Ruth 2:2 – Corn or grain?
For those of us who spent any amount of time reading the book of Ruth, it’s quite easy to see that the product being gleaned by Ruth was most likely barley but could have also been wheat. However, the KJV states in Ruth 2:2 that she went out to glean in the fields, “ears of corn”. So, did the KJV translators get it wrong?
In this instance, they likely translated it just fine…. fine for 1611. However, this is one major example demonstrating why all translations, even the KJV, should be updated to reflect the change in terminology. The Old English word “corne” actually referred generically to grain. It could refer to barley or wheat or even modern (American) corn. However, in modern English the phrase just seems out of place and needs updated to barley or wheat or more accurately, stalks of grain.
And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi, Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace. And she said unto her, Go, my daughter.
The more modern translations, however, correctly updaete the passage as either “grain” or “ears of grain” or “stalks of grain”.
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” (NIV)
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” (ESV)
Below we will discuss the 3 reasons why ears of corn is a bad modern translation for Ruth 2:2 and other passage in the KJV which perpetuate the same translation.
- Cultural norms – did the Israelites even grow corn?
- Contextual logic – does the rest of the passage sound like corn is the right fit?
- Linguistic standards – does the Hebrew text support a transition into corn?
Before getting too far into the deeper issues of translation, one should whether or not corn was even grown in ancient Israel and if so, how common was it?
Was corn grown in ancient Israel?
The simple answer is no. In ancient Israel it was popular to grow חִטִּים (khitim, wheat) and שְׂעוֹרָה (se’orah, barley). However, modern American corn was not among the crops grown.1 There is evidence that ancient Mesopotamians grew a form of Maize corn, however, no evidence suggesting the same for ancient Israel (or Canaan).
The book of Ruth does not specifically say that it was the spring harvest, yet Jewish tradition has always been to read the book of Ruth during the Pentecost feast. This is because the setting of Ruth was around the same feast day(s). This means that it was a spring time harvest. That means the grain most likely to be harvested was barely. Wheat was sometimes harvested in the spring but more likely in the fall, as is modern day a maize corn.
Additionally, chapter 3 of the book shows Boaz doing two things. The first is winnowing the barely. The second is drinking, like in celebration of the barely harvest. Barely and wheat were winnowed in the wind by tossing it up after it was threshed well. Of course, corn would never be winnowed. Also, most beer was made with barely in the ANE, which ferments in less than 12 weeks. It’s quite likely that whatever Boaz was drinking, it was made from barely, which he just spent 7 weeks harvesting and winnowing.
Let’s first remember that an ear of corn in older English speaking regions just referred generically to any grain. The Hebrew word used is שִׁבֹּלֶת which is neither the word for barely nor wheat nor maize. It’s the Hebrew equivalent of “grain stalks” or just “stalks”. The root just means a shoot, or branch, or even stream. Hence, the reason why the KJV translators used the word “corn” which meant “grain” in 1611.
However, the bulk of all English readers no longer use the word corn to refer to grain, especially not barely or wheat. In fact, the Cambridge Dictionary provides the following definition:
“a tall plant grown for its whole yellow or white seeds which are eaten cooked, made into flour, or fed to animals”2
Other dictionaries provide similar definitions. Some of them provide a secondary definition noting that it can refer to a kernel but usually refers to a maize corn kernel.
In conclusion, it would be wrong to call “earns of corn” a translation error, given the fact that once upon a time it was a perfectly fine translation. However, the modern definition of corn has changed and that means the language of the KJV needs updated. After all if it were wrong to update the biblical texts to make them readable then we would all have to be forced to learn Greek and Hebrew, not English.
The argument that modern English is wrong and we should all adapt to the old KJV language is simply bunk. For starters, most KJVO advocates have already violated with rule by not reading the 1611 KJV which is drastically different than what is currently read as the KJV. Secondly, the entire purpose of the KJV was to but the scriptures in the language of the masses. Modern KJVO advocates are blind to the reason that the KJV even exixts; to make the Bible available to the reading masses and no longer something only to be read by the special few.
The KJV is simply outdated. It’s time to update.
[Featured image is from 1852 by Jean-François Millet, titled “Gleaners”]