The English words “ransom” and “redemption” come from the same source, the Latin redemptio, referring to “a buying back.” Generally, however, “ransom” (received through the French rançon) has come to carry the thought of liberation, as from slavery or from some obligation or undesirable circumstance. “Redemption” today has more the thought of regaining possession of something.
The two (originally synonymous) words are used in the translation of a number of Hebrew and Greek terms. In all these terms the inherent similarity lies in the idea of a giving of a price or thing of value to effect the ransom or redemption. The thought of exchange is therefore common in all, as well as that of correspondency, equivalence or substitution. That is, one thing is given for another, satisfying the demands of justice and resulting in a balancing of matters.
The Hebrew noun koʹpher comes from the verb ka·pharʹ, meaning, basically, “to cover,” as in Noah’s covering the ark with tar. (Gen. 6:14) Ka·pharʹ, however, is used almost entirely to describe the satisfying of justice through the covering or atoning for sins. The noun koʹpher refers to the thing given to accomplish this, the ransom price. (Ps. 65:3; 78:38; 79:8, 9) A covering corresponds to the thing it covers, either in its form (as in a material lid, such as the “cover [khap·poʹreth]” of the ark of the covenant [Ex. 25:17-22]), or in its value (as in a payment to cover the damages caused by an injury).
As a means for balancing justice and setting matters straight with his people Israel, Jehovah, in the Law covenant, designated various sacrifices and offerings to atone for or cover sins, including those of the priests and Levites (Ex. 29:33-37), or other individuals or of the nation as a whole (Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31, 35), and to purify the altar and tabernacle, making atonement due to the sins of the people surrounding these. (Lev. 16:16-20) In effect, the life of the animal sacrificed went in place of the life of the sinner, its blood making atonement on God’s altar, that is, to the extent that it could. (Lev. 17:11; compare Hebrews 9:13, 14; 10:1-4.) The “day of atonement [yohm hak-kip·pu·rimʹ]” may just as properly be called the “day of the ransoms.” (Lev. 23:26-28) These sacrifices were required if the nation and its worship were to have and maintain the righteous God’s acceptance and approval.
Well illustrating the sense of a redeeming exchange is the law regarding the owner of a bull known to gore who allowed it to go loose so that it killed someone. The owner was to be put to death, paying for the life of the slain person with his own life. However, since he did not deliberately or directly kill another, if the judges viewed it proper to impose upon him a “ransom [koʹpher]” instead, then he must pay that redemption price. The sum assessed and paid was viewed as taking the place of his own life and compensating for the life lost. (Ex. 21:28-32; compare Deuteronomy 19:21.) On the other hand, no ransom could be accepted for the deliberate murderer; only his own life could cover the death of the victim. (Num. 35:31-33) Evidently because a census involved lives, at the time such was taken each male over twenty had to have a ransom (koʹpher) of half a shekel given for his soul to Jehovah, the same price applying whether the individual was rich or poor.—Ex. 30:11-16.
Since any imbalance of justice is displeasing to God, as well as among humans, the ransom or covering could have the additional effect of averting or quelling anger. (Compare Jeremiah 18:23; also Genesis 32:20, where “appease” translates ka·pharʹ.) The husband enraged at the man committing adultery with his wife, however, refuses any “ransom [koʹpher].” (Prov. 6:35) The term may also be used with regard to those who should execute justice but who instead accept a bribe or gift as “hush money [koʹpher]” to cover over the wrongdoing in their sight.—1 Sam. 12:3; Amos 5:12.
The Hebrew pa·dhahʹ, according to lexicographer Gesenius, has the basic idea “to cut loose,” that is, “to loose or let go” as by payment of a redemption price (pidh·yonʹ; Ex. 21:30). So this term emphasizes the releasing accomplished by the redemption price while ka·pharʹ places stress on the quality or content of the price and its efficacy in balancing the scales of justice. The releasing or redeeming (pa·dhahʹ) may be from slavery (Lev. 19:20; Deut. 7:8), or from other distressing or oppressive conditions (2 Sam. 4:9; Job 6:23; Ps. 55:18), or from death and the grave. (Job 33:28; Ps. 49:15) Frequent reference is made to Jehovah’s redeeming the nation of Israel from Egypt to be his “private property” (Deut. 9:26; Ps. 78:42), and to his redeeming them from Assyrian and Babylonian exile many centuries later. (Isa. 35:10; 51:11; Jer. 31:11, 12; Zech. 10:8-10) Here, too, the redemption involved a price, an exchange. In redeeming Israel from Egypt, Jehovah evidently caused the price to be paid by Egypt. Israel was, in effect, God’s “firstborn” and Jehovah warned Pharaoh that his stubborn refusal to release Israel would cause the life of Pharaoh’s firstborn and the firstborn of all Egypt, human and animals, to be exacted. (Ex. 4:21-23; 11:4-8) Similarly, in return for Cyrus’ overthrow of Babylon and his liberation of the Jews from their exiled state, Jehovah gave “Egypt as a ransom [form of koʹpher] for [his people], Ethiopia and Seba” in their place. The Persian Empire thus later conquered those regions and so ‘national groups were given in place of the Israelites’ souls.’ (Isa. 43:1-4) These exchanges are in harmony with the inspired declaration that the “wicked is [or serves as] a ransom [koʹpher] for the righteous one; and the one dealing treacherously takes the place of the upright ones.”—Prov. 21:18.
