Not only am I learning about the concept of redemption in my systematic theology class, but the Hebrew word for redeemer, "goel," has come up in my Hebrew poetry class several times, and it is also a major concept that Andre Trocme uses in his book "Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution," which we read for my class on nonviolent theology. So I felt like it would be good to do some thinking on the Hebrew concept of "redeemer."
This seems important because, first of all, the people who were expecting a Messiah were the Hebrews, and so understanding what they were looking for is important. Second, Jesus and the people who wrote the New Testament were Jews with a firm understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, and although they were highly influenced by Greek and Roman ideologies, they still were influenced greatly by Hebrew concepts.
The Hebrew word "goel" means "redeemer," or "to act as kinsman." This could take several forms, but when speaking of people always had to do with the tightly-woven family structure. It was the next-(male)-of-kin's obligation to help out his kinsman in situations where the person had fallen into debt and either had to sell a piece of property or sell himself into slavery. If these things happened the next-of-kin was obligated to buy the land being sold, or to pay for the person to get out of slavery, if he had the means. It was also the next-of-kin of a deceased man's obligation to marry a childless widow and to bear a son with her in order to continue the deceased's line of descendents (hence the situation in Ruth where Boaz had to ask the man who was a closer relation to her former husband if he was going to fulfill his kinsman-redeemer responsibility, or if Boaz could do so, since he also was a fairly close relative). It was the duty of a kinsman to "redeem," or pay a debt, that his family member could not pay in the social structure of ancient Israel.
This term often is applied to God in the Hebrew scriptures as well, and I find this very interesting and enlightening. God is Israel's "goel," Israel's kinsman-redeemer, the one who redeems Israel collectively (and sometimes individual Israelites) when they have a debt they cannot pay off. God is seen as being the kinsman-redeemer who pays the Israelites' way out of slavery in Egypt, and God is the kinsman-redeemer who brings them back to their land after the Exile.
I find this really intriguing and powerful, because it's not just that some god up in the sky helps the Israelites out every once in a while, but God is their next-of-kin. God has adopted the Israelites, and will not let their debts go unpaid. God will act as the closest member of their family whenever they have a need. This brings the idea of "redeemer" into a more tactile space for me. It also shows that even before Jesus started calling God "Abba," God was acting the part of a family member.
Interestingly, the Hebrew scriptures never use the concept of redemption from sin--at least not individual sin. God is their "goel," redeeming the whole of Israel from what could be called collective sin, from falling away from God and ending up in exile, but the idea of sin is not the emphasis. Instead, God redeems their life, their ability to live as free persons, and brings a sense of peace even when hardships continue (as in Job).
With this concept of redemption, it is easier to understand the death of Jesus. He didn't come and do an impersonal act that would take away sin, but he came as a member of our family, one who loved us in the deepest way possible, and lived and died to give us the ability to live as free persons. We're redeemed from slavery to the hopelessness of this world, and given freedom and new life to follow the hope of Christ and live out the truth of the already-not-yet Kingdom of God, where we are the next-of-kin of the King.