The Word Made Fresh
1The LORD said to Moses, 2“Dedicate every firstborn male to me – human and animal alike, they are mine.”
3Moses told the people, “Remember this as the day you came out of your slavery in Egypt. The LORD’s strong hand rescued you. Do not eat bread with yeast on this day. 4You are leaving on this day in the month of Abib. 5When the LORD leads you into the land the LORD promised to give your ancestors, a land of plentiful food and resources, the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites, remember to keep this holy day in this month. 6For seven days eat only bread made without yeast. On the seventh day organize a gathering to celebrate the LORD. 7Remember: only unleavened bread for seven days. Let no bread baked with yeast be found in your hands, and let no yeast be seen anywhere in your land. 8Tell your children it is because of what the LORD did for you when you escaped Egypt. 9Make a sign on your hand and on your forehead and let the LORD’s instructions come from your mouth, because the LORD brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand. 10This is an observance you will keep every year at the same time.
11Now, when the LORD has brought you into the possession of Canaan as he promised your ancestors, 12dedicate every firstborn among you, human and animal. 13However, every firstborn donkey you must buy back with sheep – either that or break the donkey’s neck.
“Every firstborn male child you must buy back. 14Then, in the future, when your son asks you what it means, tell him, ‘The LORD rescued us from slavery in Egypt with a powerful hand. 15When Pharaoh was stubborn and refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn children in Egypt, animal and human. That is why I sacrifice every male animal born first to its mother; but my firstborn son I buy back from God. 16That is what the sign I made on my hand and forehead means; the LORD brought you out of Egypt.”
17When Pharaoh let the people go the LORD did not lead them by the route that would go to the Philistines even though that would have been closer, because the LORD thought if the people were threatened with war they might change their minds and go back to Egypt. 18So God led them by the longer route that took them toward the Red Sea even though the Israelites left Egypt prepared to do battle if necesary.
19Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Joseph had made the Israelites promise that when God rescued them, they would take his bones with them.
20They left Succoth and camped at Etham at the edge of the wilderness. 21The LORD led them with a cloud bank going ahead of them during the day, and with a fiery glow at night so they could see to travel day and night. 22The cloud bank and the fiery glow stayed in front of the people to lead them.
1-2: Moses is told that the Israelites must consecrate their firstborn, children and animals, to the LORD.
3-10: Moses addresses the people at Succoth. He reminds them that no unleavened bread is to be eaten, “because the LORD brought you out from there by strength of hand.” Indeed, they are not even to have any leaven in their possession during that week. Leaven, or yeast, makes the dough rise up as it is cooked. I wonder if the reason unleavened bread was emphasized was to remind them that without the LORD they could not have risen up into freedom. Moses says they are to keep this observance of unleavened bread for seven days (to signify the renewal of creation?) every year during the month of Abib. They are to tell it to their children. It will be a sign on their hands and on their foreheads – a reference to instructions that will be given later regarding the use of phylacteries, small boxes that were to be strapped to the forehead and hand, containing a copy of the Ten Commandments (see Deut. 11:8).
11-16: We return now to an explanation of the consecration of the firstborn mentioned in verse 2. Every firstborn male animal in the flock or herd is to be sacrificed to the LORD. Donkeys, being “unclean,” (which isn’t explained until later) are not to be sacrificed but redeemed with a sheep. If not, its neck must be broken. The firstborn belongs to God and cannot be used for human labor or food. When children ask why, they are to be told the story of how God brought them out of Egypt by killing the Egyptians’ firstborn. As for firstborn sons in Israel, they are to be redeemed, although here the price of redemption is not specified. But, hey, we’re just getting started.
It is an understatement to say that the exodus from Egypt is the defining moment of Jewish history.
17-22: An explanation is offered for why, when they left Egypt to go to Canaan, they did not go straight up the coast. Perhaps the reason was that the coastlands were Philistine territory, and they would have faced opposition almost immediately, so God led them through the wilderness by way of the Red Sea, (which should be translated the Sea of Reeds, one of the tidal lakes in that region just above the upper arm of the Red Sea.) Nevertheless, the people were prepared to fight. (By the way, Moses carried the bones of Joseph with him, as Joseph had requested – see Genesis 50:25.) They moved their encampment from Succoth to Etham on the verge of leaving Egyptian territory. The LORD went ahead of them, we are told, in the appearance of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. This has given rise to incredible feats of imagination as to the nature of the pillar. One explanation is that ‘way off in the distance in the Sinai Peninsula there was a volcanic eruption in progress, towards which they moved. A bit far-fetched, I think, but possible.
Although the specific religious practices described here have no bearing on us Christians today, we can still appreciate the effectiveness of regular religious activities such as “sacrificing” a portion of our income, for example.