Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Rationale Behind the Dedication of Firstborns and the Wearing of Phylacteries -- Exodus 13:11-16


“Now when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord.  But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.  And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’  So it shall serve as a sign on your hand and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
 
In the first ten verses of this thirteenth chapter, Moses was preparing the Israelites for what he was about to tell them concerning the dedication of the firstborns by reminding them of the need to always celebrate what God did for them.  Now in this section, he continues to provide further rationale as to this significant request of God’s.

He tells them that after God brings them to the land of Canaan, then they shall devote to Him the first ‘male’ offspring of “every womb” – of every woman in the family having children and of every beast that is owned by them.  These firstborn males, in essence, will belong to God.  This is to be a dedication, not a sacrifice.

The next portion of this scripture is troublesome in some respects and there are several interpretations of the meaning.  First, looking strictly at the words of the text, the Israelites were instructed to:
-- redeem (or ransom) the first offspring (we assume ‘male’) of a donkey (or an ‘ass’) [keep in mind these animals had great commercial value and/or were of great use to the Israelites as transport animals]
-- if they were not prepared to redeem it or ransom it, then they were to break the animal’s neck (or kill it)
-- they were also to redeem the firstborn sons born to each mother or family (with no reference to an option of what to do if they were not being willing to redeem them).


The commentaries on this are all over the map.  Chuck Smith writes the following:
Now if you wanted to keep the donkey and use it, then you had to buy it from the Lord, was the idea. God claimed the firstborn of all the animals. If you wanted to keep it for yourself, then you had to purchase it from God. You had to redeem it. If you didn't redeem it, then you had to kill it, the donkey, or the cow or whatever. If you wanted to keep . . . it, then you had to redeem it. You had to buy it from God.  The same with your child, the firstborn male child was God's, belonged to God. Then you had to redeem that child from God, offering sacrifice unto the Lord to redeem the child.”

David Guzik introduces the idea of ‘unclean’ animals or humans and says:
“If the firstborn was unacceptable to sacrifice (an unclean animal or a human) a substitute was offered to redeem the firstborn from God. If the firstborn was an animal the substitute was a clean animal. If the firstborn was a human, the substitute was money.”

The question arises as to what may be an ‘unclean newborn’?  Of course, the danger with this is the issue of deformity in a child.  And since I believe Guzik has no textual grounds for his comments, I would tend to argue that this verse is not about unclean or deformed animals – besides, why would the Israelites want to redeem for themselves such an animal for working purposes?  Clearly there is no indication or basis whatsoever for sacrificing of children in this passage.  The requirement is simply to give to God “first” and to give Him “the best”.  That’s the lesson.

And God also wants them to be able to tell their children, in the years ahead, why exactly they are doing this.  The first sentence of the explanation is very potent.  We have a God with a “powerful hand” who leads His people “out of” “slavery”.  Is not that an excellent summary of God’s intent for each and everyone of His children – to lead us out of our sin, out of our bondage, out of our own personal Egypt, when we recognize the need for His powerful hand to act and accept Him as our God and Savior?  The attitude that God has had towards His beloved has not changed from Adam and Eve right down to you and I today.

Moses tells the people that in order to free them from slavery, because the Enemy (Pharaoh in this case) was so hard and stubborn, God had to kill every firstborn in Egypt.  And that is why, the Israelites were to tell their children in the future, they dedicate their ‘firstborns’ to God and redeem them.

In fact, because the power of sin and Satan today is still so powerful, and because we can not have the intended relationship with God that we were created to have due to God’s Holiness and our sinfulness, God had to sacrifice His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to make possible our forgiveness and cleansing from sin.  Because Jesus died, we can live forever, with God, having conquered the power of sin and death through and by Him.

The last verse in this section introduces a new practice that we see being kept by orthodox Jews even today.  The verse reads, “So it shall serve as a sign on your hand and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
In Jerusalem, at the Wailing Wall and elsewhere, I saw orthodox Jews wearing little boxes (usually black in color if I remember correctly) attached to their heads and on their wrists via an elaborate arrangement of straps.  When it is time to pray at the Wall itself, they actually tie the straps quite a ways up their arms in a similar fashion that some women today tie the sandal straps in a crisscross pattern up close to below their knees for extra effect, imitating the ancient Greek and Roman styles.
This is the first mention of phylacteries (really little boxes) in the Scriptures.  They contain copies of God’s commandments.  Jews are to bind them to their forehead in order to be mindful of doing God’s will and to their hands to remember that they are to serve God by doing good, keeping His Law in mind.  This is a noble effort.  However, Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth century American author, poet, and philosopher cautions us when he once said,
“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it.  I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint.  What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”
 
The point being that saying we will do something, or wearing symbols of our desire to do something or to think in a certain way, is not the same as actually doing it.  And perhaps the more modern approach to “action over words” is preferable to God.  And more preferable still is the attitude of our heart with which we carry out the deeds and think the thoughts.  Yet still, many of us, because of our human nature, still need symbols to remind us of how to live and think.  I met a lovely family the other day with a wonderful teenage daughter and I noticed she was wearing a ring on her ring finger of her left hand (the wedding finger in North America).  I enquired about the ring and was told it was a purity or chastity or abstinence ring, worn as a sign or promise of chastity saving her virginity for the one she marries.  Now think of that ring’s true value.  It is not in the fact that the young lady was wearing it.  Instead, its true value is dependent on the extent she lives a chaste life until she marries.  Some value does come from her wearing it in that when she gets into potentially dangerous circumstances with others, the ring may cause her to pause and hopefully stop the relationship from getting to the point she never wanted to get to before marriage.  It may also encourage her parents, siblings, and friends to keep her accountable for some relationships or behaviors or activities that may not be right for her.  But the true value is in her actually keeping the promise she made to herself, her family, and God.  So it is with us.  Phylacteries are fine if we need them, but what matters is how we think and what we do.

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