Restoration Quarterly 23 (1980) 27-35.
Copyright © 1980 Restoration Quarterly. Cited with permission.
Haggo'el: The Cultural Gyroscope of
Ancient Hebrew Society
MICHAEL S. MOORE
Preliminary Lexical Considerations
Some lexicographers divide the meaning of ga'al into two concepts.
Koehler and Baumgartner1 and Gesenius2 assign two separate meanings
to the word. The first centers around the idea of "redemption"; the
second, around the concept of "defilement," suggesting a possible
affinity with ga'al, "to reproach or rebuke."
Others claim to see a single root meaning,3 a meaning which cor-
responds to its usage in the Hebrew Old Testament, i.e., "to cover,
or protect." To illustrate, in Ruth 3:9 Ruth asks Boaz to spread
(parash) his wings over her, for "you are go’el." That is, Boaz was the
young widow's protector. He had already used this protection idiom by
assuring her that the God of Israel, the God to whom she had come for
refuge in 2:12, would spread his wings over her. This example, then,
would illustrate a positive usage of this basic root, "to cover."
In the Old Testament, however, one can be covered with all sorts of
things, good or bad. Whereas Ruth was covered with the wings of her
protector (go'el), Job uses the term to lament the day upon which he
Let that day be darkness. May God above not seek it, nor light shine upon it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it (yig'aluhu). (Job 3:4, 5, RSV)
G. Beer further suggests, "ga'al=ga'al, cf. Mal 1, 7," a passage in
which Malachi spoke about polluted food on the altar of God. Here
1 Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, 1953 ed., S.v. "ga'al," by L. Koehler and
2 Handworterbuch uber das Alte Testament, 1853 ed., s. Y. "ga'al," by Gesenius.
3 Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Jerushalmi, and the Midrashic
Literature, 1950 ed., s.v. "ga'al," by Marcus Jastrow.
28 Restoration Quarterly
again ga'al is the term used (lehem mego'al).4
The Job passage has been a thorny problem for translators. The RV,
following LXX, Theodotian, and Symmachus, translates yig’aluhu
"claim it for their own." Can this be the meaning? Can gloom and
deep darkness even metaphorically reclaim the day of Job's birth?
Perhaps. On the other hand, the AV, following Aquila and the
Targumim, translates the phrase ". . . let darkness and the shadow on
death stain it." This choice, however, disregards the context. Job
wants the clouds, darkness, and gloom to blot out the light God was to
shine upon the day of his birth, not stain it.
Johnson's view may shed light on the problem. Following the
Peshitta Syriac and Latin Vulgate, he translates ". . . let darkness, let
utter blackness cover it."5 In sum, Johnson would define go'al thus:
Qal- "to protect;" Niphal- "to be protected," later coming to mean
in negative contexts "to be covered over; to be coated"; then Piel-
"to coat something intensively, pollute, desecrate"; Hithpael- "to
The argument for one root meaning for ga'al is interesting, if not
conclusive. It deserves consideration from a lexical standpoint, even if
such consideration leads one to conclude no more than that such an
argument proves more palatable than the various attempts which have
been made to link ga'al with ga’al. Ringgren concludes: "It seems better
to begin with actual linguistic usuage than to postulate an original
Go'el in the Old Testament
Several models have been proposed to break down the meanings of
this word by its various contexts in the Old Testament. Ringgren
suggests it should be examined in the two broad categories of secular
usage and religious, figurative usage.8 Lieber deduces five basic activities
of the go'el in the Old Testament:
(1) He acquires the alienated property of a kinsman (Lev. 25:25)
4 Biblia Hebraica, 7th ed., edited by R. Kittel (Stuttgart: Wurttembergische Bibelanstalt,
1973), p. 1108, nt. 5a.
5 A. R. Johnson, "The Primary Meaning of ga'al," Supplement to Vetus Testamentum
1 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1953): 73. Cf. also R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and
Institutions, trans. by J. McHugh (New York: McGraw-Hill 1961), p. 21: ". . . funda-
mentally its meaning is 'to protect.'"
6 Johnson, op. cit., pp. 73, 74.
7 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 1974 ed., s.v. "ga'al," by H. Ringgren.
8 Ibid., pp. 350-355.
The Cultural Gyroscope 29
(2) He purchases property when it is in danger of being lost to a stranger
(3) He is morally, if not legally, obligated to support the widow of his next-
of-kin in the event of her becoming dependent on this estate for her
livelihood (Ruth 4:4ff.)
(4) He redeems a clansman who has been reduced to slavery by poverty
(5) He avenges blood when it has been shed (Num. 35:17ff.).
Leviticus 25 is the usual starting point in discussions concerning the
meaning of ga'al.10 Predictably, all the legal material which deals with
the duties of the go'el is predicated by Israel's relationship to Yahweh.
