#213. Must a firstborn ass that is not redeemed be killed OR sold? (Ex 13:13, 34:22 vs Lev 27:27)


This contradiction should have been added to the previous one, #212, since it goes with it. It deals with the fate of an unredeemed firstling ass.

Reiterating the sacrificial theology of all firstborns—humans and animals—found in all of the sources of the Pentateuch, I reproduce again Exodus 13:2.

“Consecrate every firstborn for me [Yahweh]. The first birth of every womb of the children of Israel, of a human and of an animal, is mine!” (Ex 13:2)

The same pronouncement can be found in Exodus 13:11-16, 34:19-20; Leviticus 27:26-27; Numbers 3:12-13, 3:40-59, 8:16-18, 18:15-18; and Deuteronomy 15:19.

Leaving aside the offering of the firstfruits, which also must be dedicated to Yahweh, the sacrificial offering or consecration of firstborn males, humans and animals, can be broken into 3 categories:

  1. Hebrew firstborns, which instead of being consecrated to Yahweh, i.e., sacrificed as whole burnt-offerings, they are redeemed through the fact that the Levites now sacrificially stand in for them and thus become Yahweh’s (Num 3:11-13, 3:40-51, 8:14-18; see #145). When we get to the New Testament I will argue that Paul creates the same theology of sacrificial substitution vis-à-vis Jesus.
  2. Pure firstborn animals. These are the animals ritually belonging to Yahweh’s sacrifices—ox, sheep, goat (Lev 7:23, 17:3, 27:26; see #187). These animals are not redeemable; there is no redemption for these animals! That is to say, if you have a male firstborn ox, sheep, or, goat on your farm, it inherently is Yahweh’s. It is already inherently deemed consecrated and holy unto Yahweh, and as such must be offered up on the altar. Period, no exceptions. Side note: In making Jesus the pascal lamb, the author of the gospel of John is extending this sacrificial theology, as well as the broader sacrificial theology inherent in the Passover rite, onto Jesus, consecrated unto Yahweh like a lamb!
  3. Impure firstborn animals are all other animals.
    1. In the earliest sources, only the ass is mentioned as eligible for redemption and this might logically be due to its domestic role as a beast of burden. Thus, if a farmer wished to keep his firstborn male ass, then he would have to redeem it by instead substituting a lamb from his flock. Or he shall have to “break its neck” (Ex 13:13, 34:20).
    2. In the later sources, D and P, all firstborn male impure animals, thus including asses, are eligible for redemption. This may also be due to the fact that later on other animals became valuable as domestic animals. However, contradictory to the earlier sources (see #212) the ass can only now be redeemed through a purchase price set by the Aaronid priests.

This leads us to the cases of the unredeemed ass.

As we already noted above, according to the earlier sources if a farmer did not wish to redeem his firstling ass via the sacrificial substitution of a lamb, then he was to break its neck—no exceptions.

In the Priestly source of Leviticus 27, however, now the farmer had the option of selling his firstling ass if he did not wish to redeem it via the monetary price set by the Aaronid priest. Thus, in effect, there are 3 options for the ass per our later Priestly sources.

The farmer could:

  1. devote his firstling ass as a sacrifice to Yahweh, in fulfillment of the commandment that all firstborns are Yahweh’s
  2. redeem it, i.e., keep it for himself, by handing over to the priest the value of the ass, plus one fifth, as appraised by the priest himself
  3. or sell it at the valuation appraised by the priest

So in the earlier law codes, the farmer has the choice of redeeming his ass with a lamb or killing it, but in the later law codes he can choose to redeem it by “buying it,” i.e., paying for its valuation, or selling it.

I must confess, for the latter choice here, selling it, it’s unclear who is doing the selling and you keeps the money from the sale: the farmer or the priesthood? My guess would be that since the priesthood loses out on the money that the farmer would give it in order to redeem his ass, that the money for the sale of the ass goes to the priesthood. Obviously, what is different from our earlier sources as well is the emergence of a burgeoning economically profitable priesthood!

Finally, when these older Pentateuchal sources (Elohist and Yahwist) are redacted together with the later sources (Priestly and Deuteronomic), the newly created combined narrative has Yahweh commanding one thing and then literally commanding its opposite within a period of a few months! In other words, the Elohist and Yahwist sources are preserved as part of the Sinai revelation in Exodus. When the later Priestly writer sought to authenticate his laws, he too retrojected their giving into the archaic past as part of the Sinai narrative. However, according to the chronology imposed by the Priestly writer only 9 months have elapsed between the giving of the laws at Sinai—the Elohist (Ex 20-23) and the Yahwist (Ex 34)—and the giving of the sacrificial legislation penned by the Aaronid priesthood itself (the book of Leviticus). The former took place in the 3rd month of the first year after the Exodus (Ex 19:1), while the latter commandment took place sometime during the 1st month of the second year (Lev 1:1; cf. Num 1:1)—the Priestly chronology. I’m thinking of doing a separate post on this.

6 thoughts on “#213. Must a firstborn ass that is not redeemed be killed OR sold? (Ex 13:13, 34:22 vs Lev 27:27)

  1. Hi,

    Are you aware that Aaron offered Human Sacrifices on Mt Sinai?

