The Kinsman Avenger

If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the book of Ruth, you’ve probably heard about the “kinsman-redeemer.” As described in Leviticus 25, if a married man dies without children, his brother is told to marry the widow and bare children with her on behalf of the deceased brother, continuing his brother’s name and ensuring he essentially has life after death through his children.

The brother who performs this noble deed is called the “redeemer” (ga’al in Hebrew), and the most famous redeemer of this sort is Boaz. Boaz—described as a “man of great valor” (Ruth 2:1)—faithfully fulfills this role, revering, romancing, and redeeming the widow Ruth. Through their subsequent marriage, both Ruth and Boaz were faithful to God’s Word and Ruth’s first husband, and they ended up becoming the great-grandparents of King David and the ancestors of the ultimate Redeemer, Jesus.

But the ga’al has several other obligations that don’t get nearly as much attention. For instance, another responsibility of a redeemer is to buy family members out of slavery (Leviticus 25). But the one I’d like to focus on is described three times in the Law—the role of the avenger of blood.

If a man is killed by another, a relative of the deceased is tasked to become the avenger of blood—he is commanded to track the manslayer down and ensure that justice is served. The avenger brings the charges before the elders of a city of refuge, who in turn judge whether the manslayer is “deserving of death” (Deuteronomy 19:6). If the manslayer is found guilty, the avenger executes judgment on the criminal; if the manslayer is found responsible but nonetheless not guilty of murder, the avenger makes sure that justice is still served by forcing the manslayer into exile until the High Priest dies. (A more detailed description of this law is found in Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 19, and Joshua 20).

Now all of these jobs—the redeemer who guarantees his brother has some sort of life after death; the relative who liberates his kinsman out of slavery; the avenger who carries out justice—are one in the same. They are all the responsibilities of the ga’al. And throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, this title is almost exclusively used of God—especially in the prophets, where God promises that He will become the Redeemer of His people.

For those of us in need of liberation from sin and in need of resurrection from spiritual death, the idea of God as our ga’al—our Redeemer—is fantastic news. But the Redeemer doesn’t just bring freedom and life after death—He also executes judgment on those deserving of death. He is not only a Redeemer—He is an Avenger as well.

This isn’t great news for us, as—in the words of Paul—we have all sinned (Romans 3:23), and the wages of our sin is death (Romans 6:23). We are guilty. We are deserving of death, and not even a life in exile or the death of the High Priest will change that.

So what happens when the person who needs the redemption and liberation is also guilty of sin and deserving of death? How does the Kinsman-Redeemer, the Blood-Avenger, fulfill both sides of the law?

Surprisingly, this exact question is asked and answered in 2 Samuel 14, midway through the reign of King David. A wise widow from Tekoa comes to the king with a problem: she had two sons, but they got into a fight and one brother killed the other. If they execute the murderous brother, no one will remain to redeem the family name and guarantee the deceased brother (or his father) has a life and legacy after death. But if they allow the murderer to live, they have failed to carry out justice.

In this parable (and it is a parable, as you find out later in the chapter), the murderous brother is a stand-in for every one of us. It ushers us back to the second sin ever committed, when Cain killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4); it reminds us of the sin Esau tried to carry out against his brother Jacob (Genesis 28); it calls to mind the attempted murder of Joseph by his jealous brothers (Genesis 37); and it represents you and me, who are guilty of sin and deserving of death, but nonetheless desperately need of salvation from our Redeemer.

So what was the king’s decree?

David declared that the guilty son would live—“not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground” (v. 10)—and if anyone disagreed, he would personally take care of it—“if anyone says anything to you, bring him to me” (v. 11). The wise widow prophetically responds, “God does not take away a life; but He devises means, so that His banished ones are not expelled from Him” (v. 14). She adds that in all this, “the king and his throne [will] be guiltless” (v. 9), and that the king is like the Messenger of Yahweh in that he brings comfort by “discerning good and evil” (v. 17) and “knows everything that is in the earth” (v. 20).

In short, the king promises that God will personally find a way for the murderous son (and his entire family) to be redeemed, without neglecting the just requirement of the Law. The guilty ones need not be expelled from Him.

And while this is an interesting story about David and a wise widow… what does this have to do with us? Well, there’s another interesting thing about this chapter. From the time David is introduced in 1 Samuel 16 until his death in 1 King 2, David is mentioned by name in every single chapter—41 chapters in all—except for a single outlier. 2 Samuel 14. For some reason, David is never mentioned by name in 2 Samuel 14. Instead, he is referred to as Adonai (meaning “Lord”) thirteen times and King an astounding forty times.

In a chapter that compares David to the Messenger of Yahweh (a title typically associated with the Messiah), where the King is said to be “guiltless” and to “know everything,” where the subject is the redemption of those “deserving of death,” and where we are told that God will devise a plan so that all of us sinful mortals are not expelled from His presence, we are told that every decree and judgment is coming from the throne of “Adonai the King.”

So… what is the LORD’s plan? How is justice executed if the guilty ones are redeemed and escape death?

