The Firstborn

19 “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to the Lord your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you and your household, before the Lord your God year by year at the place that the Lord will choose. 21 But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God. 22 You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer. 23 Only you shall not eat its blood; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. – Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ESV

Moses returns to a subject that he had brought up earlier: The offering of the firstborn.

“There you will bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, your offerings to fulfill a vow, your voluntary offerings, and your offerings of the firstborn animals of your herds and flocks.” – Deuteronomy 12:6 NLT

“But you may not eat your offerings in your hometown—neither the tithe of your grain and new wine and olive oil, nor the firstborn of your flocks and herds, nor any offering to fulfill a vow, nor your voluntary offerings, nor your sacred offerings.” – Deuteronomy 12:17 NLT

“Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 14:23 NLT

But what is the offering of the firstborn and why was it so important? To understand its significance we have to look back to the book of Exodus and the final plague that God brought upon the people of Egypt.

And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died. – Exodus 12:29-30 NLT

This devastating event took place in conjunction with the establishment of the Passover. God had warned the people of Israel that He was bringing judgment upon the land of Egypt and He had mercifully provided the people of Israel with a means of avoiding His wrath. When His judgment came, it would be non-discriminatory, bringing death to the firstborn of every family living in the land of Egypt, whether Egyptian or Jew. Even the animals belonging to the Egyptians and Jews would suffer under God’s judgment…unless.

The truth was that all deserved God’s judgment. Even the Israelites had long ago abandoned their worship of Yahweh for the false gods of Egypt, and they stood fully condemned before God. But He provided them with a means of escaping His judgment – if they would trust His word and obey His command.

“Announce to the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each family must choose a lamb or a young goat for a sacrifice, one animal for each household. If a family is too small to eat a whole animal, let them share with another family in the neighborhood. Divide the animal according to the size of each family and how much they can eat. The animal you select must be a one-year-old male, either a sheep or a goat, with no defects.

 “Take special care of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. Then the whole assembly of the community of Israel must slaughter their lamb or young goat at twilight. They are to take some of the blood and smear it on the sides and top of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the animal. That same night they must roast the meat over a fire and eat it along with bitter salad greens and bread made without yeast. Do not eat any of the meat raw or boiled in water. The whole animal—including the head, legs, and internal organs—must be roasted over a fire. Do not leave any of it until the next morning. Burn whatever is not eaten before morning.” – Exodus 12:3-10 NLT

As long as the Israelites did exactly as God had commanded them to do, the firstborn of their families and flocks would be spared. The blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the doorframes of their homes, would cause the Death Angel to “pass over” them. They would be spared the judgment of God.

And the Israelites, having followed God’s instructions, were preserved by God, while the Egyptians suffered tremendous loss of life. And devastated by the loss of his own son, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israelites to leave. And God commanded the people of Israel:

“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.”  – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared from death the firstborn among the Israelites and, therefore, considered them as belonging to Him. But later on, God would set apart the tribe of Levi as the surrogates or stand-ins for the rest of the firstborn of Israel.

“Look, I have chosen the Levites from among the Israelites to serve as substitutes for all the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me, for all the firstborn males are mine. On the day I struck down all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both of people and of animals. They are mine; I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:12-13 NLT

The tribe of Levi would serve in the place of all the firstborn of Israel, and from within the Levites would come the priests who served in God’s tabernacle. They would dedicate their lives to the service of the people of God.

But the firstborn of the animals would always belong to God and He required that the people of Israel dedicate them to Him through sacrifice. It was to be an act of obedience and gratitude to God for His having spared them during that fateful night when the Death Angel passed over all the homes in Egypt. As long as the firstborn lamb or bull was alive, they were to be preserved for God. The Israelites were not allowed to shear their wool for clothing. They could not use a firstborn bull to pull a plow. These animals were to be seen as the permanent possessions of God.

And all of this foreshadows another firstborn who would also be dedicated to God and destined for sacrifice. Jesus Christ is described by the apostle Paul as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV).

Elsewhere Paul writes that “Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT). Jesus was the sinless lamb of God, who offered His life as a substitute for sinful mankind. He stood in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. And when we place our faith in Him, the wrath of God passes over us. His blood, sprinkled on the doorframes of our hearts, serves as a payment for our sin debt, satisfying the just and righteous wrath of God and allowing us to enjoy new life, rather than death.

And as a result of our faith in Christ, we become the firstborn, dedicated to God for His service. Paul makes this point perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans.

For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. – Romans 8:29 NLT

We belong to Him. We are His holy possession and our lives are to be dedicated to His use.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

The Levites became the firstborn of God, serving in the place of all the other Israelites whom God had deemed as His own. They sacrificed their lives in service to God on behalf of all the people of God. And the firstborn bulls, sheep, and goats were dedicated to God, reserved for His use and destined to give their lives in worship of Him.

