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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 09/16/1996
1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 "Sanctify to me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to me." 3 And Moses said to the people, "Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place. And nothing leavened shall be eaten. 4 On this day in the month of Abib, you are about to go forth. 5 And it shall be when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which he swore to your forefathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, that you shall observe this rite in this month. 6 For 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 throughout the seven days, and nothing leavened shall be seen among you . . . 8 And 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 serve as a sign to you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. 10 Therefore you shall keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year. " 11 "Now it shall come about when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as he swore to you and your fathers, and gives it to you, 12 that you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord. 13 But the first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every first born of your sons you shall redeem. 14 And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, 'What is this?' then you shall say to him, 'With a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 And it came about when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the Lord killed every first born in the land of Egypt, both the first born of man and the first born of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.' 16 so it shall serve as a sign on your hand and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt."
There is no more important concept in all the Bible than redemption. We all know that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the Law. But what exactly does this mean? This passage is not the first use of the word or the first mention of the thing The thing first appears in Genesis when God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins and they discarded the fig leaves; it appears more clearly when God provided a ram in the thicket as a substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac. The word first appears in Ex. 6:6. But though this passage is not the first mention of either the word or the thing, it is the first extended development of the theme. And therefore it deserves our close attention. Let me take you into it by trying to answer some of the obvious questions that the text raises.
Something very important was happening in Passover--not just the liberation of the people from bondage, but something basic to God's way of relating to his people not only then but throughout history. Therefore, he wanted to be sure that they did not forget either the event or its meaning. The annual feast of Passover itself was one memorial, one sacramental reminder of the basis on which Israel enjoyed her freedom and her land. But another equally important reminder was to occur throughout the year, whenever any human or animal attached to the family gave birth to a male child for the first time--literally, the male who "opens the womb." This child, in a special way, is sacred to the Lord, and hence must be sacrificed to him. It is a costly reminder of the last plague in which God's judgment fell on Egypt. The firstborn of man and beast in Egypt was killed by the Death Angel, and those of Israel would have been too if not for the sacrifice of a lamb and the dipping of its blood on the doorposts.
Why did God, in judgment against Egypt and in redemption for Israel, single out the first born for this treatment? There are a couple of reasons. As we saw earlier in this series, the first born son is the one who receives the inheritance. Israel was God's "first born," that is, the nation to whom he had promised the inheritance of his blessing, in the form of the Land, the Law, and an ongoing relationship with him. Since Egypt had refused to give God his first born, in an act of both poetic and literal justice, he took theirs. But there is another reason. The first born symbolically stands for the whole generation of children of whom he is the leader. As a living synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole), he represents, or stands in for, the whole group. Thus all of Egypt was judged in the death of their firstborn, and the whole nation of Israel was redeemed from bondage by the sparing of theirs. The feast of Firstfruits is parallel to this: the offering of the firstfruits to God sanctifies the whole harvest for the people's use, and the sacrifice of the firstborn sanctifies the whole coming generation of animals or people so that God can continue to have a relationship with them, to be their God.
Redemption then must be understood in the context of sacrifice. It literally means "buying back." The death of the sacrificial lamb symbolically "buys back" the firstborn son so that he is not included in the group devoted to destruction. This is in anticipation of the death of Christ, the true sacrificial Lamb of God, the only price sufficient to buy back the lives of human beings which were forfeit to sin.
The first born of every creature has been sanctified (v. 2), that is consecrated, set aside, devoted to the Lord. The normal method of giving him to the Lord is by sacrifice: offering him up on the altar as a burnt offering. But what happens if the animal is ceremonially unclean--like donkeys, for instance? You can't sacrifice an animal like that; they aren't eligible offerings as sacrifices. But if you are going to keep and use them, you still have to reckon with the fact that the firstborn have been set aside for the Lord. So if you want to keep the foal of a donkey, you have to sacrifice something else--a clean animal--in its place. You redeem it, that is, buy its life back, at the price of the life of a clean animal eligible for sacrifice, such as a lamb. If you don't have a lamb to spare, you still can't keep the first born donkey as if God's claims on him could just be ignored. So you are given an option. The donkey's life is forfeit, but he can't be offered up on the altar. You can either redeem him with an unblemished lamb that can be offered up, or you just break his neck. Either way, you are now free to keep subsequent foals of that mother as pack animals. The option is a gracious provision by God for the needs of an agricultural people. It allows them some flexibility while still recognizing God's claims.
No option is given for the first born of human beings. They are all to be redeemed. Why? The answer to that question may not be as obvious as it seems.
Almost all the commentators on this passage stress that the requirement of redemption for our sons is a mark of the more humanitarian concerns of the God of Israel and of his Law, compared with the false gods that surrounded them. Israel's pagan neighbors had the same understanding of the need for sacrifice of first born offspring. But unlike Israel, they made no exception for their sons--the worshippers of Moloch most notoriously. They had a hollow idol of their god made with outstretched arms. Building a fire in the base of the statue, they would heat it up red hot, and the first born son would be laid in the arms of the god to be roasted alive. So this passage is all about how the God of Israel is more enlightened and humanitarian. He loves these helpless babies and wants them redeemed. So Israel is forbidden to sacrifice them like their pagan neighbors do.
Now, there is certainly profound truth in this view; that I do not dispute. But I am forced to point out that if that is our only explanation for what is happening here, it is simply too superficial. We are driven to this conclusion by the strong parallelism between the treatment of humans and donkeys! Redemption is not a consideration for any other species except these two. I redeem my donkeys or break their necks; my sons I redeem. Yes, there is a humanitarian consideration here: I do not have the option of breaking the necks of my sons! But what is often missed is the parallel. Why must I redeem them? Not just because God loves them (though he does). No. That is the reason I do not break their necks. But first, I do not sacrifice my sons because they are not eligible for sacrifice. They are unclean. They are not acceptable offerings, not because they are better than donkeys, but because they are (morally and symbolically) like them: unclean animals. They are sinners. They cannot be sacrificed because they are not unblemished. What is true of the donkey ceremonially is true of the human being morally. This may be the most profound reflection of the doctrine of the Fall of Man in the whole Old Testament outside of Genesis itself. (Do not miss the fact that God has just called the human race a bunch of jackasses!)
Human sacrifice is not just wrong because it is cruel, but even more profoundly because it is unacceptable to a holy God. If humanitarian considerations were the only reason Israel did not practice human sacrifice, then the Canaanites would in a sense have been closer to the kingdom than they. The pagans at least understood the demands of God's holiness; they knew sacrifice was necessary. But the Israelites redeemed their sons because they knew something even more profound than that. It wasn't just because they were nicer people, less cruel. It was because for them, along with his Holiness, God had revealed his Grace. My sons I redeem. Not because they deserve it. Because they don't. This is not a cheap humanitarianism squeamish about blood; it is a costly love that reaches to the profundity of sacrifice and grace.
What an effective preparation for the coming of Christ! He is the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. He is the fulfillment of the lamb that was sacrificed for our sons here. We need no longer slay a lamb when our first born son arrives, because Christ has become the Lamb that was slain once and for all for the sins of the world. And we should also ponder what this means for us as followers of the Lamb. When we surrender our lives to God, we are not doing him a favor. He is doing us one by accepting them, and only because Christ has paid the price. But now that he has, we have the profoundly new language of Romans 12:1. We can now present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, as our reasonable service. Why? Only because they are covered with the blood of Christ. Only after Calvary can we offer living sacrifices that are holy and acceptable. In Christ--and only in Christ--we are jackasses no longer, but acceptable in the beloved. Blessed be He.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams