Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Excursus: The Biblical Tradition of the Kinsman-Redeemer

Anyone totally uninterested in literature or literary criticism should stop reading right now.

You have been warned!

I mentioned that I'm working on an article on William Langland's Piers Plowman. As my many readers (yes, all three of you) will recall, my preoccupation with this article occasioned my apology for not providing more details about the scientific work of the three gentlemen who'll be lecturing this Thursday at Korea University on their Nobel-Prize-winning research.

Those of you who read Maverick Philosopher might have seen my inquiry there about the type of argument in logic called modus tollens. I applied the argument to a statement in Passus 18 of Piers Plowman. In the fuller passage, which occurs during the harrowing of hell, Christ notes his kinship with mankind through the incarnation and uses this kinship to promise universal salvation on Judgement Day for all those remaining trapped in hell after he has freed the Old Testament saints:

And my mercy shall be shown to many of my half-brothers,
For blood-kin may see blood-kin both hungry and cold,
But blood-kin may not see blood-kin bleed without his pity:
I heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
But my righteousness and right shall rule all hell
And mercy rule all mankind before me in Heaven.
For I'd be an unkind king unless I gave my kin help,
And particularly at such a time when help was truly needed.
Enter not into judgment with thy servant. (Langland 2000, 18.408-416)

And my mercy shal be shewed to manye of my bretheren;
For blood may suffre blood bothe hungry and acale,
Ac blood may noght se blood blede, but hym rewe.
Auaivi archana verba que non iicet homini loqui.
Ac my rightwisnesse and right shal rulen al helle,
And mercy al mankynde bifore me in hevene.
For I were an unkynde kyng but I my kyn helpe --
And nameliche at swich a nede ther nedes help bihoveth:
Non intres in iudicium cum servo tuo. (Langland 1978, 18.394-400)

What follows below is a speculation on the biblical concept of the Kinsman-Redeemer as applied to Langland's view of the significance of kinship in Christ's promise of universal salvation.

Excursus: The Biblical Tradition of the Kinsman-Redeemer

In the Old Testament scriptures, from which Langland quotes liberally, we find the concept of the kinsman with the duty to redeem (Hebrew: ga'al) and therefore called a kinsman-redeemer (Hebrew: go'el). In Israelite custom, a kinsman-redeemer was a prominent male relative with responsibility for an extended family:

The Hebrew term designates a male relative who delivers or rescues (Gen 48:16; Exod 6:6); redeems property (Lev 27:9-25) or person (Lev 25:47-55); avenges the murder of a relative as a guiltless executioner (Num 35:9-34); and receives restitution for wrong done to a relative who has since died (Num 5:8). The unique emphasis of the redemption/salvation/vindication associated with the kinsman-redeemer is the fact that this action is carried out by a kinsman on behalf of a near relative in need. (Bramer 1996)

Leviticus 25:47-48 sets out the law for a kinsman-redeemer to follow in redeeming an enslaved kinsman:

Now, if an alien or temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien residing among you or to a member of the alien's clan, redemption (g'ullah) remains (possible) for him after he has sold himself. One of his kinsmen may redeem (g'ale) him. (translation mine, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Edited by Rudolf Kittel, Wilhelm Rudolph, and Hans Peter Ruger. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1984)

The concept of the kinsman-redeemer also has a theological aspect, for God is often portrayed as Israel's go'el, (e.g., BHS: Job 19:25; Ps. 19:15; 103:4; Jer. 31:11) a father who will redeem them (ga'al) from the consequences of their sin (Bramer 1996; Hubbard 1991). We see something similar applied to Gentile Christians in 1 Peter 1:17-19:

Now, if you invoke as Father the one judging impartially according to each person's deeds, (then) conduct (yourselves) with fear during the time of your exile (from God). You know that you were redeemed (elutrothate) from your futile manner of life handed down from (your) fathers not by perishable things, (such as) silver or gold, but by the precious blood of Christ, as of an unblemished and unspotted lamb. (translation mine, Greek New Testament, The United Bible Societies. Fourth Corrected Edition, 1993)

