#211. Israelites are to consecrate the firstborn of animals to Yahweh OR not? (Ex 13:2; Deut 15:19 vs Lev 27:26)


All of the Pentateuch’s sources adhere to the law of the firstborns, a sacrificial theology which 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)

I have already addressed this firstborn sacrificial theology as it relates to all firstborn human males, which, rather than being sacrificed up to Yahweh, are redeemed by the Levites, who ransom all male firstborns and who thus belong to Yahweh! Obviously, there are strong undertones of an original archaic theology of human sacrifice at work here. Again, these ideas were discussed and explored in contradiction #145.

Here, we are interested in this sacrificial theology as it pertains to animals, in which case the Pentateuch bears witness to 2 blatantly contradictory edicts.

“Every male firstborn that will be born in your herd and in your flock you shall consecrate to Yahweh, your god!” (Deut 15:19; cf. Ex 13:2 above)

“A firstborn of the animals—which as a firstling is committed to Yahweh—no man shall consecrate it!” (Lev 27:26)

At face value the terms of these 2 edicts are completely contradictory—1) you shall consecrate all male firstborns to Yahweh (happens on the 8th day), and 2) no one shall consecrate the firstborns of the animals to Yahweh. But I’m not so sure the inherent theological idea which these two expressions are contradictorily expressing is contradictory. And thus I part with the views of my colleagues on this matter.

At face value, what the Priestly writer of Leviticus 27:26 is attempting to articulate—I believe—is that no man can consecrate a firstborn of the herd or flock, traditionally ox and sheep, because these firstlings are already inherently consecrated to Yahweh—“they are already committed”/designated/consecrated to Yahweh. Admittedly, I would argue that both the Elohist and the Deuteronomist would agree with this, but their edicts seem to express that nevertheless these firstlings need to be ritually consecrated to Yahweh, and normally that is done on the 8th day—note: the same day that all male firstborns are to be circumcised—not a coincidence (see #145).

So these sources would seem to agree that the firstborns of ox and sheep are consecrated to Yahweh, inherently, already, by the very fact that they are firstborn males. If this is the case, then we might make sense of the Priestly writer’s stance that therefore “no man shall consecrate them to Yahweh”; they already are. Yet I think the Priestly writer is making a different sort of argument here, and here is an example where context provides the clues.

All of Leviticus 27 discusses the appraisal of things—humans, animals, houses, fields, tithes—that can be devoted or consecrated to Yahweh. For example,

And when a man will consecrate his house to be a holy thing to Yahweh, then the priest shall appraise it. . . And if the one who consecrates it will redeem his house, then he shall add a fifth of the money of your appraisal to it, and it shall be his (Lev 27:14-15).

In other words, a man can give, devote, his house to Yahweh (i.e., to the priesthood) in exchange for money—the appraisal of the house set by the priests. That is, he has consecrated his house to Yahweh. Furthermore, there is the option to redeem his house—buy it back—by paying a fifth more than its appraisal.

This is the case for the consecration of regular animals, fields, and tithes as well. In this context, we can see why the Priestly writer has Yahweh declare that “no man shall consecrate a firstborn of the ox and sheep”—i.e., devote it to Yahweh in exchange for its appraisal money—because it already belongs to Yahweh! I would argue that this is what the Priestly writer intends here (contra Milgrom), and even though its wording is a clear contradiction of Deuteronomy 15:19 and Exodus 13:2, the thought underneath the language is not. So the contradiction stands—after all I have typed this all up—but it’s only a contradiction in word. I think the thought underneath our three sources is harmonious.

As a side note, I cannot help but to mention the valuation, appraisal, given for humans who devote themselves, their lives, to Yahweh (Lev 27:3-8). The appraisal that god Yahweh gives for a male between the ages of 20 and 60 is 50 shekels, that of a woman in the same age group is 30 shekels. From God’s mouth to yours, a woman is worth 40% less than a man!

And modern day people living millennia after these texts were written, most of whom are ignorant about these texts, want to nevertheless claim that morals come from the biblical god! Sometimes I’m ashamed at the paucity of genuine intellectual and spiritual aptitude of my fellow human species.

4 thoughts on “#211. Israelites are to consecrate the firstborn of animals to Yahweh OR not? (Ex 13:2; Deut 15:19 vs Lev 27:26)

  1. The LXX of Exodus 21:22-25 is even less supportive of the prolife view:

    22 And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman’s husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. 23 But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

    Even if the LXX mixes interpretation with translation (which is possible, since this version makes no mention of any harm to the woman in v:23), it’s interesting that the translator(s) of this passage viewed an “imperfectly formed” baby differently from a “perfectly formed” one, which is similar to our viability standards regarding abortions in the U.S.

  2. Steven,
    The usual pushback against using Exodus 21:22 to support a prochoice view is that unlike abortion, what occurs here is an accidental killing, and accidental killings, the argument goes, are not punishable by death. However, I think that a couple of things need to be considered. For one, notice that in the next verse it states that “[i]f any harm follows,” which in context has to mean “harm” to the woman and could include death, the law of lex talionis applies, yet the woman could also have been injured or killed by accident when she tried to break up the fight or was a bystander. Also, if accidental killing of the fetus was equal to that of a fully-formed person, why is there no provision for the killer to flee to a “city of refuge” (Numbers 35; Deut. 4:41-43, 19:7-10, Josh. 20:2-3, 21:13 ff) after causing a miscarriage? Instead, he pays a fine. Slaves and the unborn were not deemed as valuable as living, free Israelites.

  3. Israelites who owned firstborn donkeys must have been confused about what to do:

    Leviticus 27:26-27
    26 A firstling of animals, however, which as a firstling belongs to the Lord, cannot be consecrated by anyone; whether ox or sheep, it is the Lord’s. 27If it is an unclean animal, it shall be ransomed at its assessment, with one-fifth added; if it is not redeemed, it shall be sold at its assessment.

    Exodus 13:11-13a
    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.

    Exodus 34:19-20a
    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.

    I’m sure that PETA would not be happy. Note also that in the “price list” of Leviticus 27:1-7, not only are females “worth” less than males, but infants under one month old have no assessed value at all! It’s understandable why those in their “prime” would be considered more valuable than the old and the young, and infant-mortality rates were high in antiquity, but Leviticus 27:1-7 certainly does nothing to support the alleged inherent value of human life.

    1. John, you’re pretty good at this. I might have to relinquish my crown to you. lol. I am looking into this for tomorrow’s contradiction.

      “Leviticus 27:1-7 certainly does nothing to support the alleged inherent value of human life.” I would have to agree, even if as some commentators are want to express, the value assigned to human beings in this passage is based on a worker’s potential productivity or the rate for slaves, male and female.

      There is a similar statement about the “valuelessness” of infants, or in this case a fetus, in the Elohist law code in Exodus 21. In a passage which ferociously advocates the lex talionis—a life for a life, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc.—by setting forth all the incidences where this is to be carried out and the exceptions—e.g., when a Hebrew kills a slave—this one is also mentioned as an exception.

      And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. (Ex 21:22)

      In other words, the death of a fetus is not seen as the death of a life, since it does not warrant the taking of the life that killed it! Might Ex 21:22 and Lev 27:1-7 serve pro-abortionists’ agenda?

Leave a Reply