Interpretation vs. Translation

And let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not, Ruth 2:16.

There are times when a good translator needs to supply words to properly interpret a verse. Through Facebook, our good friend Avi Gold from Beer Sheba, Israel was asked by someone about the words "of purpose" in Ruth 2:16. Avi has read the Hebrew bible as his principal text all of his life. He took time to help his friend understand the King James Bible.

Avi is Jewish. He is not a Messianic Jew and he makes no claim to Christianity other than to show respect. I read his post on Facebook and thought that readers of this blog would profit by reading it.

This morning I was asked about a verse in the Book of Ruth in the King James translation. Ruth 2:16 reads: "And let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for her, and leave them, that she may glean them, and rebuke her not."

The verse may be puzzling to the modern reader of English. But this is actually a strength of the King James. If one slows down, and stops to think when the initial reading is unclear, then it's possible to notice much more in the verse, and eventually, a solution to the puzzle can be found.

The puzzling phrase, of course, is "of purpose". Looking at the Hebrew, I noticed this phrase does not translate any particular Hebrew word in the verse. However, if we take into account the context Ruth's visiting the field, and the laws given in the Torah regarding the poor, the meaning of "of purpose" unfolds. The Torah instructs the owner of a field to leave certain things in the field for the poor who might come looking for food.

Leviticus 23:22 says:

"And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God."

The corners of the field are to be left unharvested. In addition, the gleanings are to remain on the ground, rather than gathered. Both of these are left for "the poor and the stranger". The gleanings are the grains which happen to fall in the process of harvesting. Obviously, the harvester wants to maximize the harvest, so these gleanings do not drop intentionally. But in the process of harvesting grain, inevitably some grain will fall. This grain is termed "gleanings" and is left in the field for the poor and the stranger who might come looking for food.

This is the letter of the law. The owner of the field is not obligated to leave more than that. Of course, if he wants to be more generous and chooses to leave more in the field, or chooses to give more of the harvest directly to the poor, that is his choice. Coming back to Ruth, we find that Boaz was more generous than what the letter of the law required of him as the owner of a field. He saw that Ruth was in need, and so, he instructed his workers to allow her more than what happened to fall unintentionally. That is, in addition, to allow her handfuls of grain OF PURPOSE. In modern English we would say "on purpose", i.e. intentionally.

But rather than be forward (and give her the grain directly), the specific instructions he gave the workers was to let handfuls of grain FALL OF PURPOSE. ("Oops! Clumsy me! There's another handful that fell! Oh, and there's another! My, I am clumsy today!")

So, Boaz wished to conceal a bit his generosity by making it appear that the workers had just happened to drop more grain than usual. If fact, though, they had done it OF PURPOSE.


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