Bulletin for Biblical Research 1 (1991) 3-19
Copyright © 1991 Institute of Biblical Research. Cited with permission.
The Go’el in Ancient
Theological Reflections on
an Israelite Institution1
ROBERT L. HUBBARD, JR.
In his delightful book Hunting the Divine Fox, theologian Robert Farrar
Capon warned of a special danger--overfamiliarity with the Bible:
Mere familiarity does not necessarily produce understanding. It is per-
fectly possible to know something (or someone!) all your life and still
never really comprehend what you're dealing with. Like the Irishman
in the old joke who received a brand-new toilet from his American
cousins: He used the bowl for a foot washer, the lid for a breadboard,
and the seat for a frame around the Pope's picture.2
Among Bible scholars, there is nothing more familiar than the
concept of go’el or "kinsman-redeemer." Proper interpretation of the
book of Ruth requires its treatment,3 and Leggett has devoted a major
book to it.4 As Capon warned, however, familiarity does not automat-
ically mean understanding. Indeed, recent scholarly discussion
reveals that, though understood in broad outline, some details of the
go’el-institution still elude precise definition.5
1. The Annual Old Testament Lecture given
dents, Messrs. Alwyn Bull and Fred Bertram, in its preparation.
2. Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting The Divine Fox (Minneapolis: Seabury, 1985) 44.
3. For detailed discussions and bibliography, see E. F. Campbell, Jr., Ruth (AB 7;
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975) 132-37, 158-59; W. Rudolph, Das Buch Ruth, Das
Hohelied, Die Klagelieder (KAT; 2nd ed.; Gutersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1962) 60-63; H. Wrt-
zenrath, Das Buch Rut (SANT 40; Munich: Kosel, 1975) 265, n.116; R. L. Hubbard, Jr., The
Book of Ruth (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 48-63.
4. D. Leggett, The Levirate and Gael Institutions in the Old Testament with Special At-
tention to the Book of Ruth (Cherry Hill, N.J.: Mack, 1974).
5. See A. A. Andersen, "The Marriage of Ruth," JSS 23 (1978) 171-83; D. R. G.
Beattie, "The Book of Ruth as Evidence for Israelite Legal Practice," VT 24 (1974) 251-67;
idem, "Redemption in Ruth, and Related Matters: A Response to Jack M. Sasson," JSOT
4 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
Preoccupation with its legal and sociological background, how-
ever, has shunted aside reflection on its theology. In my view, discus-
sions in Old Testament theologies and theological dictionaries are
distressingly brief and untheological.6 Thus, in this paper I aim to
explore the theology of that Israelite institution. First, I will define and
the theological insights of two key texts-applicable sections of
Leviticus 25 and the book of Ruth. Time constraints, however, require
that the examination of others be left for another occasion. Finally, I
will attempt to summarize the results gained from the exegesis of
those texts. Hopefully, a deeper appreciation and theological under-
standing of the go’el practice will replace that dangerous overfamil-
iarity of which Capon warned.
The term go’el derives from the realm of Israelite family law.7 It
describes a close relative, a "kinsman-redeemer," who takes upon
himself the duties of ge’ulla--"redemption" or "recovery"--on behalf
of a needy family member. Actually, at any given time, a pool of
go’alim stood available for duty because many close relatives could
perform the tasks. Of those tasks, I mention only three here since the
others will emerge in my remarks below. According to Numbers 35,
5 (1978) 65-68; M. S. Moore, "Haggo’el: The Cultural Gyroscope of Ancient Hebrew So-
ciety," ResQ 23 (1980) 27-35; E. W. Davies, "Inheritance Rights and the Hebrew Levirate
Marriage," VT 31 (1981) 138-44, 257-68; idem, "Ruth 4:5 and the Duties of the go’el, " VT
33 (1983) 231-34;
"Zum Levirat im Buch Ruth," ZAW 95 (1983) 123-26; J. M. Sasson, "The Issue of Ge’ullah
in Ruth," JSOT 5 (1978) 52-64; idem, "Ruth III: A Response," JSOT 5 (1978) 45-51.
6. See O. Baab, The Theology of the Old Testament (
131-32; L. Koehler, Old Testament
G. A. F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament
235; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward An Old Testament Theology (
van, 1978) 104-5, 126; W. Eichrodt,
Theology of the Old Testament (2
5, 108-9; J. McKenzie, A Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1974) 236-
39. W. Zimmerli examines the idea of holiness in Leviticus 25 ("'Heiligkeit' nach dem
Sogennanten Heiligkeitsgesetz," VT 30  506-7). For Yahweh as go’el, see
Holmgren, "The Concept of YHWH as 'go’el' in
Second Isaiah," (Ph.D. diss.,
1987) 106-7. Cf. J. J. Stamm, "ga’al," THAT 1.383-94; H. Ringgren, "ga’al," TDOT
2.350-55; R. L. Harris, "ga’al," Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (ed. R. L. Harris,
G. L. Archer, and B. K. Waltke; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 1.144-45.
7. For what follows, cf. Ringgren, TDOT 2.351-52; Stamm, THAT 1.384-87. The
term's heaviest concentration occurs in Leviticus 25 and 27, Ruth, and Isaiah. In Isaiah,
the term refers exclusively to Yahweh as go’el.
HUBBARD: The Go’el in Ancient
the go’el was to avenge the death of a relative--the so-called
"redeemer of blood" (go’el haddam; cf. vv. 16-21). He did so by track-
ing down and putting the killer to death, provided, of course, that the
gates of a city of refuge did not get in his way.8 Also, as head of his
clan, the go’el would receive any monetary restitution due a deceased
relative for a wrong committed against him (Num 5:8). Finally, the
go’el also assisted his relatives in obtaining justice in a lawsuit.9 As for
its purpose, the institution served one main goal--to keep tribal soli-
darity intact by recovering its losses, whether of people or property.10
Leviticus 25 falls near the end of the so-called "Holiness Code" (Lev
17-26).11 Literarily, it consists of Yahweh's commission of Moses at Mt.
