In Deuteronomy 24:17-22, Moses says to Israel, “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this” (English Standard Version).
In this legislation, Moses gives the people of Israel four commands related to doing justice: (1) When lending money to a widow, Israelites were not to take her “garment in pledge” (vs 17); (2) when the wheat fields were harvested, any sheaf left in the fields by mistake was to become the proper possession of immigrants, orphans, and widows (vs 19); (3) when an Israelite would beat olive trees so that the olives would fall to the ground to be collected, he was not to check every branch and make sure it was stripped bare of fruit; any remaining fruit belongs to the immigrant, orphan and widow (vs 20); (4) the same was to be done for the grapes gathered from the vine (vs 21).
Three classes of people are the recipients of justice here—(1) immigrants, (2) orphans, and (3) widows. The people of Israel are reminded twice that God delivered them from Egyptian slavery (vs 18, 22). God’s generosity is the basis for their responsibility to care for the poor. To harvest food without leaving gleanings would deprive the immigrant, orphan and widow of justice.
These needy individuals (immigrants, orphans and widows) are the focus of this law. Their welfare depends on the community. They were also entitled to participate in a tithe every three years along with the Levites (Deut 14:29), though only the Levites participated in the yearly tithe (vs 27). The rationale for taking care of the Levites is because “he has no portion or inheritance with you.” Remember that in an agrarian society owning land was essential for making a living.
When Israel possessed the land promised to Abraham, each tribe was given a portion of land except the tribe of Levi. They were to serve the whole nation and live throughout the country, but never own any land (Deuteronomy 18:1). The land could only be owned by the eleven tribes. Immigrants were allowed to live in Israel but could not own any portion of it. Orphans and widows did not usually own land of their own because they were not Israelite men. It was not only fair (just) to provide for those who could not own land, but a moral duty.
This list of foods mentioned in this legislation—wheat, olives and grapes— is not exhaustive. They represent any produce or valuable commodity that could be used to bless the underprivileged in Israelite society. The spirit of this legislation expressed the awareness and generosity that should exist within the community for all classes of people.
The manner of their participation in the fruit of the land would be such that they could maintain their honor and self-respect. They would not have to beg or seek a “hand-out.” They would go into the fields after the harvest and work for their own small harvest, searching for and gleaning the grain and fruit that had been left there. And the farmers, who had allowed some produce to remain, were not simply being charitable to those less fortunate than themselves; they were expressing their gratitude to God, who had brought them out of the slavery in Egypt and given them a land of their own. And they also recognized that God was the rightful owner of all the land (Lev 25:23) and the one who gave them the health and strength to work it.
The universal principle of this law is relevant well beyond its immediate situation of harvest and gleaning. This specific command given in an agrarian context reminds the modern reader that God wants those who are in a position of power and privilege to do what is within their ability to care for the weakest and poorest members of their community. The goal should be to empower them so they can provide for themselves. Opportunities should not be limited to food or money, but should also include access to education, legal assistance, investment in job opportunities, medical care, etc.
And what kind of people should be cared for? The immigrant, orphan and widow should be seen paradigmatically as representative of all people who are struggling to survive in our world. God’s special concern is also for refugees, the homeless, the single mother (or father), the mentally and physically disabled, etc. In essence, the legislation of Deuteronomy 24:17-22 is an unpacking and practical application of the universal principle declared by Jesus in his sermon on the mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).