Although not made explicit, Christ here implicitly acts as a kinsman-redeemer for those Gentile Christians who invoke God as Father. Worth noting is that the Vulgate Bible, which Langland often quotes from, uses the same Latin verb for "redeem" in Leviticus 25:48 (redimi, redimet) and 1 Peter 1:18 (redempti). One should perhaps then note that Langland uses the Latin word "redempcio" in having Truth prooftext the Vulgate's Job 7:9 to demonstrate that there is no redemption in hell (Langland 1978: 18.149). The figure of Truth turns out to be mistaken, for ten verses after Christ's statement that he'd be an unkind king if he didn’t give his kin help,Langland borrows from a medieval hymn (Langland 2000, p. 345, n. 7) to have the angels sing:

Culpat caro, purgat caro, regnat Deus Dei caro. (Langland 1978, 18.409)

Flesh sins, flesh purges, flesh reigns as God of God. (translation mine)

Langland, shortly before the passage on kin helping kin, also has Christ inform Lucifer that he does:

. . . by right and by reson raunsone here my liges. (Langland 1978, 18.350)

. . . by right and by reason here ransom my liegemen. (Langland 2000, 18.360)

The translation given here is "ransom," but Mayhew and Skeat offer "redeem" as another possibillty (Mayhew/Skeat 1888). Either way, the term lies within the semantic field proper to the Old Testament concept of the kinsman-redeemer. Did Langland intend this? The evidence is merely circumstantial -- as befits an excursus. Perhaps this excursion overinterprets the evidence, but as Umberto Eco has noted, even an "overinterpretation is fruitful" (Umberto Eco, "Reply," Interpretation and Overinterpretation: Umberto Eco with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, Christine Brooke-Rose, edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992., 143).

Bibliographical note: My Piers Plowman sources are these two:

Langland, William. The Vision of Piers Plowman. Translated by E. Talbot Donaldson. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Vol. 1A: The Middle Ages, edited by Alfred David et al., 317-48. 7th ed. New York and London: Norton, 2000.

Langland, William. The Vision of Piers Plowman (B-Text). A Critical Edition of the B-text based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17. Edited by A.V.C. Schmidt. London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1978.


At 1:07 AM, Blogger Gregg Guetschow said...

You have not referred to the role of the kinsman-redeemer in the story of Ruth. It seems significant to me in two respects with regard to your analysis: First, the redemption provided for the establishment of David's line of descent which, of course, includes Jesus; and, second, because Ruth was a gentile, it established the clear Biblical precedent for the redemption of the gentiles.

At 3:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I left that out to keep my analysis simple . . . well, simpler anyway.

Bringing in Ruth would have required me to explain how Boaz could stand as a theological symbol, which would have taken a lot more research and a longer excursion to establish.

You're right about the uses of Ruth's story for the redemption of Gentiles, but the fact that Ruth was not a prisoner would have complicated my analysis.

So, I stuck with the overtly theological instances, where God himself is a go'el freeing Israel from captivity (cf. Jeremiah 31:11, which I've just noticed and added this morning).

At 12:38 AM, Blogger mrsmum said...

What were the traditions of the kinsman redeemer. What ceremonies would initiate/seal the request or role of kinsman redeemer? Re Ruth: Would "uncover his feet" be tradition? Would Ruth's preparation/dressing as a bride (per Naomi's instruction)? Would uncovering the genitals be implied and have a paternity implication? Would this occasion be seductive or pure? Would it include sex?

And finally...
Boaz mother was Rahab. Is there a significance here?

Thank you.

At 4:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mrs. Mum, thanks for the questions. I don't really know much about the Kinsman-Redeemer other than the little that I've found already, and it doesn't provide much material for answering your questions.

I suppose that any near kinsman could act as a kinsman-redeemer, and the nearer the more likely. I've the impression that Naomi's advice to Ruth on 'seducing' Boaz was intended as a improvised means of pressing the issue of his potential responsibilities. Maybe Naomi preferred him to the other kinsman because of Boaz's economic and social status ... but I'm just guessing. At any rate, Boaz had to perform a ceremony in Ruth 4:1-12, but that looks merely like a legal ceremony to legitimize Boaz's role as kinsman-redeemer.

In short, I don't know the answers to your interesting questions. You might try checking a biblical encyclopedia. I looked for one online but didn't find a good one.

As an aside, I might as well throw in a lexical entry:

The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon

But this doesn't help you much. Sorry that I couldn't be of more assistance.

Jeffery Hodges

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