There are various situations in which a disadvantaged person could require restoration through a kinsman-redeemer. A poor man might have been forced to sell his land to an outsider in order to survive. A poor person could become so desperate that he would voluntarily become a slave. A woman could lose her husband through death, leaving her helpless and her husband's heritage at risk.
The Old Testament law provided the solutions for these situations. As related to the land, a kinsman-redeemer had the opportunity to buy back his relative's land from the new owner, thereby keeping the land in the family (Leviticus 25:25). In situations of servitude, the kinsman-redeemer was able to buy back the years remaining on his relative's arrangement (Leviticus 25:44-49). When a man's brother died, leaving the widow childless, the kinsman-redeemer was expected to marry the widow and provide an heir (Deuteronomy 25:5).
Since people are imperfect, those noble expectations were not always met. One family's sad story reveals failure in fulfilling the kinsman-redeemer's role. The story involves Abraham's great-grandson; Er was the oldest son of Judah. Er married Tamar, but sadly, Er "was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life" (Genesis 38:7). Although the laws described in the paragraph above had not yet been given, the passage implies a clear expectation and recognition of what should have happened in this situation.
Judah instructed his second son, Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her; and raise up offspring for your brother" (38:8). Onan made some pretext of complying, but when the time came, he deliberately refused to father a child with Tamar. "What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also" (38:10). Onan failed to be the kinsman-redeemer.
Judah made a pretense of rectifying the situation. He told Tamar to remain in her father's house until Judah's third son, Shelah, was old enough to marry her. Judah, however, was afraid that Shelah would die as well. Judah apparently never intended to fulfill his promise. "Considerable time" passed (38:12). "Shelah had grown up," and Tamar remained a childless widow (38:14). Judah failed to perform what was right, meaning that Shelah also failed to become the kinsman-redeemer.
In time Judah's wife died, leaving him a widower. Tamar, realizing she had been misled and neglected, took matters into her own hands. She learned that her father-in-law Judah would soon be passing nearby. She dressed as a prostitute, placed herself where Judah would see her, seduced him, and became pregnant by him (38:14-18). This created a complicated situation of seeming success, but through wholly unlawful and unsatisfactory means. Tamar achieved the goal of carrying on the family line by having one of her dead husband's kinsman become the father of her child. However, the child was the result of an adulterous and incestuous encounter; furthermore, it was not a willing fulfillment of duty. Because success was achieved unlawfully and unwillingly, the role of the kinsman-redeemer failed for the third time.
Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah (38:27-30). If the story ended there, it would remain one of the saddest, most tragic, and most sordid stories contained in the Bible. It was a triple failure in what the passage reveals was a God-ordained expectation that a family member would redeem Tamar's situation.
The story of Perez picks up again in the book of Ruth. The story of Ruth is the best-known example of a successful kinsman-redeemer. Ruth's situation was similar to that of Tamar. Ruth's husband died; in the same general time frame, her father-in-law and brother-in-law also died. Three women were left widows: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. The kinsman-redeemer concept (in terms of marriage) did not apply to Naomi or Orpah. Naomi was an older widow with adult sons. Orpah chose to remain with her own people. Ruth, who returned to the land of Judah with her mother-in-law, did qualify for the aid of a kinsman-redeemer.
Ruth's story is well-known. Ruth was providentially led to work in the fields of Boaz, a near kinsman. When the circumstances were revealed, Boaz was willing to perform the role of kinsman-redeemer. He was willing not only to buy the lands belonging to Elimelech, Chilion, and Mahlon, but he was also willing to marry the widow Ruth in order to carry on the family line (Ruth 4:9-10). He did what another kinsman could not or would not do (Ruth 4:6), and through his actions, Boaz provided a wonderful success story of the kinsman-redeemer.
Tucked into the end of this success story is the redemption of the earlier failure. Everyone knows that Ruth became the mother to Obed, who was father to Jesse, who was father to David. Ruth's redemption was amazing, with the end result that she became the great-grandmother of King David.
In addition to sharing Ruth's and Boaz's descendants, the Bible also reveals Boaz's ancestors. Boaz was the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez. The genealogy revealed in the final verses of Ruth does not extend further back; it does not mention Judah, Jacob, Isaac, or Abraham. Rather, it starts with Perez, the illegitimate offspring of a thrice-failed attempt at redemption. Perez's rough heritage was redeemed. He was the ancestor named in the beginning of the line that led to the great success story of the kinsman-redeemer.
Consequently, that line continues past David until it reaches Jesus, the greatest example of the Kinsman-Redeemer. God can take the most tragic failure and can turn it into unsurpassed success. No one is beyond the reach of His grace.