Adam’s question yesterday about the redemption of the firstborn got me thinking about the whole biblical concept of redemption, and whether it’s relevant to reconstructionist Jews or their Christian counterparts, or to Pagans or folks of other faiths.
Redemption technically refers to either deliverance by payment of a price or ransom, or deliverance through power from oppression, violence, captivity, etc. In the Hebrew scriptures, the idea of redemption is directly expressed by the verbs ga’ál and padah, and by their derivatives to which the word kophér (ransom) is intimately related. Of these two verbs, ga’ál, refers to the redemption by price of an inheritance, or of things vowed, or of tithes; while padah refers to redeeming the firstborn of children or of animals. Outside the Torah, and in relation to YHWH, both verbs are used of simple salvation or deliverance by power.
Of course, the whole idea of Redemption has been really central to Christians for a long time, and forms the basis for most conservative theology. In the New Testament, redemption is specifically that of humankind by Christ’s death. One is both saved from something, such as suffering or the punishment of sin, and saved for something, such as an afterlife or participation in the Reign of God.
The concept of padah stems from this passage in the book of Exodus:
After YHWH brings you into the land of Canaan that was promised to you and to your ancestors, and gives it to you, you are to give YHWH the first offspring of the womb. All firstborn of your livestock are to be given to YHWH. Every firstborn donkey is to be redeemed with a lamb. If you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Likewise, the firstborn among your children must be redeemed.
Now, when an animal or a person was “given” to God, it was designated as cherem, or dedicated so utterly that it was unfit for any other use. In general, what was given was sacrificed. People were not to sacrifice their children, however, so they were to pay a price—literally, a ransom or redemption price. Even today, many Jews “redeem” their firstborn sons on the thirty-first day after their birth, and give the money to a kohen, someone from the ancient Temple priestly lineage, or perhaps to charity. This ritual is called the Pidyon HaBen:
In Orthodox and Conservative circles, this ceremony is conducted as part of a festive meal. The kohen first washes his hands and breaks bread, then calls for the father and the baby. The baby is typically brought in dressed in white and bedecked with gold jewelry, which the women in attendance contribute to beautify this mitzvah. The kohen then engages the father in a formal dialogue, asking him whether he prefers to keep his money or his son. At the end of this exchange, the father hands over five silver coins . . . and the kohen blesses him and his son. Though this ceremony should be conducted when the child is 31 days old, a first-born male who was never redeemed via Pidyon HaBen may redeem himself later in life through a similar interaction with a kohen.
There is a debate about how much this should be in contemporary money. Originally the fee was five silver Temple shekels which, according to some calculations, would be equal to between 101 and 117 grams of silver. However, the custom is to use actual silver money for the Redemption. The government of Israel mints silver coins for this purpose, and they are carefully weighted to guarantee that five of them contain 117 grams of silver. They generally cost between $200 and $400 for the set. Then again, 117 grams of pure silver bouillon at today’s exchange rate is about $1500. Either way, I’m thinking that’s proof that life is cheap.
So the Jews redeem their firstborn sons so that God doesn’t consume them utterly on the altar of service and sacrifice. Christians trust that God has redeemed them from eternal damnation. But what if you don’t believe in a God of consuming fire, or in the concept of Hell? Is there any place for the concept of Redemption?
Certainly there’s room for redemption in the colloquial sense—finding a new start after one has been on the wrong path for a while. One often feels a new sense of freedom after entering rehab, for example, or when one leaves a destructive relationship: “I have my life back!”
The problem, I think is with the idea of preemptive redemption. Both Christianity and Judaism wanted to protect its adherents from the threat of danger, rather than simply rescuing them from current suffering. Which isn’t such a bad thing for a religion to do for its faithful; what mother wouldn’t rather keep her kids from getting into bad situations, instead of bailing them out after the fact?
But if you believe the Universe is essentially loving, and that we more or less create our own realities, can one be redeemed preemptively? Is there a way to escape the karma of our current actions? Isn’t that like wanting to dance without paying the piper?
Perhaps one can learn one’s karmic lessons quickly—learn from one’s mistakes without having to go to Hell and back. Perhaps redemption is about being open to course corrections along the way, about being aware enough to see one’s mistakes quickly and change direction before it’s too late.
Sounds good to me. Now, whom should I send these silver shekels to?