Old Testament Word Studies
Of the Hebrew terms translated in English with "redeem," ga’al is the one word that is most closely connected to Israelite customs. The frequent use of the verb and its main noun in the Book of Ruth illustrates this point. The study of ga’al will show that at the heart of this redemption are the concepts of protection and deliverance.
Dictionary DefinitionsThe customs of Israel with regard to the family are first brought out in some of the dictionary definitions. BDB define the word as "to redeem, act as kinsman."1 KBL have "to lay claim to a person, a thing," and then the developed meaning of "to claim back from another’s authority, to redeem." The old dictionary by Gesenius (upon which BDB was based) says it a little differently: "to redeem, buy back, to require blood; to perform the right and office of a relation via the Law." One would conclude from this initial survey that the word meant "to redeem" in the sense of reclaiming in relation to tribal protection.
There are not many words related to the verb ga’al. There is an abstract noun ge’ulim, "redemption," in Isaiah 63:4. A feminine noun ge’ullah also means "redemption," or the "right of buying back," or even "kin." The more specific meaning of these words will be made clear through the study of the verb.
Likewise, personal names do not provide insight into the ramifications of the verb. The name yig’al probably means "he redeems," or "may he redeem." But we will know what the name means specifically by studying the verb carefully. In other words, names do not help us define the word--the word used helps us define the names.
Other occurrences of the root are apparently borrowings from Biblical Hebrew. The participle occurs in Qumran with the sense of "(next of) kin." The word also occurs in Samaritan and in Judaeo-Aramaic.
Rabbinical literature (NH, Gospel times roughly) uses the biblical words with the same meanings in general. According to Jastrow’s dictionary, ga’al means "to cover, ransom, redeem, protect." It is used in the Mishnah to refer to the redemption of the ancestors from Egypt (Pes. 10:6), and in the Talmud for the act of borrowing money to redeem property (Kidd. 20b). Legislation on the Jubilee year also necessarily employs the term with the biblical senses (Kidd. 15b, Ib.20b; Sabb. 118b). So also the Midrashic Literature on the relevant biblical texts will employ the term. "Redemption, release, vindication, protection," are the ideas that keep surfacing in the usages.
There are no helpful cognates attested for this word. Ringgren says that there is only one, an Amorite proper name Ga’alalum (see in TDOT). This only shows that the word was known in the earlier periods, and reveals nothing of the meaning. Stamm mentions a proper name with the letters G’ljhw from Beth-Zur as well (see in THAT). The old lexicon by Gesenius lists an Arabic "avenger of blood"--but the word is not a cognate. He was merely showing that the custom was similar.
Because of the limited use of the term in other languages, the meanings will have to be established from biblical usage.
All the uses of this word-group may be divided between human activity and divine activity (which seems to be a figurative use of the former). At least it is convenient to understand how it is used on the human level before considering the divine activity intended by it.
The Human Go’el
The underlying meaning of all the uses for humans is that the term applies to a relative, some family relation, who will act to redeem, protect, or restore, the property, liberty, life, or posterity of a family member.
1. Protecting Property. The nearest male relative of a weak or oppressed Israelite was responsible to protect the property of the family. This relative came to be known as the "kinsman redeemer" (go’el) because of his actions. According to the Law (Lev. 25:25-34) he was to buy back land sold by a relative. This was to ensure that the family retained the full benefit of the property even during the 49 years that the property could possibly be in the hands of someone other than it owner. This means, of course, that the kinsman redeemer had to be fairly wealthy; poor relatives are of little help.
The kinsman redeemer was also to be paid the extra restitution which was applicable to the violation of property rights (see Lev. 5:21-26; Num. 5:8).
In the Book of Ruth Boaz was determined to settle the matter with regard to Ruth. However, he started the legal proceedings with the discussion of the field of Elimelech that was up for sale, i.e., to be redeemed. The verbs "sell" and "acquire" are used in the discussion, but in the final analysis the nearer kinsman uses the verb ga’al for the whole process: "I am not able to redeem it lest I mar my inheritance. You redeem it for yourself" (4:6). It is likely that once Ruth was part of the deal, he backed out, not wanting to marry a Moabite.
