulfil all duty, and He says, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” Sin is the great divider between man and man, for its essence is selfishness. Christ came to do away with sin by His own death, and to unite ‘us to God and to one another in Himself. He draws men to each other by drawing them to God in Himself. Looking, then, on their servants, made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ, not as “hands” but as “souls,” and regarding the workers themselves as more valuable than their work, their thoughtful minds and sensitive hearts as more precious than anything produced by the labour of their hands—let masters say, “We seek not yours, but you.” And so the gracious greeting of the master to his servants will ever be, in the workshop and in the market-place and in the field, “The Lord be with you,” and the gracious response of the servants will inevitably be “The Lord bless thee.”
Bardsley (J. W.), Illustrative Texts and Texts Illustrated, 294.
Dawson (J. E. le S.), Lenien Readings on the Book of Ruth, 40.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Sundays after Trinity, xiii.—end, 97.
Macmillan (H.), Jesus in the Cornfield, 23.
Neale (J. M.), Sermons preached in a Religious House, ii. 346.
Perren (C.), Seed-Corn for the Sower, 498.
Sowter (G. A.), Sowing and Reaping, 118.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Harvest Thanksgiving, 37, 40 (Macmillan).
Plain Sermons by Contributors to “Tracts for the Times,” vi. 197.