posted on Oct, 3 2014 @ 05:01 PM
The God of Israel’s claim on the firstborn of Israel follows on directly from the events of the Passover.
The very first command which the Lord gives after Passover night is the instruction about celebrating the Passover itself, but the commandment about
the firstborn follows immediately afterwards;
“Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, belongs to me”
(Exodus ch13 v10).
The demand is explained (v15) in terms of the events which have just taken place.
The Lord has taken the lives of the firstborn among the Egyptians, both humans and animals, but left the Israelites untouched.
So in their case the lives of the firstborn are “owing” to him and claimed accordingly.
The practice might also go back to the more general premise that the Lord is the source of life and therefore the ultimate provider of the animals
Giving him the first of everything that is born would be a way of recognising that point.
In Deuteronomy, “giving to the Lord” means eating the animal in front of him, “at the place which I shall appoint”. As usual, the blood and
the fat will have been set aside and given to the altar.
They are forbidden to shear the wool from the firstborn of their herds, or to use their firstborn cattle in their work (which seems to imply that
they’re allowed to postpone the meal for some time after the birth).
Although if the accidents of birth have produced a blemished animal, they’re not expected to give it as an offering. They can eat it as casually as
they would any other animal, even a wild gazelle
(Deuteronomy ch15 vv19-23).
In the case of an unclean animal, like an ass, the animal must be “redeemed”. The Lord wants a “firstborn” offering but does not want the
animal itself. The solution is to offer a lamb instead (Exodus ch13 v13).
And what about the first-born sons?
One version of the command states bluntly “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and your sheep”
(Exodus ch22 v29).
It isn’t obvious, from this kind of language, that the eldest child is not sacrificed along with the animals, and possibly that was the primitive
The idolatrous practice of “sending children through the fire to Molech” (e.g. 2 Kings ch21 v6) might be a survival of it.
In the “sacrifice of Isaac” story, though, the demand for the sacrifice of the firstborn son is put forward only to be renounced.
The other laws make it clear that the sons, too, are to be redeemed.
In fact, according to Numbers, the firstborn sons of Israel are redeemed twice over.
There is the redemption money, “five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary”, which has to be given for each one (Numbers
But apart from that, the tribe of Levi themselves are a substitute for the sons of the rest of Israel;
“Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of the firstborn that opens the womb among the people of Israel”
(Numbers ch3 v12).
Since the Levites have been detached from the rest of the people in order to belong to God, it becomes appropriate for them to take charge, in his
name, of whatever else belongs to God.
So they can also present a claim on the other forms of “firstborn” offering;
“Everything that opens the womb of all flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours” (Numbers ch18 vv15-18).
Therefore they receive the redemption money for the redeemed sons and animals and the flesh of the sacrificed animals.
This seems to replace the (probably older) Deuteronomy law that the owner and his household will eat the remainder of the sacrifice.
Nevertheless, there remains the basic principle, that the first-born of everything belongs to the Lord.
And making this offering is a way of acknowledging that all things, ultimately, belong to the Lord.
It amounts to an admission of human dependence.
The possibility of “redemption” and substitution leads to the same conclusion that we can get out of the story of Abraham and Isaac.
If one kind of sacrifice can be replaced by another, we should learn from this that God has little interest in the exact forms of sacrifice.
He does not want or need anything specific among the kinds of sacrifice which might be offered.
What he’s looking for is the willingness to sacrifice.
And even the willingness to sacrifice is only a symbol of what God really wants from us.
Namely, the acceptance of our dependence upon him, and the full offering of ourselves.