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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 13

Verses 1-2

PROMULGATION OF THE LAW OF THE FIRSTBORN, AND OF THE FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD, Exodus 13:1-16.

1, 2. In these verses Jehovah announces to Moses the law concerning the firstborn, and in Exodus 13:3-16 Moses repeats this law to Israel, and also repeats to them the law concerning the feast of unleavened bread which had been given to Moses before they started upon their march, as recorded in Exodus 12:15-20. The great importance of these two feasts, and of the law respecting the firstborn, which was so blended with the passover, led to the double mention of each once as announced by Jehovah to Moses, and again as proclaimed by him to the people . The readers of Homer are familiar with such repetitions as characteristic of an early and simple style of narrative .

The firstborn males of man and beast were to be forever consecrated to Jehovah as a memorial through all generations of the final judgment-stroke which gave Israel freedom. Thus in their homes and in their daily toils were they to be perpetually reminded of the providence of Jehovah. The flower of the Egyptians were cut down for their deliverance, and the flower of their families, flocks, and herds, were to be devoted to God.

So the “Firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) was sacrificed for our deliverance, “bruised for our iniquities,” by the judgment-strokes which a guilty world invokes, and which he caught upon his own heart; and, in return, our firstborn, the choice of our homes, our substance, and our powers, are to be consecrated to God .

Verses 9-10

9, 10. Moses here repeats to Israel the ordinance concerning the feast of unleavened bread . See notes on Exodus 12:8; Exodus 12:15-20.

A sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes In verse sixteen it is said for frontlets between thine eyes That is, This command shall ever be before thee, in thy sight, and in the sight of all men, like the bracelet clasped upon the hand, or the fillet bound about the forehead. The law of Jehovah is to be the perpetual ornament and adornment of Israel. Thus is it to be kept in thy mouth, the constant theme of thought and word. In later and degenerate days, when the law had died out of the heart of Israel, a literal and carnal interpretation was given to this command, and portions of this chapter and of Deuteronomy vi were written out on strips of parchment which were bound by leathern thongs upon the forehead and arm. These were the phylacteries; see illustration in note on Matthew 23:5. Thus, as has often been the case, punctilious obedience to the letter of the law totally annulled its spirit .

Verses 11-16

11-16. Moses here repeats to Israel the law of the firstborn, given to him in Exodus 13:1-2. As in the instance just given, there is here not a mere repetition, but an amplification and enforcement . The ass is mentioned as a representative of unclean animals, which could not be offered in sacrifice . This law for the redemption of an unclean by a clean animal was a temporary arrangement, while as yet the priesthood had not been ordained; but after the consecration of the Levites there was a fixed price of redemption. Leviticus 27:27. The ransom of the firstborn of man was afterwards fixed at five shekels, the tribe of Levi being taken for the service of the sanctuary instead of the firstborn of the other eleven tribes, man for man, and then the over-plus of the firstborns being ransomed at this rate . Numbers 3:44-48.

Verses 17-18

MARCH FROM SUCCOTH TO ETHAM, Exodus 13:17-22.

17, 18. God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines The direct route to Palestine was northeast, by way of Pelusium and Gaza, along the Mediterranean coast, through the great maritime plain where dwelt the Philistines, whose warlike character we learn from the monuments of Rameses III., as well as from the Hebrew annals. By this route they started, as if to reach their destination in a few weeks’ journey, but suddenly “turned” southeasterly, for God led the people about, ( made them turn,) by the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea See Exodus 14:2.

Harnessed Equipped for march, marshalled in orderly array, not scattered like a mob of fugitives . Gesenius makes the word mean brave, eager for battle, and many of the old interpreters render, as in the margin, five in a rank, or five-fold in five divisions. It is certain that afterwards we find the able-bodied men in five camps or battalions, (counting the Levites and the tabernacle as a division,) (Numbers 1:2;) and they probably commenced their march in regular order, so as to protect the great train of women and children, flocks and herds. See diagram and notes on Numbers 2:0.

Verse 19

19. And Moses took the bones of Joseph Joseph’s dying charge and Israel’s solemn vow, made more than a century before, (Genesis 50:24-25,) are now sacredly remembered. His body had not been carried to the Land of Promise, like that of Jacob, nor buried in Egypt, like those of his brethren the fathers of the tribes, but, wrapped in its fragrant bandages, it waited the fulfilment of the patriarch’s prophecy, “God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” Through all the years of their bondage the mummied form of their famous ancestor had been a perpetual prophecy and admonition. It ever held before their eyes the great promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the sublime destiny that awaited Israel.

