Jewish Core Value
Redeeming Captives — Pidyon Shvuyim (rhymes with “mid-phone, blue team”). According to this core value, it is worth it to pay a ransom for the life of a hostage.
Old Testament Basis
Redemption is a common Old Testament theme. The Exodus from Egypt is portrayed as a redemption, and one of the most famous passages from the Exodus story is: “Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem (emphasis added) you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (Exodus 6:6).
God is referred to as Redeemer in many books of the Hebrew Scriptures, including Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah. Often the redemption is seen as a physical one, but Isaiah 44:22 and 59:20 connect God’s redemption with forgiveness of sins, a theme the New Testament will expand on. So does Psalm 130:7–8, using the verb padah, related to pidyon.
The Old Testament concept of redemption applied not only to freeing people but also to freeing animals and property from “captivity.”
The book of Ruth in particular shows us an example of redemption by a “kinsman-redeemer” (Hebrew: go’el) who could buy back property on behalf of relatives or pay to have them released from slavery.
While there is no Old Testament text specifically commanding Israel to redeem captives, the medieval philosopher Maimonides said that failing to do so violates verses such as these:
Deut. 15:7b–8 ” … you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.”
Lev. 19:16b, 18b “… nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor … you shall love your neighbor as yourself …”
Prov. 24:11 “Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter.”
One might also say that since God’s people are to behave, as much as possible, in keeping with God’s character and His concerns, it is implicit that we care for the plight of captives.
New Testament Teaching
Redemption is a thread that runs throughout the New Testament: See Luke 1:68, Romans 3:24, 1 Cor. 1:30, Ephesians 1:7, Hebrews 9:12 and Revelation 14:3, among other verses.
Whereas in the Hebrew Scriptures, some verses indicate that sin is bondage from which people require redemption, in the New Testament redemption is repeatedly tied to freedom from bondage to sin and its consequences (John 8:34; Acts 8:23; Romans 6:6, 16–20, 22, 7:14, 25).
Jesus spoke of His own life as a ransom for sin, that is, He would pay the price to redeem us from sin’s bondage (Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45).
Paul specifically relates the Christian experience to the Passover in 1 Cor. 5:7, drawing a parallel between that historic redemption and redemption from slavery to sin.
The New Testament also points us toward a future redemption. While it is true that Jesus freed us from bondage to sin, sin’s consequences still affect all of creation, including our bodies. In some ways we are still captives of a fallen world, awaiting our final redemption:
“For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:22–23).
Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Jewish Culture
In connection with this core value, the traditional Jewish saying is often invoked, “One who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a).
The Talmud teaches, “Death by the sword is worse than a normal death, since the body is disgraced. Death by starvation is even worse, since it is prolonged. Captivity is the worst of all, since it includes all of them” (Baba Bathra 8b).
Maimonides explained that “Redeeming captives is even more important than feeding the poor. There is no greater mitzvah [commandment], since captives are hungry, thirsty, naked, and their lives are in danger” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 8:10).
Compassion for captives is thus ingrained from Jewish tradition into Jewish culture.
Of course, when considering paying a ransom today, one does not want to encourage kidnapping. The principle of pidyon shvuyimhas to be weighed against other principles.
The most well-publicized example was the captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas in 2006 and held for five years. He was released in October 2011. In this case the “ransom” paid was the controversial release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in an exchange deal. This was the highest price Israel ever paid to release one soldier.
There are other Israeli prisoners and there is a healthy debate in Israel over whether or not ransom should be paid to secure their release. For more about this, please see the links below:
“A Mitzvah Behind the Price of a Soldier’s Freedom,” New York Times, October 21, 2011. Free site registration may be required.
“Pidyon Shvuyim (The Redemption of Captives) and Gilad Shalit,” Jewish Virtual Library. A good introduction to the ethical dilemmas involved.
Conversations with Jewish Friends
Many Jewish people keep up with news about Israel, so if the subject of Israel comes up, why not ask Jewish friends if they followed the Gilad Shalit story (but please read about it yourself first in the link above). From there you can ask what they think about the principle of pidyon shvuyim. Not all will be familiar with the Hebrew terms, so you can explain that it means redemption of captives (at a price) and that you understand it is an important value historically for Jewish people. Perhaps they will ask where you learned the Hebrew term.
As appropriate, you can mention that the theme/value of redemption and a ransom price is an important part of your beliefs as a Christian. Explain that the death of Jesus is considered a ransom paid to release us from captivity to sin. That like God redeemed Israel at the Exodus, Jesus is called the Passover Lamb because He likewise paid a high price to redeem us from sin. Include Jews and Gentiles both as the “us” you are talking about. If your friend shows interest, you can point out that the Hebrew Scriptures also speak of redemption from sin, and that just as a ransom has to be received, so we need to receive the ransom by faith in the Messiah, Jesus, who is our Redeemer.
Bonus nugget: The Jewish ritual of “pidyon ha ben” refers to the redemption of the first born and is based on God’s commandment in Exodus 13:2, “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, [both] of man and beast; it is Mine.”
It is interesting to see that God claims the firstborn as uniquely His and required this “redemption,” in a sense, for people to “buy back” their first born. This is said to be linked with the fact that God spared the firstborn sons of Israel at the first Passover. That night there was a divine ultimatum: the blood of the lamb or the death of the firstborn.
In Numbers 3:40–51, we see that, after the Exodus, God required a census be taken and a price paid for every firstborn male of the children of Israel. This was a practical demonstration of His claim, helping His people understand what they still owed Him, and what He was willing to accept, by grace, instead. We see this in the New Testament as Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to dedicate Him in the Temple in Jerusalem. *
Jesus, as the firstborn son of Mary, was dedicated according to the law of pidyon ha ben. Yet as God’s only begotten son, Jesus was also able to pay the ransom, not only for firstborn sons, but also for all who would trust in His atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. In this way, God not only claimed what was His, but He also gave what was His to secure our freedom.
*This paragraph adapted from the book, Christ in the Feast of Pentecost by David Brickner and Rich Robinson.