In addition to redeeming family property, the go’el could redeem for his own use things that he had vowed. For example, if a man vowed to give his animal to the LORD, he could then buy it back so that he would retain the use of it--but the LORD would receive the value of the animal vowed. The vow could be paid in the value of the property plus the surcharge of a fifth again (Lev. 27:13). For this reason people would be hesitant to do this--and indeed, the law was on the books to discourage rash vows. But still, in such cases the man was acting as the go’el on his own behalf.
2. Securing Liberty for a Relative. The kinsman redeemer could liberate a family member (Lev. 25:47-54). If an oppressed Israelite could not find relief with the help of an Israelite brother (Lev. 25:35) or hire himself out to a fellow Israelite (Lev. 25:39), and so had to sell himself to a wealthy alien residing in Israel until he worked off the debt, a go’el (who was able and willing) could secure his release by paying the equivalent of the wages of a hireling until the next Year of Jubilee. Thus, he could set the oppressed at liberty by in effect hiring a replacement. How often this happened we do not know; it would have to be a magnanimous and wealthy relative who would do this for a man who got himself into such predicaments.
3. Avenging the Death of a Relative. The "kinsman redeemer of blood" (go’el haddam as he is called) could assume the legal responsibility of a blood avenger to make things right. If someone in the family was killed (Num. 35:24)) and the culprit defied the law and ran free, the kinsman redeemer could put the killer to death when he caught up with him at large (Num. 35:19, 21; Deut. 19:5, 6; and 2 Sam. 14:7). He could not do this if the man fled to a city of refuge. But the action of the go’el was legal whether the killing had been pre-meditated or accidental. Thus, the kinsman redeemer would vindicate the family name by avenging the death. Moreover, the fear of such avenging would serve to protect life, because a reckless person would think twice before killing someone--if he was tried and witnesses condemned him, he would die; if he tried to go free, he could be killed; if he fled to the city of refuge, he lost his liberty and had to remain incarcerated there.
4. Providing an Heir for the Deceased. If a man died without having children, that is, a male heir to carry on the family name and retain the family lands, it was the duty of the go’el to marry the deceased man’s widow and provide an heir who would continue the name and inherit the property (Deut. 25:5-10; Ruth 4:5, 10).
The straightforward interpretation of Ruth shows that ge’ullah, "redemption," incorporated the institution of the "Levirate Marriage" as well as the acquisition of the property. The point of this part of the activity of the kinsman redeemer was to preserve "social immortality," that the name not die out, but be continued from generation to generation.
The responsibilities of the kinsman redeemer were apparently voluntary and not obligatory. The emphasis in Ruth on the willingness to redeem, as well as the possibility of refusal, shows that the kinsman could back down from such duties--but to do so would be to refuse to do "loyal love" within the family, and therefore incur disgrace. In Jewish literature there is a whole tractate explaining the ins and outs of "Refusal." As a bit of poetic justice, in Ruth the near kinsman’s name was expunged from the text and replaced with a catch phrase meaning something like "John Doe" (peloni ‘almoni, "so and so")--he would not act to retain the name of the deceased relative, so why should his name be kept?
These laws were based on ancient customs (see Gen. 38) and served to preserve and protect the family so that the welfare of the whole nation would continue. In fact, the ideal king in Israel was to be a kinsman redeemer for the poor and needy of the land, representing the spirit of these laws in his righteous administration:
"He shall deliver the needy when he cries,
the poor also, and him who has no helper;
He shall spare the poor and the needy,
and shall save the lives of the needy;
He shall redeem (yig’al) them from deceit and violence,
and precious shall their blood be in his sight" (Ps. 72:12-14).
The Divine Go’el
Analogous to many of the activities of the human kinsman redeemer are the divine. Since the Scriptures use the term frequently to describe the LORD’s acts of redemption, a careful analysis of the categories of meaning is essential to determine its contribution to the biblical teachings on that divine work.
