8. Exodus Memorials: Consecration/Redemption of Firstborn, Eating Unleavened Bread (13:1-16)
At first glance it might seem that Exod 13:1-16 mixes together two unrelated topics: a set of new rules about consecrating and redeeming the firstborn of humans and animals and a somewhat expanded restatement of the rules for keeping the annual spring Feast of Unleavened Bread. In fact, these two topics were closely related. First, both of them had special applicability to the spring of the year. That was when the Israelites left Egypt in haste, so, as already noted repeatedly in chap. 12, it was the necessary and proper time for the Unleavened Bread memorial week of observance. What may be less obvious to the average modern reader, however, is that springtime was also the time when most domesticated animals gave birth, particularly the time of lambing and goat kidding, the primary interests of the Israelites, who were small cattle farmers par excellence. Second, a special emphasis of Israelite religious learning focused on the transmittal of information from father to firstborn and most commonly from father to firstborn son. It was assumed that if fathers would faithfully pass on to their firstborn the covenant commitments revealed through Moses, others in the family, both later-born sons and all daughters, would also be the beneficiaries. Part of this was simply cultural: fathers and their firstborn children carried special responsibilities for family leadership, which if exercised faithfully would include being sure the rest of the family members were both well informed and warmly encouraged and supported in keeping the terms of the covenant. The firstborn child occupied a position of honor at the dinner table and played a major role in the Passover meal. Third, both the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the consecration/redemption observance strongly relate to settling into the promised land, which Moses and the Israelites still assumed would be taking place within a matter of months. Those hearing these words were thinking about the very next spring, when instead of being on the run in the wilderness they would be handling the opportunities and responsibilities of springtime in a family-based farming society in the land of Abraham's sojourn. What links all the material of 13:1-16 together especially is this sense of preparation for inhabiting the land—and not forgetting once there to keep covenant with Yahweh, who had made it possible for his people to have all that they would enjoy in their new land.
(1) Introductory Statement of the Consecration/Redemption Regulation (13:1-2)
1The Lord said to Moses, 2"Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal."
13:1-2 The Hebrew of the command here is technically gender neutral (lit., "Consecrate to me every firstborn. That which opens the womb among the Israelites, both human and animal, is mine"). The nouns for "firstborn" (bĕkôr) and "which opens" (peṭer) and the pronoun "that" (hûʾ) are all masculine, but their gender may be simply unavoidable "grammatical" gender rather than a wording intended to exclude female firstborn. In practice, consecration/dedication of animal firstborn males was the norm, as v. 12 makes explicit, but for humans the wording seems more inclusive, or at least ambiguous, throughout this pericope. Laws such as this one are sometimes cited as precedent for the modern practice in many baptistic churches of "dedicating" babies, but in fact the ancient practice was limited to firstborn children and required the payment of a redemption price, factors conveniently ignored in the modern instance. "Consecrate to me every firstborn" means "give over to me as holy [qaddēš] every firstborn." God here and elsewhere claims ownership of the firstborn of humans and animals, which their families were required to present to him as his property. Did he actually want to keep them? No, except in the rarest of instances (as in, e.g., the case of Samuel; 1 Sam 1:11). Thus the provision in vv. 13, 15 for redeeming the firstborn back into the family by means of a buy-back payment. His desire was that the Israelites recognize his right to ownership of the first and best, in whatever came to them in spoils of war, or harvests, or offspring. It is necessary and beneficial that human beings recognize that God is superior to them, and the requirement of a ritual that reminded every Israelite of this by insisting on "receiving" their firstborn from them helped create the spiritual attitude of submission so important for salvation, personal discipline, and blessing.
(2) The Importance of Keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread Annually in the Promised Land (13:3-10)
3Then Moses said to the people, "Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast. 4Today, in the month of Abib, you are leaving. 5When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites—the land he swore to your forefathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey—you are to observe this ceremony in this month: 6For seven days eat bread made without yeast and on the seventh day hold a festival to the Lord. 7Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen any where within your borders. 8On that day tell your son, 'I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt' 9This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the Lord is to be on your lips. For the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand. 10You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year.
