The kinsman-redeemer

Jason Fletcher, September 2003

The kinsman-redeemer photograph

The Jubilee Centre is committed to discerning God’s will for all human societies by wrestling with the detail of biblical social teaching. We have a special interest in learning from the life of Israel which, as a particular incarnation of timeless values, functions as a model or ‘paradigm’. In this and subsequent articles we will comment upon various biblical texts, values or social institutions.

[Ruth’s] mother-in-law asked her, ‘Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. ‘The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,’ she said. ‘The LORD bless him!’ Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. ‘He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’ She added, ‘That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers.’ Ruth 2:19–20

The book of Ruth tells a compelling story with layers of meaning. We are encouraged, for example, by God’s generous provision for the vulnerable widows Naomi and Ruth, by his ability to take his people from emptiness to wholeness and to make from small acts of faithfulness things of great historical significance (‘Boaz the father of Obed…the father of Jesse…the father of David’, Ruth 4:21–22).

From our New Testament perspective, the kinsman-redeemer Boaz, ancestor of the Messiah, points us to that greater act of redemption which involved not merely the exchange of money or sandals (Ruth 4:7), but the spilling of blood to secure not property or progeny but forgiveness and eternal life.

Israel as a social model

There is also another, neglected, layer of meaning in this story. Our central contention is that the life of Israel is a social paradigm – a model in a particular place and time of the social principles and values that God would have all human societies in every age embrace. The book of Ruth provides a clear picture of that social model in action.

However, Israel was a theocracy and we live in a liberal democracy so we must take care as we derive, apply and communicate biblical principles. We do not seek a literal imitation of the life of Israel in modern Britain, but Jesus himself will not allow us to discard even one ‘iota’ of the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17–19). Moreover, the social shape of Israel was not an accident of history. Rather, as Chris Wright has written, ‘it was an integral part of what God had called them into existence for…They were not only the bearers of redemption, but a model of what a redeemed community would be like, living in obedience to God’s will.’ [1]

Rather than allowing our political sensibilities to be fashioned by modern ideologies or values, our vision of a better society should be informed by Scripture.

The kinsman-redeemer (goel)

The role of the goel was, among other things, to provide economic assistance to a relative who became poor.[2] We need to see the goel in relation to the rest of the Israelite social model and the Jubilee illustrates some of its principal characteristics (Leviticus 25:9–10). The fact that every Israelite was required to return to his family and property every 50 years preserved the roughly equal distribution of land following the conquest and made the permanent sale of rural land impossible; land could only be leased temporarily until the next Jubilee. The system, then, placed the highest value upon family and property.

THE EXTENDED FAMILY was the principal source of identity and a sense of belonging. The book of Ruth lays great stress upon preservation of the family line – the main reason for Boaz’s marriage to Ruth (4:10).

The extended family was also the main source of welfare provision. In Leviticus 25:25 we learn that the goel has the duty to redeem property sold due to economic hardship. Boaz fulfils this duty of care and is praised, whereas the ‘nearer kinsman’ rejects his duty and is consequently shamed by remaining nameless.

PROPERTY was an integral part of family life. By ensuring that every family had property, the system provided a potential income-generating asset for everyone.

But property had relational as well as economic significance: it was family property. By encouraging a return to family – to one’s roots – at the Jubilee, biblical law shows a relational realism: physical proximity is essential for the development of strong relationships. Commitment to place matters. The goel had a critical role in preserving these land-orientated family and community relationships ‘so that your countryman may continue to live among you’ (Leviticus 25:36).

Conclusion

The institution of the kinsman-redeemer is a particular incarnation of timeless values that should inform a positive, distinctively Christian social agenda. There are lessons here for individuals and policy makers. We ought to encourage extended family relationships and their positive role in caring for the vulnerable. We ought to value rootedness and the informal support networks that are part of real community. We ought to ensure that every family has access to an income-generating asset, thus providing a sense of dignity and a measure of economic freedom.

[1] Chris Wright, Living as the People of God, IVP, 1983
[2] Space does not permit comment upon the role of the kinsman-redeemer in the justice system (see Num. 35).

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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2003

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