Sinai to instruct
fall within the treatment of the Jubilee Year (vv 8-55).12 Though the
date of the chapter's final form is a matter of dispute, the issue need not
detain us here.13 Whatever its date, most scholars concede that the
8. Cf. Num 35:12, 19-27; Deut 19:6, 12; Josh 20:2-3, 5-9.
9. The word's metaphorical usage suggests this; cf. Job 19:25; Ps 119:154; Prov
; Jer 50:34; Lam 3:58.
10. Scholars commonly refer to the union of Ruth and Boaz as a levirate marriage
(cf. Gen 38; Deut 25:5-10). In my view, however, the book portrays their relationship as
marriage of ge’ulla or "redemption," not levirate. By definition, the term levirate de-
scribes the marriage of a widow to a brother of her late husband (Latin levir, "brother-
in-law"). Boaz, however, is not Elimelech's brother nor is Ruth his widow. Further, the
book uniformly describes the marriage in the language of redemption (g’l), not levirate
For discussion, see Hubbard 50-51, 57; cf.
volved is not levirate marriage but ge’ulla, 'redemption'" ("ybm," TDOT 5.371); con-
trast Leggett, "there is nothing which is in contradiction to the law of levirate in
11. Contrast V. Wagner, who disputes the existence of the Holiness Code as an in-
dependent entity, believing the larger context to be Exodus 25-Leviticus 26 ("Zur Ex-
istenz des sogennanten 'Heiligkeitsgesetzes,'" ZAW 86  307-16).
12. The chapter's other subject concerns the sabbath year for the land (vv 1-7).
Jubilee, see R. North, Sociology of the
Biblical Jubilee (AnBib 4;
cal Biblical Institute, 1954); R. Westbrook,
209-26; A. Meinhold, "Zur Bezeihung Gott, Yolk, Land, im Jobel-Zusammenhang," BZ
(1985) 245-61; R. Gnuse, "Jubilee Legislation in
form," BTB 15 (1985) 43-48. Vv 29-34 also treat the subject of redemption (specifically,
of houses) but without the intervention of a go’el. Hence, I have excluded them from
consideration here. The rest of the chapter covers the observance of Jubilee (vv 8-22),
the prohibition against charging interest (vv 35-38), and instructions concerning self-
mdenture to a fellow Israelite (vv 39-46).
13. Most literary critics trace the chapter's final form to exilic or postexilic priestly
editors; cf. the analyses in K. Elliger, Leviticus
Siebeck], 1966) 14-20, 338-49; R. Kilian, Literarkritische und formgeschichtliche Unter-
suchung des Heiligkeitsgesetzes (BBB 19; Bonn: Hanstein, 1963) 130-48; H. Graf Reventlow,
6 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
chapter represents concepts and practices which
the monarchy if not earlier.14
Vv 23-28, the instruction concerning the redemption of property,
concern us first.15 Structurally, the section divides into two parts: the
twofold orders (vv 23-24) and the instruction itself (vv 25-28). For-
mally, the instruction begins with a casuistic--that is, conditional-
clause, ki yamuk ‘ahika umakar me’ahuzzato ("if your fellow clansman
becomes poor and sells some of his property").16 This statement
raises two questions. First, what circumstances underlie it? As the
case of Naboth's vineyard shows (1 Kgs 21), Israelites clung to their
ancestral property even in the face of royal pressure.17 Thus, one sus-
pects the direst of circumstances here. The formula ki yamuk ‘ahika ("if
your kinsman becomes poor,” cf. vv 35, 39, 47; 27:8) provides a clue.18
Das Heiligkeitsgesetz formgeschichtlich untersucht (WMANT 6; Neukirchen: Neukirchener,
1961) )23-42; cf.also L. E. Elliot-Binns, "Some Problems of the Holiness Code," ZAW 67
(1955) 26-40; W. Thiel, "Erwagungen zum Alter des Heiligkeitsgesetzes," ZAW 81
(1969) 40-73. I side with those who date the chapter much earlier. For a discussion and
literature, see G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT;
1979) 8-13. Cf. North, "The jubilee law was not the original composition of an author,
but a rearrangement of existing economic and calendar usages by an authority of the
Occupation era" (212). He dates it to the twelfth century B.C. (211).
14. According to Reventlow,
the Jubilee practice originated soon after
the contents of the Law of Holiness must be very old, and must have been practiced in
ancient times" ("Studies in Hebrew Law," CBQ 13  39). Others believe the Jubilee
law reflects legal practice during the monarchy; cf. Elliger 349; Elliott-Binns 39-40 (late
monarchy but pre-Josiah); M. Noth,
Leviticus (E.T.; rev. ed.; OTL;
minster, 1977) 185; J. R. Porter, Leviticus (CBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1976)
197; H. Wildberger,
many believe it to be an ideal practice created during the exile; cf. Kilian 146; E. Kutsch,
"Jobeljahr," RGG3, 3.800; Thiel, "eine sehr jungen Potenzierung der Sabbatjahridee" (61).
15. Most commentators believe that v 23 opens the following section rather than
closes the preceding one; so North 12; Leggett 83; Elliger 338, 354; Porter 200, 201; Wen-
ham 316, 320; et al.; against Noth 188-89; N. H. Snaith, Leviticus and Numbers (NCB;
16. As in other Semitic languages, here ‘ah means not "brother" but more generally
"kinsman, close relative"; d. E. Jenni, "’al," THAT 1.99-100; Leggett 83 n. 3. Reventlow
believes that the laws in Leviticus 25 which begin similarly once formed an independent
corpus of casuistic laws (136, 141).
17. H. Brichto
has shown that, in a metaphysical sense,
ity of afterlife to be tied to the possession and size of one's inheritance. He comments,
"Death does not constitute dissolution but rather a transition to another kind of exis-
tence, an afterlife in the shadowy realm of Sheol. The condition of the dead in this after-
life is, in a vague but significant way, connected with proper burial upon the ancestral
land and with the continuation on that land of the dead's proper progeny" ("Kin, Cult,
Land, and Afterlife--A Biblical Complex," HUCA 44  1-54, esp. 23).
