Last week, we skipped over verses 1-2 because they go along with verses 10-16 in describing the consecration of Israel’s firstborn. As you will no doubt notice, our present text has many similarities with our previous one. The LORD specifically inaugurated the annual Passover meal and Feast of Unleavened Bread so that the Israelites would remember the day of their exodus, of their mighty deliverance from Egypt and from the house of bondage. We now read of yet another ceremony that would commemorate that great day: the consecration of the firstborn.
CONSECRATE TO ME ALL THE FIRSTBORN // VERSES 1-2, 10-13
The LORD said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” This opening command (Consecrate to me all the firstborn) and declaration (Whatever is the first to open the womb… is mine) is rather shocking in how direct it is. God is claiming ownership and possession of all of Israel’s firstborn, both human and animal.
Especially given our modern sensibilities, such a frank statement can come as a bit of a shock. After all, did God not just rescue the Israelites from slavery, from being owned by Pharaoh? Indeed, He did! The difference, of course, between Yahweh and Pharaoh is that the LORD is the Creator of heaven and earth and everything that is within them, which by the way includes Pharaoh. In one of our hymns, we rightly sing, “Creator owns creation.” We all know this to be true of human creation. The craftsman has ownership of his work, whether that work is furniture, paintings, or pottery. We even acknowledge intellectual property and content creators’ rights to own what they produce.
For example, I own my Bible because I purchased it. Yet the ESV translation itself is owned by Crossway. I can do whatever I want with my physical copy because it is mine, but since Crossway produced the ESV translation, they give specific guidelines for how it may be used without having to acquire written permission from them.
Because God is the Creator, all of creation belongs to Him. He is the potter, and we are His living, breathing pottery. He is the painter, and the sun, moon, and stars are His radiant canvas. He is the sculptor, and the earth is His intricately designed monument. Such is true divinity, which Pharaoh had no authority to claim. As we will see shortly, the king of Egypt could not exercise true authority over his own fate. How then could he have the audacity to claim ownership over an entire nation of fellow image-bearers? God, on the other hand, has every right to do so. He not only rescued the Israelites from their slavery; He also gave each one of them life.
The question, therefore, is not how God could claim ownership over the firstborn of Israel. The question is, rather, why did God assert His claim of ownership over only the firstborn of Israel. Philip Ryken helps to explain the significance of the firstborn here:
Firstborn sons were important in the ancient world, as they are in many cultures today, because they “signified the center and future of the family.” The eldest son had special responsibilities and privileges, including the right of inheritance. But God was not showing favoritism. The point of consecrating the firstborn was really to show that the whole family belonged to God. The firstborn represented all the offspring, including the girls as well as the rest of the boys. The firstborn stood for the family as a part representing the whole—the way, for example, that a captain represents his team at the beginning of a football game or an executive represents his corporation at the bargaining table. The same principle applied when the Israelites brought their firstfruits to the Feast of Harvest (Exod. 23:16, 19). They offered their first and their best to show that the whole harvest belonged to God. In the same way, the firstborn was the firstfruits of the family. To consecrate him was to consecrate everyone else who came from his mother’s womb.
So, by consecrating the firstborn to Himself, the LORD really was asserting His ownership over the entirety of the nation of Israel, both of man and beast. You may have also noticed that this is not Exodus’ first mention of firstborn. The slaughter of the firstborn within Egypt, to which verse 15 explicitly ties this consecration, was, therefore, a judgment upon the entire nation of Egypt. By striking dead each family’s representative, Yahweh was placing each family under the sentence of death, which means that the Egyptians were not being dramatic back in 12:33 when they said, “We shall all be dead.” It turns out that they very clearly understood the message that God had sent.
We still must ask another very important question of this passage: what does consecration mean? Verse 12 gives us that answer: you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. To consecrate means setting apart for sacred and holy use, that is, to the LORD, for He is the Holy One.
