What does redemption mean to you?

In Jewish thought, redemption is often connected with Passover, the classic celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. After all, the tagline for this much-loved holiday is “the Festival of Redemption.” But there are other ways to think about redemption. Many people see it as the light that shines through a story of someone who experienced a devastating failure, but through determination and hard work is vindicated with an epic win. Who doesn’t love a good redemption story, with its uplifting, happy ending?

If you’ve ever had to sell something you love to a pawnshop, you know that redemption has another meaning: “regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.” You can “borrow” money from a pawnshop in exchange for something valuable, and if you can come up with the money in time, you can “redeem” or buy it back.

Whether you think of redemption as liberation, vindication, or buying back a prized possession (or whether you haven’t really thought much about redemption at all), the Bible is full of stories that reveal how redemption goes straight to the core of our Jewish identity and then some … touching the very heart of our humanity.

Passover: Our People’s Story of Redemption

The backstory: Throughout Jewish history, God has been saving our people in the most peculiar ways. For example, Joseph (remember, with the coat of many colors?) is sold by his own brothers into slavery, but then God raises him up to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man. The brothers are forced to come to Egypt for food in the midst of a famine, and find themselves at the mercy of Joseph. Joseph forgives them, and God uses the whole situation to save our people from starvation.

Years later, a different Pharaoh fears the thriving Jewish population and tries to destroy us by ordering all Jewish boys murdered at birth while forcing the adults into slavery. Thanks to God-fearing midwives, the ingenuity of a Jewish mother, and divine providence, the baby Moses survives and is adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. In due time, God appoints him to lead our people out of Egypt.

To accomplish this, God pours out 10 plagues as judgments against Egypt’s false gods (Exodus 12:12). For the tenth and most awful plague, the first-born male of every household, whether Hebrew or Egyptian, will die unless the blood of a perfect lamb is applied to the outer door of the home.

All people have a tendency to idolize something or someone.

Why were the Jewish people included with the Egyptians for this judgment? Because idolatry (giving our ultimate trust and worship to anything other than God) is not limited to any one nation or culture. All people have a tendency to idolize something or someone, preferring what we can see and touch to the living God. The blood of the lamb on the door to prevent death within can remind us that looking to anything other than God for ultimate security and satisfaction causes death—but that God in His mercy allows for a substitute death. And so, our very lives have been “bought back” at a high cost.

The Tanakh repeatedly retells this iconic story of redemption because it is a defining moment in our collective history. God redeemed us from Pharaoh to alleviate our suffering, but also so we could fulfill our destiny as a people who could thrive in love and service to God.

The Prophet and the Prostitute: Scandalous Redemption

The backstory: Despite all that God has done to redeem us, many of our people refuse to trust Him, and tragically, turn to idolatry. God sends prophets to warn us that our spiritual unfaithfulness will bring judgment, but along with those warnings come promises of healing and restoration in an outpouring of God’s mercy and love. This message is incredibly graphic in the book of Hosea.

As the book opens, God has Hosea marry an unfaithful woman in order to experience how He (God) feels about His people Israel, “For the land commits great whoredome by forsaking the LORD” [the spiritual adultery described in Ezekiel 16:32] (Hosea 1:2).

The book is incredibly raw as God subjects Hosea to his wife Gomer’s unfaithfulness and states in no uncertain terms that Israel has done the very same thing by worshiping other gods. In fact, the Tanakh repeatedly compares God’s love for His people to a marriage with an unfaithful partner. Gomer’s lover abuses and degrades her to the point of offering her for sale (Hosea 3:2). But that’s not the end of the story.

God tells Hosea to go and love his wife “even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins” (Hosea 3:1). Hosea literally buys Gomer back (redeems her). He deals kindly with her and restores their relationship, just as God promises to heal and restore Israel.

There is something inside of all people that causes us to stray from God.

The message of Hosea does not single out the Jewish people as uniquely unfaithful to God. There is something inside of all people that causes us to stray from Him. The Bible calls it sin. We can’t seem to help giving our hearts to whatever or whoever promises the excitement, pleasure, affirmation, comfort, security, and meaning we long for. The judgment of the prophets is not that our people were more sinful than anyone else, but that we had more reason to be faithful to God … and still ended up “cheating” on Him. Our failure proved that no one is capable of being true to God—we all need redemption.

Yeshua (Jesus): The Epitome of Redemption, Both Classic and Scandalous

The backstory: Yeshua arrives on the scene hundreds of years after the prophets have pronounced judgment and promised healing to Israel. Our people remain under Roman occupation. We are divided and polarized socially, economically, and religiously. The need for the Messiah has never been greater.

Yeshua comes into the world and begins to perform miracles to show that he is the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke (Luke 7:20-22). He heals the blind, the lame, and those tormented by demons. He even raises people from the dead. He is especially compassionate to those who are despised and marginalized as sinners: tax collectors and prostitutes. His love, forgiveness, and healing touch motivate them to turn to God. This fills some people with joy while others are scandalized. Yeshua doesn’t seem to care about the scandal. He is drawn to those who understand their need for mercy.

Religion can hide hypocrisy and injustice.

Yeshua not only ignores the hierarchy that places the religious elite above the common people, but just like the prophets before him, he points out how religion can hide hypocrisy and injustice. Many believe in him, but those who reject him are fierce in their desire to be rid of him, not unlike Joseph’s brothers hundreds of years before.

Tension mounts throughout Israel as people wonder what Yeshua will do next, what cataclysmic event will set off the climax of his Messianic mission. Yeshua then reveals to his closest followers that he has come to die, to break the power of sin, and to show his authority, not by defeating the Roman army, but by defeating death itself. His mission is an act of self-sacrifice. He was rightly heralded as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and his blood is literally spilled during his crucifixion, which occurs at the feast of Passover.

Yeshua adds even greater depth to the significance of the Feast of Redemption. It is still about deliverance from slavery in Egypt … but in spilling his own blood for us, Yeshua makes it possible for us to be redeemed from the internal slavery of sin that prevents us from knowing and loving and trusting God enough to welcome His rightful and loving rule in our lives. Joseph was thrown into a pit; Jesus went down into the grave itself. His death provided the atonement for sin that God promised in so many Messianic prophecies, including Isaiah 53, which talks about a servant who will take upon himself the sins of the people. His resurrection three days later proved he had broken the power of death. And just as Joseph loved and forgave his brothers, so Jesus is ready to love and forgive anyone, even (and especially) those who have misunderstood and rejected him.

The whole Bible is a story of redemption, and its climax is Messiah’s death and resurrection.

What Jewish Tradition Recognizes about Redemption

These words, recited at traditional Shabbat services during the Amidah, point to who God is, and how He can set us free from our darkest fears while meeting our deepest needs.

Melech ozer u moshia u magen
Baruch atah Adonai, magen Avraham v Sarah.
Atah gibor le’olam Adonai,
Mechayeh meitim, atah rav le’hoshia.
King, redeemer, savior and shield,
Blessed are you Lord, shield of Abraham and Sarah.
You are the mighty one, forever O Lord,
You raise the dead, you are mighty to save.

God wants to set us free from anything that prevents us from the joy and freedom of knowing and enjoying Him—even death itself. That’s how completely God will redeem us, if we want the relationship he offers.

Are you looking for redemption? Start with reading the Bible, the story of redemption … it can become your story as well.