Laws of the Firstborn: How They Were Connected to the Tenth Plague
Striking the Animals in the Plague of the Firstborn – A Secondary Element
After Pharaoh refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, YHWH strikes Egypt with the death of Egypt’s firstborn humans and animals (noted in red italics):
שמות יב:כט וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה וַי־הוָה הִכָּה כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשְּׁבִי אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית הַבּוֹר וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה.
Exod 12:29 In the middle of the night YHWH struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon and all the firstborn animals.
The merism “from the firstborn of Pharaoh… to the firstborn of the prisoner” modifies “all the firstborn in Egypt” exhaustively; the death of the firstling animals seems like an afterthought. This is confirmed by the very next verse:
שמות יב:ל וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה הוּא וְכָל עֲבָדָיו וְכָל מִצְרַיִם וַתְּהִי צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּמִצְרָיִם כִּי אֵין בַּיִת אֲשֶׁר אֵין שָׁם מֵת.
Exod 12:30 And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.
The verse’s formulation implies that the plague struck the Egyptian houses; firstborn animals do not reside in houses. The Egyptians’ reaction to the plague highlights the intended horror: every house has a dead child. Dead cattle are never mentioned; they could hardly have made the plague worse. Furthermore, YHWH already killed all the livestock in the plague of pestilence:
שמות ט:ו... וַיָּמָת כֹּל מִקְנֵה מִצְרָיִם וּמִמִּקְנֵה בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא מֵת אֶחָד.
Exod 9:6 …all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not a beast died.
Even if some animals survived the pestilence (see Exod 9:19, 25), their inclusion in the death of the firstborn is anti-climactic: killing off some surviving firstlings is hardly a major coup de grâce worthy of being placed alongside the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn.
Based on these and other observations, Shimon Gesundheit of Hebrew University argued that the inclusion of firstling animals among the victims of the plague of the firstborn is secondary.
What precipitated this narrative development? The answer lies in the laws of the sacrifice and redemption of the firstborn.
The Command to Offer the Firstlings and Redeem the Firstborn
In the following chapter, Exodus 13, Moses lays out three separate laws that will apply once Israel enters the land:
- Firstling “kosher” animals must be sacrificed;
- Firstling donkeys (=non-kosher animals) must be redeemed or killed;
- Firstborn sons must be redeemed.
שמות יג:יב וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ כָל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לַי־הֹוָה וְכָל פֶּטֶר שֶׁגֶר בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ הַזְּכָרִים לַי־הוָה. יג:יג וְכָל פֶּטֶר חֲמֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה.
Exod 13:12 You shall set apart for YHWH every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your animals drop shall be YHWH’s. 13:13 But every firstling donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every male first-born among your children.
Moses then explains that the father should tell his son that these are commemoration rituals. YHWH struck the firstborns of Egypt, both human and animal, so we sacrifice our firstborn animals and redeem our firstborn sons:
שמות יג:יד וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. יג:טו וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג יְ־הֹוָה כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַי־הוָה כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה.
Exod 13:14 And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that YHWH brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. 13:15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, YHWH slew every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both human and beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to YHWH every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every male first-born among my children.’
This explanation is ambiguous, and doesn’t quite align with the rituals for the following reasons:
1. Commemorating slaughter with redemption—Only “kosher” animals are sacrificed; pack animals and, most importantly, humans are redeemed. Yet redemption of firstborns is hardly reminiscent of God’s slaughter of Egyptian children which it ostensibly commemorates.
2. Focusing on firstlings—The core of the commandment, the sacrifice of the firstlings, commemorates the (unimportant!) death of Egyptian animals.
3. Whose redemption is the son watching?—The father is explaining to his son about the redemption of his firstborn, which he is about to do. But wouldn’t the son to whom he is speaking be that firstborn? Yet pidyon (redemption) is a ritual generally carried out on one-month-old babies?
4. How many firstborn sons?— The reference to “sons” in plural (“therefore I redeem all my firstborn sons”) is also strange. The setting for the son’s question and the father’s answer seems to be a yearly ritual, in which the father is doing all these things. For firstling animals, the plurality makes sense, but how many firstborn sons could the father be redeeming at one time?
5. פטר רחם, “breaker of the womb”—This term is used here as a reference only to animals, in contrast to בכור which here refers to people. In all other cases, פטר רחם includes humans as well. (Considering general usage elsewhere, we would have expected the father to specify that he sacrifices: כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים בבהמה “every male breaker of the womb among the animals.”)