We should remind ourselves often that God alone is intrinsically holy. He is holy by virtue of who He is. He alone is uniquely God, the sole uncreated Creator of all things. Everything in the cosmos, therefore, shares at least one common trait: it is all created and has a beginning. Archangels, nebulas, mountains, humans, guinea pigs, sawdust, E. coli, and literally everything else all belong to the category of “created things.” God alone is within the category of the “uncreated.” He is, therefore, holy and other, unique from anyone or anything else.
Throughout Scripture, persons and things are then called holy only because of their relationship to the Holy One Himself. What God sets apart for Himself is deemed sacred or holy because it now belongs exclusively to the LORD. Our holiness, therefore, is secondhand. Israel was made into a holy nation only because they belonged to Yahweh; they were a people for His own possession. Consecrating their firstborn throughout their generations would be a visible declaration of that spiritual reality.
But how exactly were the Israelites to consecrate their firstborn to the LORD? We read:
All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD’s. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.
Verse 15 clarifies that the firstborn of Israel’s animals were to be sacrificed to the LORD, but donkeys were a different story. Because they were ritually unclean, they could not be sacrificed. Thus, the Israelites could do one of two things. They could redeem the donkey by sacrificing a lamb in its place, or if they would not redeem it, they were to then break its neck. Does this not seem a bit strange? After all, there were far more unclean animals that this command implicitly applies to, so why did God so specifically speak of donkeys? A. W. Pink gives us the answer:
That there may be no mistaking what is in view here, the Lord gave orders that the firstling of the ass was to be redeemed with a lamb, just as the firstborn of Israel were redeemed with a lamb on Passover night. Furthermore, the ass was to have its neck broken, that is it was to be destroyed, unless redeemed; just as the Israelites would most certainly have been smitten by the avenging Angel unless they had slain the lamb and sprinkled its blood. The conclusion is therefore irresistible: God here compares the natural man with the ass! Deeply humbling this is!
It is no accident either that verse 15 begins by saying, For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go… Are donkeys not known for their stubbornness? The king of Egypt obstinate refusal to concede to the LORD’s demands made him act like an unthinking beast of burden, like a donkey. The Israelites, however, were just as capable of such stubbornness themselves, as is clearly witnessed by the remainder of the Pentateuch and Old Testament in general. Indeed, just as we are about to read of the stubbornness of Pharaoh resulting in God swallowing him up into the sea, those of Korah’s rebellion would later be swallowed up into the earth, taking them alive down to Sheol, like a reversal of Enoch and Elijah. Therefore, each time they either redeemed a donkey by sacrificing a lamb in its place or breaking its neck, they were to heed it as a heavenly warning.
Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. Just as God redeemed all of Israel’s firstborn on the night of the Passover, so was every firstborn male from then on to be redeemed. In this way, God was repeating the Passover redemption over and over again in each family from generation to generation. Each time a lamb was slain to mark the birth of a firstborn son into the world that family was reminded of how the LORD rescued them from Egypt even though they were no less wicked than the Egyptians were. It was a sign that God had provided a way to make the Israelites into His people.
Indeed, nearly 1500 years later, Luke 2:22-24 tells us that Mary and Joseph redeemed Jesus as was instructed here:
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first 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.”
The redemption price was paid to consecrate Jesus to the Father. Although Jesus was the only child born who did not need to be redeemed from sin since He came to be the great Redeemer, He still followed the protocol of the law. As Galatians 4:4-5 notes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Christ is our Passover lamb who was slain in our place, whose blood marks every Christian’s heart so that the righteous judgment of our sins passes over us and onto Christ. Thus, we could say that Jesus, God’s firstborn Son was consecrated to the Father in order to consecrate us to the Father as sons as well.