Another Hebrew term associated with redemption is ga·ʼalʹ, and this conveys primarily the thought of reclaiming, recovering or repurchasing. (Jer. 32:7, 8) Its similarity to pa·dhahʹ is seen by its parallel use with that term at Hosea 13:14: “From the hand of Sheol I shall redeem [pa·dhahʹ] them; from death I shall recover [ga·ʼalʹ] them.” (Compare Psalm 69:18.) Ga·ʼalʹ gives emphasis to the right of reclaiming or repurchasing, either by a near kinsman of a person whose property or whose very person needs to be repurchased or reclaimed, or by the original owner or seller himself. A near kinsman, called a go·ʼelʹ, was thus a “repurchaser” (Ruth 2:20; 3:9, 13) or, in cases where a murder was involved, a “blood avenger.”—Num. 35:12.
The Law provided that in the case of a poor Israelite whose circumstances forced him to sell his hereditary lands, his city house, or even to sell himself into servitude, “a repurchaser closely related to him” or, go·ʼelʹ, had the right to “buy back [ga·ʼalʹ] what his brother sold,” or the seller could do so himself if funds became available to him. (Lev. 25:23-27, 29-34, 47-49; compare Ruth 4:1-15.) If a man should make a vow offering to God of a house or field and then desire to buy it back, he had to pay the valuation placed on the property plus a fifth in addition to that estimated value. (Lev. 27:14-19) However, no exchange could be made for anything “devoted to destruction.”—Lev. 27:28, 29.
In the case of murder, the murderer was not allowed sanctuary in the appointed cities of refuge, but, after the judicial hearing, was turned over by the judges to the “avenger [go·ʼelʹ] of blood,” a near kinsman of the victim, who then put the murderer to death. Since no “ransom [koʹpher]” was allowed for the murderer and since the near kinsman with right of repurchase could not reclaim or recover the life of his dead relative, he rightfully claimed the life of the one who had taken his relative’s life by murder.—Num. 35:9-32; Deut. 19:1-13.
Not always a tangible price
As has been shown, Jehovah “redeemed” (pa·dhahʹ) or ‘reclaimed’ (ga·ʼalʹ) Israel from Egypt. (Ex. 6:6; Isa. 51:10, 11) Later, because the Israelites kept “selling themselves to do what was bad” (2 Ki. 17:16, 17), Jehovah on several occasions ‘sold them into the hands of their enemies.’ (Deut. 32:30; Judg. 2:14; 3:8; 10:7; 1 Sam. 12:9) Their repentance caused him to buy them back or reclaim them out of distress or exile (Ps. 107:2, 3; Isa. 35:9, 10; Mic. 4:10), thereby performing the work of a Go·ʼelʹ, a Repurchaser related to them inasmuch as he had espoused the nation to himself. (Isa. 43:1, 14; 48:20; 49:26; 50:1, 2; 54:5-7) In ‘selling’ them, Jehovah was not paid some material compensation by the pagan nations. The return or income from the ‘sale’ may be something other than such tangible things, as goods or money. For example, the Israelites ‘sold themselves’ in order to receive pleasure from their wrongdoing, even as King Ahab ‘sold himself to do evil’ to gain such pleasure. (1 Ki. 21:20) So, too, though with right motives, Jehovah could ‘sell’ his people for something not tangible, his payment being the satisfaction of his justice and the fulfillment of his purpose to have them corrected and disciplined for their rebellion and disrespect.—Compare Isaiah 48:17, 18.
