Kidnap and ransom is big business for the pirates and terrorists who use it as a profitable source of income. And it’s also a flourishing enterprise for insurance companies. When war reporter James Foley was kidnapped in Syria four years ago, it was unlikely that his release would be safely secured because he didn’t have insurance. Today, whether or not a hostage taken by overseas militants is released depends on whether their employer has ‘kidnap and ransom’ insurance.
But while kidnap for ransom is a booming business in the 21st century, it is by no means a new activity. When Jesus attended a wedding, he would have heard a vow that no modern groom makes: ‘If you are kidnapped, I will ransom you.’ It was a relatively new part of the marriage ceremony, necessitated by the real threat of kidnapping by vicious bandits. If a woman was held for more than a few minutes by these kidnappers, it was assumed she had been violated. That’s why the vow was necessary: a Jewish man might be tempted not to ransom his wife if he hadn’t pledged to do so.
Buying and selling people was a normal occurrence in Jesus’ time – as well as slaves, you could buy a child to adopt. In addition, the law required every firstborn male animal either to be sacrificed or bought back (‘redeemed’). This law applied to people as well as animals, but since people could not be sacrificed, they were redeemed at five shekels each.
The law originated from the time when Israel escaped Egypt, and God protected the firstborn males from the final terrible plague. But instead of paying money for their eldest sons’ redemption, the men of the tribe of Levi were given to God for religious service. The number of Levite males was almost the same as the number of firstborn males who had been saved, and the difference was paid in shekels (see Numbers 3).
Jesus referred to this redemption by the Levites when he contrasted how all of humanity would be redeemed by just one person: himself (Mark 10:44-45). He said that, like the Levites, he would give his life (including his death) in service to God and humanity.
The idea that someone could be ransomed by a person rather than money wasn’t entirely new for Jews at the time. The Septuagint (the Jews’ Greek translation of the Old Testament) called the Levites ‘a ransom’ for Israel (Numbers 3:12), using the same word that they used for ‘money payments’ in the original Hebrew. Jesus made the point that his life was so valuable that the exchange rate wasn’t one for one (as it was with the Levites); his single life could redeem everyone.
Paul also used the image of payment to explain the cross. He likened salvation to the redemption loophole that enabled a slave to get himself released. The slave could save up money and pay it to a temple, so the temple’s god could buy him. He would then owe allegiance to that god. Paul said the same rule applies to Christians; they were bought from slavery to sin, so they should now regard themselves as belonging to God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 7:22-23).
Practised by the Romans, adoption was another way of buying someone, and Paul said that we were adopted into God’s family (Galatians 4:4-7). Although a childless couple could buy an unwanted baby, it was more common to adopt a teenager and compensate his family because a high proportion of babies died. You could also be sure of the adoptee’s character, unlike a baby who might grow up to be a careless heir. Most importantly, young adults could give personal assurances that they were willing to carry on the traditions and responsibilities of the family.
But Jews did not practise that kind of adoption, so Jesus used a different image – that of being born anew (John 3:3-7). Neither Jesus’ illustration of being born again, nor Paul’s illustration of adoption would have made people think about infants
Both the person being adopted and the person being born again had to decide that they wanted the arrangement.
IMAGES OF RANSOM DEMONSTRATE GOD’S LOVE
Some early theologians disliked the image of Jesus paying a ransom, taking it too literally, and asking who the money was paid to. They argued that if the payment was to Satan, then God was giving in to his demand. To counteract this, in the 11th century St Anselm referred to the payment of a ‘fine’– ie a penalty or punishment for our sins. However, this image, like ‘ransom’, can also be taken too literally – for example, by asking who demanded the fine. Some Christians conclude that God has to obey ‘justice’ – rather like a modern ruler has to obey the law. But this implies something that scripture does not: that God forgives because a payment has been made instead of forgiving freely and mercifully.
When thinking about how salvation works, it’s important to remind ourselves that the descriptions the Bible gives us of how salvation works are merely images – none of them are a complete explanation, and we should not try to explore these images further than we are invited to by scripture. For example, while the Bible portrays Satan as the opponent of Jesus, it does not say that Satan received any payment from Jesus. Satan can, perhaps, be regarded as our former slave master and even our former parent (see John 8:34,44), but the Bible does not say that Jesus bought us back from him.
One glorious way that Paul describes the cross is as the battleground where Jesus defeated Satan, and released many ‘captives’ (Colossians 2:14-15; Ephesians 4:8- 9). This complements the victory illustrated by redemption. Jesus freed us from ‘kidnapping’, from slavery, and from Satan, our abusive parent, and he adopted us into a new, loving family. While images of paying fines or substitutionary punishment tell us about God’s justice, the images of ransom demonstrate God’s love. He is both a severe judge satisfied by Jesus’ self-sacrifice and also a loving God who sent his best warrior to defeat his enemy.
Scripture describes our salvation using many different images, but the work of the cross is simply too big to be understood through one image alone. ‘Ransomed’, ‘redeemed’, ‘adopted’, ‘born again’ – these are all aspects of God’s wonderful rescue plan and through which we can catch a glimpse of the breadth and depth of his love for us.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge 63