There are many terms we Christians use that can be labeled as “Christian-culture”- type words. Many times, these are words only Christians really know how to define, and even then, there are many Christians who don’t even really know what they mean. I’ve heard Bible scholars call this “biblish” or “Christianese” (my personal favorite). 🙂 “Redemption” or “redeem” is one of these words. Having grown up in a Christian household, I heard this word a bazillion times, but never really had it satisfactorily defined; it just seemed to mean “saved.”
Redemption, however, was not originally a Christian, or even religious, term; it was a term deeply embedded in ancient patriarchal culture. My study with Ray Vander Laan and subsequent study has taught me so much about what the biblical redemption actually means, and how we can see the incredible love of Jesus when we understand that patriarchal cultural meaning.
Therefore, I hope to relay a little of what I have learned to you, in the hopes that you might add some metaphorical “tools” to your “Bible-reading/study tool box.” The Word of God is full of metaphors of God as patriarch, and Jesus as the redeemer. Therefore, we find a need to understand ancient patriarchal culture. First I want to make sure we are on the same page about learning biblical culture: although we must study the culture to gain insight from the teachings of the bible, it is always descriptive, not prescriptive. We are not learning so we might judge it or put it into practice, but rather learning in order to better understand the metaphors and references within the culture of the Bible.
In the patriarchal society, the patriarch was the oldest male – not just of a family like dad, mom, brother and sister, but also the extended family. So you would have the oldest male and his sons or brothers and their whole families all doing life together in the same bet’av. This is a bet’av outside of Beersheba, dated to the time of Abraham:
Each of the platforms built into the wall are where the family units would pitch their tents and sleep. The farthest/largest one was the patriarch. Each of these small families would share the common areas. You can see the platforms built into the building (right), which were the ovens and washing stations the whole family would use communally. The building was a shared covered space where they could all get out of the sun during the heat of the day when working, and even sleep when it was really hot.
The patriarch was the leader over all of it – kind of like the CEO of the family. It was his job to make sure everyone under his authority was adequately provided for, that they each had enough food, proper clothing, and that every single person, animal, and thing was protected within the bet’av and stayed within the bet’av.
This is why the oldest male would get a double portion of the inheritance: this would never have been a point of contention within the family, but a point of celebration. Because, once the patriarch passed away, the family gained a new protector and provider who would receive the necessary inheritance to make sure they were all taken care of properly. This was especially important in a time when food and provision was tenuous, based upon the amount of rain they got that season, the stability of peace in the region, the trade opportunities. That double portion was not for the eldest’s personal use, but for protection and provision of the whole family unit; the patriarch was a rock of stability in an otherwise chaotic time and culture.
Not only was it their job to make sure each person –from the smallest child, to the next eldest brother and his wife – was provided for adequately, but it was also their responsibility to protect them. In the chaos of the time period, it was common for marauders to steal animals and kidnap people and enslave them for profit (like we see in the Joseph story of Genesis 37). The patriarch had a very real job to redeem whatever was stolen, lost, or taken from within his bet’av. Let’s look at Genesis 14 to see what patriarchal redemption looked like.
In Genesis 14, the kings of the area came together and made war with a guy named Chedorlaomer, but it didn’t end up going as planned. We will pick up in Genesis 14:8-12:
8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim 9 with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. 11 So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. 12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way.
To summarize the story up to this point, Lot was Abram’s nephew (Abram, the father of the people of Israel), and part of Abram’s bet’av. In Genesis 12, God called Abram to leave his father’s bet’av and go to a far land. Lot, Abram’s nephew, set out with him, and settled with him in the Negev desert. However, they eventually grew so rich under God’s blessing that there wasn’t enough space to provide for both families, so Lot left and chose to go live in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 13). So here Lot is, minding his own business, when he and all his family gets taken as spoil of war because his king fell into a big tar pit.
Let’s see what happens next in vv13-16:
13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people.
So Abram, the patriarch of his nephew, Lot, finds out Lot and his family was taken and gathers 318 of his trained fighting men, travels 160 miles from the Oaks of Mamre near Hebron to Dan on foot, fought and rescued his nephew.
You see, the cultural concept of redemption, is that the patriarch does whatever is necessary, whether it is fighting or spending any amount of money, to get back the person, animal, or thing that belongs in his bet’av. Abraham took over 300 of his own people, traveled more than two weeks by foot through the desert, and attacked the kings who had already been tested and victorious in battle. He knew he would have to suffer weeks of travel through the desert with hordes of men; he knew there was a very real possibility that he would lose some of those men – even his own life – in battle; he knew he may not find Lot; but none of that mattered. As Lot’s patriarch, it was his responsibility to do whatever it took redeem Lot – to rescue him, whatever the price, in order to bring him and his family home.
1 Timothy 2:6 says Jesus died to redeem you.
Colossians 1:13-14 says, He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus is your patriarchal redeemer. He is the firstborn – the patriarch – of the dead (Colossians 1:18), of those who were once drowning in sin. He saw his children suffering, marginalized, oppressed, outside his bet’av, and knew he had to do something to bring his children home. He knew the price of bringing you home was his life. He left his throne in heaven to live 33 years on this earth as a humble, poor builder, knowing every second of the way that he alone could pay the price it took to bring you back into his bet’av. He suffered through life, loving his people, living among them, telling them how to get back to the bet’av, and finally walked over 100 miles to Jerusalem, knowing the end of the week would bring his death. That last night, he knew that his death alone would be enough to reclaim your freedom; he was so tortured by what he would have to go through to redeem you, he nearly had a mental breakdown; and even still, he gave his life freely. He loved you so much, he was willing to face a torturous, shameful, humiliating death to get you home. And he did.
Doesn’t it overwhelm you? His deepest desire – from creation to eternity – has always been to live in bet’av with you, to do life with you, to provide for you and protect you. And he did what he had to do to bring you back home.
But, like Lot, he left the choice to come home with him up to us. Lot chose not to go back with Abram and live again in bet’av (Genesis 19:1). God gives us that same choice. We can look at the ransom paid and say “no thank you.” Or we can see the massive act of love and live in shalom with the one who paid for our freedom with his life.
The hard thing about this choice, however, is that when we choose the bet’av, we also choose the life of one under the patriarch’s authority. It’s so very hard for our culture, who so loves our independence, to bend the knee and give authority to someone else. Living in God’s bet’av means living under God’s authority, where his will comes before your own. As hard as it is, living under God’s authority also means living in security, in perfect shalom, with the ultimate provider and protector. It is well worth the risk. Is it one you will choose to take?
This redemption, the willingness to do whatever necessary to buy back freedom, is only step one of cultural redemption. The second step belongs to us, those living inside Jesus’ bet’av. Stay Tuned for Biblical Redemption Pt. 2.