God’s ‘repurchasing’ likewise need not involve the payment of something tangible. Aside from the case of Cyrus’ willing liberation of the exiled Israelites, when freeing his people Jehovah paid nothing to the oppressor nations since these had acted without just cause and with malice in enslaving his people. Rather, Jehovah exacted the price from the oppressors themselves, making them pay with their own lives. (Compare Psalm 106:10; Isaiah 41:11-14; 49:26.) His people’s being sold to pagan nations brought them “nothing” from their enslavers in the way of true benefit or relief and Jehovah therefore needed to make no payment to their captors to balance matters out. Instead, he effected the repurchase through the power of “his holy arm.”—Isa. 52:3-10; Ps. 77:14, 15.
Jehovah’s role of Go·ʼelʹ thus embraced the avenging of wrongs done to his servants and resulted in the sanctifying and vindicating of his own name against those who used Israel’s distress as an excuse to reproach him. (Ps. 78:35; Isa. 59:15-20; 63:3-6, 9) As the Great Kinsman and Redeemer of both the nation and its individuals, he conducted their “legal case” to effect justice.—Ps. 119:153, 154; Jer. 50:33, 34; Lam. 3:58-60; compare Proverbs 23:10, 11.
Though living before and outside the nation of Israel, Job trusted that some near kinsman with the right of repurchase would come to recover him from his plight, even though such one should come when Job’s disease-wracked body had wasted away to a virtual skeleton. (Job 19:25, 26; compare Psalm 69:18; 103:4.) Following God’s own example, Israel’s king was to act as a redeemer on behalf of the lowly and poor ones of the nation.—Ps. 72:1, 2, 14.
CHRIST JESUS’ ROLE AS RANSOMER
The foregoing information lays the basis for understanding the ransom provided for humankind through God’s Son, Christ Jesus. Mankind’s need for a ransom came about through the rebellion in Eden. Adam sold himself to do evil for the selfish pleasure of listening to his wife’s voice and of keeping continued company with the sinful transgressor, and to share the same condemned standing with her before God. He thereby sold himself and his descendants into slavery to sin and to death, the price that God’s justice required. (Rom. 5:12-19; compare Romans 7:14-25.) Having possessed human perfection, Adam lost this valuable possession for himself and all his offspring.
The Law, which had a “shadow of the good things to come,” provided for animal sacrifices as a covering for sin. This, however, was only a symbolic or token covering, since such animals were inferior to man; hence, it was “not possible for the blood of bulls and of goats to [actually] take sins away,” as the apostle points out. (Heb. 10:1-4) Those pictorial animal sacrifices had to be without blemish, perfect specimens. (Lev. 22:21) The real ransom sacrifice, a human actually capable of removing sins, must therefore also be perfect, free from blemish. He would have to correspond to the perfect Adam and possess human perfection, if he were to pay the price of redemption that would release Adam’s offspring from the debt, disability and enslavement into which their first father Adam had sold them. (Compare Romans 7:14; Psalm 51:5.) Only thereby could he satisfy God’s perfect justice that requires like for like, a ‘soul for a soul.’—Ex. 21:23-25; Deut. 19:21.
The strictness of God’s justice made it impossible for mankind itself to provide its own redeemer or go·ʼelʹ. (Ps. 49:6-9) However, this results in the magnifying of God’s own love and mercy in that he met his own requirements at tremendous cost to himself, giving the life of his own Son to provide the redemption price. (Rom. 5:6-8) This required his Son’s becoming human to correspond with the perfect Adam. God accomplished this by transferring his Son’s life from heaven to the womb of the Jewish virgin Mary. (Luke 1:26-37; John 1:14) Since Jesus did not owe his life to any human father descended from the sinner Adam, and since God’s holy spirit ‘overshadowed’ Mary, evidently from the time she conceived until the time of Jesus’ birth, Jesus was born free from any inheritance of sin or imperfection, being, as it were, “an unblemished and spotless lamb,” whose blood could prove an acceptable sacrifice. (Luke 1:35; John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19) He maintained that sinless state throughout his life and thus did not disqualify himself. (Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22) As a ‘sharer of blood and flesh,’ he was a “near kinsman” of mankind and he had the thing of value, his own perfect life maintained pure through tests of integrity, with which to repurchase mankind, emancipate them.—Heb. 2:14, 15.
