The Redeemer’s Footprint

There are a few cryptic statements about feet in the Old Testament, which, taken together, have something profound to say about the work of Jesus as Redeemer. The first is one of Job’s prophetic glimmers of hope that shone out of his trial:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
Job 19:25, ESV

There is no mistaking that he is referring to God as his Kinsman-redeemer and Deliverer. Since Job was likely contemporary with Abraham, the Torah’s prescriptions for kinsman-redeemers in Leviticus 25 probably did not yet exist—not to mention, Job isn’t even Jewish (Job 1:1). We could say that Job meant ‘redeemer’ in the broad sense (deliverer, liberator) in which it doesn’t involve land or money (see Isaiah 52:3, for example). However, Job’s parallel statement, (that his Redeemer will stand upon the earth) connects to the Semitic tradition of land redemption, because the feet appear to represent the right of the redeemer to his land.

Identified by Footprint

In December 2013, National Geographic published the first chronicle in a series on Paul Salopek, who is on a seven-year journey from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego on foot. His purpose is to follow the supposed track of human migration, from Yemen to Kamchatka, then from Alaska to Chile. (This will require two boats—one across the Gulf of Aden and one across the Bering Strait—due to past tectonic shifts.) If he succeeds in his journey, he will have walked 21,000 miles.

Paul writes about the footwear they wear in Ethiopia: millions of men, women, and children wear identical rubber sandals, cheaply produced, and usually lime green in the Afar region he is traveling.

Despite the universality of the sandal, Paul’s Ethiopian assistant stoops down in the dust and examines the various tracks zig-zagging the desert. He then affirms confidently—and correctly—that their friend had passed through and would be waiting for them later. This kind of desert tracking, which can differentiate between the gaits of people who wear identical shoes, is lost to Westerners.

The Feet of Boaz

There may actually be a distant cultural link between the Cushitic Afar tribe and the Jews of Ruth’s day: If modern Afar can identify their friend’s feet in the dust, then this may explain why sandals were exchanged during a transaction of land in the Book of Ruth.

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.
Ruth 4:7, ESV

In his Handbook on Bible Manners on Customs, James Freeman further explains this strange custom:

“It probably originated from the fact the right to tread the soil belonged to only to the owner of it, and hence the transfer of the sandal was a very appropriate representation of the transfer of property.”

There was no harm in trading sandals if they were generic, as they are in the Afar Triangle. The shoe of the former owner, combined with the gait of the buyer, creates a new footprint that would be recognized as the new land-owner. So giving a shoe to Boaz, the redeemer, meant that he could not be mistaken for an intruder: he had the house-master’s shoeprint.

John the Baptist, who was technically Jesus’ cousin, said that he was not worthy to loose Jesus’ sandal. In the vein of the familial redeemer, John could have meant that he would never be worthy to inherit any of Jesus’ family or land rights.

Stand upon the Dust

Job’s statement about his heavenly Redeemer, literally translated, says “at the last, he will stand upon the dust.” Jesus’ footprint will claim the earth: “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zech. 14:4, ESV). Not only that, but in the Jewish understanding of Redeemer, Jesus will stand on the dust as native, lord, and rightful owner—not a trespasser. He will have fully reclaimed his right to the earth.

May Jesus have the same reception when he enters our hearts, lives, and homes. May he set his footprint there as both Friend and Master.

Come then, and added to thy many crowns
Receive yet one, the crown of all the earth,
Thou who alone art worthy! it was thine
By ancient covenant ere Nature’s birth,
And thou hast made it thine by purchase since,
And overpaid its value with thy blood.
Thy saints proclaim thee king; and in their hearts
Thy title is engraven with a pen
Dipped in the fountain of eternal love… .

Come then, and added to thy many crown
Receive yet one, as radiant as the rest,
Due to thy last and most effectual work,
Thy word fulfilled, the conquest of a world.

William Cowper

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