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)

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