Warrior Prophets 3 Chapter 14
Harvest of Hope
Pangs of hunger awoke Ruth on the cold stone floor. She felt the rhythmic breathing of Naomi still sleeping with her head on Ruth’s shoulder. Dawn had not yet arrived. Ruth heard a few sparrows chirping in anticipation. She closed her eyes again as she tried to blot out the memory of the past two days: Mahlon murdered, the still burning arrow in his chest; escaping Kir Moav and the wrath of her mad brother, King Zipor; trekking in the desert after her sad and broken mother-in-law to her hometown in Judea, only to receive a cold and friendless welcome; finding Naomi’s old home a dilapidated wreck. She remembered the comfort of her old bed in the palace, of the sumptuous breakfast served to her in the royal dinning room. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Ruth’s hunger forced her to open her eyes. The sky barely brightened as the dawn announced the new day. Doves, warblers and even crows joined the sparrows in a chorus of song as the last stars faded from overhead. Ruth tried to move without waking Naomi. Naomi stirred, opening her eyes slightly.
“Where are we?” Naomi asked groggily.
“We are in your home in Bethlehem,” Ruth answered quietly.
“Mahlon! Kilyon!” Naomi sat up suddenly. “They are dead!” Naomi held her face. “I thought it was some evil dream, but now I remember. They were killed. We fled. You followed me. No one greeted us. My house – a disaster.” Naomi looked at the roofless rafters of her house and the brightening sky. “Oy!” Naomi wailed and wobbled from side to side.
“We need food, mother,” Ruth said softly. “I will go to the fields and glean what I might from whoever will let me. I learned yesterday that the poor are allowed to glean from the leavings of the harvesters.”
“Yes, yes, you are right, my daughter.” Naomi patted Ruth’s hand, not sure who was consoling whom. “Go. See what you can get. I no longer have the strength nor the courage to go all the way out to the fields. I will stay here and tidy up. The well is not far. I will wait for you here. Thank you, my daughter. May God be with you.”
Ruth left the house and stopped at the well. She washed up and drank and then headed to the gate of Bethlehem. Residents of Bethlehem were up and about. The more pious men were returning home from their morning prayer. They were wrapped in prayer shawls with leather phylacteries tied upon their arms and upon their heads. One of them reminded Ruth of Elimelech, with the same strong features and a beard of solid white that once might have been red. The man looked away from Ruth.
The rest of the population walked past the gate and onto the road outside the walls of Bethlehem. No one looked at Ruth. No one smiled at Ruth. No one acknowledged her existence. She walked as a ghost in a stream of humanity. She could have been walking alone in the cold desert night for the amount of warmth she felt in the crowd. Ruth noticed that they weren’t particularly friendly to each other either. There was none of the banter of a crowded marketplace. There was none of the gossip that neighbors greet each other with. It was a solemn cheerless procession. Men and women of all ages walked grudgingly to eek their sustenance from the land.
Ruth spotted Noni. The little girl smiled shyly at Ruth and then quickly looked away and mimicked the glum expression of the crowd. Ruth kept a polite distance from Noni and decided to follow the young girl to whichever field she would lead her.
People left the road and branched out to the different fields. Most of the barley closest to the road had been harvested. Some old women foraged amongst the remains, picking up trampled and crushed grains. Families harvested small fields, the father cutting wide swaths of barley with his scythe, bending over to cut the short stalks. The mother or older son would assemble the fallen stalks into bundles. The younger children would gather the remaining stalks and make their own bundles.
Ruth passed some large fields with teams of young sun-bronzed muscled men attacking the stalks industriously. In the privacy of their fields there seemed to be the coarse bantering that Ruth knew young men engaged in. Some of them eyed Ruth with animalistic grins, gazing at more than her foreign red hair and ragged clothing.
Ruth was surprised to pass a fallow field, wild with weeds and thorns. Instinctively she knew it must be Elimelech’s.
Noni turned down a small path that led to a large field. Half-a-dozen young men seemed to grow out of the waist-high barley. They diligently harvested the golden rows of grain. A man grabbed several heads of barley in his left hand and with his sickle cut them off, leaving tall headless stalks in his wake. He would hand the precious barley heads to his partner who placed it into a growing sheaf which he then tied into a large heavy bundle. The men’s light tunics were already soaked with sweat, rivulets of perspiration flowing from under their headscarves. Old men and women gleaned the leavings from the already harvested parts of the field. Ruth followed Noni. The young men stopped slicing the stalks and gazed instead at Ruth’s gait. Ruth hurried her pace.
