What Is a Kinsman Redeemer in Ruth (and the Rest of the Old Testament)?
A quick reading of the book of Ruth answers this question: a kinsman redeemer is the person who gets folks out of trouble. In Ruth’s story that’s Boaz, the true Israelite (and maybe the only real white hat in the whole Old Testament) who demonstrates covenant faithfulness during one of Israel’s most dark and violent periods: “the days of the judges” (Ruth 1:1). Other parts of the Old Testament describe more fully the role of the kinsman redeemer, painting for us a picture of a human representative who mirrors Yahweh himself by advocating the most vulnerable people in society, ideally ensuring justice and protection for those who need it most.
Protection of Ancestral Land ¹
Way before Ruth or the judges ever entered the scene, readers of the Torah meet Abraham, to whom God promised the land of Canaan. Abraham wouldn’t inherit the land himself, but eventually God would lead the Israelite people out of Egyptian slavery, cut a covenant with them, and escort them into Canaan, the land of promise. Despite living there, however, the Israelites would never actually own the land. Instead, they would care for it on behalf of Yahweh, the landowner. Yahweh apportioned the land to the various tribes and clans when they entered Canaan, but he gave strict guidelines regarding its use and made clear that ownership rested with him, not with the people.
The people were supposed to allow the land to rest every seven years, with the promise that Yahweh would provide despite the people letting the fields go fallow and the fruit trees go to seed. In addition, land could never be sold permanently—only leased—and every fiftieth year (the Jubilee), the land was supposed to return to the family to whom Yahweh entrusted it when Israel entered Canaan.
Should human justice fail, as it so often did and does, God himself will avenge victims of injustice.
The land could be redeemed before that fiftieth-year Jubilee in two ways. First, a person could at any time redeem his ancestral land from the people to whom he leased it, provided that he repaid its fair market value according to how many years were left until the next Jubilee (see Lev 25:18–28). Additionally, if a person could not afford to redeem the land, a kinsman redeemer, or goʾel, could redeem the land on the seller’s behalf, thus returning the land to its original steward and effectively pulling the destitute seller out of poverty. The goʾel was not required to redeem his family member’s land, but it was one way that the goʾel could function as an advocate for the poor, just as Yahweh did when he established the Jubilee.
Redemption from Debt Slavery
Debt slavery² occurred in ancient Israel when a person was no longer able to “sustain himself among” the Israelites (Lev 25:35) and thus sold himself into slavery in order to meet his and his family’s basic needs. Yahweh forbade the people of Israel from acquiring other Israelites as slaves and required instead that they be treated as hired labor. Further, Israelites were forbidden from charging interest on loans to other Israelites (Lev 25:36).
Such a person was never to be treated or sold as a slave because “they are my servants that I brought out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 25:42). No matter what, these people were to be released during the next Jubilee. But they themselves or a goʾel could purchase their freedom early based on the number of working days left until that Jubilee. Again Yahweh provides protections for his people, whom he owns just like he owns the land, and he allows a human advocate to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable before the Jubilee.
The danger of jumping straight to Christ’s role as our goʾel, though, is that we miss out on the earthy, dirty, physical, this-world significance of the ancient goʾel.
Justice for Victims of Crime
Ancient Israel’s legal justice system looked very different to ours today. There was no police force to investigate crime and arrest perpetrators, and there certainly was no prison system or long wait on death row. Instead, justice for violent crimes like murder rested in the hands of the goʾel, who was to execute the murderer personally. Of course, the Old Testament distinguished between what we call first-degree murder and other deaths “without malicious intent” (Num 25:22). The law required that multiple witnesses testify to a person’s guilt and provided cities of refuge where those who committed manslaughter could flee for safety
But the fact remained that the goʾel was personally responsible for executing justice on behalf of a murdered relative. Should human justice fail, as it so often did and does, God himself will avenge victims of injustice. As he puts it so forcefully in Exodus: “If you do mistreat [the widow or orphan], they will no doubt cry to me, and I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will burn, and I will kill you with the sword . . .” (Exod 22:23–24).
I Know That My Redeemer Lives
In the middle of suffering that few of us could imagine, Job expresses his confidence that his redeemer, his goʾel, lives and that he will see his God and ultimately be vindicated. And we know that both of those things happen, though it’s unclear if Job ever experiences his own vindication. He never does learn about the conversation between Yahweh and the accuser, after all.
Job’s cry for a redeemer reflects the significant societal and theological role of the goʾel in Israelite society. Yahweh provides protections for the land and his people, and his provision especially protects the destitute from exploitation. That’s what Boaz did for Ruth, that’s what Yahweh promises to do for orphans and widows in Exodus, and it’s what Christ does on a scale “above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).
The danger of jumping straight to Christ’s role as our goʾel, though, is that we miss out on the earthy, dirty, physical, this-world significance of the ancient goʾel. Let’s hold on tightly to Christ’s redemptive work, but let’s not leave behind the call to care for—beyond platitudes and empty prayers—the destitute among us.