When I was a child, we sang a lot of hymns that praised Jesus as our redeemer. One popular example was the Philip Bliss hymn that begins:
I will sing of my Redeemer
And His wondrous love to me.
But I don’t think I ever remember anyone explaining just what a redeemer is. What does that now largely theological term mean?
I was in a fog until when later in life, I was introduced to the ancient Hebrew concept of the go’el. This Hebrew word is customarily translated into the English word redeemer.
In ancient Israelite culture, a go’el was a male member of an extended family, usually the eldest brother, an uncle, or a cousin. He had responsibility for coming to the rescue for members of the extended family who might be in serious trouble.
The go’el performed a liberating or restorative function on behalf of the extended family. That function might include the following:
• Rescuing out of slavery a member of the family who had been enslaved either through capture in war or through voluntary indenture as a means of paying a debt. Freedom was obtained by paying a sum—a ransom—to the slave’s master.
• Avenging the murder or inadvertent death of a member of the family by extracting a death from the person who caused the death or from one of his extended family.
• Marrying the widow of a deceased brother or relative who had died without a son. Through the marriage, the go’el would father a child by his new wife, which would be credited as the descendent of the deceased brother or relative. The most famous example of this role is the story of Boaz marrying Ruth.
• Buying back land that had belonged to the family but had been lost, usually through indebtedness.
Several times Old Testament writers take this concept and extend it in a more spiritual sense to describe God’s role vis-à-vis Israel. Exodus 6:6, for example, speaks of God redeeming Israel from bondage to the Egyptians. Continuing with the Exodus theme, Psalm 78:35 praises God as Israel’s rock and redeemer.
The calling of God as Israel’s go’el is especially prominent in Second Isaiah. For a few selected examples, see Isaiah 41:14, 44:6, 47:4. Its use is apt in its context for these chapters of Isaiah are extending God’s promise to the Israelites to free them from captivity in Babylon and restore them to their own land.
The New Testament never actually calls Jesus redeemer per se. But it contains a number of passages where Paul or others speak of the Christians’ redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Again a few examples include Romans 3:24, Ephesians 1:7, and Colossians 1:14.
Behind this use of the word redemption lies the idea of liberation, our liberation from sin, death, and the evil powers of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus is able to do this become he is in a sense the big brother of all humanity.
By his incarnation, the Word of God becomes flesh. He becomes one with us, a member of the human family. He is not an alien savior, but one with us in our flesh and blood. And so as big brother, Jesus becomes the member of the family who comes to our rescue, liberating us from all that holds us in spiritual, physical, and social bondage. He is the God-sent go’el for humanity.
When I came to understand this concept of the go’el, calling Jesus redeemer came alive for me. I hope it does for you too.