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(Heb. בָּכַר bakar;Gr πρωτότοκος prōtotokos): Under the law, in memory of the exodus (when the first-born of the Egyptians were slain), the eldest son was regarded as devoted to God, and was in every case to be redeemed by an offering not exceeding five shekels, within one month from birth. If he died before the expiration of thirty days, the Jewish doctors held the father excused, but liable to the payment if he outlived that time. Ex. 13:12–15; 22:29; Num. 8:17; 18:15, 16; Lev. 27:6. The eldest son received a double portion of the father’s inheritance, Deut. 21:17, but not of the mother’s. Under the monarchy the eldest son usually, but not always, as appears in the case of Solomon, succeeded his father in the kingdom. 1 Kings 1:30; 2:22. The male first-born of animals was also devoted to God. Ex. 13:2, 12, 13; 22:29; 34:19, 20. Unclean animals were to be redeemed with the addition of one-fifth of the value, or else put to death; or, if not redeemed, to be sold, and the price given to the priests. Lev. 27:13, 27, 28. – William Smith, Smith’s Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986).
First son born to a couple and required to be specially dedicated to God. The firstborn son of newly married people was believed to represent the prime of human vigor (Gen. 49:3; Ps. 78:51). In memory of the death of Egypt’s firstborn and the preservation of the firstborn of Israel, all the firstborn of Israel, both of man and beast, belonged to Yahweh (Exod. 13:2, 15; cp. 12:12–16). This meant that the people of Israel attached unusual value to the eldest son and assigned special privileges and responsibilities to him. He was presented to the Lord when he was a month old. Since he belonged to the Lord, it was necessary for the father to buy back the child from the priest at a redemption price not to exceed five shekels (Num. 18:16). The husband of several wives would have to redeem the firstborn of each.
The birthright of a firstborn included a double portion of the estate and leadership of the family. As head of the house after his father’s death, the eldest son customarily cared for his mother until her death, and he also provided for his sisters until their marriage. The firstborn might sell his rights as Esau did (Gen. 25:29–34) or forfeit them for misconduct as Reuben did because of incest (Gen. 35:22; 49:3–4).
The firstborn of a clean animal was brought into the sanctuary on the eighth day after birth (Exod. 22:29–30). If it were without blemish, it was sacrificed (Deut. 15:19; Num. 18:17). If it had a blemish, the priest to whom it was given could eat it as common food outside Jerusalem (Deut. 15:21–23), or it could be eaten at home by its owner. Apparently the firstborn of a clean animal was not to be used for any work since it belonged to the Lord (Deut. 15:19).
The firstborn of an unclean animal had to be redeemed by an estimation of the priest, with the addition of one-fifth (Lev. 27:27; Num. 18:15). According to Exod. 13:13; 34:20, the firstborn of an ass was either ransomed by a sheep or lamb, or its neck had to be broken.
Figuratively, Israel was God’s “firstborn” (Exod. 4:22; Jer. 31:9) and enjoyed priority status. God compared His relationship to Israel with the relationship of a father and his firstborn son. Within Israel, the tribe of Levi represented the firstborn of the nation in its worship ceremony (Num. 3:40–41; 8:18).
Christ is the “firstborn” of the Father (Heb. 1:6 NIV) by having preeminent position over others in relation to Him. He is also described as “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29 HCSB) and “firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15 HCSB). Paul (Col. 1:18) and John (Rev. 1:5) refer to Christ as “firstborn from the dead”—the first to rise bodily from the grave and not die again.
Hebrews 12:23 refers to the “assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven” (HCSB). Christian believers, united with and as joint heirs with Christ, enjoy the status of “firstborn” in God’s household. – Larry Walker, “Firstborn,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 577.
A Deeper Look
The Hebrew word denotes the firstborn of human beings as well as of animals (Ex 11:5), while a word from the same root denotes first-fruits (Ex 23:16). All the data point to the conclusion that among the ancestors of the Hebrews the sacrifice of the firstborn was practiced, just as the firstlings of the flocks and the first fruits of the produce of the earth were devoted to the deity. The narrative of the Moabite war records the sacrifice of the heir to the throne by Mesha, to Chemosh, the national god (2Ki 3:27). The barbarous custom must have become extinct at an early period in the religion of Israel (Ge 22:12). It was probably due to the influence of surrounding nations that the cruel practice was revived toward the close of the monarchical period (2Ki 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; Jer 7:31; Eze 16:20; 23:37; Mic 6:7).
Jeremiah denies that the offering of human beings could have been an instruction from Jehovah (Mic 7:20;19:5). The prophetic conception of God had rendered such a doctrine inconceivable. Clear evidence of the spiritualization and humanizati0n of religion among the Israelites is furnished in the replacement, at an early stage, of the actual sacrifice of the firstborn by their dedication to the service of Jehovah.
At a later stage, the Levites were substituted for the firstborn. Just as the firstlings of unclean animals were redeemed with money (Ex 13:13; 34:20), for the dedication of the firstborn was substituted the consecration of the Levites to the service of the sanctuary (Nu 3:11-13,15). On the 30th day after birth, the firstborn was brought to the priest by the father, who paid five shekels for the child’s redemption from service in the temple (compare Lu 2:27; Mishna Bekhoroth viii.8). For that service, the Levites were accepted in place of the redeemed firstborn (Nu 3:45). See note. According to Ex 22:29-31, the firstborn was to be given to Jehovah. (The firstborn of clean animals, if free from spot or blemish, were to be sacrificed after eight days, Nu 18:16 ff.)
This allusion to the sacrifice of the firstborn as part of the religion of Jehovah has been variously explained. Some scholars suspect the text, but in all probability, the verse means no more than similar references to the fact that the firstborn belonged to Jehovah (Ex 13:2; 34:19). The modifying clause, with regard to the redemption of the firstborn, has been omitted. The firstborn possessed definite privileges, which were denied to other members of the family. The Law forbade the disinheriting of the firstborn (De 21:15-17).
Such legislation, in polygamous times, was necessary to prevent a favorite wife from exercising undue influence over her husband in distributing his property, as in the case of Jacob (Ge 25:23). The oldest son’s share was twice as large as that of any other son. When Elisha prayed for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he simply wished to be considered the firstborn, i.e., the successor, of the dying prophet.
Israel was Jehovah’s firstborn (Ex 4:22; compare Jer 31:9 (Ephraim). Israel, as compared with other nations, was entitled to special privileges. She occupied a unique position in virtue of the special relationship between Jehovah and the nation. In three passages (Ro 8:29; Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), Jesus Christ is the firstborn–among many brethren (Ro 8:29); of every creature (Col 1:16). This application of the term to Jesus Christ may be traced back to Ps 89:27, where the Davidic ruler, or perhaps the nation, is alluded to as the firstborn of Jehovah.
NOTE–The custom of redeeming the firstborn son is preserved among the Jews to this day. After thirty days, the father invites the “Kohen,” i.e., a supposed descendant of Aaron, to the house. The child is brought and shown to the “Kohen,” and the father declares the child’s mother to be an Israelite. If she is a “Kohen,” redemption is not necessary. The “Kohen” asks the father which he prefers, his child or the five shekels; the father answers that he prefers his son and pays to the “Kohen” a sum equivalent to five shekels. After receiving the redemption money, the “Kohen” puts his hands on the child’s head and pronounces the Aaronite blessing (Nu 6:22-27).