Giving Your Firstborn Son to God
What to Do with Firstborn Sons
Does the Torah require that every firstborn male child be sacrificed to God?
The question seems preposterous, yet this is the plain meaning of a passage in the Covenant Collection found in Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 22:28-29):
כב:כח מְלֵאָתְךָ֥ וְדִמְעֲךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְאַחֵ֑ר בְּכ֥וֹר בָּנֶ֖יךָ תִּתֶּן לִּֽי:כב:כט כֵּֽן תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְשֹׁרְךָ֖ לְצֹאנֶ֑ךָ שִׁבְעַ֤ת יָמִים֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה עִם אִמּ֔וֹ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֖י תִּתְּנוֹ לִֽי:
22:28 You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give Me the firstborn among your sons. 22:29 You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.
Although this passage does not use any of the common terms for sacrifice, it draws a clear analogy between the act of “giving” firstborn children to God and “giving” firstborn cattle and sheep, which are presumably destined for slaughter. Nothing in the text suggests that firstborn humans or animals are to be treated any differently from one another.
Parashat Ki Tissa (Exod 34:19-20), contains what appears to be another iteration of this law—but one that mercifully spares the human child the fate that appears to await him in Mishpatim:
לד:יט כָּל פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם לִ֑י וְכָֽל מִקְנְךָ֙ תִּזָּכָ֔ר פֶּ֖טֶר שׁ֥וֹר וָשֶֽׂה:לד:כ וּפֶ֤טֶר חֲמוֹר֙ תִּפְדֶּ֣ה בְשֶׂ֔ה וְאִם לֹ֥א תִפְדֶּ֖ה וַעֲרַפְתּ֑וֹ כֹּ֣ל בְּכ֤וֹר בָּנֶ֙יךָ֙ תִּפְדֶּ֔ה וְלֹֽא יֵרָא֥וּ פָנַ֖י רֵיקָֽם:
34:19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. 34:20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every firstborn among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.
This passage as well presents an analogy between the treatment of firstborn animals and humans: all belong to God. But here the firstborn of an ass—an animal that may not be sacrificed—must be redeemed, or exchanged, for a sheep, and the firstborn of a human mother must likewise be redeemed. This law upholds the principle that all firstborns belong to God, while making a practical distinction between firstborns that are slaughtered on an altar (“kosher” animals) and those that are not (“non-kosher” animals and humans).
Explaining the Law in Mishpatim: Traditional Approach
Redeem Them (Pidyon Haben)
Traditional Jewish exegesis assumes that the Torah’s laws agree with each other. Therefore, most traditional scholars interpret the phrase “you shall give me the firstborn among your sons” in line with Exodus 34:20, as a command to redeem the firstborn. For instance, Rashi (1041-1105) states:
בכור בניך תתן לי – לפדותו בחמשה סלעים מן הכהן.
“You shall give me the firstborn among your sons” – redeem him for five coins from the priest.
(Rashi derives the five coin rule from a yet a third source, one of the Priestly versions of this law [Num 18:16]).
Even starker is the comment by R. Tobiah ben Eliezer (11th cent.) in his Lekach Tov (Exod 22:28):
בכור בניך תתן לי. כמשמעו להיות פודהו ונותן דמיו לכהן:
“You shall give me the firstborn among your sons” – as it sounds: to redeem him and give the money to the priest.
R. Tobiah doesn’t seem to realize that a simple reading of the verse does not yield what he says “it sounds like.” He is so influenced by the other verses that he no longer actually hears what it seems to explicitly say.
An alternative interpretation of this verse assumes that the firstborn are being commanded to serve God, in the way Priests and Levites will do. R. Obadiah Seforno (ca. 1475-1550) suggests this reading:
בכור בניך תתן לי. לכל עבודת קדש, לעבודת המקדש ולתלמוד תורה כמו שהיה אחר כך בכהנים…
“You shall give me the firstborn among your sons” – for all forms of holy service, whether working in the Temple or studying Torah, as will be done afterwards by the Priests…
Seforno assumes that the verb נ-ת-נ means to give to God as a temple servant; in fact, the same verb is used in 1 Sam 1:11, where Hannah promises to give to God the boy that she is hoping for (ונתתיו לי-הוה). Seforno suggests that Exodus 22:28 represents God’s original plan, to have the firstborn serve him, but this plan changes later when the Levites and Priests take their place.