18. For the form, see G. Liedke, Gestalt und Bezeichnung alttestamentlicher Rechtssatze
(WMANT 39; Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1971) 22, 31-32, 35 n. 1.
HUBBARD: The Go’el in Ancient
Unfortunately, the root muk occurs only five times in the Old Testa-
ment, four times in Leviticus 25 (vv 25, 35, 39, 47), once in Leviticus
27:8. Ugaritic, however, offers a suggestive cognate (mkk or mk) mean-
ing "to become weak" or "to deteriorate."19 A parallel line in v 35 here
confirms the validity of that cognate and further illumines the mean-
ing of muk. Taken literally, mata yado means "his hand shakes" (root
mut "to waver, shake"), a metaphor which probably refers to economic
weakness.20 Hence, in this context, the root muk means--in modern
terms--to become "shaky" financially, to be unable to support oneself.
Thus, a case of severe indebtedness probably lies behind the sur-
render of land here.21 Apparently, to repay a debt which has come
due, the landholder has mortgaged his inheritance. A measure of his
desperation, he preferred to suffer the loss of land rather than the cruel
consequences of an unpaid debt. This leads to a second question: what
is actually sold here, the land itself or something else? Vv 14-15 sug-
gest that the landholder sold only the land's revenue--its produce or
yield--not the property itself (cf. also v 27). In effect, the person only
rented out the land--at most, for forty-nine years until the next Jubi-
lee--but did not surrender its title. He received the rent in advance, a
single lump sum payment just as if there had been a sale.22 The
difficulty, of course, is how to get his mortgaged land out of hock later.
The instruction (vv 25-28) provides the answer. (To borrow a
Latin expression, we might call them ad hoc provisions!) First, a go’el
of the "mortgage buyer" may "redeem" (ga’al) the property (v 25).
Presumably, he is one of the relatives listed later in vv 48-49-a
brother, an uncle, a cousin, or any blood relative.23 Second, if he lacks
go’el, yet somehow gathers the necessary means, he may redeem
19. J. Aistleitner,
Worterbuch der Ugaritischen Sprache (
1974) no. 1561 (p. 184); cf. UT no. 1473 ("to be vanquished"); BDB 557 ("be low, de-
"pressed, grow poor"); KB 526 ("to become poor," i.e., to come down, deteriorate).
20. So KB 526; NIV ("is unable to support himself"); but cf. BDB 556 ("of feeble-
ness"). That the expression also implies weakness is clear from the verb which follows
(wehehezaqta, lit. "and you shall strengthen"). In other words, the fellow Israelite who
“becomes weak" (yamuk) must receive strength from someone else (hehezaqta).
21. So most scholars; cf. Noth 187; Leggett 88; Wenham 317. The partitive min in
me’ahuzzato shows the sale of only some of the land.
22. Wenham 317; so also Meinhold 254; Noth 187-88; C. F. Keil, "every purchase of
land became simply a lease for a term of years” (The Pentateuch [2 vols.; Biblical Commen-
tary on the Old Testament;
no actual transfer of property ownership for a price takes place here. Hence, as elsewhere
in.the OT, mkr here means "to hand
over" or "consign," not "to sell"; cf. E. Lipinski,"
Transfer, and Delivery in Ancient Semitic Terminology," in Gesselschaft und Kultur im
alten Vorderasien (ed. H. Klengel; SGKAO 15;
23. But cf. Porter, who believes that the redeemers in vv 48-49 come from a wider
than the one in v 25 (206). For a critique of the view that v 25 deals with the right
preemption as m Jeremiah 32 and Ruth 4, see Leggett 89-92.
8 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
himself (v 26). Most likely, he would acquire the funds through some
sort of inheritance rather than by frugally saving some of his wages.24
The cost of living would probably leave little, if any, of his earnings to
be saved--a predicament typical of modern life as well. In this case-
and presumably in the first case as well--he must repay the buyer
part of the rent originally advanced him (v 27). Based on the number
of years left until Jubilee, the amount would be the sum first bor-
rowed less the amount which the mortgage holder had earned from
the land during his tenancy. The third case concerns the "worst case"
scenario. If the mortgage buyer lacks a go’el and fails to amass
sufficient funds to redeem himself, the property remains with the
buyer until the year of Jubilee (v 28). Only then does the original
landholder regain full possession of it.25
This brings us to consider the twofold theological basis for the leg-
islation (vv 23-24). The first is a prohibition against the permanent sale
of land:26 "The land shall not be sold permanently for the land is mine,
for you are resident aliens and settlers with me.”27 Obviously, the
statement outlaws the permanent transfer of ownership of real estate
ancient social analogy, the contrast in status between a landowner and
a resident alien. Yahweh is the landowner, he says. Yahweh alone holds
title to the property;
enjoys the full rights and privileges of ownership;
by his grace. By contrast,
between the full rights of a citizen and the few rights of a foreigner.28
24. As Daube points out, "Once you were ruined to such an extent that you had to
sell your land. . . , the chances of recovery by your own, unassisted exertions were, it is
to be supposed, slender" (D. Daube, Studies in
Israelite Law [reprint;
1969] 44). The poverty of such a person would leave little left over to be set aside toward
25. In this context, the verb ys’ may be a technical term of release; so Leggett 84
n.11; F. Horst, "Das Eigentum nach dem Alten Testament," in Gottes Recht (TBU 12;
Leggett ably argues the case that the property reverts, not to the go’el, but to the original
26. According to Elliger, this fundamental sentence is very old (uralt) (354); so also
Porter, "probably the old basic law" (201); cf. J. J. Rabinowitz, "Biblical Parallel to a Le-
gal Formula from
27. Elsewhere, semitut only occurs in vv 23 and 30. For the meaning of lismitut, cf.
J. E. Hogg, "without right of redemption" or "in derogation of the seller's right of re-
demption" ("The Meaning of lsmtt in Lev. 25:23-30," AJSL 42 [1925-26] 210); Horst, un-
widerruflich Gultigkeit (220); Rabinowitz, 95.
