Better Than a Brother

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Is it true that the title “redeemer” in the Old Testament designates a person’s closest relative?

The title “redeemer,” as well as the verbs usually translated “to redeem,” are theologically rich. Here we can deal only with the title and its significance. Redemption is primarily a legal term. The redeemer (Heb. go’el) is usually associated with the closest relative of a person (“an uncle or a cousin or any blood relative” [Lev. 25:49, NIV]) who needed redemption. We will examine the work of the redeemer, discuss its application to God, and finally say something about its Christological significance.

1. Work of the Redeemer: The redeemer operates in the context of dire need. First, when an Israelite was so poor that he had to sell his property to survive, the redeemer was expected to buy back the property for the Israelite (Lev. 25:25; cf. Ruth 2:20; 3:12). This was based on the conviction that God was the owner of the land, and that He had parceled it out to the Israelites for their use. No one was to misappropriate it by permanently taking it from a fellow Israelite. Second, if an Israelite could not pay his debts, he could sell himself as a slave to the lender. Again, the redeemer was expected to buy his freedom back (Lev. 47-49). Since the Lord had redeemed His people from Egyptian bondage, they all belonged to Him and consequently no one should enslave them again. In a sense, the redeemer reenacted God’s powerful redemption of His people from Egypt. Third, when someone killed an Israelite, the redeemer was responsible to execute the murderer (Num. 35:12, 19). Cities of refuge were created to assure that the murderer was indeed guilty (Num. 35:12, 24, 25; Deut. 19:6, 12). Life was considered a divine gift that belonged exclusively to God.  In this case the redeemer took the life of the murderer as a substitute for that of his relative. The basic responsibility of the redeemer may have been to eliminate social anomalies that disturbed and disrupted the social and spiritual harmony and wholeness established in Israel by the covenant God.

2. God as Redeemer: This title is metaphorically applied to God in the Old Testament. He redeems from personal misfortunes (Gen. 48:16) and from the collective experience of the exile by destroying Babylon (Isa. 41:14: 43:14: 44:6) as the redeemer who pursued the enemy to execute them. Although the idea of the closest relative may not be always present, in some cases God is described as a Father (Isa. 63:16) or husband (Isa. 54:5) who redeems His people. We are deeply connected to God as His spiritual “blood relatives.” The ties that unite us to Him are stronger than those of a natural mother (Ps. 27:10). Perhaps more important, the Lord redeems humans from sin (Isa. 44:22-24), which as a universal phenomenon (Isa. 59:20) rules over humans (Ps. 19:13, 14), and even from His anger (Isa. 54:5-8) and from death (Ps. 103:4; 49:8, 9, 15). He can truly restore cosmic harmony as Creator and Redeemer.

3. Christ Our Redeemer: The image of God as Redeemer is embodied and fulfilled in the work of Christ for His people (Luke 1:68, 71; 2:38). He was indeed the one “who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Humans had been enslaved by the powers of sin and death and were in utmost need of redemption. The Redeemer came and shared in our humanity, becoming our closest relative, and freed us from the power of death (Heb. 2:14, 15) and sin (Rom. 3:23, 24; Titus 2:14; Col. 1:14 ). His work of redemption also includes the natural world that is now decaying and in need of liberation (Rom. 8:19-21; cf. Gen. 1:26). He paid for all our debts not with “silver or gold” but with His “precious blood” (1 Peter 1:18, 19; Eph. 1:7). In order to free us from sin and death, Christ took them upon Himself as our substitute, giving “His life as a ransom for [Gr. anti, “in place of”] many” (Mark 1 0:45). Our forfeited lives are redeemed not only by destroying our spiritual enemy but by restoring them to us through the surrender of His own life. Only Jesus, our closest relative, could achieve this amazing work of grace.