The Law of the Firstborn

by , under church, readings, services

[slightly edited repost from my 2000s blog]

It’s the Feast of the Presentation today. The ninth irmos of the canon (which I typeset, this year 2022, for the liturgy book so I was reminded of it again) has the words “al het mannelijke dat de moederschoot opent” (every male who opens the womb) to the most earworm-prone part of the tune. So what happens if the firstborn is a girl: don’t girls count at all, so the womb isn’t considered open and her younger brother is regarded as the firstborn?

Luke 2:22-24 Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Then, thinking further, I stumbled upon the redeeming of the firstborn. The firstborn of livestock is sacrificed, but human babies obviously aren’t– would they have, before God took Moses by the scruff of the neck? Exodus 13 isn’t clear enough to my taste. It’s even possible to read there that it was Moses who softened the command of God, and I can so imagine Moses wrangling with his Maker on Mount Sinai to establish terms:

Exodus 13:1-2 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine.” […]
(this is Moses speaking to the people) 11-13 “And it shall be, when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and gives it to you, that you shall set apart to the LORD all that open the womb, that is, every firstborn that comes from an animal which you have; the males shall be the LORD’s. But every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. And all the firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.

This is a stock-keeping society: lambs are plentiful, but you have only one donkey. And if you won’t buy back your donkey from God, you’re not entitled to use its labour either, so better kill it. Apparently you weren’t allowed to sacrifice your firstborn donkeys if you couldn’t pay the price, which seems a waste.

“The firstborn of man among your sons” seems to imply that girls do count, so if your firstborn is a girl and you have a younger son you don’t have to redeem him, because he didn’t “open the womb”. The same was probably true for ewe-lambs and donkey fillies.

There’s a reason given for sacrificing the firstborn, a reason grounded in at the time very recent history:

Exodus 13:14-16 So it shall be, when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ that you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes, for by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

namely, this:

Exodus 11:4-5 Then Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals.”

And in Exodus 34 the same law is given again with wording so similar that I won’t bore you with it again; if you want to look it up anyway, it’s in verses 19-20, ending with the admonition “And none shall appear before Me empty-handed”.

The redeeming of the firstborn of man (and donkey) is a clear substitution of sacrifice, and the LORD goes one step further:

Numbers 3:11-13 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine, because all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am the LORD.”

I notice that the God of the Old Testament tends to say “I am the LORD” a lot, but that’s not relevant for this. What strikes me here is that the LORD doesn’t seem to require all the firstborn any more, but will have the Levites instead to serve Him; but still, the baby Jesus is redeemed with two turtle-doves because his parents are too poor to afford a lamb. I’m not enough of an Old Testament scholar to have anything sensible to say about this; if anyone who reads it happens to know how this works, please tell me!

The substitution of a pigeon for a lamb is in Leviticus:

[a woman being unclean after bearing a child, longer for a daughter than for a son, but anyway:] Leviticus 12:6-8 When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female. And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons– one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.

And after all this, when the Liturgy of the Presentation [note: the one in the 2000s which made me write this post in the first place] was already underway, I searched frantically for pen and paper while singing because I suddenly realised why Jesus wasn’t born a girl; why he couldn’t have been born a girl. For the same reason that he wasn’t born the youngest in a sprawling family like David. Because if he hadn’t been the male that opened the womb, he couldn’t have offered himself as a blood-sacrifice.

Father Theodore made that even more clear in his sermon when he said that the feast was “the intersection of the Old and the New Covenant”, and that Christ hadn’t come to abolish the laws but to fulfill them. It’s hard to make something new if you don’t stand in it when it’s old.

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