28. R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (E.T.; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965) 74-76; D. Keller-
man, "gur," TDOT 2.443 ("protected citizen"); cf. R. Martin-Achard, "gur," THAT 1.410.
The Old Testament often associates the tosab with the ger (Gen 23:4; 1 Chr 29:15; Ps 39:13).
According to de Vaux, they enjoyed a similar, though not identical, social status (75-76).
Go’el in Ancient
Significantly, however, the alien could not possess land; only full
Israelite citizens could. Hence, for work, he had to hire himself out, and
for food, to glean in the fields (Lev ; ; Deut 24:14, 19-21). The
point, then, is that
belongs to someone else. Since she holds no title, she has no right to sell
it.29 Only Yahweh, the true owner, does.30 Thus, to sell it permanently
is to infringe on Yahweh's rights.
The second basis for the instruction is the command (v 24):
"Throughout the land of your possession, you shall permit (titnu)
redemption (ge’ulla) for the land.” If the prohibition outlaws the per-
manent sale of property, the command permits its return when tem-
porarily separated from its holder. The three cases discussed above
implement its permission. In one sense, the command logically follows
up the prohibition: the latter implicitly establishes Yahweh's authority
as landowner, the former articulates his policy concerning it. On the
other hand, one wonders why such an order need be issued. What
would the situation be like without it? Apparently, without
was not likely to permit such redemption. Indeed, quite the opposite
scenario seems probable. Unforeseen, unavoidable bankruptcy would
compel the poor to mortgage some of their land just to survive.
In turn, the rich would bankroll such mortgages and increase
their land holdings. Over time, they would reap a handsome profit, a
profit to be turned into other purchases, perhaps of more land. Even-
tually, a great social division would result--on one side, a few
wealthy land barons, on the other, the landless poor who work for
them.31 In short, it is that accumulation of property and economic
power which the redemption requirement here seeks to prevent.
Whether accomplished by the go’el, by self-redemption, or by Jubilee,
Yahweh intends redemption to maintain a social and economic equi-
In addition, the chapter also legislates the redemption of persons
(vv 47-55). This additional "ad hoc provision” resembles that concern-
ing the land. Here, too, repayment of a debt probably stands behind
the crisis (umak ‘ahika, “and your brother becomes poor,” v 47). In this
case, however, the source of capital is not an Israelite but a settler, a
29. According to R. North, v 23 does not mean that private property was excluded
or unlimited. Rather, it simply regulated property relationships between people so that
everyone, not just a few, could live in true freedom ("jobel," TWAT 3.558).
30. For God's ownership of the land, see Josh 22:19; Jer 16:18; Ezek 36:5; Hos 9:3;
Ps 85:2. Interestingly, Yahweh asserts, but does not explain, the basis for his claim.
Other texts based ownership on his creation of the world (Ps 24:1-2; 95:5), and that idea
may underlie this statement.
31. So Wenham 317.
10 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
resident alien, or a member of his family.32 To obtain funds, the threat-
ened Israelite "sells himself" (nimkar) into servitude to his foreign
financier. In other words, he agrees to "work off" the monetary
advance by laboring in the alien's employ.33 Now the fact that he sells
himself rather than land may be significant. It may imply that he has
already mortgaged his property since his only remaining asset appears
to be his labor. If so, his case represents an even more extreme example
of insolvency than the one in vv 25-28.34
As before, the problem is how to regain his economic indepen-
dence. In response, v 48 dictates that the Israelite still has the right to
redemption (ge’ulla; cf. v 24).35 The same three avenues that vv 25-28
offer make it possible (vv 48b-54). First, his relatives--one of his
brothers, an uncle, a cousin, or any blood relative--may redeem him
from servitude (vv 48-49). Second, if he comes into money, he may
redeem himself (v 49b). In this case--and probably in the first case as
well--the number of years between the start of his servitude and the
next Jubilee form the basis for calculating his redemption price
(v 50a). Though vv 50b-52 lack some needed details, essentially the
price amounts to what, at the going rate, a hired man would earn in
the years left before Jubilee. The text views it as a refund of that part
of the original cash advance which the borrower had not yet worked
off.36 Once the financier is paid off, the person goes free. Finally, as in
the case of mortgaged land, if the above two means fail, the next Jubi-
lee effects his release (v 54).
Now two other comments enable us to gain some theological in-
sight. First, v 53 specifies the special treatment
due an enslaved
ite. It forbids the boss to treat him harshly. He is to handle him, not
32. Precisely why the debtor sought that source is unclear. Further, one wonders
how the foreigner rose to such affluence. As noted above, the law forbid foreigners from
owning land in
ventures or through personal technological expertise (e.g., metalworking, etc.). Deut
28:43 also foresaw the rise of foreigners to wealth.
33. Vv 39-43 offer instruction concerning the case where an Israelite sells himself
to a fellow Israelite. For some reason, however, nothing is said of his redemption, as if
the latter did not apply (so Daube 43). Self-indenture for financial insolvency was com-
mon in the ancient Near East. For details and bibliography, see Leggett 98-101. For
more recent studies, see I. Cardellini, Die biblischen 'Slaven'-Gesetze im Lichte des keil-
schriftlichen Slavenrechts (BBB 55; Bonn: Hanstein, 1981). For an ancient Near Eastern
paralleL see R. Yaron, "A Document of Redemption from
34. So Wenham, "a last resort in cases of serious debt" (322). For the relation of
these slave laws and others in the Pentateuch, see North, Jubilee 135-57. For additional
bibliography, see Leggett 102 n. 75.
suggests that the regulation may reflect
eigners the requirement for manumission of slaves after six years (192).
36. So Leggett 101, 105. The key phrase is yasib (‘et)-ge’ullato (vv 51, 52). Here ge’ulla
means "price of redemption" (so Elliger 343).
HUBBARD: The Go’el in Ancient
like an ordinary slave, but like a sekfr, a "day laborer," an employee
hired for a fixed period of time (cf. Deut 24:14-15). In other words,
Yahweh places the Israelite under protection, limiting his master's
control and defining the rules of the workplace (cf. vv 39-40). Put
differently, Yahweh decrees that, despite his misfortune, the Israelite
is still a full citizen under hire, not a lowly, foreign slave. More impor-
tant, in v 55 Yahweh gives the twofold reason for the Israelite's
release. Says Yahweh, "The children of
servants whom I brought out of the
ously, Yahweh recalls the
famous liberation of
(Exod 14). Simply put, an enslaved Israelite should go free at Jubilee
because Yahweh owns him as a servant.
This statement is striking in several respects. First, it implies that
for the foreigner not to release the Israelite infringes on Yahweh's
rights as master. Whatever business binds the two men, ultimately the
Israelite is Yahweh's property, subject to his wishes. No less than any
Christian, no Israelite could serve two masters (Matt ). Second, the
statement implies that the Jubilee release is the social mechanism
whereby Yahweh protects his interests. It is a social statement that he
important wordplay between two forms of the verb ys’ in the context.
According to v 54, the redeemed Israelite is to (lit.) "go out" (weyasa’,
qal)--that is, to go free. According to v 55, at the Exodus, Yahweh
the wordplay links the Exodus with the institution of ge’ulla. It por-
trays the redemption of this chapter as a follow-up to what Yahweh
did in Egypt.37 Now, if this is so, two additional insights into the
nature of redemption follow. Put simply, redemption amounts to an
institutional Exodus in
liberation-that from Egyptian slavery--within later,
frees her from unending servitude to later Pharaohs within her own
ranks. On the other, each instance, of redemption amounts to a fresh
moment of divine liberation--as it were, a miniature Exodus.
That insight, in turn, casts the role of the Israelite go’el in a differ-
ent theological light. In essence, the human kinsman carries out the
redemption policy of the "Great Kinsman," Yahweh himself.38 One
might even say that the human kinsman personally represents Yahweh
37. Cf. Exod 6:6; 15:3, 13 where g’l describes the rescue. Daube even believes the
way the Old Testament pictures the Exodus (i.e., a redemption of slaves) derives from
teaching about ge’ulla (39-62).
38. The expression is that of McKenzie, who says, "the idea of a Great Kinsman
who defends the life, liberty, and property of his kinsmen is very probably a reflection
of an early idea of Yahweh; it can scarcely be anything but an archaism in Second Isaiah,
biblical writer who uses the term most frequently" (237).
12 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
in such transactions. On the other hand, when human redemption,
whether by go’el or by oneself, fails to free an enslaved Israelite, the
Jubilee provision intervenes. In effect, at that moment, the Great Kins-
man himself steps in to perform redemption, just as he did at the
Let us sum up the theological insights gained from Leviticus 25.
First, the go’el institution implements Yahweh’s rights and policies
toward his land and his people. Specifically, he decrees limits on the
human inclination toward greed and power. Since he
his policy is that families retain, not lose, their inherited land. Since he
again. He is their only master, a God of liberation.
implications are twofold. On the one hand" she must accept economic
dependence on Yahweh. She must content herself with the portion of
Yahweh’s land allotted her by him. While citizens of neighboring
nations expand their holdings" Yahweh calls her to trust him to make
those assigned plots productive. On the other hand, Yahweh calls her
to live out the "Exodus ethos." Once she was an impoverished victim
of Pharaoh. Should she attain wealth, however, her mandate is to not
play Pharaoh against her fellow" former slaves.39 Rather, she is to
allow and to effect their redemption.
Second, the purpose of the institution is restoration. As North put
it, “In the jubilee the dominant note is home-coming."40 In this regard,
the key Hebrew expression is sub ‘el/le ‘ahuzza, "to return to (one's)
possession" (vv 27, 28; cf. vv 10, 19, 41).41 In this context" ‘ahuzza
("possession") refers specifically to the property inherited by an
Israelite from his ancestors.42 Whether "to return to (one's) posses-
sion" connotes an actual reoccupation of ancestral land or simply its
repossession is uncertain.43 In any case, the point is that, either
through redemption or Jubilee, the Israelite recovers the family prop-
erty previously mortgaged. He returns to the state of affairs before
39. Cf. Wenham, who compares the servitude assumed here to modem imprison-
ment, that is, a means to work off a fine in confinement (322).
40. North, Jubilee 158; cf. Noth 183.
41. The word deror (“liberty,” v 10) is related, although it envisions a broader resto-
ration, that of both property and personal freedom. For the word, see R. North, "deror,”
42. Cf. ‘ahuzzat ‘abotayw (v 41). Elsewhere it refers primarily to possession of land
(Gen 47:11, 30; Josh ); but cf. Lev 25:45, 46 (of slaves). For the term, see F. Horst,
“Zwei Begriffe fur Eigentum (Besitz): nahala und ‘ahuzza," in Verbannung und Heimkehr
(ed. A. Kuschke;
“’ahaz,” THAT 1.108, 109.
43. Apparently, Noth favors the former (187), Porter the latter (199). Twice the re-
turn also entailed a return to one's “clan” (mispaha; vv 1a, 41). That might confirm that
“return" referred to actual physical reunion of land and landholder.
HUBBARD: The Go’el in Ancient
circumstances forced its surrender. However achieved, redemption
gives Israelites with financial woes a chance to start over. In that
regard, Wenham has observed that the average Israelite would prob-
ably live to see one Jubilee observance in a lifetime.44 By implication,
if not freed earlier, an Israelite would enjoy a fresh financial start once
in a lifetime. From a human standpoint, one should not underestimate
what a giant relief that offers. It would lift an otherwise impossible
burden of debt from poor, sagging shoulders. In that moment, he
would experience his own Exodus--the sweet taste of economic free-
dom at last!
In short, through this institution, Yahweh provides--to borrow a
modem phrase--a “safety net" for vulnerable Israelites. In so doing,
he shows himself to be the Great Kinsman, the powerful protector of
the weak. Through redemption, he saves hopelessly poor citizens from
an endless cycle of poverty.45 He prevents a reversal of the Exodus--
a relapse into the cruel hands of Israelite Pharaohs.46 In effect, he pro-
system to maintain her social equilibrium--her sense of wholeness,
well-being, or sa1om.47
The institution enables
great national charters--the promise of blessing to Abraham (Gen 12)
and the Sinai covenant of freedom (Exod 19-24).
In the book of Ruth, we enter quite different literary terrain. We leave
the craggy slopes of Sinai for the fertile fields, fragrant threshing
floor, and buzzing city gate of
voice which lectured at Sinai gives way to a narrative about Naomi,
Ruth, and Boaz. Immediately, two things are striking. First, in Ruth
one sees, not abstract legislation, but actual legal principles--the
44. Wenham 317. There seems to be no evidence, however, that Jubilee was ever ac-
tually practiced (so Wenham 318). North, however, offers this argument in favor of its
having been observed: "The very formulations of Lv 25 . . . imply that the proclamation
was to be merely normative; and that in fact most of the bankrupt tenants would have
been already rehabilitated with the help of more prosperous relatives. Of the cases
which remained strictly subject to the law, presumably the number of holders who re-
fused to obey was neither smaller nor larger than the predictable mean for violations of
this kind. Hence neither a miraculous unanimity of observance nor a conspiracy of con-
tempt is to be imagined from the lack of historical record. .." (Jubilee 209). Alterna-
tively, B. Uffenheimer
argued that, though only fully realized in the
the legislation challenged
(cited from Meinhold 15-16).
45. A. Daum, "'Sisterhood' Is Powerful," in Spinning A Sacred Yarn (ed. A. Aber-
nathy et al.;
46. Wenham 323.
47. Cf. Moore 29-31.
14 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
application of legal background to a live situation. One may wonder
present at all in the story.49 He directly intervenes in only two
Yahweh not occasionally invoked by characters, one might presume
him to be totally absent from the story.50 Closer inspection, however,
reveals that God is very much present. Though hidden behind the
scenes, his is the firm hand quietly guiding events.51
To begin, we consider the emergence and role of the go’el in Ruth.
Chapter 1 confronts us with the book's main problem, the lack of an
heir. Pointedly, v 5 stresses that only Naomi survived her family's
sojourn in Moab.52 Her bitter outcry (vv 11-13) drops a painful hint:
what this story needs is a husband to produce a child (cf. also vv 20-
21). The word go’el first appears, however, in where Naomi
applies it to Boaz. Though ambiguous, the reference at least intro-
duces the prospect of his future action on behalf of the two widows.53
Further, it occurs in a significant context, Naomi's praise of Boaz for
his hesed. In 3:9, it is Ruth herself who petitions the action implicit in
when she proposes marriage to Boaz as go’el. This is not the place
to review the discussion concerning that verse.54 The point is that
Ruth sought to marry Boaz in order to give Naomi the heir she
needed. In response, Boaz introduced a surprise--the existence of
another go’el with a prior right to the duty ()--then promised to
arrange her redemption one way or the other (). The important
scene at the city gate reports how Boaz legally obtained the redemp-
tion right for himself (4:1-12). Finally, provides the last mention
48. As T. and D. Thompson point out, legal narratives actually provide better evi-
dence for ancient practices than legal instructions. The former portray actual legal activ-
ities, the latter only practices on the day of promulgation ("Some Legal Problems in the
Book of Ruth," VT 18  83-84); cf. M. Burrows, "Law is often artificial and some-
times idealistic, and it is not uncommonly more consistent than custom" ("The Marriage
of Boaz and Ruth," JBL 59  452).
49. Hubbard 66-67; R. M. Hals, The Theology of the Book of Ruth (
tress, 1969) 3-19; idem, "Ruth, Book of," IDBSup 758-59; W. S. Prinsloo, "The Theology
of the Book of Ruth," VT 30 (1980) 340-41.
50. For examples of such invocations, see 1:8-9, 20-21; -20; ; -12, 14.
51. For more details, see Hubbard 68-71; Hals, Theology 3-19.
52. wattissa’er ha’issa missene' yeladeyha ume’isah.
53. Most scholars believe that go’el anticipates the eventual provision of an heir. In
my view, however, her primary concern is with the happy prospect of a marriage for
Ruth (cf. 3:1-2). For details and bibliography, see Hubbard 186-88.
54. See Hubbard 51-52; 212-13. For an alternative view with major interpretive
implications, see J. M. Sasson, Ruth. A New Translation with a Philological Commentary and
a Formalist-Folklorist Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979) 80-82.
HUBBARD: The Go'el in
of go’el, specifically, praise of Yahweh for giving Naomi the newborn
son of Boaz and Ruth as her go’el.55
Now several important things emerge in this survey. First, like
Leviticus 25, it is a tragic human crisis which eventually summons the
go’el to action. The family line of Elimelech lacks an heir to continue
itself. Hence, it teeters perilously on the brink of annihilation.56 As is
be avoided at all costs. When a family died out physically, it ceased to
exist metaphysically. That robbed
sessions, her tribal solidarity. A secondary crisis, however, is the pos-
sibility that Naomi faces old age without anyone to care for her. That
potential tragedy is implicit in her angry outcries (-13, 20-21),
and explicit in the joyous exclamation of her neighbors (-15).
They rejoice that the newborn will "revive [her] spirits and sustain
[her] in old age." In short, as in Leviticus 25, here the go’el delivers an
unfortunate Israelite, not from loss of land or lengthy servitude, but
Second, the book sets this redemption in a theological framework
different from that of Leviticus 25. In the latter, ge'ulla formed a part
of the practice of the Jubilee year. In Ruth, it forms part of what I call
"the life of hesed," the ideal lifestyle which the book reveres.58 This is
evident in where Naomi first identifies Boaz as a go'el. In the pre-
ceding line, she praises Yahweh for the fact that Boaz had "not aban-
doned his kindness (hesed) toward the living and the dead."59 The
juxtaposition of hesed and go'el here implies that, should Boaz later
carry out go'el duties, such actions would constitute acts of hesed.
Though hesed nowhere else occurs with reference to Boaz, two other
evidences imply that the book views his performance as fulfilling that
55. This is the only instance in the Bible where an infant bears the title go’el. Set be-
side Leviticus 25, Ruth also expands our understanding of the go’el institution by pro-
viding details about the practice unattested elsewhere. For example, only in Ruth does a
go’el marry a widow to provide the heretofore childless family an heir. Further, the link-
ing of that marriage to inheritance of ancestral land (4:5)--sadly, the cause of much
scholarly discussion!--is also unique to this lovely book (see Hubbard 52-62).
56. As is well known, the threat of starvation also plays a large role in the story (1:1,
6, 22; chap 2; , 17). In my view, it is secondary to the problem of familial survival (cf.
1:11-13, 20-21; 3:9; 4:5,10,13-17). The same may be said of the ancestral land, which
appears in the story almost as a surprise (4:3).
57. As Brichto notes, the go’el "was not merely a close-kinsman obligated to blood-
vengeance or privileged to redeem property. The go’el is he who redeems the dead from
danger to his afterlife by continuing his line" (21).
58. For details, see Hubbard 72-74;
59. Here I depart from the consensus which sees Yahweh, not Boaz, as the anteced-
ent of the ‘aser clause. For a defense of this view, see B. Rebera, "Yahweh or Boaz? Ruth
Reconsidered," BT 36 (1985) 317-27. Hubbard provides bibliography of the altema-
view (186 n. 28).
16 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
ideal. In , Naomi again lauds Boaz, this time for his conscientious
follow-through. He promised Ruth redemption (), and he will not
relax until she has it. In addition, the closing genealogy lists Boaz sev-
enth in the list, a position of honor second only to that of the tenth
place.60 In sum, according to the book, by serving as go’el, Boaz per-
forms an act of besed worthy of honor.
Now this is what is particularly striking about the hesed-frame-
work in Ruth: contrary to expectations, it seems to rest theologically,
not on a covenant basis, but on a cosmic one. That is, its roots lie more
in Yahweh's role as king of the universe than as
Two evidences point in this direction. First, a cosmic basis for hesed
seems to underlie Naomi's petition in 1:8 that Yahweh repay Orpah
and Ruth for their hesed toward her. At that point, neither woman is a
expects them to worship Moabite gods if they obey her urging to "go
back" (). Her plea assumes that Yahweh rewards all peoples, not
just Israelites, for hesed. Thus, the book understands hesed as a constit-
uent element of the world's underlying moral order, the order which
oversees and of which
a specific expression.61 Further, it assumes (as does the entire Old Tes-
tament) that Yahweh himself is a God of besed.62 Naomi appeals to
him to dispense hesed because he is that kind of God.
The second evidence is the divine title Shaddai which Naomi
twice invokes (-21). A brief review of the Old Testament usage of
Shaddai confirms that it reflects the idea of Yahweh's cosmic, not just
covenant, rulership.63 By nature, Shaddai is great and mysterious (Job
11:7). He not only promised the patriarchs great destinies (Gen 17:1;
28:3; 35:11; 43:14), but decrees appropriate fates for the righteous and
the wicked (Job 27:14; 31:2). As cosmic ruler, he maintains justice in
the world (Job 8:3; 24:1; 27:2), hears appeals for legal intervention (Job
8:5; 13:3; 31:35), and metes out terrible punishments (Job 6:4; ;
27:14-23). In sum, the Old Testament associates Shaddai with Yahweh
in his role as cosmic ruler. Now if this is so, I would argue that the
above two cosmic references, concentrated as they are in chapter 1,
create a subtle literary effect. Should Yahweh later act in the story,
60. So J. M. Sasson, "Generation, Seventh," IDBSup 354-56; idem, "A Genealogical
'Convention' in Biblical Chronography," ZAW 90 (1978) 171-85.
61. Cf. Gen 21:23; Josh 2:12, 14; Judg 8:35; Ps 33:5-9; Prov 3:3; ; etc.
62. Exod 20:5-6; 34:6; Deut 7:9, 12; Ps 25:10; 103:8; etc.; ct. H. J. Stoebe, "hesed,"
THAT 1.612-18; H.-J. Zobel, "hesed," TDOT 5.54-58.
63. Num 24:4, 16; Ps 68:15 ; Job 34:12-13; 40:2; ct. Hubbard 124-25; M. Weip-
THAT 2.880-81; F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (
bridge: Harvard, 1973) 52-60.
HUBBARD: The Go’el in Ancient
whether to reward or to punish, the reader assumes that he does so in
the same role as king of the cosmos.64
Two final observations conclude our analysis of the theology of
the go’el in Ruth. First, the book assumes that Yahweh acts in the acts
of the story's human characters.65 Though supportive evidence is
plentiful, one example must suffice. I refer to the clever repetition of
the word kanap ("wing, garment-corner") in chapters two and three. In
2:12, addressing Ruth, Boaz wishes that Yahweh would repay Ruth for
her actions. He specifies that Yahweh is the God "under whose wings"
(kenapayim) Ruth has sought refuge. The word "wings" probably con-
jures up the image of a bird tenderly protecting its young.66 Like a
defenseless starling, Ruth sits securely under Yahweh's mighty wings.
