Meditations in Exodus: 44. Redeeming the Firstborn
Ex 13:1,2 The LORD said to Moses, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.”
We come to yet another passage that may seem strange to us but which contains great significance. We will be considering verses 1 to 16 which is divided as follows:
v.1,2 Consecration instructions for the firstborn
v.3-10 Reiterating the instructions to celebrate the feast
v.11-13 Instructions to redeem the firstborn
v.14-16 Explanation for future generations
So the first and third parts: the Lord’s first instruction is to, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male.” (v.2) To consecrate means to set aside as holy. We immediately remember that we are talking about a group of people (and animals) here who were spared when the destroying angel passed over the land. It was only the firstborn males in every Egyptian home who died and these eldest sons in the Hebrew families are to be considered as special, the ‘spared ones’.
To emphasise their special-ness and act as a reminder in the future, they are to ‘redeem’ or buy back from God these first-born sons of every future generation: “After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.” (v.11-13)
The instruction is specific about place and time – when they are in Canaan in the future. The extent of the redemption is stated – to include flocks as well as sons. Failure to redeem the beast means its destruction. This law is repeated in Ex 34:20 and in Numbers the amount of the redemption money is set: “When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price set at five shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs.” (Num 18:16)
Perhaps we would do well to turn to the last part next, the explanation for this law. “In days to come, when your son asks you, `What does this mean?’ say to him, `With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” (v.14-16) The redemption act was to be part of the overall feast – Passover and Unleavened Bread, and naturally children would ask why their father was doing it and he would tell them what had happened and how God had destroyed every first-born Egyptian but spared every first-born Hebrew who were then considered to be His. To figuratively get them back from God, the father then paid each year this redemption fee as a constant reminder of what God had done and who they now were.
All of this was to be integral in the details of the Feast, hence the instructions of verses 3 to 10 coming between the instructions to consecrate and the instruction to redeem. It comes as instruction from Moses to his people to commemorate this day every year as a reminder of this deliverance (v.3,4) and they are to do it every year once they are in the Promised Land (v.5). It is to be a seven-day feast where there is to be no yeast in their bread (v.6,7) and they are to tell their children it is a reminder of what the Lord did for them (v.8). Although the Jews took this instruction literally the word ‘like’ indicates the sense or purpose of what they were doing – a constant reminder ever year (v.9,10)
The strong injunctions to remember each and every year at this same time what had happened is an acknowledgment by the Lord that human beings have a tendency to forget. The picture language in all that we have been considering declares the truth to future generations in ways that are easily explained. The focus was put on the firstborn son – to be consecrated, given over to God, and acknowledged that he belonged to God, and then redeemed so he could be bought back by the family to be an ongoing part of their family life – and focused the mind on the reality that he only lived by the mercy of God who spared him in the destruction of that night in Egypt. The fact that future generations had to do it was a declaration or reminder that they too only lived by the mercy of God, they only existed as a unique people because God had redeemed them from Egypt (Ex 6:6). That was how significant the Passover was.
Now we have already applied all this into the New Testament and the death of God’s lamb, Jesus Christ. When we ‘come to Christ’ we so often say we surrender our lives to God for Him to be our Lord as well as our Saviour (He cannot save us unless we let Him be Lord) but what we are doing there is consecrating ourselves, or giving ourselves over to God so that we belong to Him. However, there is no ‘buying us back’ from Him as the Israelites did, we are His full stop. Indeed, we are adopted into His family and because His Holy Spirit indwells us, we are one with Him, and this applies not merely to first-born sons but every person who becomes a child of God, men, women and children. For us, our reminder is not once a year but every time we celebrate ‘the Lord’s Supper’ or ‘Communion’, being reminded of the wonder that is the Son of God dying for us as God’s lamb who took away our sin. Hallelujah!