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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Firstborn

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FIRSTBORN

One of the fundamental ideas with regard to Jehovah in early Israel was that of His being owner of the land, and consequently lord also of all that the land brought forth and of all that lived upon it (Leviticus 25:23, Psalms 50:10-12). Closely connected with this idea was a further one to the effect that the land was held in tenure; Jehovah was the landowner, His people the tenants; but their tenancy depended solely on the will of Jehovah (Deuteronomy 30:20 etc.).* [Note: This OT conception is illustrated in the Gospels by the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, Matthew 21:33 ff. and parallel passages; cf. also Mark 13:34.] As lord of the land and giver of all that it produced, tribute was due to Him; this tribute took the form of the offering of first-fruits. [Note: It will, of course, be understood that this was adapted to agricultural life from the earlier nomadic life with its flocks and herds (cf. Nowack, Heb. Arch. ii. p. 147 ff.).] Not only, however, was the land Jehovah’s possession, but the people who lived upon it, and upon its produce, were likewise His; this would follow naturally by virtue of Jehovah’s overlordship. Therefore, just as Jehovah, being owner of the land, received the first-fruits of its produce as tribute due to Him, so, being also owner of the people, did He receive the firstborn as, in the same way, a tribute due to Him. This is not definitely stated in the Bible, but the notices of child-sacrifice lead us to infer that at some early period the rite of the sacrifice of the firstborn was performed, and the analogy of the offering up of the firstlings of the flock points to a similar usage with regard to man (Exodus 13:2; Exodus 22:29; Exodus 34:20); moreover, the prevalence of the practice among ethnologically allied races [Note: e.g. the Moabites, 2 Kings 3:27; the early Arabs (Wellhausen, Reste2, pp. 115, 116); the Canaanites (PEFSt, 1903, passim); the Phœnicians (Rawlinson, Hist. of Phœnicia, ch. xi.); cf. the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac; see PSBA xxiv. p. 253 ff.] makes it in a high degree probable that originally the descendants of Abram sacrificed their firstborn as a tribute to the Deity (see below, ‘Redemption of the firstborn’). As the firstborn are spoken of as being particularly the possession of Jehovah, one would expect to find them occupying the position of His special ministers; it is possible that this was the case originally (cf. Hannah’s vow, 1 Samuel 1:11),§ [Note: There is a Talmudic tradition (Zeb. 112b), according to which the firstborn acted as officiating priests in the wilderness until the erection of the tabernacle, when the office was given to the tribe of Levi (Jewish Encyc. v. 396).] especially as in Numbers 3:12 it is said: ‘Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be mine’ (cf. Numbers 3:45); as a matter of fact, however, the earliest Code commands the redemption of the firstborn: ‘All the firstborn of man among thy sons shalt thou redeem’ (Exodus 13:13, cf. Exodus 13:15; Exodus 34:20).

From the foregoing one can understand that the term ‘firstborn,’ πρωτότοκος (that which, as the most precious, belonged, in the first instance, to Jehovah), came to be one of particular honour (cf. Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 31:9), and it is used as such in reference to Christ (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15; Colossians 1:18).

The only occurrence of the term in the Gospels is in Luke 2:7 καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν τὸν πρωτότοκον,* [Note: In Matthew 1:25τὸν πρωτότοκον is read by DC and the OL version only; it must therefore be rejected in this passage.] and apart from its significance to the Jewish mind as outlined above, its importance lies in its bearing upon the question of the perpetual virginity of the mother of Christ. The term does not necessarily suggest the subsequent birth of other children; for, in the first place, as a title of honour it would naturally be mentioned in connexion with Christ by the Evangelist; and secondly, to Jews the significance of ‘firstborn’ lay in the special sanctity which attached to such; [Note: Hebrews 1:6, where τὸν πρωτὸτοκον means ‘only-begotten.’] this is clear from what has been said in the previous section; indeed, St. Luke directly implies as much when he quotes, in substance, from Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:12 ‘Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’ (Luke 2:23).

Redemption of the firstborn.—In the passage Luke 2:22 ff. two distinct ceremonies are referred to: the presentation to the Lord, and the redemption; the former of these implies the actual dedication of the child to God (cf. 1 Samuel 1:28); from what has been said above, this ceremony must be regarded as the fulfilling in spirit of the primitive act of literally devoting (sacrificing) the firstborn son to the Deity. The distinction between the two ceremonies may be illustrated by the practice of modern orthodox Jews. The father of the child first presents his firstborn to the cohen, and makes a declaration ending with the words: ‘It is said, Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast; it is mine.’ This is a definite act of presentation to God, of renunciation on the part of the father,—the child is no longer his. This part of the ceremony corresponds to Luke 2:22-23; Luke 2:27-28. Then the father places fifteen shillings (five sclaim or shekels) before the cohen, who thereupon asks: ‘Which wouldst thou rather, give me thy firstborn son, the firstborn of his mother, [Note: The law of the redemption of the firstborn ‘applies to the firstborn of the mother and not of the father. Hence the husband of several wives would have to redeem the firstborn of each one of them, while the husband of a woman who had had children by a previous marriage need not redeem her child although it was his firstborn’ (Jewish Encyc. v. 396). Moreover, the first male child of a woman need not be redeemed if a female child has been born before him.] or redeem him for five selaim, which thou art bound to give according to the Law?’ The father replies: ‘I desire rather to redeem my son, and here thou hast the value of his redemption, which I am bound to give according to the Law.’§ [Note: The money is sometimes returned, but the Jewish authorities do not look upon this with favour.] This ceremony corresponds to Luke 2:24.|| [Note: | See The Authorized Daily Prayer-Book6 (ed. S. Singer), pp. 308, 309.] This redemption of the firstborn [Note: According to Exodus 13:13-15 the redemption of the firstborn was instituted as an abiding act of thanksgiving to Jehovah for having spared the firstborn males of the children of Israel in Egypt. Concerning the connexion between the offering of the firstborn and the Passover, see Nowack, op. cit. § 99.] (פִּדִיוֹן הַבֵּן) took place thirty days after birth (Luke 2:22; cf. Leviticus 12:4, Numbers 18:16),** [Note: * The same custom is kept up by modern orthodox Jews; if the day falls on a Sabbath or a Holy Day, the ceremony is performed on the following day.] and the price of redemption was, according to Numbers 3:47; Numbers 18:16, five shekels; in Exodus 13:13 the command to redeem the firstborn is given, though the price of redemption is not mentioned, while in Leviticus 12 there is no mention at all regarding the redemption of the firstborn, reference being made only to an atonement which has to be made for the purification of the mother; it may be owing to Leviticus 12 that in Luke 2:22 ‘their’ purification is spoken of, i.e. of the child as well as of the mother; at any rate v. 24 seems to point to an amalgamation of the offerings due from the mother for purification, and on behalf of the child for redemption;* [Note: Among modern orthodox Jews, priests and Levites are exempt from the law of redeeming their firstborn; this applies also to those whose wives are daughters of priests or Levites.] in the modern service of prayer of thanksgiving for women after recovery from childbirth no provision is made for any offering.

Literature.—See the authorities referred to in the foot-notes.

W. O. E. Oesterley.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Firstborn'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/firstborn.html. 1906-1918.

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