Ruth saw a small guard house on the border of the field. Next to the house was the short circular stone wall of a well. Jugs of freshly drawn water adorned the sides of the well. A heavyset tanned man with sparse whiskers sat on a stool in the shade of the house. He got off the stool and walked closer to the workers.
“Why are you lazy bums stopping?” the heavy man shouted. “Tired already?”
“Garto, are you blind?” one of the workers yelled back.
Garto the overseer followed the gaze of his workers and was surprised to see Ruth approaching him behind little Noni.
“Well what have we here?” Garto whistled. “The foreign beauty that came with Naomi. Imagine, right here in my field. What is your name, pretty thing?”
“I am Ruth.” Ruth looked down.
“Ruth the Moabite,” Garto said. “I like the sound of that. How would you like to be my concubine? We can get to know each other right here in the guard house. I can assure you the best pickings, my little Moabite delight.”
“Is that the custom here? Is that what it takes for a poor woman to glean the leavings of the field?”
“That is my custom, Ruth the Moabite, though other overseers are not much different. Many are worse.”
“So you are not the owner of this field?” Ruth asked.
“I am the agent of the owner, and my owner, as it happens, will not be here for many days. You see, his beloved wife has just died, so we will not see him until next week.”
“I will glean in a different field then.” Ruth turned to leave.
“Wait, Ruth,” Garto said hurriedly. “I am the new overseer here. I know that my master would be upset if one of the poor left empty-handed, for he is known as a pious man. Stay and glean freely. I will bother you no further. I, I was testing you. Though keep out of reach of the boys – they don’t always keep their hands to themselves.”
“Thank you.” Ruth bowed and walked into the harvested field.
Noni was already there nimbly picking up the fallen heads of barley that had fallen between the tall remains of the cut stalks. The older men and women slowly fished out the barley. It was hard, tiring work. After five minutes Ruth was cut and scratched from the sharp ends of the stalks puncturing her skin. She was often frustrated. What she thought was a barley head turned out to be merely a grainless stalk. She paid the price of stalk punctures on her arms and face as she waded through the thick growth to hunt for what might or might not be the life-sustaining grain.
Ruth thought of Naomi and pressed on. She needed food for two people. They had not eaten in days. Her ragged garment was completely soaked by sweat. In her entire life she had never worked this hard or under such conditions. She kept her distance from the men, though it did not stop them from gazing at her intermittently. Instead of bending down as the other reapers did, she would sit on the hot ground to reach for low-lying barley. At times she was lucky and discovered a head of barley at waist height resting on the top of the cut stalks.
The sun rose higher and the ground grew hotter. Ruth thought she was in an oven. Her throat was parched and her lips were cracked. She heard a firm but gentle voice call out to the harvesters: “God be with you!”
“May God bless you!” the harvesters chanted in unison.
Ruth saw a tall elderly man. He was the second man to remind her of Elimelech. Beneath the thick white beard was a face that was softer, calmer, and kinder, but had the same strength of character and purpose that her dead father-in-law wore. That’s what Mahlon might have looked like had he lived to old age, Ruth thought. He looks pained, she realized. He is in grief, but a greater purpose drives him.
The old man went to the overseer. They pointed at Ruth. The old man waved his arms passionately. The overseer whistled, calling the harvesters to the guard house. The old man waved his arms again, pointing repeatedly at Ruth. He is warning them, she understood. Then the man motioned for Ruth to approach. Ruth held the barley tightly in a bundle of cloth and approached the old man.
“Give her something to drink,” the old man commanded the overseer. Garto ran to the well and ladled a cup of water from one of the jugs, spilling some as he gave it to Ruth. Ruth drank greedily. He has saved my life, she thought.
“Thank you,” Ruth whispered after she had finished the cup. “Who are you?” she asked the old man. “I would know the identity of my savior.”
“I am Boaz son of Salmoon.” Boaz smiled. “Listen to me, my daughter. Do not glean in another field. Do not leave my field. On the other side of these rows I have maidens that are harvesting. Stay close to them. I have commanded my men not to bother you. Whenever you are thirsty, take water from the jugs.”
It took Ruth a few moments to understand everything Boaz had said. She had trouble comprehending the kindness, the concern, the generosity the old man had demonstrated in this hellish loveless place.
Ruth fell to her knees, tears welling in her eyes. She bowed to Boaz with more feeling than any servant who had ever bowed to a master before.
“Why?” Ruth croaked from the ground. “Why have I found favor in your eyes? Why should you take such special care of me? I am a foreigner. I am not even of your people.”