13:3 The verse reads more accurately: "So Moses said to the people, 'Remember this day when you came out of Egypt, out of the house/place of slavery, for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of here. Yeast may not be eaten.'" Especially significant is Moses' statement "brought you ought of here" since it reminds the reader that Moses was speaking these words to people who were still in Egypt proper and were only beginning to take the roads that would lead them out of it to freedom. Calling Egypt the house/place of slavery (bēt ʿăbādîm) has the effect of suggesting that the entire nation of Israel served the entire nation of Egypt just as an individual slave would serve in an individual house/place or family. They had been the abused servants of a greater power; now they were being freed to be the happy servants of the Greatest Power. The various parts of this verse do not contain new concepts but the verse is somewhat unique in linking them together as it does.
13:4-5 Just as modern Westerners learn as little children that Christmas comes only in the month of December, ancient Israelites learned early on, from this point in history forward, that the Feast of Unleavened Bread comes only in Abib. Abib is a collective noun that means "ears of grain," more loosely, "spring." It is the same month (March-April) that is later in the Old Testament called "Nisan," a term borrowed from Akkadian under Babylonian influence. The Israelites were going to a foreign land from a foreign land—they were citizens of neither from the point of view of the Egyptians and Canaanite groups. Accordingly, they were not headed for a place that encouraged what was new to them as well: the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread; such a feast was completely unheard of in Canaan. The five people groups named here are representative of the rest (notably Perizzites and Gergashites). God had promised their land to the Israelites, first on oath to Abraham (Gen 12:7), and then by renewal of that oath to his son (Gen 17:21,) and grandson (Gen 28:13,) and their descendants (Gen 15:16, 18). On the spiritual rather than literal impact of the term "flowing with milk and honey" see comments on 3:8, 17.
13:6-7 These verses restate and condense (with somewhat varied wording to help reinforce the concepts in the listener/reader's mind) what 12:14-20 have already covered: the Feast of unleavened bread must be a weeklong festival, culminating with a special celebration on the closing day, and requiring absence of yeast in all locations (13:7, "anywhere within your borders"; 12:20, "wherever you live").
13:8-10 Because Moses spoke these words to those who actually did participate personally in the exodus, he told them to make first-person statements such as "I do this" and "for me when I came out of Egypt." However, this does not exhaust the reason for the first person language. Another factor is also at play: Moses had in mind the pan-historical solidarity of the Israelite people. All generations of fathers are to say to their children these words, also in the first person, because all generations are part of the continuum that experienced the exodus. The community of faith at every age is supposed to identify fully with the original exodus generation, just as one gets "caught up" in a powerful story in book or movie form, or, more significantly, just as one identifies with various kinds of values and commitments learned from beloved grandparents and parents. A parade example of this sort of pan-generational teaching is found in Deut 4:3-40, in which Moses addressed his audience (who were in fact the generation that grew up in the wilderness) as if they had grown up in Egypt, as if they had also lived for many years already in the promised land (they weren't there yet), and, as well, as if they were about to be driven from it into Exile many centuries later, and then were the actual exile generation who had a chance to come back from that exile to new and greater blessings—in other words, as if one generation lived a thousand years. In God's economy each generation of his people is expected to cultivate an identification with all the experiences of all the generations, and all the generations must identify with the events that have happened or will happen to any generation.
The exodus story is to be repeated on that day, presumably the seventh, special day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, regardless of how many other times in the year it may also be told. That way, at least annually, there will be a special focus on the Exodus for a week—at the beginning via the Passover rite and at the end with the seventh day's special testimonial. What was the point? Not a desire merely that an important memory be preserved but a desire that a life-saving covenant be kept! Verse 9 tells God's people that they are to take very seriously the responsibilities of the Feast of Unleavened Bread because its purpose is covenant renewal ("that the law of the Lord is to be on your lips"). For something to be on your lips is for it to be regularly thought of and talked about, something you know well and pay attention to (Cf. 23:13; Deut 23:23; Ps 50:16). In an age when most people were not literate and those who were had very little writing material because it was so expensive, the ritual of that special spring week served in the same way that reminder messages on one's hand or forehead would serve. It triggered remembrance of the covenant law by which the Israelites were kept in proper relationship with God and for which he had brought them out of Egypt in the first place (to serve him, not just to go to a nicer place to live). Keeping his covenant was the end goal because thereby Israel kept itself within God's salvation; keeping the feast was a means of being sure to be reminded to keep the covenant. God is ever an evangelist, who always seeks the rescue of his people from the penalty of sin and always seeks to keep them aware of their need to be rightly—dependently—related to him. Thus the feast must always be kept at the same time annually, never postponed, never rescheduled, never canceled, never abandoned ("you must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year," v. 10).
(3) Basic Rules for Consecration/Redemption of Firstborn (13:11-13)
11"After the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, 12you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord. 13Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.