    Its only when we compare Exodus 32; Amos 5; 1 Kings 11:1-13; Acts 7:42-43; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 64a-b, that we begin to see the reality of Human Sacrifice being part & parcel of Judaism.

    It is clear to me that Ezra edited Torah/Tanach and also added books like Job, Esther, Song of Solomon.

  2. Although I see some overlap between the two chapters, I think the fact that Numbers 18 makes no mention of the substitution for the firstborn is more than incidental. In fact, the wording indicates that the author was either unaware of such a substitution or was polemicizing against it:

    Numbers 18:6-7, 15
    6It is I who now take your brother Levites from among the Israelites; they are now yours as a gift, dedicated to Yahweh, to perform the service of the tent of meeting. 7But you and your sons with you shall diligently perform your priestly duties in all that concerns the altar and the area behind the curtain. I give your priesthood as a gift; any outsider who approaches shall be put to death…15The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to Yahweh, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem.

    It certainly sounds as if the Levites were just being allotted to the Aaronids, which is strange since chapter 8 had already made it clear that they were to serve the Aaronids. Compare the wording of 18:6 to that of 8:19, for example. No, it seems to me that there is a tension between these texts of Numbers.

    I was going to withhold comment about Numbers 3, but since you mentioned it, I’ll make my comments here. It’s a well-known problem that the census figures in Numbers 3 are incompatible with the claimed total of 603,550 Israelite men aged 20 and up (Numbers 1:46, 2:32). The latter figure is generally extrapolated to mean that the total congregation numbered from two to three million Israelites, while Numbers 3’s claim that only 22,273 firstborn non-Levite males were counted is far too low to be consistent with Numbers 1:46 and 2:32 (compare Exodus 12:37). But getting back to the subject at hand, the redemption of the firstborn, there are also problems. The numbers listed for Levites a month old and older in verses 22 (7,500), 28 (8,600), and 34 (6,200) add up to 22,300, yet the total in verse 39 is 22,000–three hundred too few! But let’s assume that the apologists are right and that there is (yet another!) copyist error–and some will point out that some versions of the LXX claim only 8,300 in verse 28. Even at that, this whole chapter seems fishy. If you look at the individual total for the sons of Levi, and for other totals in Numbers, they are nice, even numbers, which probably indicates that some rounding was done. That’s okay, except that when it came time to count the Israelite firstborn, “Moses” discovered that there were exactly 22,273 firstborn non-Levite Israelite men a month old and older, who all needed to be “redeemed,” of course by paying the priests. How convenient!

  3. Hebrew firstborns, which instead of being consecrated to Yahweh, i.e., sacrificed as whole burnt-offerings, they are redeemed through the fact that the Levites now sacrificially stand in for them and thus become Yahweh’s (Num 3:11-13, 3:40-51, 8:14-18; see #145).

    While it’s true that Numbers 3 and 8 say this, Numbers 18 seems to either contain a vestige of the older law, or the law of the firstborn was reinstated at a later time. Compare:

    Numbers 3:11-13:
    11 Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: 12I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, 13for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am Yahweh.

    Numbers 8:16-18
    16For [the Levites] are unreservedly given to me from among the Israelites; I have taken them for myself, in place of all that open the womb, the firstborn of all the Israelites. 17For all the firstborn among the Israelites are mine, both human and animal. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, 18but I have taken the Levites in place of all the firstborn among the Israelites.

    Numbers 18:15-17
    15The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to Yahweh, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. 16Their redemption price, reckoned from one month of age, you shall fix at five shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary (that is, twenty gerahs). 17But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall dash their blood on the altar, and shall turn their fat into smoke as an offering by fire for a pleasing odor to Yahweh;

    1. Hi John, thanks for the contribution as usual. I think Numbers 18 has to be understood contextually. The whole chapter, like Leviticus 27 in fact, speaks about the donated offerings, tithes, gifts, firstfruits, etc. that the people consecrate to Yahweh, “these shall be yours”—the passage is addressed to Aaron and his sons, i.e., the Aaronid priesthood. So as with Leviticus 27, which is its duplicate, the passage states that humans and all clean, i.e., sacrificial/pure animals (#1 & #2 above) are to be redeemed. True, redemption of the human firstborns via the Levites is not explicitly stated here. And commentators disagree about the referent of “their redemption”—that is the “unclean animals” of the previous verse, and thus my contradiction #212, or both “humans and animals.” I lean toward the former understanding here.

      On another note, there is another passage in Numbers where the firstborns are redeemed via a 5 shekel price tag. Numbers 3:45-47 notes again that the Levites are to redeem the firstborn Hebrews, but there were not enough Levites to redeem all the firstborns, and thus the supposedly 273 firstborns that remained were redeemed via 5 shekels. I’m not familiar with what scholars say about this passage but this looks to be a fanciful etiological tale whose purpose was to explain the origin of the contemporary custom (contemporaneous to P’s time period) of redeeming firstborns via 5 shekels. So, yes, I’m in agreement with you: the 5 shekel redemption appears to be a later—and more economical, for the priests—solution to the older Levite redemption of the firstborns.

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