Oddly, according to this model, the law only remains relevant for a few days. By the time the mishkan is built (which begins in the next parasha), the Levites and the Priests, not the firstborn, will serve as functionaries. In fact, following the traditional conception of when the Torah was written, the law was only put to ink after it was already defunct.
The Analogy to Animals
The traditional responses cited above do not explain why the law in Mishpatim makes it sound as if the rule for firstborn humans is the same as that for firstborn animals. Other traditional sources do address this issue, by relying on another basic hermeneutical assumption, something we might call “the redundancy rule.” The Torah cannot be redundant, so why is the same law repeated in multiple places? The answer the rabbis generally give is that the repetition is meant to teach us something about the commandment.
For example, Mekhilta de-Rashbi learns from the words “give to me” about the significance of the commandment:
בכור בניך תתן לי יכול יתנם לו ודאי ת”ל ויתן משה את כסף הפדיום לאהרן ולבניו (במ’ ג נא)… אם כן למה נאמר בכור בניך תתן לי כל זמן שאתה נותנו כמצותו מעלה אני עליך כאלו לי נתתו ובזמן שאין אתה נותנו כמצותו מעלה אני עליך כאלו אותי קפחת.
“You shall give me the firstborn among your sons” – perhaps I should give them to [God] in fact? Another verse teaches you (Num 3:51): “And Moses gave the money of their redemption to Aaron and his sons.”… If so, why does it say “you shall give me the firstborn among your sons”? [God is saying:] Whenever you give [the money] as required, I count it as if you gave it to me directly, and whenever you don’t give it as required, I count it as if you shortchanged me directly.
Rashi, quoting Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael (“Masechta Dekaspa” 19), records a different midrash that derives a new rule about redeeming animals from this verse (Exod 22:28):
והלא כבר צוה עליו במקום אחר, אלא כדי לסמוך לו כן תעשהו לשורך, מה בכור אדם לאחר שלושים יום פודהו שנאמר (במדבר יח טז) ופדויו מבן חדש תפדה, אף בכור בהמה דקה [גסה] מטפל בו שלשים יום ואחר כך נותנו לכהן:
Wasn’t this already commanded somewhere else? Rather, it wishes to juxtapose this law to the words “you shall do the same with your cattle.” Just as the firstborn human is redeemed on his thirtieth day, as it says (Num 18:16): “and his redemption: you shall redeem him a month and older,” so too the firstborn of your animals: you should take care of them for thirty days and then give them to the priest.
Both solutions are classically midrashic: neither has any basis in the simple reading of the text. The need for the midrash underlines the problematic nature of the verse: Is it really possible that the Torah is mandating giving firstborn male humans to God just as firstborn animals are given?
Explaining the Multiple Versions of the Law: Academic Approach
In contrast to the midrash, critical scholarship does not assume that different instantiations of the same law were originally meant to be read in light of one another. In some cases, one text may be building on another, or one text may be revising or even attempting to polemicize against another.
The relationship between the laws in Mishpatim (ch. 22) and Ki Tissa (ch. 34) is a matter of debate in contemporary scholarship. The laws in Mishpatim are part of what is known as the Covenant Collection, an ancient collection of laws which was included as part of the northern E document. The origin of the laws in Ki Tissa is more complex. Many scholars believe that these laws are an alternate Decalogue (referred to in scholarship as the “Ritual Decalogue”) and that it was part of the J document. This claim has been challenged of late by redaction-critical scholars such as Shimon Gesundheit, who see the law collection in ch. 34 as a supplement meant to revise the laws in ch. 22.
If we assume that the law about redeeming the firstborn in Ki Tissa is independent of the law in Mishpatim, then we should not interpret the latter in terms of the former. If it was written in reaction to the law in Mishpatim, then it is revising or even polemicizing against the older law by rewriting it. Either way, we have no choice but to attempt to understand the law in Mishpatim in its own terms.
Exodus 22 as Requiring Child Sacrifice
As stated at the outset, on its own terms, the simplest interpretation of Exodus 22:28 is that it requires the slaughter of all firstborn sons. This is the view taken by many modern biblical scholars, including Jon Levenson, who defends it in his Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity.