13:11-13 As is the case with the entire Pentateuch, this section comes from a time before the Israelites had entered the promised land and therefore anticipates what would happen once the land was settled. Accordingly, it begins with a temporal adverbial clause ("after the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you") that by implication makes the time of the wilderness wanderings an exception. Presumably the regular redemption of firstborn humans and animals did not occur with the same regularity during the wilderness period as it did later. Verse 11 's allusion to God's promise of the land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ("as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers") echoes v. 4's, further reinforcing the idea that these regulations were for the promised land, not the wilderness.
"The first offspring of every womb" belongs to God, and in cattle it was specifically the "firstborn males" that were his. As we have already noted, God did not want to keep (and thus keep away from his people's homes and families) either the firstborn human babies or many of the firstborn animal babies. The criterion was that the firstborn males of normally edible animals (goat kids, lambs, oxen,—whatever was considered a proper food animal) were given to God as offerings, whereas the firstborn of humans and the firstborn of male animals used for work but not for eating (such as the donkey mentioned in v. 13) were redeemed by payment of a substitute. Thus the practical meaning of "give over to the Lord" in v. 12 is "bring to the tabernacle as a sacrifice."
In the case of a donkey, a nonfirstborn lamb was an appropriate substitute (since all firstborn lambs must be given to God and none held back to serve as redemption substitutes). For children [NIV "sons," v. 13] the redemption price was five sanctuary shekels, just as it was for an unclean animal (a male work animal that one wanted to keep). The full explanation of the redemption pricing is found in Num 18:15-17. The ruling in v. 13 about breaking the neck of an unredeemed donkey (used here as an example, not as the only instance of its type) may seem odd at first glance, but it was entirely within the principles of the redemption system. A firstborn animal could not simply be kept from God for one's own use—either for working or for eating. It belonged to God, so if it was not redeemed, it must be destroyed. God did not want people to waste the time of the priests and Levites at the central sanctuary by having people bring unneeded animals to them for destruction. The people could destroy the animals themselves. But by no means could anyone say, "Since God doesn't need this, I'll keep it and use it for myself." God decided what to use and what to destroy of what belonged to him. This regulation clarifies the process in the case of animals of no use to the sanctuary.
The ultimate purpose of this instruction was to prepare the Israelites for the death of Christ on their behalf. Though most generations of Israelites could anticipate this all-important event only vaguely, they certainly could grasp the basic concepts involved: if a life is to be restored, it must be bought back (redeemed) by a payment; and that payment is often the substitutionary death of something for something else. Paul's assertion in 1 Cor 6:20 and 7:23, "You were bought at a price," follows the logic of the Old Testament redemption system as it foreshadows the redemption price paid by Christ with his own blood.
(4) The Connection of Consecration/Redemption of Firstborn to the Exodus (13:14-16)
14"In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.' 16And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand."
13:14-16 Children desire to learn the reasons for the practices they grow up observing. It was therefore to be expected that in their natural inquisitiveness Israelite children would ask their parents the meaning of the consecration/redemption of the firstborn. The parents were expected in replying to their children to link the practice to the exodus, which was triggered by the death of the Egyptian firstborn and the sparing of the Israelite firstborn. In effect the child was to be told, "Our identity is that of God's chosen people who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and rescued from the death of the firstborn by faith in Yahweh. We keep showing that faith by dedicating all firstborn children and all firstborn male livestock to God. But we buy back the children, and the livestock that are inappropriate for God's offerings because God is generous enough to allow us to do that. He still gets an offering, but it is a substitute offering for what he wants us to keep. When we do all this, we are doing something that reminds us of his powerful deliverance from Egypt."
Verse 14 repeats some of what vv. 3 and 9 have already said, and v. 16 restates much of what v. 9 contains. The slight differences (e.g., "a symbol [inscriptions] on your forehead" in v. 16 as opposed to "reminder on your forehead" in v. 9) are, again, the sort of wording variations that help drive concepts permanently into one's memory. Verse 15 provides the greatest amount of new material in the passage, even though none of it is new to the overall Exodus story. The Hebrew of vv. 14-16 contains nothing that definitively limits consecration/redemption of the firstborn to male children; the NIV translation is overly restrictive in using "first male offspring" and "firstborn sons" (better: "That is why I sacrifice to the Lord all the firstborn of the womb [i.e., animals] that are males and all the firstborn of my children I redeem").
—New American Commentary