Our Rock and Our Redeemer

What is redemption?  What does it mean to be redeemed?  Classically, redemption means deliverance from sin or the freeing of a prisoner, captive, or slave.  For Jews, these definitions can be problematic.  Judaism does not view sin as something someone else can redeem us from, and we have already been redeemed from our slavery in Egypt.  So how are we to conceive of redemption in order to keep it a central feature of our spirituality?

Our first step is look at redemption beyond its literal meanings.  To do this, we turn to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Coleridge spends a good deal of time in his Aids to Reflection arguing against any literal interpretation of the Bible in general and of redemption in particular.  Language is primary for Coleridge, and any reading of the Bible must be based on “the incalculable advantages attached to the habit of using [words] appropriately, and with a distinct knowledge of their primary, derivative, and metaphorical senses.”[1]  Through close readings of Paul’s rhetoric, Coleridge emphasizes Paul’s use of metaphor and metaphoric language in transforming the literal sacrifice of Christ to a transcendental act of redemption.[2]

Our next step is to take a deeper look at the word “redemption”.  As mentioned above, the theological definition of redemption is deliverance from sin.  Redemption can also mean the action or fact of discharging or paying off a debt, obligation, or charge.  Even in Hebrew, the root of the word for redemption, גאל (/ga’al/ to redeem, deliver, free) can also be used in this legalistic way.

So, redeemed by Coleridge of a literal understanding of the words in the Bible, and armed with a slightly different take on the definition of “redemption,” we can now examine the relationship between the Redeemer and the redeemed.  If we are to broaden our conception of redemption, then we must also examine the various parties in this process.  Traditionally, G-d is the Redeemer, we are the redeemed, and we are redeemed from slavery and/or sin.  But, even being redeemed from the metaphoric slavery of sin, leaves us less than satisfied because we are the object, not the agent of our redemption.  A different distribution of the roles involved in the redemption paradigm is necessary to satisfy the Jewish penchant for positive action when dealing with sin.

Let us, for a moment, take the role of redeemer.  What, then, is the obligation, and to whom is it owed? The debt owed is for the act of Creation, and our debt is owed to G-d.  In other words, we stand in obligation to G-d for the creation of the world and all that is in it, including, and especially, us.  And how is this charge to be redeemed? Tzdakah – Righteousness (alternately translated as Justice and as Charity), Gimilut Hasadim – Acts of Loving Kindness, and Tikun Olam – Repairing the World are the currency through which we will discharge our obligation and transform this world into the World-to-Come.

[1] Aids to Refection, ed. John Beer, Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen Series 75 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 7,

[2] For a fuller exploration of this idea, see ”Coleridge, Christology, and the Language of Redemption,” by Jeffrey Barbeau, Anglican Theological Review, 93(2), 263-282.

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