“I have heard your story, Ruth of Moab.” Boaz gestured for Ruth to rise. Ruth stood, wiping the unshed tears from her eyes. “I have heard how you have cared for your mother-in-law even after the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your family, your birthplace, and came to a place you never knew before. You are compassionate and courageous and those are traits to be revered no matter who possesses them. May God reward your actions in full. It is God, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have now sought refuge.”
“May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me,” Ruth replied. “I had lost faith in human kindness, but you have shown me that it still exists. You have spoken to my heart.”
“I am glad, Ruth. Let us both return to work and I will see you again at the meal. You will come back and we shall eat together.”
“Yes, my lord.” Ruth walked back to the field, searching for Boaz’s maidens. She felt a lightness she had not felt since she had met Mahlon in the marketplace of Kir Moav all those years ago. She gleaned with hope and energy, feeling comfortable near the women and safe under Boaz’s protection.
At mealtime she returned with the women to the guardhouse. The men sat in a semicircle with Boaz at one end and Garto the overseer at the other end.
“Come, Ruth,” Boaz called to her when she approached. “Sit and eat. Dip your bread in the vinegar.” Boaz handed her a freshly baked pita.
Ruth’s hands trembled slightly as she held the fresh bread. Her mouth watered uncontrollably in anticipation of food entering her famished body. Her heart beat faster. She calmed herself as she raised the delicious smelling pita to her mouth. Her lips almost cried in joy at the feel of the soft warm bread. She sunk her teeth into the solid pita and chewed slowly. She savored the texture of the bread in her mouth and smiled a pure smile of joy as the first morsel went down her throat. She consciously breathed for the first time since she had seen her Mahlon dead – it had seemed like ages ago.
She ate very little, her shrunken stomach satisfied, and always thinking to save her food for Naomi. She placed the remaining pita in the pocket of her dress. After the meal she returned to the field. Boaz called his maidens aside and spoke to them briefly. Afterwards they became friendlier with Ruth, smiling at her, chatting with her, and, she wasn’t sure, but it seemed they purposely dropped heads of barley for her to pick up. By evening she had a respectable collection of barley. Boaz nodded approvingly as Ruth returned to the guardhouse.
“You may use our threshing floor,” Boaz said. “That way you won’t have to carry so much back to the city. Do you know how to thresh?”
“Of course.” Ruth blushed. She remembered the palace servants threshing and had paid attention to Boaz’s servants doing the same. A well-fed ox stood amicably on the threshing floor, a threshing sledge tied to his back. Ruth raised the wooden sledge and placed her barley heads under the basalt teeth of the sledge. Ruth balanced herself on the smooth top of the sledge and pulled on the ox’s rope. The well-trained ox knew what to do and walked slowly around the threshing floor. After a few rounds Ruth got off the sledge. The ox stopped moving. Ruth gathered the broken sheaves of barley and threw them into the air. She felt a thrill as the gentle evening breeze from the west carried the chaff away, leaving the heavier seeds to fall to the ground.
“Here is a sack to carry your grain.” Boaz gave her a large freshly-woven sack. “You are a quick study,” he said softly. “Tomorrow will be even easier. Take this.” Boaz handed Ruth his walking stick. “It is always good to have a walking stick in these parts. There are occasionally predators, both animal and human, though we have gotten rid of most of them. I need to return now, but you should be safe on the road. Good night, my daughter. I hope to see you on the field tomorrow.” Boaz smiled warmly and left together with most of his workers.
Ruth continued to winnow the barley, a large mound of seed growing at her feet. She scooped up the seeds, placed them in her new sack and then walked to the main road with Boaz’s walking stick in one hand and the grain-filled sack tied to her back. She felt happier and more accomplished than she could ever remember. She thought of whistling, but refrained.
There were few people on the road as the sky darkened quickly. Her exhaustion hit her like an avalanche as she walked slowly towards the gate of Bethlehem. She blessed Boaz for the walking stick.
She heard a wagon with a team of horses approaching from behind her. The wagon slowed down and stopped next to Ruth.
“Princess Ruth?” Sumahtrid exclaimed from the wagon. “I almost didn’t recognize you. Come in here, child. You look terrible. What has happened to you? Come here.” Sumahtrid extended his hand.
“Sumahtrid?” Ruth stepped back, perplexed. “What are you doing here? How did you find me? Did my brother send you? My mother? Where is Orpa? How is she?”
“Come. Come, Princess. We will take you home and I will explain all.”
“I do not want to go home.” Ruth took another step back. “This is my home now.”
“Come now, Princess. You would have me believe that you wish to live as a pauper? As a beggar? Scratching out a measly sustenance from the leavings of the field? Look at you. How many more days do you think you can survive like this? But I know. You are as stubborn as every other member of your family. Come. Come into the wagon. Let us at least take you into Bethlehem and let us discuss this as civilized people and not by the side of a dark road.