Analogy to the Cherem Law in Leviticus
The possibility that the Torah has a law mandating child sacrifice may be shocking, but this would not be the only Torah text to require human sacrifice. The law of the cherem, the donation of something (or someone) to God, found in Leviticus 27 also references something akin to human sacrifice:
כז:כח אַךְ כָּל חֵ֡רֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַחֲרִם֩ אִ֨ישׁ לַֽי-הֹוָ֜ה מִכָּל אֲשֶׁר ל֗וֹ מֵאָדָ֤ם וּבְהֵמָה֙ וּמִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ לֹ֥א יִמָּכֵ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִגָּאֵ֑ל כָּל חֵ֕רֶם קֹֽדֶשׁ קָֽדָשִׁ֥ים ה֖וּא לַי-הֹוָֽה: כז:כטכָּל חֵ֗רֶם אֲשֶׁ֧ר יָחֳרַ֛ם מִן הָאָדָ֖ם לֹ֣א יִפָּדֶ֑ה מ֖וֹת יוּמָֽת:
27:28 But any cherem that a person declares cherem to Yhwh from his property, whether of humans or a beast or of his ancestral field, it shall be neither sold nor redeemed; all cherem is holy of holies unto Yhwh. 27:29 Every human cherem that is declared cherem shall not be redeemed; he shall be put to death.
Here we see explicitly that once a person is dedicated to God, the person must be killed.The verse explicitly rejects redemption as an option. On the most straightforward reading, it would seem that the author of Exodus 22:28 held a similar view with regard to firstborn sons.
Examples of Child Sacrifice in the Bible
There are also several narrative texts that seem to portray child sacrifice as a legitimate practice, or at least do not explicitly condemn it:
- God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen 22). Although in the end God prevents Abraham from going through with the sacrifice, a plain reading of the text does not suggest that child sacrifice is inappropriate. Instead, God praises Abraham for his willingness to offer his son.
- Jephthah makes an oath to sacrifice whoever is first to come out to greet him when he returns home successful from war. It turns out to be his daughter, and this is what he does (Judg 11:39).
- Mesha, king of Moab, finding that he is about to lose in battle against the combined forces of Israel and Judah, sacrifices his firstborn son and heir, which turns the tide of the battle in his favor (2 Kings 2:27).
Thus, a law requiring child sacrifice seems to be within the bounds of possibility.
While it seems that some biblical authors accepted the idea of occasional human sacrifice, killing every firstborn son would seem to be a highly impractical mandate, one that would decimate the Israelite population. Attempting to address this, Levenson argues that biblical laws were probably rarely carried out exactly as written. They were more aspirational than practical. In this case, the law was meant to express the ideal of God’s ultimate ownership of the first and best of all life. Levenson argues that while some Israelites probably did carry out the gruesome practice of child sacrifice, it was likely never a norm for all families.
Temple Service – Seforno with a Twist
Another possible interpretation of the verse is that suggested by Seforno (discussed earlier). Giving a son to God means dedicating him to service at a local sanctuary. It was noted above that following the traditional model, as Seforno does, the law would only have existed for a handful of days because it was ostensibly legislated at Sinai and cancelled upon the building of the mishkan.
Modern scholarship, however, does not follow the historiographical timeline of the Torah. Therefore, the law in Mishpatim may envision a reality in which firstborn serve as functionaries at local sanctuaries, either with Levites and/or Priests or instead of them.
Hannah’s Dedication of Samuel
Whether the practice of dedicating firstborn sons to service was ever widespread is a separate question. The only biblical reference to such an act occurs in the story of Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the sanctuary at Shiloh, mentioned above, which was in fulfillment of a voluntary vow rather than on obligation on all families. (In this respect, it resembles two of the examples of child sacrifice cited above: Both Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter and Mesha’s sacrifice of his son are in fulfillment of vows.) Thus, even if Seforno’s basic interpretation of the law is preferred over Levenson’s, Levenson is probably correct that the law was aspirational and was never in widespread practice.
Although this interpretation would seem to be undermined by the apparently identical treatment of humans and animals in Exodus 22:28, this is not necessarily the case. The phrase “give to me” used for both animals and children focuses on the act of donation rather than ritual slaughter. In fact, it is not clear that the firstborn animals mentioned in this verse are to be immediately slaughtered; they may simply be understood as donations to the sanctuary’s herd.