Reconstructing the Father’s Original Speech
These difficulties indicate that the text has undergone editorial expansion. In its original form, this legal passage thought the plague of the firstborns struck down humans alone, just as Gesundheit argued for the firstborn plague narrative. And the ritual commemorating the killing of the Egyptian firstborn was the sacrifice of firstling animals alone, without any redeeming of firstborn humans (the red italics is the redaction):
שמות יג:טו וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג יְ־הֹוָה כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַי־הוָה כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה.
Exod 13:15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, YHWH slew every [male] firstborn in the land of Egypt, the firstborn of both human and beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to YHWH every first male issue of the womb but redeem every male first-born among my children.
The original text presented the firstlings of the Israelites as symbolic representations of the Egyptian firstborns, and their ritual slaughter, probably within the context of a sacred meal, as a kind of reenactment of the divine slaughter of the Egyptian firstborns.
The Father’s One Ritual
Removing the father’s reference to redeeming his sons, the connection to the final verse becomes much cleaner:
שמות יג:טו ...עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַי־הוָה כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה. יג:טז וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 13:15 …Therefore, I sacrifice to YHWH every first male issue of the womb but redeem every male first-born among my children. 13:16 And it shall be a sign upon your hand and a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand YHWH freed us from Egypt.
The verse is in singular “it shall be,” referring to one ritual act, namely the yearly sacrifice of the firstling (pure) animals. The sacrifice of the firstling is meant to remind the Israelites that God violently killed the Egyptian firstborn the way we (says the father to the son) violently kill the animal firstborn. The final verse emphasizes this, by comparing the ritual to a sign/symbol, a metaphor for “reminder.” The addition of the redemption of the firstborn sons and impure animals was added later and makes the verse, with the singular referent “it,” difficult to parse.
Adding the Firstling/Firstborn Laws into the “Cultic Decalogue”
It is clear that this combined complex of firstling/firstborn laws was of great importance to the later editors of the Pentateuch. This is evident from the brief law collection in Exodus 34 (the “cultic decalogue”). As Shimon Gesundheit demonstrates, the redaction there is especially obvious:
שמות לד:יח אֶת חַג הַמַּצּוֹת תִּשְׁמֹר שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצּוֹת אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב יָצָאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם. לד:יט כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לִי וְכָל מִקְנְךָ תִּזָּכָר פֶּטֶר שׁוֹר וָשֶׂה. לד:כ וּפֶטֶר חֲמוֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ כֹּל בְּכוֹר בָּנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה וְלֹא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם.
Exod 34:18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days, as I have commanded you—at the set time of the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you went forth from Egypt. 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 a donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every male first-born among your children. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.
The laws here disrupt the natural continuation of verse 18 in verse 20bb, as found in the editor’s base text from the Covenant Collection:
שמות כג:טו אֶת חַג הַמַּצּוֹת תִּשְׁמֹר שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצּוֹת כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב כִּי בוֹ יָצָאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלֹא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם.
Exod 23:15 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed.
Originally, the pilgrim was told in an unspecified way to refrain from appearing empty-handed on the festival. The precise character of the offering he would make was undefined. We can see from this that later editors were aggressive in adding the combined firstling/firstborn law complex to the exodus story, and its consequent legal iterations, such as the celebration of the Matzot festival.
The Opening Command
The redaction in Exodus 34 is based, in part, on the opening of the firstling/firstborn law in Exodus 13. Here too, the editor added the full complex of combined rituals onto a law that originally discussed only pure firstling animals:
שמות יג:יב וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ כָל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לַי־הֹוָה וְכָל פֶּטֶר שֶׁגֶר בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ הַזְּכָרִים לַי־הוָה. יג:יג וְכָל פֶּטֶר חֲמֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה. יג:יד וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו...
Exod 13:12 You shall offer to YHWH every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be YHWH’s. 13:13 But every firstling donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. And you must redeem every male first-born among your children. 13:14 And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply…
The verb והעברת “offer to” originally communicated a command to slaughter. The meaning was changed, however, when פטר רחם “womb breaker” came to include humans. In that context it means “set apart” or “transfer to divine ownership.” When we remove the supplement, we can see how, originally, פטר רחם “womb breaker” did, in fact, refer only to animals (contrary to later usage). This makes sense from a development-of-language point of view.
The usual term for the human firstborn is בכור (bekhor), appearing as such well over a hundred times, and it nearly always refers to the firstborn son of the father. In contrast, the rare פטר רחם designates the first issue of the mother. This designation makes sense for animal firstlings, since in any herd with multiple males, it would be impossible to determine which was the father.
The original command in verse 12, relating only to the yearly sacrifice of firstlings, anticipates the father’s explanation “that is why I sacrifice.” This yearly ritual spawns the child’s question, and leads to the consequent explanation that this sacrifice reminds Israel of YHWH struck the firstborn Egyptians.