Israel is to perform Yahweh's statutes and ordinances (25:18). If this
is done, Israel will experience economic and social equilibrium as
Yahweh's chosen people (25:17, 20ff.). Yahweh owns the land; Israel
merely sojourns there (25:23). This land ('eres) is to be treated as a
ge’ullah by Israel (25:24).11
In the book of Isaiah, Israel is reminded of this peculiar relationship.
In Isaiah 41:14; 43:14; 44:6 and 24, the writer refers to Yahweh as
Israel's go’el, i.e., he whose responsibility entailed that of protecting,
restoring, and bringing Israel back into a state of spiritual equilibrium
with himself.11a This spiritual relationship was foundational to the
Israelite's social and economic existence.12
Luzbetak defines equilibrium thus:
a state of balance. ..a feeling of "well-being" characterized by an over-all steadi-
9 Encyclopedia Judaica, 1971 ed., s.v. "Redemption," by D. L. Lieber.
10 0ne has to decide however, if the Leviticus material is a compilation of ancient or
contemporary laws. In addition, one's concept of the relative personality or impersonality
of Yahweh enters the picture here.
11 The inclusion of all these elements, land, cult, clan, and security, led H. C. Brichto to
conclude that these elements make up a Biblical complex (an anthropological technical
term), "Kin, Cult, Land, and Afterlife--A Biblical Complex," Hebrew Union College
Annual 44 (1973): 1-54.
11a On Job 19:25 cf. Marvin H. Pope, Job, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 15 (Garden City,
N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), p. 146: "It is not clear here whether Job has in mind a human
agent who will act as his vindicator. The strongest point in favor of taking the vindicator
and guarantor as God is the specific reference to seeing God in 26b. . . . The application
of the term go'el to God in this context is questionable since elsewhere in Job's
complaint it is God himself who is Job's adversary rather than defender."
13 Brichto, op. cit., p. 23: "Death does not constitute dissolution but rather a transition
to another kind of existence, an afterlife in the shadowy realm of Sheol. The condition
of the dead in this afterlife is, in a vague but significant way, connected with proper
burial upon the ancestral land and with the continuation on that land of the dead's
proper progeny." In Brichto's schema, then, the go'el "was not merely a close-kinsman
obligated to blood-vengeance or privileged to redeem property. The go'el is he who
redeems the dead from the danger to his afterlife by continuing his line," p. 21.
30 Restoration Quarterly
ness in the culture, a high morale, self-confidence, and a sense of security.13
One feels justified in using this technical term for several reasons, but
it is not the purpose here to enter into an extended anthropological
analysis of ancient Hebrew society. This paper is primarily a philological
study of the meaning of a particular word and its usage in the Old
Testament literature. Luzbetak is an anthropologist and “equilibrium”
is an anthropological term, yet the overall usefulness of this term
ought to be evident after further inspection. “Equilibrium” incorporates
the many analogous meanings attested by a solid consensus of Biblical
scholarship on the matter.
Interfamilial, interclan, and intertribal relationships can better be
understood in terms of social equilibrium, as ramifications of Israel’s
spiritual relationship with Yahweh. Again, several analogous concepts
can be found in the relevant literature. Johnson14 talks about the
Israelite’s nephes as something which was extended spatially and
temporally, through one’s bayith, ‘ebhed, or mal’ak; temporally,
through one’s dabhar (including either berakah or ‘ararah), and the
Israelite sem. “Corporate personality,”15 “grasping of a totality,”16
“vitality of extended family group,”17 “total contents of the soul,”18
“interests of his kinsman”19—these are some of the parallel phrases
Is it not more accurate today to posit that where manslaughter
occurs, or where one's husband or male children perish, or where one
is forced by poverty to sell his ancestral real estate--that where
anything of this nature occurs in the Old Testament--that these are
characteristics of social dysfunction, i.e., social disequilibrium? When
this has been established, the function of the go'el can be more clearly
seen: to work through the proper channels, whether spiritual, social,
13 L. J. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1970),
14 A. R. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God (Cardiff:
Univ. of Wales Press, 1961), p. 2.
15 Ibid., p. 3.
16 J. Pedersen, Israel: Its life and Culture, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press), :
17 Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. "Redemption."
18 Pedersen, op. cit., p. 382.
19 Pope, op. cit., p. 146.
The Cultural Gyroscope 31
or economic20 and serve as the society's "cultural gyroscope."21 The
solidarity of the Israelite family, clan, and nation depended upon his
assuming this responsibility.
The go'el functions as a restorative agent whenever there is a breach
in the clan's corporate life. In Lieber's model, this would include his
obligations a) to support an Israelite widow who is a blood relative and
b) to redeem a clansman who has been reduced to slavery by poverty.22
In this paper only the first of these obligations will be examined.
H. H. Rowley's study on the book of Ruth reveals how entangled
this problem has become.23 His survey shows that some are divided
over whether Ruth's marriage was levirate or ge'ullah. I. M. Epstein
sees it as ge'ullah; J. A. Bewer does also, even to the point of dismissing
all references to the levirate law in the book as interpolations by
partisans of Ezra and Nehemiah. On the other hand, H. A. Brongers
believed that one of the book's purposes was to bring the two institu-
tions together. J. G. Frazer and J. F. McLennan even see polyandry
or group marriage as having evolved into levirate and ge'ullah arrange-
ments. A. Bertholet and G. Margoliouth see ancestor worship behind
all of this.24
Rowley concludes that, if one dates Deuteronomy late,
the law of Deut. 25:5-10 reflects a limitation of something that was once wider in
Israel, and this view is further supported when we look beyond the question of
the childless widow to the wider duties devolving on the next-of-kin.25
Within the schema of this paper it is irrelevant as to whether levirate
marriage is separate from or included in ge'ullah or whether the book
of Ruth represents a "transitional stage between redemption-marriage
as an affair of the clan and levirate-marriage as an affair of the
20 These divisions reflect a Western tendency to catalogue and fragment. The Hebrew
go'el probably perceived no such distinctions.
21"Cultural gyroscope" is Luzbetak's phrase, op. cit., p. 221.
22 Cf. above, p. 3.
23 H. H. Rowley, "The Marriage of Ruth," in The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays
(London: Lutterworth Press, 1952), pp. 161-186.
24 Any further discussion of this point is outside the bounds of this inquiry, except to
note that Brichto, op. cit., p. 50, draws a sharp distinction between the Jewish and pagan
models of afterlife: a) Pagan belief (incl. ancestor worship) was magical, mechanical,
amoral; b) Hebrew belief was based entirely upon the individual's moral relationship'
25 Cf. Rowley, op. cit., p. 170ff., for all pertinent information, explanations, and
bibliographical data concerning these many diverse points of view.
32 Restoration Quarterly
family," as M. Burrows suggests.26 Broader perspectives are called
for--"wider duties," to use Rowley's terminology.
Naomi's role in the story of Ruth has perhaps been misunderstood
or underplayed. After all, it was Naomi who first encouraged Orpah
and Ruth to find husbands of their own, houses of their own a
people of their own, and gods of their own (Ruth 1:8-15). In other
words, the Israelite widow wanted her non-Israelite daughters-in-law to
find some semblance of normality and well-being again. It was Naomi
who mourned the true depth of her calamity by stating to the women:
"I went away full and the Lord has brought me back empty"; i.e., the
bayith and the sem of Elimelech were in danger of being wiped out in
Israel. The depth of this disgrace must have been communicated to
Ruth, for Boaz quickly recognized that Ruth was a woman of worth
(3:10, 11) and was delighted that she had come to him as her go'el for
The writer points out that Boaz was Naomi's kinsman (2:1), a fact
Naomi joyfully proclaims to Ruth (2:20). Boaz was their "near one"
(qarobh), the one who was able to restore their family, ravaged by
famine and death, to a state of equilibrium.27 It was Naomi who
engineered Ruth's meeting with Boaz (3:2-5), and it was Naomi whom
the women congratulated, not Ruth, because the Lord had provided
her with a go'el. Some of the other elements necessary for social
equilibrium are mentioned also: sem (4:14); restoration of the clan's
nephes (4:15); a male heir has been born to Naomi (4:17). Indeed, one
of the main themes of the book is God's kindness to the living as well
as the dead by mercifully restoring Elimelech's family to a state of
equilibrium, a theme which is all the more dramatized when one
realizes in genealogical perspective who Obed, Naomi's go'el, really
One of the most interesting functions of the go'el was the responsi-
bility to restore justice. Murder, manslaughter, and war are crimes
punishable by the State in western society, i.e., by an external system
of justice. Hebrew culture was much different. J. Pedersen discusses
24 M. Burrows, "The Marriage of Boaz and Ruth," Journal of Biblical Literature
59 (December 1940):445-454.
25 N. B. (as per Brichto's thesis) Naomi is grateful that Yahweh has not forgotten the
living remnants of the family as well as the dead; viz., the sem of Elimelech, extended
through Mahlon, and later extended through Obed (Ruth 4:14).
The Cultural Gyroscope 33
The law of restoration belongs to a community which is not held together by
external powers above it, but by inner forces creating the harmony.11
When that harmony is disrupted by any of these crimes, it is again the
responsibility of the go'el to see to it that equilibrium is restored. Two
examples may be cited.
