The Kinsman Redeemer

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The Kinsman Redeemer: Scripture’s Hidden Treasure
By Darrell Ferguson
December 2, 1986
 
A member of your immediate family has just been murdered. The man who did it has been apprehended by the police and they have brought him to your home. You’re expected to kill him and you are given instructions about how to dispose of the body. The police leave, and there you are—standing in your living room with this man. Such is the plight of the kinsman redeemer.
 
A kinsman redeemer is simply a man’s male relative, and he was required to carry out certain responsibilities for his kinsman. The Hebrew word for kinsman redeemer is ga’al. Interestingly, the word is defined as both to redeem and to be the next of kin, describing both his job and his identity.
 
Ga’al is one of the three Hebrew words translated redeem. The other two are koper and padah. Koper has to do with atonement, whereas padah and ga’al both have to do with obtaining the release of a person or possession. When one party’s goods or person is in the possession of a second party, and a third-party purchases the release of those goods or that person, that purchase is called redemption.
 
Ga’al is distinct from padah because it places the emphasis on the relationship of the redeemer to the redeemed. He redeems because of the kinsman relationship.[1]
 
 
The word ga’al first appears in Genesis 9:5 where God requires of a man and accounting of his fellow man. Put together with the next verse, which establishes the death penalty for murder, this verse gives a picture of the basic responsibilities of a ga’al.
 
Nowhere in Scripture are all the responsibilities described in a single passage.
 
Although the technical definition of ga’al is a close male relative, the Bible emphasizes the redeemer aspect. In fact, the first three times the word appears (Gn.48:16, Ex.6:6, 15:3), it refers to God and is translated redeemer. After that it is next seen in Leviticus 25 and 27 where it is used forty-six times. The first reference in chapter 25 is in verse 24. God says, “you must provide for the redemption (ga’al) of the land. If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells his property, his nearest relative (ga’al) is to come and redeem (ga’al) what his countrymen has sold.”
 
So the first responsibility that appears in Scripture is redemption of the land. If a man was forced to sell his land because of the debt, his ga’al was expected to buy the land back, if he was able, in order to keep the land in the ownership of the clan. This way, the wealth of the clan was not diminished and the man had the opportunity to eventually buy back his land. An example of this is seen in Jeremiah 32:6-12 where Jeremiah redeems a field belonging to his cousin Hanemel who probably had to sell it because of poverty (the land was under siege).
 
Although the command originally only required redemption of land in the event that it was sold to pay a debt, the law eventually required the ga’al to redeem the land of a man who had died. This happened as a result of the Hebrew culture combining the law of redemption with the law of levirate marriage, which required the closest, single, male relative of a deceased man to marry the man’s widow. An example of the combination of these originally separate laws is seen in Ruth 4:5.
 
Leviticus 25 goes on to describe other regulations, but the main thrust of the chapter is that if a man or his land is in the possession of someone else when the year of Jubilee comes, he is automatically redeemed (v.28,54).
 
The third major responsibility of the ga’al is to bring retribution on a murderer. I counted twelve times in the NIV where ga’al is translated avenger of blood.
 
The death penalty for murder had already been established in Exodus 21:12,13. But in Deuteronomy 19:12, the method of execution was given: he was to be put to death by the ga’al of the murdered man. This command was so abused that God commanded the building of cities of refuge to protect men who committed involuntary manslaughter from the angry ga’al (Nm.35, Jos.20). Involuntary manslaughter was not a capital crime.
 
Examples of the proper execution of this command are few, but, as is characteristic of the record of Israel, examples of the abuse of the command abound. One such example is seen in 2 Samuel 3. Abner had killed Ashahel, Joab’s brother, in self-defense (not murder). Then Joab avenged Ashahel’s blood by murdering Abner.
 
The very next chapter contains another abuse of the command. Some men murder Ish-Bosheth to avenge the attempt of Ish-Bosheth’s father to kill David.
 
David distorted the law in a different way. He allowed for an exception, and it resulted in the death of Amnon and the loss of David’s throne. For the ga’al to fail to kill the murderer was a very serious sin. The land became polluted and atonement couldn’t be made until the murderer’s blood had been shed on it (Nm.35:33,34).
 
The last major responsibility of the ga’al is levirate marriage. This required the brother of a man who died childless to marry the widow and produce children in the dead man’s name so his line would continue.
 
Levirate marriage was never connected to redemption in the Old Testament law, but the culture had combined them (Ruth 4:1-7).
 
Levirate marriage was only binding on the dead man’s brother, not any ga’al.
 
The law is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:5,6, but we know it was in force before that. God killed Onan when he refused to produce children for his dead brother (Gn.38:6-10). The responsibility was a serious one. If anyone refused to do it he was to be punished with public humiliation (Dt.25:7-10). Levirate marriage became such an integral part of Jewish society that the Sadducees used it as an argument against the resurrection (Mt.22:24-28).
 
Like all God’s commands, it was abused. However, when practiced the way God intended, it was a beautiful thing. An example of this is in Ruth 4. The man Ahimelech died and left his wife, Naomi, with his land, his two sons, and their wives. The sons and one of the wives died, leaving Naomi and the other wife, Ruth.
 