An Independent Law Is Connected to the Exodus Story
The expansion of the firstling law is a later step in the process of connecting this ritual to the exodus story. Elsewhere in the Torah, the law of sacrificing firstlings is not connected to the story of the exodus:
דברים טו:יט כָּל הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר יִוָּלֵד בִּבְקָרְךָ וּבְצֹאנְךָ הַזָּכָר תַּקְדִּישׁ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲבֹד בִּבְכֹר שׁוֹרֶךָ וְלֹא תָגֹז בְּכוֹר צֹאנֶךָ. טו:כ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ תֹאכֲלֶנּוּ שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אַתָּה וּבֵיתֶךָ.
Deut 15:19 You shall consecrate to your God YHWH all male firstlings that are born in your herd and in your flock: you must not work your firstling ox or shear your firstling sheep. 15:20 You and your household shall eat it annually before your God YHWH in the place that YHWH will choose.
Here the firstling cattle and sheep are sacrificed before YHWH, but no mention is made of any connection between this ritual and the exodus, nor is there reference to the redemption of firstborn humans or impure animals. The Priestly law of Leviticus 27:26–27 and Numbers 18:15–18, which does refer to the redemption of firstborn humans and impure animals, and presents these offerings as revenue to the priests, similarly fails to draw a connection between the offering of firstlings (and redeemed firstborns) to the exodus narrative.
The first step, then, in connecting the two appears in the early version of Exodus 13:
שמות יג:ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא יְ־הֹוָה אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה // יג:יא וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִאֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לְךָ וְלַאֲבֹתֶיךָ וּנְתָנָהּ לָךְ. יג:יב וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ כָל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לַי־הֹוָה // יג:יד וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. יג:טו וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג יְ־הֹוָה כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם // עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַי־הוָה כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים // יג:טז וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 13:3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how YHWH freed you from it with a mighty hand // 13:11 And when YHWH has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as [YHWH] swore to you and to your fathers, and has given it to you, 13:12 You shall offer to YHWH every first issue of the womb // 13:14 And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, “What does this mean?” you shall reply, “It was with a mighty hand that YHWH brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. 13:15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, YHWH slew every [male] firstborn in the land of Egypt //. Therefore, I sacrifice to YHWH every first male issue of the womb.” // 13:16 And it shall be a sign upon your hand and a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand YHWH freed us from Egypt.
This passage, the first to connect the firstlings offering to the story of the plague of the firstborn, was then redacted to include the redemption of the firstborn sons and the redemption or destruction of the impure animals, on the basis of the Priestly texts. This resulted in a complex and ambiguity-producing situation in which the dual requirement to sacrifice firstlings but redeem firstborn sons was presented as related to a single plague.
Why the Death of Firstlings Was Added to the Plague Narrative
This brings us back to the story of the plague of the firstborn. The addition of the redemption of the firstborn son to the law of Exodus 13:11–16 goes hand in hand with the revision of the story of the plague of the firstborn mentioned above. To explain how two ritual practices simultaneously symbolize a single event, the editor of the law of Exodus 13:11–16 simultaneously added the death of the firstling animals to the plague of the firstborns: Not only were the Egyptian firstborns destroyed, but so were their firstlings!
Following this, the ritual slaughter of the firstlings could be construed as a representation of the destruction of the Egyptian firstlings, leaving the destruction of the Egyptians firstborns free to be represented by the redemption of the Israelite firstborns. Even though this reconfiguration of the symbolism suffers from the difficulties highlighted at the outset of this essay, it achieved the editor’s goal: to incorporate the priestly redemption laws within the framework of the old law that connected the ritual of the firstlings to the plague of the firstborn.
The Progression of the Firstling Law
In sum, the firstling law developed in three broad stages:
- Originally, an independent, non-Priestly sacrifice of pure firstlings was unconnected to the exodus story (=Deuteronomy 16:19–20). Also unconnected to the exodus story was the Priestly law (Leviticus 27:26–27 and Numbers 18:15–18), which presented pure firstlings and redeemed impure firstlings and firstborn sons as the property of the priests.
- Next, the non-Priestly sacrifice of firstlings was connected to the exodus story, as a commemoration for the killing of the firstborn Egyptians (=original form of Exodus 13:11–16).
- Finally, the priestly laws were added into the non-Priestly law of Exodus 13:11–16, creating a complex set of offerings and redemptions all in commemoration of a single plague. In order to help facilitate the correspondence between the rituals and the narrative, the editors added the death of the firstling animals to the story of the plague. Now the sacrifice of the firstling animals no longer commemorated the plague of the firstborn sons, but only the death of the firstling animals of the Egyptians. The redemption of the Israelite firstborn sons now, awkwardly, commemorated the plague of the firstborn Egyptian sons.
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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