YOU SHALL SAY TO HIM // VERSES 14-16
Again, the LORD instructed the Israelites to use this ceremony as a moment of discipleship:
And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”
Here again the LORD is handing down a catechism to the Israelites. When their children ask what this ongoing practice meant, they were to have their answer ready. They were to pass down the testimony of Israel’s redemption to the next generation. Indeed, while the firstborn son would not remember his own redemption, the sacrificing or redeeming of every animal in the household was an opportunity to be told. Ryken writes how this was intended to mark the child’s whole life:
If a son understood this, it would help shape his entire life. “Let me get this straight,” he would say. “When I was little, you dedicated me to God. And in order to do it you had to pay the price, just like you would for a donkey?” The son would learn from this that he had a purpose in life, that someone had paid the price for his sins, and that now he belonged to God.
Today many children spend their lives struggling to get free from their parents. They are determined not to be controlled by their mothers and fathers but to live the way they want to live. Often they assume, wrongly, that they should own and operate themselves. But we were not made for our own pleasure—or our parents’ pleasure, for that matter. We were made for God’s pleasure, and we will not find joy until we commit our lives to him.
When it comes to deciding how to live, knowing whom we are made for makes all the difference. As we make choices about what to look at, how to use our bodies, with whom to spend time, and everything else, our primary concern is not to please ourselves, or our parents, but to please the God who saved us for his glory.
Indeed, although we no longer sacrifice lambs to redeem our firstborn but look to Christ as the Lamb of God, our lives should likewise be marked by our redemption in Christ, and we too should catechize our children in this truth. The first question of the New City Catechism (which is drawn from the Heidelberg Catechism) asks, “What is our only hope in life and death?” The answer: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Notice that this is the same essential message as our text. To be consecrated to God was to belong to Him, to be devoted to His purposes rather than our own. We see this laid out clearly for us within a few texts of the New Testament.
After giving the most detailed description of the gospel within the Bible in Romans 1-11, the Apostle Paul then begins chapter 12 with this exhortation:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:1-2
In light of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for our sins, we no longer offer to God the blood of bulls and goats; instead, we offer to Him our lives. We give ourselves over as living sacrifices to Him. To Him who has redeemed us of our eternal debt, we give ourselves in eternal worship. 1 Corinthians 6:21-22 makes this abundantly clear: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The Father has redeemed us, purchased us, at the price of His own Firstborn; therefore, we are now His. As Calvin rightly said,
If we are not our own but the Lord’s, it’s clear what errors we must flee, and what we must direct our whole lives toward. We are not our own; therefore, neither our reason nor our will should dominate our plans and actions. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make the gratifications of the flesh our end. We are not our own; therefore, as much as possible, let us forget ourselves and our own interests.
Rather, we are God’s. Therefore, let us live and die to Him. We are God’s. Therefore, let His wisdom and His will govern all our actions. We are God’s. Therefore, let us—in every way in all our lives—run to Him as our only proper end. How far has he progressed who’s been taught that he is not his own—who’s taken rule and dominion away from his own reason and entrusted them to God. For the plague of submitting to our own rule leads us straight to ruin, but the surest way to safety is neither to know nor want anything on our own, but simply to follow the leading of the Lord.
Indeed, that is precisely what makes our belonging to the LORD our sole hope in life. Left to our own devices, we will make shipwrecks of our lives. The Father, as earthly fathers and mothers display in miniature, knows what is best for us. Our withholding of small, swallowable objects causes my one-year-old endless frustration. Thankfully, according to the wisdom of God, babies are not left on their own; they belong to their parents, which is for their good. Similarly, it is for our good that we belong to our Father who loves us enough to discipline us, to keep us from what would destroy us and force us to do that which is best for us.
But what about death? Colossians 1:18 rightly calls Jesus “the firstborn from the dead.” His bodily resurrection was the firstfruit of our resurrection into glorified bodies like His still to come. Just as the consecration of the firstborn was representative of the whole household, Christ is the representative of the household of God. We look now upon His blood that was shed to redeem us from our sins, but we also look upon His empty tomb as the display that, through Him, the grave will neither hold us.
 “The Lord Is a Mighty King” by Psallos
 Philip Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 370–371.
 A. W. Pink, Gleaning in Exodus, 99.
 Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus, 375.
 John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life, 22-23.