Whenever possible, revenge was to be systematically carried out
against the individual who robbed the offended party of part of the
clan's nephes as stated in the Torah (Num. 35:19). Yet, because an
individual's nephew extends through his bayith, sem, and personal
possessions in Semitic cultures, there are instances in the Old Testament
where the avenger of blood (go’el haddam) not only kills the guilty
party, but also all of his family, as well as confiscating or destroying
his possession's. In.1 Kings 16:11 Zimri destroys the whole house of
Baasha, leaving him no kinsman to wreak counter-revenge. In a
similar case, Yahweh directs the camp of Israel to stone Achan with
his family and his personal possessions for disobeying his clear
command (Josh. 7:lff.). Such total vengeance is difficult for western
minds to comprehend and may underlie much of the Occidental
world's attempts to see a different God in the Old Testament from the
God revealed in the pages of the New Testament. To Hebrew minds,
however, the disruption of social equilibrium meant simply that it had
to be restored. The principle remained the same. Whereas western
societies restore justice by means of external laws imputed by the
State, ancient Israelite society restored justice by means of the divinely
appointed agent of restoration (Lev. 25:25ff.).29
Ancient Near Eastern Parallels
Although there are no cognate forms for ga'al in the contemporary
Near Eastern texts which have been discovered so far,30 the redemption
of property and persons is fairly commonplace.
In the Laws of Eshnunna, for example, paragraph 39 states:
28 Pedersen, op. cit., p. .392;
29 Cf. T. B. Kiddushin 20b. In commenting on Lev. 25:47, 48 R. Ishmael suggested
that even though the human tendency is to reject an idolater who happens to be an
Israelite, maybe Yahweh commanded his redemption so that he would not be absorbed
by the heathens.
30 However, cf. H.B. Huffmon, Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts (Baltimore:
John Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 179, for an exception found in the Amorite personal name
34 Restoration Quarterly
If a man is hard up and sells his house, the owner of the house shall (be entitled to)
redeem (it) whenever the purchaser (re)sells it.)39
This law is similar to that of Leviticus 25, except for the conditional
character of this law compared with the unconditional right in Leviticus
for the original owner to redeem what was originally "given" to him
by Yahweh. Khafajah text 8231 places another qualification on the
reselling of property. Under this legal code one cannot "redeem the
field with money belonging to another person."33 Again, the Levitical
law makes no such demand.
A closer parallel can be found in the Laws of Hammurabi,34 where
the sale of patrimonial land is banned altogether. Greenberg comments
that this custom might have been based on a feudalistic economy in
which all land belonged to the king and was held only as a grant or fief
by his subjects: "They had possession, but not ownership of the
property entrusted to them."35 In contrast, Israel's God claimed to
own the land himself (Lev. 25:23) and was unwilling for Israel to set
up a monarchy like their Near Eastern neighbors (1 Sam. 8:10-18).
Several other examples of property redemption could be cited, but
perhaps Stamm's summary can suffice:
The ge'ullah, as a right or duty to buy back lost family property or slaves, was not
limited to Israel. The Babylonian law knows this with regard to land which was
sold, as well as persons. In Babylonia the verb "paturu"-"to release, redeem,"
takes the place of the Hebrew ga'al.36
Yahweh never unconditionally gave the land of Canaan, modern-day
Palestine, to Israel. He merely allowed them to take possession of it,
to be stewards of it as strangers and sojourners in it with himself,
according to the covenant agreement they ratified through Moses.
There is a world of difference, practically speaking, between giving
something to someone and temporarily loaning it, until the time for
the giving of a much greater gift.37
31 J. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1969), p. 163.
32 R. Harris, "The Archive of the Sin Temple in Khafajah," Journal of Cuneiform
Studies 9 (1955): 96,97.
33 Ibid., p. 97.
34 Pritchard, op. cit., p. 163.
35 Encyclopedia Judaica, S.v. "Sabbatical Year and Jubilee," p. 577.
"Theologisches Handworterbuch des Alten Testament, S.v. "ga'al," by J. Stamm,
cited in D. Leggett, The Levirate and Go'el Institutions in the Old Testament (Cherry
Hill, N.J.: Mack Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 63-65.
37 Heb. 12: 18-24.
The Cultural Gyroscope 35
It is hoped that this fresh treatment of the word ga'el as well as the
institution for which it stands can clear away some of the misconceptions
orbiting around it and allow it to be seen in a clearer light: a referent
for the divinely appointed agent of restoration; a cultural gyroscope
in an amphictyonic confederacy built on the cornerstone of a firm
relationship with Yahweh and extending through the family, tribe, and
providing solidarity, security, and justice for Israel.
It is further hoped that the anthropological concept of equilibrium
can serve to provide an investigative framework broad enough in
perspective to allow the institution to be seen more distinctly in its
various spiritual, social, and economic dimensions. In this way others
continue their investigations within a more scientifically accurate
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