A Word for Today: Kinsman Redeemer (Heb. Go’el)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Such is the complexity of modern family life that most societies today have enacted specific laws that relate to families and domestic relationships. In the recent Queen’s speech, which opened this year’s session of the British Parliament, a tangible commitment was made by the government to introduce a family bill that promised flexibility, and justice for those in difficult circumstances. This is not, though, a new phenomenon, as centuries ago God made considerable provision in that part of the Old Testament known as the Pentateuch, or, as it is more commonly referred to today, the torah, for the benefit of families. One such provision was that of the role of a nearest kinsman, or kinsman redeemer, denoted in the Hebrew word go’el. This term is derived from the Hebrew word ga’al (‘to redeem’), and is part of the technical legal terminology of Israel’s family law. In the Bible and rabbinical tradition, the term indicates an individual, who, being the nearest relative of another person, has the responsibility of restoring the rights and privileges (including liberty) of that person, and avenging his or her wrongs. This is why, in modern English translations of the Old Testament, such as the New International Version, the term is translated as ‘kinsman-redeemer’, and ‘avenger of blood’, see for example Ruth chapter 3 verse 9 NIV, and Numbers chapter 35 verse 19 NIV.
In the Septuagint (LXX) the word-group of which go’el forms part is generally translated by the Greek verb lútrów, which signifies the payment of a ransom price, usually by way of redemption. For a detailed consideration of this word see the earlier article in Precious Seed International 2011, Volume 66 issue 2.
The kinsman was always a male relative, but the term is also applied in the Old Testament of angelic intervention in human affairs as in Genesis chapter 48 verse 16, where Jacob recounts how an angel had to redeem him from all harm. God Himself is described in a similar way when he explained to Moses, Exod. 6. 6, how he intended to redeem Israel out of Egyptian bondage ‘with an outstretched arm’. The use of anthropomorphism in this biblical text shows just how close the relationship is between God, and the nation that would be redeemed by Him. God, literally, gave them liberty from enslavement. The prophet Isaiah makes this even more personal, when he poignantly reminded Israel that God was their only redeemer, and they belonged to Him, Isa. 43. 1; 49. 7. Even when Israel found itself in Babylon, God’s appeal to them was based upon His redeeming love as a near kinsman, 48. 20. Israel stands in stark contrast to the cry of Job, who felt, at first, that there was no one close enough to him who could redeem (justify) him. Yet, in his search for God, he realized that it would be God Himself who would provide a kinsman-redeemer, and thereby vindicate his servant, Job. 19. 25.
We indicated that the provision of the go’el related to family matters, and this is seen in several specific areas in the Old Testament. Firstly, consider action forced upon individuals because of their inability to repay debt. This was often the case where the debtor was poor, and the debt could only be satisfied through the sale of ancestral property, or by the individual selling themselves into slavery.1 In either contingency, a near relative, or kinsman, could redeem the debt by paying the ransom price, Lev. 25. 25. Technically, however, even if the seller of the land, or a kinsman redeemer, could not find the money later to redeem the debt, the sale only remained valid until the year of Jubilee, vv. 26-28.2 Nonetheless, the principle remained an important feature of day-to-day life in Israel, ensuring that individuals who had lost their property, or liberty, might be able to regain it, thus providing equally for the redemption of the land, v. 24.3 A second application was where a near kinsman was obliged to redeem the lost opportunities of a male family member who had died without issue. This was the principle of levirate (Latin = ‘levir’ = ‘brother-in-law’) marriage, which provided an exception to the prohibition on incest contained in Leviticus chapter 18 verse 16, by allowing the husband’s brother to marry his widowed sister-in-law where there were no children of the original marriage, Deut. 25. 5. In this way the name of the deceased brother would be remembered (redeemed) through the first son born to the second marriage, Deut. 25. 6.4 This is precisely the situation that prevailed in the book of Ruth, and why Naomi was so distraught that there would be no future possible unless this principle could be invoked for her dead sons, Ruth 1. 11.
A more controversial aspect of the principle of a kinsman-redeemer is seen in the so-called ‘avenger of blood’, Num. 35. 19-27, who was obligated to avenge the death of a family member. The exception to this rule was if the death had been manslaughter, in which case, the perpetrator could find sanctuary from the ‘avenger of blood’ in a city of refuge, Deut. 35. 22-25.
It is, of course, in the book of Ruth that the idea of the kinsman-redeemer is exemplified. Since Boaz is prepared to assume the role of the kinsman-redeemer over a closer relative who is reluctant to do so, Ruth 4. 6, he is able to pay the redemption price, and thus reclaim the land that originally belonged to Elimelech, and that would eventually have been transferred to Chilion and Mahlon, had they lived, vv. 1-10. In doing so, he also acquires Ruth as his wife, so that he can fulfil the levirate principle. Boaz, acting in his capacity as a kinsman-redeemer, highlights three important requirements needed in the redemption process:
- The redeemer must be a near kinsman. Nothing short of this would start the process, i.e., he must have the right to redeem, Lev. 25. 48; Ruth 3. 12;
- The redeemer must have the ability and desire to redeem, Ruth 4. 3-6;
- The redeemer must pay the appropriate price to redeem, Lev. 25. 26-27; Ruth 4. 7-11.
The term kinsman-redeemer does not appear in the New Testament, but Vine suggests that Christ is His people’s go’el in the following ways:
- By incarnation, and thereby saving His people from eternal disinheritance, Heb. 2. 14-18;
- By redemption, 1 Pet. 1. 18f.; cp. Isa. 49. 26;
- By avenging them in overcoming, by His own death, the one who had the power of death, Heb. 2. 14f.
As we think about Christ as our personal go’el, we should be filled with a great sense of indebtedness to the one who loved us enough to buy our freedom by His act of redemption. ‘So shall the sayings of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be pleasing continually before thee, O Lord my helper, and my (kinsman) redeemer’, Ps. 19. 14 LXX.
For further reading/study:
Legal Images – Kinsman-Redeemer-Avenger (pg. 501) in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Ed.) Leland Ryken
Wenham, Gordon, Exploring the Old Testament: Vol 1: The Pentateuch
1. Whilst slavery was recognized under the law, Exod. 21. 2-11; Deut. 15. 12, it did not sanction a creditor selling an impecunious debtor into slavery, Amos 2. 6b.
2. But not all property was automatically released in the year of Jubilee – for the exceptions see Leviticus chapter 25 verses 29 to 34.
3. Leviticus chapter 25 verses 47-49 also allowed a kinsman the opportunity to redeem a family member in bondage to a resident alien.
4. Some scholars are not sympathetic to this view – see the comments of Robert Hubbard Jr. at page 791 NIDOTTE (Vol. 1) and alternatively Stephen Renn at page 792, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.