“I am tired,” Ruth admitted. Her entire body was in pain. Her back and legs ached, her arms and face were scratched and her head and stomach felt queasy. She accepted Sumahtrid’s help into the wagon and immediately knew she had made a mistake. She noticed for the first time the disturbing look of the boyish man driving the wagon, like an animal patiently awaiting its prey. She noticed the chains and weapons in the back of the wagon.
“On second thought, Princess,” Sumahtrid declared, “there is someplace else we need to take you first.”
The driver turned the horses around and drove them quickly away from Bethlehem.
“Stop! Stop this wagon right now!” Ruth commanded with more authority than she ever knew she possessed. Beor the driver halted the horses and Sumahtrid looked around in confusion. Ruth started to climb out of the wagon.
“Oh no you don’t, Princess.” Sumahtrid grabbed Ruth’s arm roughly. “I cannot allow you to escape. Beor, the chains.”
Ruth smacked Sumahtrid across the head with the walking stick with all her might. Sumahtrid yelped and let go of Ruth. Ruth fell out of the wagon, picked herself up and ran towards the gate of Bethlehem where she could see torches in the distance.
“Quickly, Beor,” Sumahtrid ordered. “We have to catch her before she reaches the gate.”
Beor turned the horses around yet again and drove them hard after Ruth. Ruth ran to the city in a panic. She could hear the hooves coming closer. The rapid breathing of the horses became louder then her own. The city gate was still several lengths away. Workers from the fields were still entering as guards stood impassively, not seeing Ruth in the dark. Ruth waved her stick in the air and started screaming the first thing that came to mind: “Boaz! Boaz!”
“Too late,” Sumahtrid whispered in Ruth’s ear as his strong arms lifted her into the wagon. Ruth swung her stick at the sorcerer again, but this time he was prepared and intercepted her. Beor grabbed Ruth, carried her to the back of the wagon and quickly clamped manacles on her wrists and ankles. Ruth struggled against the chains to no avail. She collapsed to the floor of the wagon, weeping.
“Why do they want me so badly in Kir Moav?” Ruth moaned from the floor. “Zipor exiled me.”
“We are not going to Kir Moav, Princess,” Sumahtrid answered. “The blood of the daughters of Eglon is required elsewhere.”
Ruth’s skin instantly turned cold, despite the summer heat.
* * * * * *
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 113b, Rashi: Boaz saw modesty in Ruth. She would stand when gathering standing sheaves and sit on the ground when gathering fallen sheaves.
Book of Ruth, Chapter 2:
2 And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi: ‘Let me now go to the field, and glean among the ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find favor.’ And she said unto her: ‘Go, my daughter.’ 3 And she went, and came and gleaned in the field after the reapers; and her hap was to light on the portion of the field belonging unto Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4 And, behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said unto the reapers: ‘The Lord be with you.’ And they answered him: ‘The Lord bless thee.’ 5 Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers: ‘Whose damsel is this?’ 6 And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said: ‘It is a Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the field of Moab; 7 and she said: Let me glean, I pray you, and gather after the reapers among the sheaves; so she came, and hath continued even from the morning until now, save that she tarried a little in the house.’ 8 Then said Boaz unto Ruth: ‘Hear thou not, my daughter? Go not to glean in another field, neither pass from hence, but abide here fast by my maidens. 9 Let your eyes remain on the field that they do reap, and go after them; have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch you? and when you are thirsty, go unto the vessels, and drink of that which the young men have drawn.’ 10 Then she fell on her face, and bowed down to the ground, and said unto him: ‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take cognizance of me, seeing I am a foreigner?’ 11 And Boaz answered and said unto her: ‘It has fully been told me, all that you have done unto 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 nativity, and are come unto a people that you knew not heretofore. 12 The Lord recompense your work, and be your reward complete from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you are come to take refuge.’ 13 Then she said: ‘Let me find favor in your sight, my Lord; for that you have comforted me, and for that you have spoken to the heart of your handmaid, though I am not as one of your handmaidens.’ 14 And Boaz said unto her at meal-time: ‘Come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip your morsel in the vinegar.’ And she sat beside the reapers; and they reached her parched corn, and she did eat and was satisfied, and left thereof. 15 And when she was risen up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying: ‘Let her glean even among the sheaves, and put her not to shame. 16 And also pull out some for her of purpose from the bundles, and leave it, and let her glean, and rebuke her not.’ 17 So she gleaned in the field until even; and she beat out that which she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley.