Where I live in Mexico, “redeemer” is a common word, and the phrase “Christ the Redeemer” sounds completely familiar. Because of this, when I was teaching through Genesis with a family this past year, I broke one of the cardinal rules of communication: I assumed they knew what “redemption” meant. One of my friends interrupted me as I chattered blithely about God’s redeeming actions in Jacob’s life to say, “Excuse me, but what does it mean, ‘to redeem’?”
Redemption in the Bible generally means that someone has lost something through injustice, debt, or death, and someone else has stepped in to buy the lost property back and restore it to its rightful owner. This can range from the avenger of blood (who enforces a payment of life for life), to the buying back of property, to the payment of a ransom to free a slave or captive.
Redemption in the Bible generally means that someone has lost something through injustice, debt, or death, and someone else has stepped in to buy the lost property back and restore it to its rightful owner.
Redemption in American culture typically expresses itself as reflexive—that is, when we write books or make movies, we tend to depict people who fail and, after a great deal of learning and effort, finally redeem themselves. The biblical concept of redemption, however, always conveys the idea of something vicarious—someone else does it for us. This flies in the face of our cherished values: it undercuts our pride in restoring ourselves, reveals our bankruptcy in that someone else has to pay, unmasks our independence as a lie, and destroys the illusion of control over our own lives. The very characteristics that so torment the American psyche also open the door to a surprising hope, which we can see as God redeems relationships in the Bible.
God tells incredible stories of redemption through Jacob’s life, but the story of his reconciliation with Esau stands out among them. The twins’ terrible rivalry, fueled by favoritism from their parents, expressed itself in Jacob’s demanding Esau’s birthright in exchange for a plate of lentils, and culminated in Jacob’s disguising himself to steal Esau’s blessing from his blind father. Esau responded by planning to kill Jacob after their dad died, and Jacob ran away and didn’t return for over twenty years.
Most of us look at deeply broken relationships and assume they’re irreconcilable (we even have a divorce proceeding named for this), and for most Americans it’s easy to put distance between us and the offender (or offended). We move away, go to a different church, find a different hairdresser, and establish new rhythms of life without that person. These evasive tactics work, and we live a life with holes in it where people used to be. I remember talking to an older lady on the street one day, who told me proudly that she hadn’t spoken to her daughters in years.
Because sin expresses itself vertically (toward God) and horizontally (toward others), God also brings redemption vertically and horizontally. Jacob sinned against Esau because he didn’t trust in God’s promises and decided to look out for Number One. Over the course of 20 years, God entered Jacob’s life, provided for him, gave him promises, protected him from his father-in-law, and showed him that he really could trust Him to care for him. Though Jacob didn’t know it, as God drew him closer to Himself, He was also working in Jacob’s heart to prepare him for reconciliation with his brother. God wanted to restore the relationship and didn’t want Jacob to live in fear of Esau, so God first changed Jacob’s view of Him and then stripped away his natural resources—scheming, lying, and running away. The end result: when Jacob finally saw Esau, they ran to one another, kissed one another, and Jacob could say that he had seen in Esau the face of God. God healed the hopeless relationship between these two brothers and redeemed those lost 20 years in an instant, bringing peace. Jacob couldn’t have restored the relationship; he couldn’t touch Esau’s heart, and he didn’t have the internal resources or character to do what was right. God had to accomplish all of that in him, and He did—He bought back Jacob’s relationship to Esau from the brokenness that sin had produced between them.
God did more in Jacob’s life than restore his relationship with Esau, however; in the story of Jacob and Joseph, we actually see Him restoring another relationship, figuratively buying it back from death.
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son out of eleven, and his brothers hated him for it to such an extent that they actually sold him to slave traders and trumped up evidence to fake his death. Jacob believed their story, and the fear of losing another child dominated his life for the next 23 years. In fact, Jacob nearly condemned his family to starvation as he refused to send his sons back to Egypt with Benjamin, according to Pharaoh’s overseer’s demand. He assumed that Simeon, who had remained in Egypt as a guarantee after the first trip, was already dead. His morbid fixation on Joseph’s disappearance paralyzed him and put his family in danger.
Like many of us who have dealt with loss or betrayal of trust, Jacob had no solution to the situation, no control, and no power to restore. He just flailed about in his fear of experiencing more hurt. But God was on the other side of the situation, working to redeem. Jacob didn’t have all the information; Joseph was alive; and through an incredible confluence of events, God reunited father and son after 23 years of Jacob’s thinking his son was dead. The Bible says that Jacob’s spirit revived within him at this time, and God gave him another 17 years with his son.
I could pick so many more stories of redemption and restoration; one of the principal themes in the lineage of Abraham is getting someone back from the dead, whether figuratively or literally. Why does the Bible depict this so often? As I said before, sin expresses itself horizontally and vertically. If you’re reading this article, you’ve suffered a broken relationship, you’re currently agonizing over a broken relationship, or you probably have a relationship that you suspect is about to break. That is one of the prices of sin in this world. But the good news is: you have a good God who is a Redeemer. His specialty is buying back what was lost and restoring it. And, as we see in Jacob’s story, He’s the God of impossible cases, and most of the time He works behind the scenes to accomplish something beautiful in the hearts of both parties, to bring them together in His perfect timing.
The best story of redemption is of course that of Jesus, who came down and took the very worst of man’s hatred toward God, and the very worst of God’s righteous anger toward man, to bring man and God together and make peace. As much as we agonize over our broken relationships in this life, the distance between two offended humans is nothing compared to the distance between man and God, and there’s absolutely no way for us to cross that distance. If we can’t repair something as simple as a friendship, how can we repair our relationship with God? We can’t redeem ourselves at all; we are bankrupt, completely dependent, and totally powerless to change anything. “But God”—the two most beautiful words in the English language—“demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NKJV). He did it to buy back the relationship we lost in the Garden of Eden, and to restore that relationship between us and God.
The stories of the Bible are the main tool that God uses in our hearts to make us aware of our broken relationships with Him and with others, and He uses these same stories to accomplish a change of heart in us, to make us able to experience redemption. We can trust Him to work this out in our earthly relationships just as much as we can with our heavenly relationship, if we will make ourselves available to hear from Him in this way. As the Bible says, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and the comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Is your relationship with God broken? Turn to Him; there’s hope. Are you suffering from broken relationships? Turn to Him, focus on knowing Him, and take comfort in the fact that He works behind the scenes. There’s hope for you too. That’s what redemption means.