Only in Egypt would such a century-long “object-lesson” have been possible. The mummied form of the dead was there often kept for months, and sometimes for years, before final burial, in a closet made in the house for the purpose, with folding doors, and standing upon a sledge, so that it could be drawn to an altar where were offered “prayers for the dead.” It was this idolatrous superstition which Moses so expressly forbade, Leviticus 19:28; Leviticus 21:1. It was, however, deemed a calamity for the dead to remain thus unburied unless there were especial reasons, which the friends were careful to have made known, and thus the fact that so eminent a person as Joseph remained unburied would give rise to constant inquiry and explanation. (Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, chap. 10.) How wonderfully adapted was this act of Joseph to ensure the resurrection of Israel’s life from the grave of Egyptian heathenism!

Verse 20

20. Etham, in the edge of the wilderness The Wady et Tumey-lat, through which the Israelites commenced their march, leads to the ancient Bitter Lakes, (now a swampy basin, which, except at the inundation, is a dry, deep, white salt plain,) and runs southeast towards Suez . Along the western (or rather southwestern) margin of this basin the Israelites moved, and reached Etham, probably on its southern border, a place on the line where the cultivable land ends and the desert begins . Etham is an Egyptian word, meaning, according to Chabas, the house or temple of Atum, “the setting sun,” which was worshipped at Heliopolis . Du Bois Ayme identified Etham with Bir Suweis, “the well of Suez,” where are now two deep wells of brackish water. Robinson placed it farther east, near the present head of the Gulf. It must have been not far from what was then the head of the Gulf. Travellers generally agree with Du Bois Ayme, ( Descr. de l’Egypte, 11,371,) that the Gulf of Suez once extended much farther north, probably about fifty miles, joining the Bitter Lakes. Etham in that event would be much north of the present Suez.

It is often assumed that the Israelites reached Succoth at the end of the first day, and Etham at the end of the second, but the narrative hardly warrants this. These were the “encampments,” but they may have halted more than a day at each, for the stations are nowhere said to have been a day’s march apart. When we consider the hurry and confusion of the start the vast population of at least two millions which was moved, taking up one portion after another on the march; and the immense number of cattle, sheep, and goats which were gathered together it is not probable that they moved ten miles a day, nor that they marched each day successively. Yet some have so laid out the route as to necessitate a march of from thirty to fifty miles for three successive days! Fourteen miles is a usual day’s march, and twenty-five miles a forced march, for a Prussian soldier in service, and here were women, and children, and cattle.

It seems probable that the Israelites followed about the line of the ancient Canal till they reached the Red Sea. When at Etham they were north of the Sea, and could from thence strike northeast direct to Palestine, or southeast along the east shore of the Sea to Sinai, by either route avoiding the Sea; but instead of being led on either of these courses, they were, to their surprise, commanded to “turn” down the west shore of the Sea, where they had Mount Attaka on the south and southwest, and the Sea on the east. Thus they appeared to Pharaoh to be “entangled in the land,” or, rather, bewildered, perplexed in their movements. Exodus 14:3.

Verse 21

21. And the Lord (JEHOVAH) went before them Here now, at Etham, as they enter the wilderness, JEHOVAH himself takes command of the host, and all their marches are supernaturally directed for forty years. Large caravans and armies were often guided in desert marches by a fire elevated in the van. An oft-quoted instance is that of the great army of Alexander, as related by Curtius: “When he wished to move the camp he gave the signal by a trumpet, the sound of which was often not well heard because of the rising tumult. He therefore erected a pole over the imperial tent which could be everywhere seen, from which the signal could appear to all at the same time. A fire was seen there by night and a smoke by day.” (CURTIUS, De Gest. Alex. Mag., 5: 2, 7.) This on a small scale well illustrates what Jehovah now did for Israel. This vast host of at least two millions must often have been spread over several square miles, over the desert plains, up the mountain slopes, and along the wadies, or water courses, in search of pasturage, and they needed some signal that could be seen from far, and this was furnished by the lofty pillar of cloud and of fire. This seems to have been a fire within a cloudy envelope, shining brightly through it in the darkness, and giving it the appearance, in the sunshine, of a lofty column of light smoke or vapour. It rested afterwards upon the tabernacle, the fire then appearing as the SHEKINAH, ( dwelling-place of Jehovah,) and it regulated by its movements all the marches of Israel. Exodus 40:34-38.

As at the burning bramble Jehovah revealed himself to Moses by fire, so now by the same symbol he reveals himself to all Israel; a symbol suited to a people whose mission it was to teach the nations the real nature of God. Fire reveals power without form power the most intense that we know, familiar yet mysterious. Considered as the source of both light and heat, it is an essential of life, genial and gladdening, yet the very emblem of terror and destruction; while at the same time it is the most expressive symbol of perfect purity. Thus the power and the wrath, the holiness and the mercy, of the formless, ever-living Jehovah, are all blended in this emblem. And what more perfect symbol is there of pure spirit, and of that Power whence all other powers spring, than that element or force which is all other material forces in disguise, and into which they all are resolvable?

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 13". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/exodus-13.html. 1874-1909.