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Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Firstborn; Firstling

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fûrst´bôrn , fûrst´ling ( בּכור , bekhōr ; πρωτότοκος , prōtótokos ): The Hebrew word denotes the firstborn of human beings as well as of animals (Exodus 11:5 ), while a word from the same root denotes first-fruits (Exodus 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 (2 Kings 3:27 ). The barbarous custom must have become extinct at an early period in the religion of Israel (Genesis 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 (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Ezekiel 16:20; Ezekiel 23:37; Micah 6:7 ). Jeremiah denies that the offering of human beings could have been an instruction from Yahweh (Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 19:5 ). The prophetic conception of God had rendered such a doctrine inconceivable. Clear evidence of the spiritualization and humanization 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 Yahweh. At a later stage the Levites were substituted for the firstborn. Just as the firstlings of unclean animals were redeemed with money (Exodus 13:13; Exodus 34:20 ), for the dedication of the firstborn was substituted the consecration of the Levites to the service of the sanctuary (Numbers 3:11-13 , Numbers 3:15 ). 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 Luke 2:27; Mishna Bekhōrōth viii.8). For that service the Levites were accepted in place of the redeemed firstborn (Numbers 3:45 ). See note. According to Exodus 22:29-31 the firstborn were to be given to Yahweh. (The firstborn of clean animals, if free from spot or blemish, were to be sacrificed after eight days, Numbers 18:16 .) This allusion to the sacrifice of the firstborn as part of the religion of Yahweh 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 Yahweh (Exodus 13:2; Exodus 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 (Deuteronomy 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 (Genesis 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 Yahweh's firstborn (Exodus 4:22; compare Jeremiah 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 Yahweh and the nation. In three passages ( Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:6 ), Jesus Christ is the firstborn - among many brethren (Romans 8:29 ); of every creature (Colossians 1:16 ). This application of the term to Jesus Christ may be traced back to Psalm 89:27 where the Davidic ruler, or perhaps the nation, is alluded to as the firstborn of Yahweh. See CHILD; CIRCUMCISION; FIRST-BEGOTTEN; PLAGUES OF EGYPT .

NOTE - T he 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 mother of the child 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 (Numbers 6:22-27 ).

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Firstborn; Firstling'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

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