In Ruth's marriage proposal (3:9), she asks Boaz to spread his kanap-
here, meaning "garment-comer"--over her.67 Like "wings" of ,
this gesture probably also symbolizes protection of the woman (and
perhaps sexual readiness as well).68 By repeating the key word from
his own lips, Ruth essentially asks Boaz to answer his own prayer!69
Now theologically, the word repetition implies a relationship between
the two petitions. Thus, by covering Ruth with his kanap--that is, to
marry her--Boaz implements Yahweh's kanap--that is, his protection
of Ruth. Or, to weave in a thread dropped earlier, the hesed of Boaz
toward Ruth is the form in which Yahweh conveys his hesed to her.
The second and final observation is that, in the end, Yahweh
receives the credit for the story's happy ending. In the closing scene,
Naomi's neighbors exult, "Praise the Lord! He has not left you with-
out a kinsman-redeemer today!" ().70 For our purposes, the
64. Cf. 2:4,12,19,20; ; -12,14.
65. Cf. Hubbard 71; Campbell 29-30; B. Green, "A Study of Field and Seed Sym-
bolism in the Biblical Story of Ruth" (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 1980) 96.
66. See Deut 32:11; lsa 31:5; Matt 23:27; A. van der Woude, "kanap," THAT 1.835;
O. Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World, tr. T. Hallett (New York: Seabury, 1978)
190-92. Ancient Near Eastern texts commonly apply the metaphor to gods. Alterna-
tively, the image may allude to the winged cherubim, symbol of the asylum offered by
the temple; so G. Gerleman, Ruth. Das Hohelied (2nd ed.; BKAT 18; Neukirchen-Vluyn:
Neukirchener, 1981) 27. For other views, see Hubbard 167 n. 81.
67. The idiom paras kanap ‘al ("to spread a garment-cover over [someone])" means
"to marry" (Ezek 16:8; cf. Deut 23:1 ; 27:20; Mal ).
68. Green (142) against C. Carmichael, covering as comparable to the symbol of a
woman as a sandal covering a man's feet ("'Treading' in the Book of Ruth," ZAW 92
weh's 'wing' when she came to
("Ruth," in A. Cundall and L. Morris, Judges and Ruth [TOTC;
InterVarsity, 1968] 290).
70. Insightfully, Sasson observes that the Hebrew phrase lo’ hisbit lak (lit. "did not
cause to cease for you") portrays Yahweh's intervention as preventative; that is, it pre-
vented the end of Elimelech's line (Ruth 162-63).
18 Bulletin for Biblical Research 1
significant point is that the women credit Yahweh with directly giv-
ing the go’el to needy Naomi. Now in the preceding verse (), the
narrator had said that "Yahweh gave her [Ruth] conception." Thus, at
first glance, the women's praise seems simply to reinforce the point
that Yahweh had provided the newborn. In my view, however, it
offers a terse theological commentary on the book's entire prior chain
of events. Granted, Yahweh's help enabled Ruth to conceive. But
there would be no birth at all without human actions-sexual con-
summation by the newlyweds (), Boaz's day in court (4:1-12), the
meetings of Ruth and Boaz (chaps. 2 and 3), and her migration to
behind everything, even the actions of human characters.71
Finally, let us summarize the theological insights concerning the
go’el gleaned from Ruth. As with Leviticus 25, ge’ulla responds to des-
perate human need--a bitter widow facing old age alone and, worse,
a permanent breach in tribal solidarity. Significantly, however, the
book understands the basis of that redemption to be a cosmic one, the
universal idea of hesed. The implication is that, in the book of Ruth,
the Israelite institution implements that larger ideal. Specifically, the
human go’el is the means whereby Yahweh, the Great Kinsman,
achieves his purposes. On stage, Ruth and Boaz faithfully live the life-
style of hesed. Backstage, however, behind them, moves the Great
go’el, pained by famine, death, and old age, gently acting to alleviate
them. His broad, powerful wings protect those, like Boaz and Ruth,
who please him.
Before leaving Ruth, however, I must add a speculative footnote.
Since the story's ultimate climax is the birth of David, I wonder if the
neighbors' joyful cry in literarily anticipates that event. In other
words, did the author view David, grandson of Naomi's go’el Obed,
as the greatest go’el of all? Did he anticipate
his redemption of
from the slavery evident in Judges-tribal jealousies, idolatry, and
In his Studies in Biblical Law, David Daube observed that,
the idea of God or Jesus redeeming mankind from sin and damnation,
apparently a purely religious idea, derives from those ancient rules on
insolvent debtors and victims of murder, on the preservation of the
existing clans and the patrimony of clans.72
71. In addition, the infant represents part, perhaps even the climactic part, of Yah-
weh's reward of Ruth for her hesed (1:8; ; ).
72. Daube 59.
HUBBARD: The Go'el in Ancient
Clearly, Daube spotted the fingerprints of the old Hebrew ge'ulla on
the pages of the New Testament.73 As we have seen, the Israelite
go'el-institution guarded Yahweh's rights to his land and expressed
his policy concerning the liberty of the poor among his covenant
people. It also sought to reward those who lived the life of hesed
among them.74 It offered the Exodus in institutional form--the Exo-
dus in miniature--to perpetuate the freedom originally won from
Pharaoh. Through it and its human go'alim, the Great go’el freed Isra-
elites from poverty, old age, and even lost afterlife. At the same time,
the institution threw
hubris, and apathy for the Exodus ethos. It presented her a more
excellent way and called for a kinder and gentler
New Testament perspective, it anticipated the advent of the Great
Redeemer, the one who paid for redemption with his own life. Simi-
larly, the challenge thrown
could use more go'alim--protectors of the weak, defenders of the
poor. Indeed, knowledge of the Israelite ge'ulla makes even more pro-
vocative Paul's familiar exhortation, "You are not your own; you were
bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body" (1 Cor
73. Specifically, he cited 1 Cor ; 1 Pet -19; 1 Tim 2:6; Tit (cf. Daube 73,
74. Cf. Daube, ". . . it is hardly going too far to say that all those commands, which
have had an enormous stabilizing effect and led to the alleviation of much dis-
if carried into practice, during the greater part at least of the nation, were a social
rather than actually functioning as law" (45).
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Institute for Biblical Research
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