Put another way, the analogy between firstborn animals and humans in this verse may suggest that the dedication of a person for service in the sanctuary fell into a broader category of sacred offerings, which included animal sacrifices, the firstfruit offerings (bikkurim) and other types of donations.
Differing Biblical Interpretations
Ezekiel vs. Numbers 8
Thus far, we have seen two plausible interpretations of the law in Mishpatim: either it mandates the ritual slaughter of firstborn children or it requires that they be dedicated to serve at a sanctuary. I have attributed the former interpretation to the contemporary biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson and the latter to the medieval exegete R. Obadiah Seforno. But there is in fact evidence of both interpretations within the Bible itself.
Ezekiel’s “Bad laws”
Ezekiel 20:25-26 appears to understand the law as mandating the ritual slaughter of firstborn sons. In this astonishing passage, the prophet states that because the Israelites refused to follow the Lord’s good, life-giving laws,
וְגַם אֲנִי֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לָהֶ֔ם
חֻקִּ֖ים לֹ֣א טוֹבִ֑ים
וּמִ֨שְׁפָּטִ֔ים לֹ֥א יִֽחְי֖וּ בָּהֶֽם:
וָאֲטַמֵּ֤א אוֹתָם֙ בְּמַתְּנוֹתָ֔ם
בְּהַעֲבִ֖יר כָּל־פֶּ֣טֶר רָ֑חַם
לְמַ֙עַן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵֽדְע֔וּ אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
I also gave them bad laws,
Laws that were not good
and rules by which they could not live.
When they set aside the first issue of every womb
I defiled them by their very gifts—
that I might render them desolate,
that they might know that I am Yhwh.
The phrase “the first issue of every womb” here recalls the law of the firstborn in its various iterations, while the term “set aside” (העביר) recalls the prohibitions of burning children as sacrifices to the god Molech in Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 18:10. The most straightforward understanding of this passage is that, in Ezekiel’s view, God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice every firstborn child as a punishment for not keeping his “good laws.”
Numbers – Replacing Firstborn Sons with Levites
In contrast, the Priestly source seems to preserve an understanding that firstborn sons were once required to perform sacred service, apparently in a role subordinate to priests, and that they were replaced in this role by the Levites. Numbers 3:12 commands:
וַאֲנִ֞י הִנֵּ֧ה לָקַ֣חְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּ֗ם מִתּוֹךְ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תַּ֧חַת כָּל בְּכ֛וֹר פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָ֥יוּ לִ֖י הַלְוִיִּֽם:
I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.
In Numbers 8, the Levites are formally installed as workers in the mishkan. Significantly, the Levites are presented as a kind of offering: the Israelites place their hands on the Levites’ heads, as one would do with an animal sacrifice, presenting the Levites as an “elevation offering” (tenufah). This suggests that in the eyes of the priestly author, dedicating a person to serve in a sanctuary was conceptually similar to dedicating an animal for ritual slaughter.
Although the function of these texts is to overturn the law in Mishpatim by replacing the firstborn with Levites, it implies that the original role of the firstborn was similar to that which P assigned to the Levites. They were to serve God at a sanctuary.
The Return of Firstborn Life to God
In the end, the biblical evidence does not point to a single conclusive interpretation of the law in Mishpatim. On one hand, it may express a requirement (albeit aspirational) that every Israelite family sacrifice its firstborn son. While it is difficult to accept that the Torah commands the ritual slaughter of children, we can at least see in the commandment’s development an attempt to modify a bad law (as Ezekiel put it) by requiring monetary redemption in place of actual sacrifice (Exodus 34:20).
If, on the other hand, what the law required was service at a sanctuary, it calls for an expansion of our understanding of sacrifice in biblical thought. Indeed, the very plausibility of this interpretation — and the fact of its apparent acceptance by P — argues for a view of sacrifice that is not centrally about slaughter but is equally, if not more, about the act of giving.
In either understanding, the law in Mishpatim expresses the idea that the first of all life properly belongs to God. Underlying its cryptic and challenging mandate we can detect a conviction that every birth, human or animal, is a gift from God, which is to be recognized through a partial, symbolic return of life to its Maker.
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February 3, 2016
September 19, 2019
Dr. Eve Levavi Feinstein holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. Her dissertation, “Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible” (Oxford University Press), explores the Bible’s use of purity and contamination language to describe sexual relationships. She has also written articles for Jewish Ideas Daily and Vetus Testamentum.
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