1. Deliverance from Bondage. A large number of passages applying the word ga’al to the LORD refer to deliverance from bondage, captivity, or exile. The first instance refers to the exodus: "I am the LORD and I will bring you out from the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them and will redeem you (wega’alti) with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment" (Exod. 6:6). The record of the deliverance from bondage in Egypt shows this to be a figurative use of a well-known concept, the concept of liberating kinsmen from bondage. In other words, the Israelites were already related to the LORD by faith, so the "redemption" referred to here is God’s deliverance of his people. Later biblical writers also described this great event as a "redemption" in terms of ge’ullah. For example, Psalm 74:2 says that the nation was redeemed to be the tribe of God’s own inheritance; Psalm 106:10 says that the nation was redeemed from its enemies; and Isaiah 51:10 states that redeemed Israel crossed the Sea.
The term is also used for deliverance from the Babylonian captivity. Isaiah 48:20 says that Israel’s going forth from Babylon is evidence that the LORD redeems them. These were the people of God being set free. Now it is possible, indeed likely, that some people came to faith in the LORD at that time for the first time, and so the "redemption" for them was more than a deliverance from exile. But for the most part these were people who already believed, even though their faith may have been weak at times. Micah 4:10 also promises that the LORD would redeem Israel from Babylon.
And God will also redeem Israel from its present dispersion around the world. The dispersion began when Assyria and then Rome destroyed the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah--many of those people never returned. But others did, only to be dispersed again when Rome utterly destroyed the nation in 135 A.D. (The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., but the final blow came with Hadrian). But the prophets foretold how Israel was to be re-gathered to its land, first in unbelief, and then to come to saving faith (Ezek. 37). Then, in the days of Jesus, the people were still waiting for that consolation of Israel; and Jesus and Paul both spoke of it as still in the future. It would be part of the great redemption for which the whole world groans. And ga’al is the term that fits that great deliverance and restoration better than any other word. So Isaiah announces that at that time all the ends of the earth will see the great deliverance (Isa. 52:9); he writes: "Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed (ga’al) Jerusalem." As would be expected, the fulfillment of this oracle has been debated from the beginning. It is no doubt that the restoration from the captivity was seen as a partial fulfillment, but since there did not follow universal peace and righteousness, an abundance of life in the land, and the reign of the Messiah, they new it was but a foreshadow of things to come. As Paul said, quoting from Isaiah, the ultimate fulfillment of the world-wide redemption of the people would come just prior to or at the time of the second coming when the fulness of the Gentiles had come in (Rom. 11:26). But regardless of the exact time of the fulfillment, the point is that the word ga’al is used for the LORD’s delivering his people from bondage to the world.
2. Redemption through Vengeance. God is the avenger of blood inrelation to his people Israel, according to Isaiah. So this, another aspect of the meaning of the word, is the means of God’s redeeming Israel from bondage. Isaiah 47:4 states that because the LORD is Israel’s redeemer, Babylon will be destroyed. Later, the prophet states that God is Israel’s redeemer and so will contend for his people (Isa. 49:25, 26). In Isaiah 63:4 the "year of my redemption" (ge’ulim) is in parallelism with "the day of vengeance." Jeremiah also explains that because Israel’s redeemer is strong, Babylon will be destroyed (Jer. 50:34).
3. Deliverance from Distress or Death. Closely related to the concept of deliverance from exile is the use of the term to express deliverance from suffering and disaster that leads to death. For example, the patriarch Jacob attributed to God his redemption from evil (Gen. 48:16). "All evil" has a much broader range than exile, and only a close study of the patriarch’s life experiences will show the full meaning. Elsewhere, the psalmist mentions redemption from destruction (Ps. 103:4). And Lamentations reports the words of a believer about to go into exile, but who is thankful that he is alive (Lam. 3:58). But perhaps the best example is found in the prophet Hosea who records the word of the LORD: "I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them (’eg’alem) from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?" (13:14).