A man named Boaz wanted to marry Ruth. At this time, levirate marriage and the redemption of the land were combined, which presented a problem for Boaz. Boaz was a ga’al, but Ahimelech had a closer ga’al. Boaz got that man to give up his right to redemption and therefore inherited the right himself. Technically Boaz was then to marry Naomi, but Naomi allowed him to marry Ruth instead because Naomi could no longer bear children. The reason the first ga’al was not required to redeem the land was probably because he had already married (4:6). Levirate marriage was only required of single men. God never required polygamy.
 
In Ruth 4:7,8, the first ga’al gives his shoe to Boaz. Among the Hebrews, land was taken by throwing a sandal on it (Ps.60:8, 108:9). Transfer of land was symbolized by taking off the sandal and giving it to the new owner (Ruth 4:7). The taking off of the shoe symbolized the inability on the part of the former owner to walk on the land anymore.[2]
 
 
The institution of the ga’al provided to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” an emphatic “Yes!”
 
God set up a system in which the concept of the kinsman redeemer was deeply ingrained into Jewish thinking. The result was Israel’s looking to God as their ga’al after the exile. And if you understand that, the book of Isaiah really comes alive. Of the thirty-three times the word ga’al is used for God in the Old Testament, nineteen are found in Isaiah.
 
Each duty of the ga’al has a specific relation to the work of Christ. First, the kinsman’s need for redemption arose from a debt the kinsman could not pay. Similarly, we owe a debt we cannot pay. We have sinned against God, and because of that we owe our lives (Ro. 6:23). We were sold as a slave to sin (Ro.7:14) and were utterly incapable of purchasing our own freedom.
 
Secondly, the ga’al acts because of his relationship to the kinsman. In Jesus case, the relationship is created by his action of redemption, making us his brothers. He paid the price for our sin (Isa. 53:3) and bought us back (1 Cor. 7:23).
 
 
Thirdly, with regard to the avenger aspect, the Lord fulfills that for us as well. In Psalm 105:15 God delivered a command to all people of all ages: Do not touch my holy ones! The statement thunders with authority and God enforces it. The hope of God as our Avenger gave Job the encouragement he needed to endure the scorn he received from men. Job 19:25 “I know that my Redeemer (ga’al) lives, and in the end he will stand upon the earth.” Philippians 1:28 says the very fact that men oppose Christians is a sign that they will be destroyed. God is our great Avenger.
 
The entire book of Ruth is an example of the institution of kinsman redemption. The term, ga’al is used over twenty times in four chapters. The main idea in the book, however, is not the redemption aspect but the levirate marriage aspect. In fact, the Greek translation (LXX) avoids the word redeemer (lytron) as a translation for ga’al and uses kinsman (anchisteus or the verb form anchisteo) instead.
 
The reason Boaz is such a clear picture of Christ is he was in no way obligated to redeem because there was a closer ga’al. He did it out of love. This idea is taken to the infinite extreme with God’s redemption of us. God is a debtor to no man. He is in no way obligated to do anything for man except damn him. And yet, instead of damning us, he chose us to be his bride!
 
Isaiah 41:14 “I myself will help you,’ declares the LORD, your Redeemer (ga’al), the Holy One of Israel.”
 
In the same statement, God refers to himself as the Holy One and the Redeemer. Holiness requires absolute separation from and destruction of sin, and the Redeemer pays the penalty for sin! All who place their faith in Christ will be redeemed (Ro. 3:21-24), and to everyone who has been redeemed will come a greater manifestation of redemption. Our souls are redeemed now, and soon our bodies will also be redeemed (Ro. 8:23). This will be such a colossal event that right now the whole creation is awaiting it in eager expectation (Ro. 8:19). God’s anointed will enter his dwelling place.
 
2 Timothy 3:16,17 assures us that all Scripture is useful for training in righteousness. This truth is never more clear than in the instruction about the kinsman redeemer. Hidden in the pages of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy is the greatest truth anyone could ever know: God’s redemption of his created. What joy and praise the should bring to our lips!
 
“May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight oh Lord, my rock, and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
 
 
 

[1] The title of ga’al is not an office to be gained but rather position into which one is born. However, simply being born into that position does not by itself require anything of him. The ga’al’s responsibilities come only when certain events occur. For example, a ga’al was never required to do anything for his kinsman’s redemption if there existed a closer ga’al who could fulfill the responsibilities. However, despite this, as seen in the definition, a man is a ga’al even if he isn’t required to perform the duties. This fact is also seen in the usage of the word. In Ruth 3:12, Boaz is identified as a ga’al. This is before the closest ga’al gives up the privilege of redemption in 4:1-10. Therefore, the only qualification for being a ga’al is to be a male relative.
[2] It should be noted that what happened in Ruth is not related to the command in Deuteronomy 25:7-10, where a man who illegitimately refuses to fulfill his duty of levirate marriage is humiliated by the removal of a sandal. This custom had nothing to do with land distribution, but rather humiliation and punishment. The men referred to in Deuteronomy 25 were to be known as “the family of the un-sandaled.” For a person to go without shoes showed extreme poverty and humiliation (Isa. 20:1-4).
 
  



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