Redemption in Ancient Israel
Nearing the end of Leviticus, we see a familiar word repeated several times: redemption. The word redemption circulates through our modern Christian vocabulary, but it didn’t start with Jesus, it started in Leviticus. Redemption was an action required by law of every patriarch in ancient Israel “to ransom a family member who had been driven to the margins of society by poverty, who had been seized by an enemy against whom he had no defense, who found themselves enslaved by the consequences of a faithless life” (S. Richter). This ancient practice, by no coincidence, sets the stage for Jesus. Take a look.
In the Ancient Near East, the axis of life and community was the family. Israel’s culture was patriarchal and family-based, as opposed to our individual-focused society. In ancient Israel, to exist was to be a part of a family; on the other hand, to be without a family was to be without legitimate existence. How did this work? Every family in Israel was built and sustained by its oldest living male, its patriarch. The role of the patriarch was to shepherd, protect, and sustain every member of his family, even the ones who were lost to sin, enemies, or bad luck. This is where redemption comes in.
Let’s zoom in and act as if we are looking at one family living in ancient Israel. Imagine a patriarch with many family members under his care. Suppose one of his distant relatives, his kinsman, makes a deceitful oath and loses all of his land and money. The kinsman no longer has property or money so he is cast into poverty, dislodged from the family unit, and left to exist on the margins of society. Word gets around and his patriarch, or redeemer, hears the entire story. By law the patriarch is required to alleviate the situation and rescue his lost kinsman. This was no small matter. To rescue a family member was incredibly costly and potentially dangerous. But that didn’t matter because “the law demanded that the patriarch protect the individual’s legal rights and cancel [his] debts” (S. Richter). So, keeping in line with his identity as well as the law, the patriarch buys back the land that his kinsman lost, pays the kinsman’s debt out of his own pocket, and invites the kinsman to live with him, to eat at his table and make a living on his land. This process, the act of a patriarch risking his life and resources to rescue a lost family member, is called “redemption” and it was established as a law in the book of Leviticus.
Does this sound familiar? It should. This ancient, tribal law is the blueprint for what Jesus has done with us. Jesus, the head of the family of God, acted in His identity as Redeemer to rescue us from sin and death. Forsaking His royalty, His resources, and His life, He went to the depths to buy us back from a fate we rightfully deserved and restored us to security within His family. We are now under the perpetual care of our Kinsman Redeemer. Redemption alters our way of life. Because Jesus has bought us back, we get to incorporate Him into every aspect of our lives. We’re nourished by Him, led by Him, and taught by Him. Our status as outcast, sinner, rebel, has been wiped away. We go by a different name as one redeemed by Jesus, ever established in His family.