The Christian Greek Scriptures make clear that the release from sin and death is indeed by the paying of a price. Christians are said to be “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23), having an “owner that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1), and Jesus is presented as the Lamb who ‘was slaughtered and with his blood bought persons for God out of every tribe, tongue and nation.’ (Rev. 5:9) In these texts the verb a·go·raʹzo is used, meaning simply to buy at the market (a·go·raʹ). The related e·xa·go·raʹzo (releasing by purchase) is used by Paul in showing that Christ released “by purchase those under law” through his death on the stake. (Gal. 4:5; 3:13) But the thought of redemption or ransoming is more frequently and more fully expressed by the Greek lyʹtron and related terms.
Lyʹtron (from lyʹo, meaning “to loose”) was especially used by Greek writers to refer to a price paid to ransom prisoners of war or to release those under bond or in slavery. (Compare Hebrews 11:35.) In its two Scriptural occurrences it describes Christ’s giving “his soul a ransom in exchange for many.” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45) A special form of this word, an·tiʹly·tron, appears at 1 Timothy 2:6. Parkhurst’s A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament (p. 47) says it means: “a ransom, price of redemption, or rather a correspondent ransom. ‘It properly signifies a price by which captives are redeemed from the enemy; and that kind of exchange in which the life of one is redeemed by the life of another.’ So Aristotle uses the verb antilytroo for redeeming life by life.” Thus Christ “gave himself a corresponding ransom for all.” (1 Tim. 2:5, 6) Other related words are ly·troʹo, to release on receipt of ransom (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19), and a·po·lyʹtro·sis, a releasing by ransom. (Eph. 1:7, 14; Col. 1:14) The similarity of the usage of these words with that of the Hebrew terms considered is evident. They describe, not an ordinary purchase or releasing, but a redeeming or ransoming, a deliverance effected by payment of a corresponding price.
Though available to all, Christ’s ransom sacrifice is not accepted by all, and the “wrath of God remains” upon those not accepting it, as it also comes upon those who first accept and then turn away from that provision. (John 3:36; Heb. 10:26-29; contrast Romans 6:9, 10.) They gain no deliverance from the enslavement to Kings Sin and Death. (Rom. 5:21) Under the Law the deliberate murderer could not be ransomed. Adam, by his willful course, brought death on all mankind, hence was a murderer. (Rom. 5:12) Thus, the sacrificed life of Jesus is not acceptable to God as a ransom for the sinner Adam.
But God is pleased to approve the application of the ransom to redeem those of Adam’s offspring who avail themselves of such release. As Paul states, “as through the disobedience of the one man many were constituted sinners, likewise also through the obedience of the one person many will be constituted righteous.” (Rom. 5:18, 19) At the time of Adam’s sin and his being sentenced to death, his offspring or race were all unborn in his loins and so all died with him. (Compare Hebrews 7:4-10; Romans 7:9.) Jesus as a perfect man, “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), had a race or offspring unborn in his loins, and when he died innocently as a perfect human sacrifice this potential human race died with him. He had willingly abstained from producing a family of his own by natural procreation. Instead, Jesus uses the authority granted by Jehovah on the basis of his ransom to give life to all those who accept this provision.—1 Cor. 15:45; compare Romans 5:15-17.
Thus, Jesus was indeed a “corresponding ransom,” not for the redemption of the one sinner, Adam, but for the redemption of all mankind descended from Adam. He repurchased them so that they could become his family, doing this by presenting the full value of his ransom sacrifice to the God of absolute justice in heaven. (Heb. 9:24) He thereby gains a Bride, a heavenly congregation formed of his followers. (Compare Ephesians 5:23-27; Revelation 1:5, 6; 5:9, 10; 14:3, 4.) Messianic prophecies also show he will have “offspring” as an “Eternal Father.” (Isa. 53:10-12; 9:6, 7) To be such his ransom must embrace more than those of his “Bride.” In addition to those “bought from among mankind as a first fruits” to form that heavenly congregation, therefore, others are to benefit from his ransom sacrifice and gain everlasting life through the removal of their sins and accompanying imperfection. (Rev. 14:4; 1 John 2:1, 2) Since those of the heavenly congregation serve with Christ as priests and “kings over the earth,” such other recipients of the ransom benefits must be earthly subjects of Christ’s kingdom, and as children of an “Eternal Father” they attain everlasting life. (Rev. 5:10; 20:6; 21:2-4, 9, 10; 22:17; compare Psalm 103:2-5.) The entire arrangement manifests Jehovah’s wisdom and his righteousness in perfectly balancing the scales of justice while showing undeserved kindness and forgiving sins.—Rom. 3:21-26.