Judgment is supposed to come upon those “deserving of death” (Deuteronomy 19:6). That phrase (mishpat mavet, “judged worthy of death”) is incredibly rare in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it surprisingly appears just a few chapters later, in Deuteronomy 21:

If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him from a tree… he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deut. 21:22-23)

Over a thousand years later, this verse was quoted by the Apostle Paul, in reference to Jesus Christ:

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13)

For us to be redeemed, someone had to be cursed. For all of us deserving of death to be made free, someone had to pay the price for our sin. And so Jesus our Adonai, the Messenger of Yahweh who knows all things, the King who sits upon the guiltless throne, devised a plan. Our Lord and King personally saw to it that we would outlive death. The Son of David guaranteed that we’d never be banished from His kingdom. Even if it meant taking our curse upon Himself, being hung from a tree and executed in our place.

Jesus Christ. Our Redeemer. Our Liberator. Our Avenger.

I will ransom them from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death (mavet). (Hosea 13:14)

O Adonai, You have pleaded the case for my soul;
You have redeemed my life. (Lamentations 3:58)

The Second Commandment: Jealousy and Mercy to Thousands

In our last blog, we covered the first twenty words of the 43-word commandment against idolatry. As previously discussed, God spent those twenty words recalling the creation of the heavens and the earth and all that are within them in His command against idolatry, reminding us that God—not man—is the Creator, and we are to live in His image and likeness rather than attempt to redefine Him in ours.

After teaching us not to worship or serve false gods, He spends the remainder of His words describing His own nature:

I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations to those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5, 6)

The language in this commandment only appear a few times throughout the Bible:

  • The LORD, merciful and gracious, longsuffering…keeping mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7)
  • “…The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” (Numbers 14:18)

So, what is going on in these two parallel passages, and how can they shed light upon our understanding of the second commandment?

The first passage (Exodus 34) takes place during the giving of the second set of Commandment Tablets. Why was a second pair of tablets necessary? Because Moses broke the first set. And why did he break them? Out of anger over the forging of the golden calf. You know, a golden idol. That the Israelites were worshiping. At the exact time God was writing the commandment that His people must not worship idols.

It’s incredible that the Israelites were violating this commandment at the exact moment that God was giving this commandment. And yet God—who knew full well what His people were doing—reinforced His goodness and forgiveness in that commandment, almost as if to show them His mercy to their shortcomings. And then, as He re-gave this commandment, He repeated this passage about his mercy to those who would repent, return, and love.

(It’s worth noting that the golden calf was mainly a violation of the second commandment—idolatry—but not technically a violation of the first commandment—polygamy. At least, Aaron didn’t see it that way. As Aaron formed the false idol, he declared that it was YHWH, the god who delivered them from Egypt. Of course he was wrong and of course this was blasphemy and idolatry, but at its core, it was Aaron’s attempt to worship YHWH in the opposite way that YHWH had commanded. It’s no different than “tithing” to yourself instead of the local church or forsaking the assembling of the saints to “worship” God in your own way.)

So the first parallel story—the golden calf—makes a lot of sense. That calf was a violation of the second commandment that occurred while the second commandment was being written. But what about that second story? What was happening in Numbers 14?

In Numbers 14, the twelve spies have just returned from Canaan. As you’ll recall, the Israelites are 11 days from taking their Promised Land, and they send in twelve spies (one from every tribe) to search out the area and come back with intel.

They return with tales confirming that this land is all that God promised—a bountiful and luscious land flowing with milk and honey. But ten of the spies tell the people that it’ll be impossible for them to take it. The people are too tall and too strong and too numerous, and the Israelites have no hope of victory. Only two spies—Caleb the Judahite and Joshua the Ephraimite—encourage the people to obey God, reminding them that they “are well able to overcome” because “the LORD is with us.”

And what did the people do?

And all the congregation said to stone them with stones.” (Numbers 14:10)

So… the people sided with the evil report of the ten spies. What does that have to do with idolatry?

It may not seem obvious, but the actions of the children of Israel are no different than the actions of an idol-worshiper. At its core, idolatry is about rejecting what God has said in lieu of doing things your own way. It’s about exchanging the glory of God for the image of a false, man-made god. It’s about choosing the lie rather than the truth of God’s Word.

And that’s exactly what the children of Israel did. They thought they knew better than God. Sure, YHWH had said they would take the Promised Land. But He must not have known how tall and strong the Canaanites were. Or worse, God did know, and this whole “Promised Land” thing was simply a ploy to wipe them all out. Things were way better in the oppressive land of Egypt.

Today, you may not be tempted to whittle a bear out of basswood and worship it. But you’re probably tempted to trust in the work of your hands rather than the God who richly gives all things to enjoy. You may not bow the knee to Ba’al, but if the stock market starts to sway you might rethink how much you give in your tithe or how many hours you work on the Lord’s Day.

At the end of the day, we all have a choice to make: Will we live according to the Word and do things God’s way, or are there some areas of life (from loving our enemies to disciplining our children) where God’s Word is wrong?

Choose this day whom you will serve.