Statue of “Christ the Redeemer,” Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
What is a redeemer?
Its original meaning may surprise you
by Rebecca Lister
But now, says the Lord— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the Lord your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. — Isaiah 43:1-3
This inspiring passage was recently one of the lectionary readings in church — and remains a favorite for me. One word in particular caught my attention: redeemed. It is not a word most people use on a daily basis, and therefore, its meaning is a bit hazy to us. In his new book, Seventy Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know (Abingdon Press, 2018), Matthew Schlimm puts it this way:
Outside of church, I don’t hear the words “redeem” and “redemption” very much. When I do, it’s usually to talk about coupons, gift certificates, or lottery tickets. When the Bible talks about God redeeming Israel, it’s obviously not suggesting that Israel is like a coupon that gives God a discount on something!…I fear that for many Christians, “redemption” is a positive word, but also an empty word whose basic meaning is filled willy-nilly with whatever comes to mind.
Sometimes words just wash over us when we hear them read in scripture, and “redeemer” is one of those words that has, over time, changed in meaning. To find its deeper meaning, one must go to Leviticus (yes, that chapter full of laws and regulations, but it’ll be worth it).
Ancient Palestine was a tough place in which to live. The Israelites were a tribal people, living off the land God entrusted to them. If unforeseeable circumstances harmed their only sources of wealth (their animals or their crops) or they ended up with a severe illness, then financial ruin and destitution were the most likely result. If selling land was the only option, then Leviticus 25:25 explains what should happen: “When one of your fellow Israelites faces financial difficulty and must sell part of their family property, the closest relative will come and buy back what their fellow Israelite has sold.” So, if someone sells their land as a last resort, another relative should buy it, keeping the land in the inheritance of the original family. The relative buying back that land would be the redeemer in this case, saving the family name and keeping its value.
A redeemer has obligations to buy back not only to the land, but other relatives, too. Again, some unfortunate Israelites found themselves forced to sell everything due to financial hardship or illness. To survive, they would have to become indentured servants or even slaves to pay off their debts. A family member could then redeem enslaved relatives by buying them from someone else. So, redeem is thus closely linked to inheritance and freedom in the Bible.
So how does this connect to the Isaiah passage above? Over and over, God gave the Israelites what they wanted — land and kings—and each time, they squandered their resources, worshipped idols, and allowed their kings to do horrible things. As a result, God allows the Babylonians to conquer Judea and to destroy Jerusalem. The people of Israel have finally hit rock-bottom in exile. They have lost their land, their wealth, their Temple, and finally, their pride. They realize what they have done. The only solution for Israel is a redeemer.
But what relative is wealthy and powerful enough to swoop in, to buy back the hundreds of enslaved people in Babylon and to pay off their huge debts? Why, God of course. God will do this because God made them, owns them, and claims them. God will repair the broken relationship by taking the first step toward reconciliation. All that was lost will be regained once again.
Verses 2–3 continue with picturesque imagery explaining the outrageous lengths God goes to protect the people of Israel. God will protect God’s people from all powerful elements that would threaten to destroy them, whether it is raging waters or burning flames. It is important to notice that God does not say that water or flames will cease to exist, but rather, that God will be present in these things and will accompany the people through such trials.
Does God do this because the people have finally learned their lesson and repented? Because the people finally deserve God’s love? Because they promise never to sin again? No. God does this because God is the Lord, the holy one, and frankly, the only one who could take on this job of redemption. Later in the New Testament, Jesus assumes the role of redeemer in an even more dramatic and everlasting way.
Schlimm concludes the section of his book in this way:
Redemption in the Bible, then, has nothing to do with coupons. And it’s far from being an empty word. Instead, it’s about unrepayable debts and how redeemers bring about freedom on good land once again.
So next time you redeem a ticket, coupon, or gift card, remember that you, too, are redeemed, but in an even more profound way. You are beloved, called and claimed by the holy one of Israel who stubbornly refuses to give up on you.
Rebecca Lister is an associate professor of music at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Her passion is music and worship in churches. She is a student in the on-line program of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and is an inquirer in the Carlisle Presbytery.