Do the gleaning laws allow civil government to coerce individuals or businesses to give up wealth or other private property?
The original question (which I took the liberty of broadening) was:
Do the Biblical gleaning laws authorize civil government to force supermarkets or restaurants to give their waste food to the poor?
The idea of throwing away perfectly good food would have been a foreign concept to people in Biblical times. It is only our modern prosperity (in certain countries) that allows us the luxury to waste food in this way.
Voluntary charity is an important Biblical theme. But this question is not about voluntary charity.
The owners of food service/sales businesses (like supermarkets and restaurants) ought to consider offering any excess to needy people, rather than throwing it away. However, we must also recognize the inherent costs (and risks) in this generous action. Just consider, for example, what it would cost you (in terms of time alone) to give away any leftovers from your last holiday celebration dinner. Now, scale that up to restaurant dinners for a whole year.
The risks for a business owner involve incurring liability if someone becomes sick after they eat food which has passed through the control of the supermarket or restaurant. What if you gave away your Thanksgiving leftovers to some homeless person and got hit with a lawsuit two weeks later because they contracted food poisoning, which they attributed to your negligence in meal preparation?
Biblical law does not authorize the civil government to force this act of generosity upon a restaurant/supermarket owner, just as Biblical law doesn't authorize the civil government to force you to collect your leftovers from your own breakfast/lunch/dinner and distribute them to the poor. Here are three reasons:
- The Biblical gleaning law is not merely about "waste products/old food" -- it is about allowing hungry people to take perfectly good agricultural products from parts of someone's land, under certain conditions which are specified in the law (Deut. 23:24-25). Biblical gleaning law does not apply outside these scripturally-defined areas:
- yearly marginal agricultural produce (Lev. 19:9-10)
- produce from the land/orchards/vineyards which are "rested" in the seventh year (Lev. 25:4-7)
- Even the Biblical gleaning law was not "civilly-enforced" in the sense that there was a specified civil punishment for a landowner who harvested all of his bunches of grapes, or sheathes of grain. In fact, we know from history that Israel actually did violate this Biblical welfare law by refusing to fallow their land for many Sabbath years in a row. And this Biblical law violation was enforced by God himself (Lev. 26:43), when he exiled them from the land into Babylon.20 He carried those who had escaped from the sword away to Babylon, and they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill YHWH’s word by Jeremiah’s mouth, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. As long as it lay desolate, it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. 2 Chronicles 36:20-21WEB
On the other hand, there is a kind of "negative enforcement" of this law, because the civil government cannot be used to charge a gleaner with "trespassing" or "theft" either. The most a property owner can do is make the gleaner leave, and he cannot recover any small amount of food which was gleaned lawfully.
- According to Biblical law, an animal that was found to have died "of itself" (without the blood being drained at death) was unclean for Israelites to eat (there wasn't necessarily anything unhealthy about it: the "uncleanness" was ceremonial). What did the law say to do with this "wastage"? 21 You shall not eat of anything that dies of itself. You may give it to the foreigner living among you who is within your gates, that he may eat it; or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to YHWH your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy 14:21WEB
The owner of the dead animal could either give it to the sojourner at the gates (this is typically where people would beg for food) or sell it to a foreigner. Notice that this law does not specify any involvement by civil government.