Christians often speak about Jesus being the “redeemer.” Jews also believe in a biblical concept called “redemption,” and that the Messiah’s job is to be a “redeemer”—but it means something very different in a Jewish context.
Redemption means “buying back” or “re-acquiring” something that was lost. In the Bible, it applies in several different contexts, including re-purchasing land that was sold to pay a debt (Leviticus 25:24-34) and freeing people who have become slaves (Leviticus 25:47-55).
This concept is also applied in a much broader sense in Judaism. When looking at the history of the Jewish people from Abraham to today, a pattern emerges:
- The people of Israel live in their land in peace and prosperity.
- Then, tragedy and destruction occur, and the people of Israel are taken elsewhere and scattered.
- Finally, the people of Israel are restored to their land and regain sovereignty.
Jewish teachings refer to Israel’s destruction and removal from the land as “exile.” The Hebrew word for this is galut. Returning and restoration is called “redemption,” which is ge’ullah in Hebrew.
The Babylonian Exile
This cycle has repeated itself numerous times throughout the story of Israel. For example, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took the people of Judah captive:
In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem and besieged it. In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, on the ninth day of the month, a breach was made in the city … The Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the house of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem. Then Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, carried into exile to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. (Jeremiah 39:1-2, 8-9)
This was the beginning of the Babylonian exile. A process of redemption occurred when they were allowed to return and rebuild the Temple. Isaiah foresaw this event, announcing:
Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Isaiah 48:20)
This return from this exile began when the Persian Empire conquered Babylon. The Persian king Cyrus then allowed the Jewish people to return and rebuild the Temple:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1-3)
But Babylon was not the first exile in Israel’s history. In some sense, you can even say that the Jewish nation began with exile and redemption. When Jacob and his sons left the land of Canaan and settled in Egypt, this began a time of exile. After their descendants became slaves, God rescued them from there, ultimately bringing them back to the land of Canaan. This was a process of redemption:
Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Exodus 6:6)
The prophets depicted the later exiles in relation to the captivity in Egypt. They assured the people that just as God miraculously released the Israelites from Egypt, they, too, would be restored. Furthermore, this restoration would be greater and more miraculous than the first:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. (Jeremiah 16:14-15)
One generation after Yeshua’s earthly ministry, history repeated itself when Titus, a Roman military commander, besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Jewish sages looked once again to the prophecies that foretold the permanent restoration of Israel.
The Ultimate Redemption
Redemption is a national process that can take hundreds of years. But it is not just about being physically present in the land. There are a number of things that must be restored in order for redemption to be complete. A complete redemption includes the following:
- Israel operating as a theocratic monarchy under a righteous king from the house of David
- Peace and security without oppression from the nations
- The return of all Jewish people to the land from wherever they are scattered
- The Holy Temple standing as a “house of prayer for all nations”
- The nations learning from Israel about God and his Torah
- The land producing crops in abundance
The Prophet Ezekiel describes the future period of redemption in this way:
My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. (Ezekiel 37:24-26)
Some Christians spiritualize passages like this, but Jewish readers tend to take these verses at face value. Although Israel has experienced partial redemptions, periods of blessing, and times of rescue, there has always been something lacking. The ultimate redemption will occur only when the Messiah comes. As followers of Yeshua, we understand that this will happen at his glorious return. This time of ultimate redemption is what Yeshua referred to as “the kingdom of heaven.”
The Central Role of Israel
Even though the Jewish people collectively are at the center of this process, it does not mean that exile and redemption affect them only. When a light bulb is screwed into its socket, light fills the entire room. When Israel takes its proper place and functions as it should, the entire world benefits because Israel is called the “light for the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6). It is only when Israel experiences redemption that the “circuit” of the revelation of God is completed.
Through their role as the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) everyone is exposed to the light and blessing of God. Thus, when Israel is in exile, the entire world, in some sense, is in exile. Likewise, the redemption of Israel means the redemption of the entire world.
Repentance and Restoration
The Scriptures make it clear that sin directly causes exile and that repentance—that is, returning to the Torah—is what brings about redemption. During Yeshua’s earthly ministry, he was well aware that exile was about to come and that the Romans would destroy Jerusalem. He also knew which sins were most at fault. Today, the world is still experiencing the exile that began almost two thousand years ago. Yeshua’s teachings hold the keys that will bring that exile to an end.
This has important implications for followers of Yeshua, both for those who are Jewish and those who are not. If we wish to hasten the Messiah’s coming (2 Peter 3:12), we have work to do. Exile and redemption may be national processes, but repentance begins with individuals. Furthermore, we all must support the Jewish people and help them to fulfill their important role as the light to the nations.