Some attention must be given to the very important use in Job 19:25, which says, "I know that my redeemer (go’ali) lives." Job knows that he is about to die; but he also knows that he has an go’el, an avenger, who will make things right after all. The difficulty is that throughout the book he expresses his conviction that God is treating him like an enemy, and God is the one putting him to death. But here he seems clear that there is a redeemer, an avenger, ready to champion his cause. Who else could that be but the God? This he does not understand, but he will not waver in his faith in his redeemer. The usage of ga’al here combines the meanings of vengeance and rescue from great distress. Although he knows he will die, through the ge’ullah of his great go’el he will see God.
4. Redemption from Sins. The prophet Isaiah reports the word of the LORD for Israel: "I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you (ge’altika)" (Isa. 44:22). From this it appears that the redemption of the LORD is at least accompanied by the blotting out of sins. Passages that in general discuss reclamation from bondage or distress will confirm the idea that removal of sin is part of the operation. There would be no deliverance from bondage if the sin was not dealt with; and so in the New Testament it is no surprise to see Jesus connecting the forgiveness of sins with the healing of people.
So God himself is a go’el, a Kinsman Redeemer as it were. The term basically describes the work of God in delivering his people from bondage, distress, imminent death, and/or sins. Because Israel was not strong enough to redeem herself, God had to do it (Jer. 31:11). Because Israel did not sell herself into that condition for money, God will not redeem with money (Isa. 52:3). His redemption is based on love and pity (Isa. 63:9) for his people, and accomplished through judgment on the oppressors.
Synonyms and Antonyms
There are a number of words that overlap with aspects of ga’al, but only a couple are close enough to be called synonyms. The general word for "redeem" is padah, but it is not as technical as ga’al. It basically means "to purchase, redeem with a price." One might "purchase" (padah) a slave, as the Scriptures teach that God did with Israel (in one way of looking at the Exodus); but one "redeems" (ga’al) kinsmen, setting them free. Another word, qanah I, "to acquire, buy," stresses the fact of the acquisition, but not the technical relations. Words for salvation or atonement are related to the word "redeem" in the general theological sense, but only padah is a close synonym.
There are other terms for "relative," or "kin," or for "blood avenge," but no one word comes close to ga’al in expressing the work of a kinsman in redeeming, protecting, or avenging the life, liberty, and property of a relative.
Words that have to do with "selling" (e.g., makar) serve as antonyms to our word. These are not particularly helpful in the study, except that they are used to describe God’s sending his people into captivity--the reverse of the redemption.
TranslationsThe Greek Old Testament used several words (as might be expected) for the translation of ga’al. The most frequently used words were lutroo, agchisteuo, and rhuomai (used 53, 32, and 12 times respectively). The first stresses the fact of redemption, but does not have all the meanings it has in the later New Testament use. In general it appears as a translation of ga’al in the Psalms. The second word is used to express the fact of kinship, or the work of the kinsman. Thus, it is common in the Pentateuch. The third word emphasizes the aspect of "drawing out," primarily of God’s redemption of his people from the nations. So this is more frequently in Isaiah.
Many English words have been used to translate our word, and perhaps no single word will cover all its meanings. "Redeem" is fairly adequate for most usages, because it means "to recover ownership of by paying a special sum." But if it is used most frequently, its distinctive meaning would have to be made clear or people will confuse it for the New Testament idea of redemption, that is, the suffering Messiah on the cross. The English word "redeem" can also mean "to set free, rescue, ransom." At times, however, "kinsman" and "avenger" or "protector" would be better.
The term ga’al is a technical term drawn from the culture of ancient Israel. Its usages show that it describes the work of the kinsman on behalf of the family, liberating, protecting, or avenging a relative. When transferred to describe divine activity, the same concepts are in the minds of the writers. Only on occasion does the word focus on redemption from sin and distress, and even then not totally dissociated from redemption from bondage or exile.
It is clear, however, that from the Scripture the LORD God is a go’el. There is no reason, or support, for trying to argue for a typology from the character of Boaz when the prophets simply state unambiguously this aspect of God’s nature and work. But the aspects of God’s work that this word describes are more in harmony with the second advent of Christ. The context of the many predictions of God’s redemption is appropriately Jubilee and re-gathering, or, the final redemption.