Exodus 13:1-16: Setting Aside Firstborn and Time in Remembrance
The LORD said to Moses: 2 Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.
3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the LORD brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 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 ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year.
11 “When the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13 But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. 14 When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem1 on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”
It is a common religious practice to set aside that which is one’s best in the service of the deity one serves as a sign of trust, and in many ancient fertility religions there was a sense that if one does certain things to appease the god then fertility in the fields or flocks or family would be granted. The sacrificial system in Israel brings animals and they are sacrificed to the LORD, but the family would (as described in Deuteronomy, see Deuteronomy 14, 15, and 26) take part in the eating of the sacrifice as a celebration. This practice of setting aside the first born of animals that can be eaten and redeeming animals which cannot both demonstrates trust in the LORD providing future fertility for the flocks and herds as well as providing opportunities to bring together the family and community to celebrate the abundance of the LORD’s provision. Sacrifice for ancient Israel becomes a way in which the presence of the LORD is mediated through the tabernacle/temple and the priest and the acts of worship to the people. The setting aside of the firstborn animals also adds to the annual storytelling centered around the Passover and reinforces that the people are a people redeemed from the land of Egypt.
The redemption of the firstborn male children also serves as a reminder of the narrative of the people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It is a reminder of the oppression of Pharaoh that sought to kill the male children of the Hebrew slaves (and to represent the oppressive form of government their society was not to represent). It serves as a reminder of the final sign where the LORD breaks the hold of Pharaoh on the people by the death of the firstborns of Egypt and as a reminder of the LORD’s power. Finally, it is a reminder of their own status as redeemed people. Their identity is not based upon their power or might but upon the choice and action of their God. This identity is reinforced through the cultic action of the priests at the tabernacle or temple in their future settled identity in the promised land.
Liturgy, which is what is being discussed here, becomes a visual narrative with signs that point back to the narrative of the Exodus. In a world where people would not be able to attend worship at the temple every Sabbath the festivals and sacrifices become opportunities for the families and communities to re-narrate their constitutive story and reinforce their identity as the chosen, and redeemed, people of the LORD. They become opportunities to reflect with thanksgiving upon the LORD’s provision through the fertility of their flocks and herds and to remember the way in which the LORD acted decisively against the might of the Egyptian empire.
Exodus 13: 17-22: The Long Road to Freedom
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.1 The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. 19 And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” 20 They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
As the people of Israel begin their long walk to freedom, they begin by taking the circuitous route. The people, fresh from their lives as slaves of the Egyptians, are not an army ready for conflict and are not settled into their new identity as the chosen people of the LORD. They may go out of Egypt physically prepared for battle, marching in formations or carrying what weapons they may have. Yet, mentally they are not prepared for conflict nor are they prepared for the burden of freedom. Ultimately, even the long road to the promised land will not be enough to calm the fear of the people of Israel or to remove from their mind the desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. All journeys must begin somewhere.
Recently I was sitting with a family who was watching a loved one struggle with an unexpected illness which eventually led to their loved one’s death. As a part of their devotion one morning they read the verse eighteen which refers to God taking the people on the roundabout way and they found it speaking to their situation. They did not wish for their loved one to suffer but it took time for the family to come to the point to where they were willing to let go and they found the difficult period of waiting as a period of grace where they could come to terms with the grief they would soon experience and they made peace with the decision to follow their loved one’s stated wishes and to let him die rather than prolonging his life through intensive life support. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, discussing Maimonide’s interpretation of these verses, states, “God sometimes intervenes to change nature. We call these interventions miracles. But God never intervenes to change human nature.” Yet, in Sack’s words, “He (God) gave humanity the freedom to grow.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 99) Perhaps there are times where God grants an instantaneous change of heart but it is my experience that God often allows us to grow into that change of heart through the experiences and relationship that we live through in our lives. The LORD, the God of Israel, is a God of the journey, a God of the Exodus. The people will come to understand both who their God is and who, by extension, they are in relation to God through their experience both in their liberation but even more on their journey in the wilderness along the winding path from Egypt to Canaan and from slavery to their new identity as the people of the LORD, the God of Israel.