But today, those of us who are in Christ, enjoy a relationship with God due to the substitutionary death of the firstborn, the sinless Lamb of God. And now, we find ourselves living as the Levites did, set apart by God for His glory. And Peter would have us remember that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV). We belong to Him. Our lives are to be set apart unto Him. We are not our own, but we belong to God, having been bought by Him at a very high price: The death of His own sinless Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

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Bless, As You Have Been Blessed

12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. 18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do. – Deuteronomy 15:12-18 ESV

The people of God were supposed to stand out from all the rest of the nations living in and around the land of Canaan. Their unique status as God’s chosen people placed upon them an obligation to live according to His will for them and that will was all-inclusive, covering every aspect of their lives. God made no allowance for compartmentalization. In other words, He left no area of daily life untouched or outside the pervue of His divine decrees. Everything about them was to reflect their unparalleled relationship with Him. From God’s perspective they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV) and “a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV).

In this passage, we see Moses dealing with a topic that causes some unease and uncertainty for our modern and more enlightened sensibilities. He addresses the issue of slavery. But it’s important that we grasp the cultural context and understand the true nature of the kind of slavery being discussed. It’s easy for us to read this text and use our contemporary understandings of slavery to define what Moses is talking about. We conjure up images of slave ships and innocent people being ripped from their homes and forced into servitude and bondage against their wills. And while that form of slavery was widespread during the time in which the book of Deuteronomy was written, Moses is dealing with something different altogether.

As was seen in the previous verses, God had made provision for the needy among the Israelites. He had given the nation a series of commands designed to provide ongiong care for those who were suffering from any form of physical or financial need. And Moses had told them, “there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV).

One of the primary means by which a destitute individual could seek relief was by willingly offering themselves as a servant to one of their fellow Hebrews. It was a matter of economics and a question of survival. The individual in need took the initiative, offering their services in exchange for food and shelter. That’s how Moses describes it:

“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant…” – Deuteronomy 15:12 NLT

This was not a case of forced slavery, but voluntary servitude. This system provided an opportunity for the financially prosperous to help their less-fortunate brothers and sisters. But, like all well-intentioned welfare programs, this one could easily be abused. So, God set up conditions and parameters to guide the Israelites in their practice of this essential community assistance program. Moses informed the people that this servant/master relationship was to be governed by the sabbatical year. After six years of continual service, the one who had sold themselves into slavery was to be released.

“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free.” – Deuteronomy 15:12 NLT

The covenant or agreement made between the two parties was absolved by the sabbatical year. For six years they had enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby the destitute individual was able to live in relative comfort while their benefactor enjoyed the benefit of relatively low-cost labor. And this business-like arrangement helped to curtail the number of needy families within the Israelite community.

Even when the time of release came, the master was to bless his servant with a gift. They were not to simply cancel the contract and send their former servant out on their own. To do so would have forced the servant back into their original condition of poverty. So, to prevent that from happening, God required the master to “bless” their departing servant with a gift.

“When you release a male servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” – Deuteronomy 15:13-14 NLT

They were to bless their former servant as they had been blessed by God: graciously and generously. And Moses reminded them that they were still on the upside in this exchange because they had enjoyed six years of drastically reduced labor costs while the servant had been in their employ.

“You must not consider it a hardship when you release your servants. Remember that for six years they have given you services worth double the wages of hired workers…” – Deuteronomy 15:18 NLT

And God provided another vital condition to this master/servant relationship. If the sabbatical year arrived, the servant could voluntarily choose to remain with his master. After six years, they could determine that the arrangement they had was preferable to starting out on their own and, as a result, they could offer to extend the original agreement.

“But suppose your servant says, ‘I will not leave you,’ because he loves you and your family, and he has done well with you. In that case, take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door. After that, he will be your servant for life. And do the same for your female servants.” – Deuteronomy 15:16-17 NLT

Again, it is essential that we understand that voluntary nature of this transaction. No one is being forced into slavery. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement based on love and the well-being of both parties.

Ultimately, God was concerned about the integrity of His name. He had set apart the entire nation of Israel – including every man, woman, and child. His call was not based on economic status, gender, age, or social standing. The entire nation belonged to Him and thåe manner in which they treated one another was going to reflect on Him – either positively or negatively. So, He provided a range of regulations and rules to govern their corporate behavior. Nothing was left out. There was no secular-sacred split. God refused to turn a blind eye to any area of their lives. He expected and demanded complete dedication from His people. Their actions and attitudes mattered. And each and every Israelite was to be considered as a vital part of the family of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson