Reworking the Paradigm

Come near me, redeem me.  Because of my enemies, ransom me.  Psalm 69:19 [Hebrew Bible]  Robert Alter

Ransom – Let’s examine the implicit paradigm in this verse.  Remember that the true role of the exegete is to interpret the text according to the thought patterns of the original audience and author.  That means making crystal clear those translations that change what the author and audience meant in order to fit the contemporary reading audience (for example, the “translation” of  The Message).  With this in mind, here are popular English versions of this verse (verse 18 in English Bibles):

Come near to my soul and redeem it; Ransom me because of my enemies!  NASB

Come near and rescue me; deliver me because of my foes.  NIV

Draw near to my soul, redeem me; ransom me because of my enemies!  ESV

The first thing to notice is the word “soul” in the NASB.  Of course, a lot of Greco-Roman thought stands behind this word, most of which is not found in the Hebrew word nepeš (nefesh).  I’m sure you are well aware of this problem.  Note that Alter and the NIV use “me,” an acceptable reference to the whole person.  You’ll also notice that the NASB chooses to render the suffix hîʾ as “it” (“and redeem it”) as if the soul were somehow separate from the rest of “me.”  This is consistent Greek thinking, but it’s not Hebraic.

All three English versions translate the verb qārab as movement toward something (“draw near, come near”).  We only need to add a footnote.  Qārab isn’t just close proximity.  It’s intimate, emotional connection.  In fact, the overriding tone of this verse in the Psalms is about feelings, not geography.

Now we have to deal with gāʾal, “redeem, ransom, avenge, revenge.”  In fact, we’re forced to consider one of the alternate readings because, quite frankly, redemption because of my enemies just doesn’t make sense.  Rescue might make sense.  Deliver, perhaps.  But redeem?  TWOT notes:

The primary meaning of this root is to do the part of a kinsman and thus to redeem his kin from difficulty or danger. It is used with its derivatives 118 times. One difference between this root and the very similar root pādâ“redeem,” is that there is usually an emphasis in gāʾal on the redemption being the privilege or duty of a near relative. [1]

I would prefer “avenge” because such an act fits the expectation of a near kinsman and it explains the connection with the enemies.  Of course, I would “avenge” because “redeem” no longer has this near-kinsman meaning.  In the modern world, redeem has become a completely theological term typically associated with the post-Reformation idea of substitutionary atonement.  This is not what David, in the tenth century B.C.E., has in mind.  He exhorts God to act according to His covenant promise and eliminate the enemy threat, as any true kinsman would.  He is not expecting God to forgive his sins and take him to heaven.

Harris’ remark about the connection to pādâ is precisely what we need to hear.  “The basic meaning of the Hebrew root is to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute.”[2]  But now we have to ask, “Why would David need God to provide a payment to transfer ownership for the enemies?”  David is already God’s servant.  He’s told us that.  The enemies do not own him as if he were their slave.  So, why pādâ?  The answer comes from 1 Samuel 14:45.

But the people said to Saul, “Must Jonathan die, he who has [a]brought about this great [b]victory in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, not even a hair of his head shall fall to the ground, because he has worked with God this day.” So the people [c]rescued Jonathan and he did not die.  NASB

Did you see the footnote before “rescued”?  The footnote reads, “ransomed,” because this is the word pādâ.  But clearly the people rescue Jonathan.  Coker notes, “[pādâ] is also used to speak of the redemption of a man’s life who is under the sentence of death, as in I Sam 14:45, when Jonathan was redeemed by the people of Israel.”[3]  And there’s the answer.  David is under threat of death.  That’s the whole context of this psalm.  Just as pādâ reports the deliverance accomplished by the people on Jonathan’s behalf, so David enlists the same word for his plea for God’s intervention.  He’s not asking about substitutionary atonement in the Christian sense of the word.  He’s asking about deliverance from the imminent death threat he feels.

And now the verse makes sense—in the Hebrew worldview.

Topical Index: gāʾal, redeem, pādâ, ransom, Psalm 69:19

[1] Harris, R. L. (1999). 300 גָּאַל. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 144). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Coker, W. B. (1999). 1734 פָּדָה. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 716). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Ibid.

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Richard Bridgan

Yes!… Indeed, the entire testimony of Israel’s experiences in relationship with YHVH makes sense… when our understanding is enlightened by the glory of His presence.

Look! The hand of YHVH is not too short to save, and his ear is not too dull to hear. Rather, (y)our iniquities have been barriers… dividers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you… from hearing you.” (Isaiah 59:1-2)

Richard Bridgan

But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

The days are coming, declares the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the LORD.
This is the covenant I will establish with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the LORD.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.” (Heb. 8:6–10; cf. 10:16)