1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”
3 Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the Lord. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year.
11 “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” – Exodus 13:1-16 ESV
As the people of Israel prepared to make their long-awaited exit from Egypt, God reminded them that their escape from death during the tenth plague was going to come with a cost. When the death angel had passed over their homes on that fateful night, their firstborn sons had been spared. They had obeyed His command and sprinkled the blood of the unblemished lambs on the doorpost and lintels of their homes and, as a result, God redeemed the firstborn males “both of man and of beast” (Exodus 13:1 ESV). But the Egyptians experienced no such deliverance from the hand of God.
…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. – Exodus 12:29 NLT
Now, God reminded the Israelites that His sparing of their firstborns would have long-term implications.
“Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.” – Exodus 13:1 NLT
Like the newly inaugurated Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the dedication of the firstborn was to be a perpetual rite among the Israelites. Every spring, when God’s people found themselves surrounded by the signs of new life, they were to remember His deliverance of the firstborn and dedicate all those born into their homes over the last year.
Evidently, this dedication ceremony would not go into effect until the people of Israel reached the promised land and took possession of it. It was to be implemented once God fulfilled His end of the covenant commitment and had them safely ensconced in their new homeland.
“This is what you must do when the Lord fulfills the promise he swore to you and to your ancestors. When he gives you the land where the Canaanites now live, you must present all firstborn sons and firstborn male animals to the Lord, for they belong to him.” – Exodus 13:11-12 NLT
God had redeemed them. The Hebrew word for redeem is פָּדָה (pāḏâ) and it carries the idea of paying a ransom for something or someone. This redemption came with a cost – a life for a life. God had spared the lives of the firstborn, so they now belonged to Him. But the Israelites could redeem them back – for a price.
“A firstborn donkey may be bought back from the Lord by presenting a lamb or young goat in its place. But if you do not buy it back, you must break its neck. However, you must buy back every firstborn son.” – Exodus 13:13 NLT
The firstborn among their flocks and herds were no longer theirs to use at their discretion. They belonged to God. But He provided a way for the Israelites to redeem back their firstborn animals by allowing them to offer a substitute. To redeem back a donkey, the price was a lamb or young goat. An offering was required to buy back a firstborn male animal. Until this sacrifice was made, the animal was off-limits to the Israelites and unavailable for their use. And God would later reiterate His command regarding the dedication of the firstborn.
“You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” – Exodus 22:29-30 ESV
But the terms of this agreement would later change. When the people of Israel reached Mount Sinai, Moses went to the top of the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments from God. But meanwhile, down in the valley, the people had coerced Aaron to make for them an idol in the form of a golden calf. They had grown impatient waiting on Moses to return and decided to return to their worship of the false gods of Egypt.
…they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT
Aaron caved into their demands and crafted a calf out of the gold that the Egyptians had given them before they left Egypt.
When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” – Exodus 32:4 NLT
But this blatant abandonment of Yahweh would cost them dearly. When Moses returned from the mountaintop, he “saw the calf and the dancing, and he burned with anger. He threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf they had made and burned it. Then he ground it into powder, threw it into the water, and forced the people to drink it” (Exodus 32:19-20 NLT). Then Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and called for any who remained committed to Yahweh and “all the Levites gathered around him” (Exodus 32:26 NLT).
Moses ordered the men of the tribe of Levi to take their swords and join him in cleansing the camp of all those who had joined in the decadent display of debauchery and apostasy.
“Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:27-28 NLT
As a result of their efforts, the Levites were rewarded for their service and faithfulness.
“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT
God would eventually reward the Levites with the honor of serving Him as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle. Their role at Sinai earned them the right to become substitutes for all the firstborn males born to the rest of the tribes.
“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
But because there were not enough Levites to serve as substitutes for every male son among the rest of the tribes, God came up with another form of redemption.
“Take the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn sons of the people of Israel. And take the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the people of Israel. The Levites belong to me; I am the Lord. There are 273 more firstborn sons of Israel than there are Levites. To redeem these extra firstborn sons, collect five pieces of silver for each of them (each piece weighing the same as the sanctuary shekel, which equals twenty gerahs). Give the silver to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for the extra firstborn sons.” – Numbers 3:45-48 NLT
The Israelites would be required to pay five pieces of silver as a redemption price for their sons. So, even when the firstborns were no longer required to serve out their dedication to God, they were expected to pay the redemption price. Their lives belonged to God.
This dedication of the firstborn was to be an annual rite among the Hebrews. Performed alongside Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, it was intended to serve as a perpetual reminder of God’s gracious deliverance. He had provided a way of salvation so that the firstborn among the Israelites might be spared from death. And the apostle Peter would remind Christ-followers that God sent His Son as the ultimate form of redemption for rebellious mankind.
For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 NLT
God had redeemed the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. The sacrifice of the innocent lambs was a foreshadowing of the consummate sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God. He would be the ultimate ransom paid so that men might be set free from slavery to sin and death. Like the Levites who remained unstained by the sins of their brothers and were able to appease the wrath of God, so Christ became the sinless one who defeated sin and death by offering Himself as the sacrificial substitute.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.