#145. Are firstborn sons sacrificed to Yahweh OR are they redeemed? (Ex 22:28 vs Ex 13:2, 13:11-16, 34:19-20; Lev 27:26-27; Num 3:12-13, 3:40-59, 8:16-18, 18:15-18)


The Bible’s sacrificial theology mandates that the firstfruits of reproduction—whether of plants, animals, or humans—be sacrificed to Yahweh.

“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)

This divine decree must be understood in the context of the Passover narrative. In other words, biblical scribes accredited the origin of sacrificing all firstborn sons to Yahweh to the Passover/Exodus. Its origins, however, most likely lie elsewhere.

Immediately following the Passover narrative, the verse below, which comes from the Elohist, explains this sacrificial theology of the firstborns in the form of commemorative ritual:

And it was when Pharaoh hardened against letting us go, and Yahweh killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from firstborn of a human to firstborn of an animal, that on account of this I am sacrificing to Yahweh every first birth of a womb—the males—and I shall redeem every firstborn of my sons. (13:15)

An attentive reader of the Passover narrative, especially P’s version (#109), will notice that the decree to kill all firstborns falls upon all firstborns in the land of Egypt—both those of the Egyptians and the Israelites. However, the firstborns of the Israelites are redeemed, that is a ritual substitution is offered up to Yahweh instead of the male firstborns, namely the pascal lamb (12:12-13). Later on in the Priestly source we are informed that the tribe of the Levites themselves become the sacrificial ransom for all Israelite firstborns.

And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: “And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of every firstborn, the first birth of the womb from the children of Israel. And the Levites shall be mine, because every firstborn is mine! In the day that I struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every firstborn in Israel to me, from human to animal. They shall be mine. I am Yahweh! (Num 3:11-13).

Thus instead of all male firstborns belonging to Yahweh, the Levites redeem them and it is thus the Levites who belong to Yahweh. This is not only a sacrificial theology of substitution, but it also accords the Levites, like consecrated sacrificial animals, as the “holy ones” of Yahweh.

Yet Exodus 22:28 does not stipulate a ritual substitution: the text has Yahweh pronounce, “You shall give me the firstborn of your sons”—period. Furthermore, the following verse makes no mention of ritual substitution, and rather stipulates that the firstborn of ox and sheep must be given over to Yahweh as sacrifice on the eighth day. We are reminded of the bizarre incident in Exodus 4:22-26, where Yahweh pronounces to Egypt that Israel is Yahweh’s firstborn, and that he plans to kill Egypt’s firstborns. Then, however, the narrative switches, perhaps due to the insertion of different source material, to a story in which Yahweh threatens to kill “him”—Moses’ firstborn?—but this is averted due to his circumcision, which according to P is a ritual performed on the eighth day (see #28). So there is textual evidence to suggest that the rite of circumcision might also have been envisioned as a blood ritual, like that of the pascal lamb, which redeemed Israel’s firstborn males from Yahweh. Along similar grounds is the Aqedah, or the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22): Abraham’s firstborn son is redeemed from being sacrificed to Yahweh by a fortuitous ram which functions as a sacrificial substitution.

All of these narratives of ritual substitutions whereby a firstborn male is redeemed from being sacrificed to Yahweh raises the hotly debated question as to whether or not human sacrifice was practiced at some early stage in the history of the cult. This inquiry becomes more intriguing when we take into account other biblical passages that speak of child sacrifice. Michah 6:6-8, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5, 32:35, and Ezekiel 20:18-31 all mention the sacrifice of firstborns in polemical contexts which vehemently condemn such practices—suggestion, therefore, that it was indeed practiced!

Other poignant evidence includes the narratives of Jephthah who sacrifices his daughter to Yahweh (Judg 11:29-40), king Ahaz who sacrifices his son to Yahweh (2 Kgs 16:3), and the narrative of 2 Kgs 3:26-27, where arrayed in battle formation against the Israelites, the Moabites perform a firstborn male sacrifice to their god, Chemosh, which Yahweh acknowledges—thus our biblical writer contends—as a sacrificial ritual that is effectively favorable toward the Moabites’ victory, and therefore orders the Israelites to retreat! In other words, the biblical authors understood such sacrifices as so powerful that not even Yahweh could have changed the outcome of the battle now! Through this sacrifice, the Moabites have secured their victory! This does not necessarily have to be an historical event. It could just as easily be a powerful theological narrative explaining why the Israelites lost this particular battle.

In conclusion, the biblical record itself (and one should add the archaeological evidence as well) strongly suggests that firstborn sacrifices were intermittently practiced in Israel, and not surprisingly condoned by various biblical authors. At the very least this certainly brings validity to the question of whether or not an early form of the cult of Yahweh practiced firstborn male sacrifices, which were then reinterpreted with respect to the theology of redemption or substitution, either through the Passover narrative, through the consecration of the Levites as Yahweh’s, through the blood rite of circumcision, or ultimately through the sacrificial substitution of Yahweh’s own firstborn according to later Christian theologians, Jesus!

3 thoughts on “#145. Are firstborn sons sacrificed to Yahweh OR are they redeemed? (Ex 22:28 vs Ex 13:2, 13:11-16, 34:19-20; Lev 27:26-27; Num 3:12-13, 3:40-59, 8:16-18, 18:15-18)

  1. Below I quote passages about giving firstborn male children to Yahweh and list the location at which the law was given. What we see is that in just a matter of months, Yahweh changed his mind about the firstborn: Are they to be given to him (whatever that might entail), redeemed with a sheep, or exempted in place of the Levites? This contrast is especially striking when we compare Exodus 13:11-16 to the legislation from Numbers, because Exodus 13 says that firstborn male children must be “redeemed” AFTER the Israelites have entered Canaan, even though the substitution of the Levites intervenes between this legislation, given in Egypt, and the entry into Canaan. For more about Numbers 18, see my comments here:

    Exodus 13:1-2 (Given at Succoth, Egypt–see 12:37, 13:3, 20)
    Yahweh said to Moses: 2Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

    Exodus 13:11-16 (Succoth; see above)
    11 ‘When Yahweh has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, 12you shall set apart to Yahweh all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be Yahweh’s. 13But 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. 14When in the future your child asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall answer, “By strength of hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, Yahweh killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to Yahweh every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.” 16It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt.

    Exodus 22:29 (Given at Sinai three months after the Exodus; see Ex. 19:1)
    29 You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.

    Exodus 34:19-20 (At Sinai; see Ex. 34:2)
    19 All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

    Numbers 3:11-13 (Still at Sinai; cf. Nu. 10:11)
    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 3:40-41 (Sinai; see above)
    40 Then Yahweh said to Moses: Enrol all the firstborn males of the Israelites, from a month old and upwards, and count their names. 41But you shall accept the Levites for me—I am Yahweh—as substitutes for all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for all the firstborn among the livestock of the Israelites.

    Numbers 8:14-18 (Sinai; see above)
    14 Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the other Israelites, and the Levites shall be mine. 15Thereafter the Levites may go in to perform service at the tent of meeting, once you have cleansed them and presented them as an elevation-offering. 16For they 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 18:6-7,15 (Uncertain location; perhaps in the Wilderness of Paran or between there and and Kadesh/Wilderness of Zin; cf. Nu. 10:12 to Nu. 20:1)
    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.

  2. Contradiction heard. Easily seen are the reasons for this split– One side favors the aggressiveness of a firstborn, who must crawl through the birth canal first (perhaps receiving injuries; Scientologists touch on this fecund point with a delicate hand) before being inundated with attention and errors and gifts of new parents. The other side of course despises this uniqueness and favors instead the experience granted upon the ensuing offspring however ordinary or even dull the results, ignoring or even destroying the first child, as a writer destroys a first draft in favor of a second or third or fourth. Yet there is always something to be said for first drafts, as the genius of inspiration and the fire of intensity may outweigh the seeming perfection of later drafts. In this way the contradiction must remain in the Bible and in life itself. And at once we have a war between those who adhere to this or that side, and a mass of people in the middle. The middle children are shielded from the woes and triumphs of the firstborn, often becoming jealous or envious but more often choosing to avoid the inherrent Catch-22 of the firstborn’s dynamic. The lastborn child is never bothered with any of this, as another child could be born at any moment until both parents are deceased, at which point the concept of sacrificing or exalting a firstborn is defunct.

  3. ISAAC OR ISHMAEL? (Gen 22)

    [KJV] Gen 22:2
    And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

    When Isaac was born, there was another son, Ishmael. Isaac could not be the ONLY son. Possibly, the author of this document intended to emphasis that the sacrificed child was Isaac. So that, the author made insertion the name of Isaac to this chapter from the original older document. The name change/insertion, also, happened in Gen 22:3, 6, 7 and 9. But, the author seemed neglecting to insert the name in Gen 22:12 and 16 after the words “thine ONLY son”.

    In order to match the chronological order, this chapter (Gen 22) should be moved from its original position to the position next to Gen 21 when Isaac was born. In addition, the author made insertions or changes the name of ABRAHAM instead of ABRAM, in order to match the chronological order after Gen 17:5.

    Because of these changes, contradictions arise in relations among Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. For example, at what age Ishmael was carried on Hagar’s shoulder when they were sent away?. The most important thing, in religious matter, is the CIRCUMCISION. When it took place? This covenant should be placed immediately after a great occasion, i.e. sacrificing a child. In spite of sacrificing his first born child, Abraham shall circumcise his flesh of skin as the token of obedient to God (Gen 17:10-14). In conclusion, the sacrificed child must be Ishmael at age 12-13 years.

    If I may reconstruct the chronological order of the verses in Gen 16 to Gen 22, these would be my listing:

    – Gen 16 (Hagar became Abram’s wife. Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born.)
    – Gen 21:9-21 (Omit Isaac insertion in Gen 21:12. Abraham should be read Abram, and Sarah should be read Sarai. Sarai was jealous because the bondwoman bare a child for her husband. In her eyes the child mocked her that she could not perform her wifely duty. Not because of Hagar’s child mocked her own child who was not yet born. Probably, Ishmael was months old. So that, he was small and can be put on Hagar’s shoulder along with a bottle of water when they were sent away. Hagar saw a well of water. She and her child dwelt in the wilderness of Paran.)
    – Gen 22 (This chapter should be read by omitting Isaac insertions and changing them to Ishmael. Abraham should be read Abram. Ishmael was 12-13 years old and Abram 98-99 years old.)
    – Gen 17 (Abram became Abraham. Covenant between Abraham and God was established that every 8 days old male descendant should be circumcised. Sarai became Sarah. Sarah shall be a mother. Probably, Sarah did not present in this occasion because only Abraham who laughed. Abraham was 99 years old and Ishmael was 13 years old. They both were circumcised at the same time.)
    – Gen 18 (Sarah laughed when she heard that she will bear a child)
    – Gen 19 (The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot and his daughters)
    – Gen 20 (Abraham and Sarah dealt with Abimelech)
    – Gen 21:1-8 (Isaac was born, at age 8 days circumcised. Abraham was 100 years old. Abraham made a great feast when Isaac was weaned, probably at age 2. Ishmael and his mother might be or might be not present in this occasion.)
    – Gen 21:22-34 (Abraham dealt again with Abimelech)
    – Gen 23 (Sarah died at age 127 years).
    – Gen 24 (Isaac married Rebekah)
    – Gen 25 (Abraham took Keturah as his wife. Abraham died at age 175 years. Isaac and Ishmael buried him.)

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