The Law of the Firstborn

13:1  The LORD spoke to Moses: 13:2 “Set apart to me every firstborn male—the first offspring of every womb among the Israelites, whether human or animal; it is mine.”
13:3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out from Egypt, from the place where you were enslaved, for the LORD brought you out of there with a mighty hand—and no bread made with yeast may be eaten. 13:4 On this day, in the month of Abib, you are going out.
13:5 When the LORD brings you to the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, then you will keep this ceremony in this month. 13:6 For seven days you must eat bread made without yeast, and on the seventh day there is to be a festival to the LORD. 13:7 Bread made without yeast must be eaten for seven days; no bread made with yeast shall be seen among you, and you must have no yeast among you within any of your borders.
13:8 You are to tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 13:9  It will be a sign for you on your hand and a memorial on your forehead, so that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. 13:10 So you must keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year.

It will be a sign for you on your hand and a memorial on your forehead – See also v16.  This became the basis, in the postbiblical Judaism, for the wearing of phylacteries.

13:11 When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, 13:12 then you must give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. Every firstling of a beast that you have—the males will be the LORD’s. 13:13 Every firstling of a donkey you must redeem with a lamb, and if you do not redeem it, then you must break its neck. Every firstborn of your sons you must redeem.

‘The ultimate purpose of this instruction was to prepare the Israelites for the death of Christ on their behalf. Though most generations of Israelites could anticipate this all-important event only vaguely, they certainly could grasp the basic concepts involved: if a life is to be restored, it must be bought back (redeemed) by a payment; and that payment is often the substitutionary death of something for something else. Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor 6:20 and 7:23, “You were bought at a price,” follows the logic of the Old Testament redemption system as it foreshadows the redemption price paid by Christ with his own blood.’ (Stuart, NBC)

13:14  In the future, when your son asks you ‘What is this?’ you are to tell him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the land of slavery. 13:15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to release us, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of people to the firstborn of animals. That is why I am sacrificing to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb, but all my firstborn sons I redeem.’ 13:16 It will be for a sign on your hand and for frontlets on your forehead, for with a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

“I am sacrificing to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb but all my firstborn sons I redeem” – ‘As each succeeding generation of Israelites gave its firstborn males to God, they would in some way recreate the exodus event. They would be reminded of the seriousness of sin; whenever they ate the meat of the animal, they would be reminded of the sacrificial meal eaten by their forefathers on the night of the exodus. By sparing their own firstborn sons through the death of a sacrificial animal, in obedience to the Lord’s command, they would experience the lifesaving grace of God in a deep and unforgettable way. Unlike the Canaanites, who gave firstborn sons and daughters to their gods by killing them (Lv 18:21), the Israelites were to let their children live (Dt 18:10). They were to pay a redemption price for each child redeemed. The males of the tribe of Levi were then to serve as lifelong substitutes for the redeemed sons (Nm 3:12).’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

‘Human sacrifice was not acceptable to God as demonstrated by Gen 22, which reflects the earliest point in Israelite history (the time of Abraham). There is evidence of human sacrifice in Canaan, but no biblical warrant for its approval exists. The instances of human sacrifice in the ot (Judg 11:39; 2 Kgs 6:3) were performed out of ignorance or by pagans.’ (Faithlife Study Bible)

Stuart (NAC) summarises vv14-16: ‘In effect the child was to be told, “Our identity is that of God’s chosen people who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and rescued from the death of the firstborn by faith in Yahweh. We keep showing that faith by dedicating all firstborn children and all firstborn male livestock to God. But we buy back the children, and the livestock that are inappropriate for God’s offerings because God is generous enough to allow us to do that. He still gets an offering, but it is a substitute offering for what he wants us to keep. When we do all this, we are doing something that reminds us of his powerful deliverance from Egypt.”‘

The Leading of God

Wiersbe quotes George Morrison: ‘It took one night to take Israel out of Egypt, but forty years to take Egypt out of Israel.’

13:17  When Pharaoh released the people, God did not lead them by the way to the land of the Philistines, although that was nearby, for God said, “Lest the people change their minds and return to Egypt when they experience war.” 13:18 So God brought the people around by the way of the desert to the Red Sea, and the Israelites went up from the land of Egypt prepared for battle.

Throughout this narrative, God’s guidance is unmissable.  But it is often surprising.  They would have expected to turn north, but instead are sent south, and to a trap (Ex 14:9).  Instead of the direct route, the indirect one.

Prepared for battle – lit. ‘in groups of fifty’.  There is no clear implication of the formation of an army.  The expression may simply mean that they left in an orderly formation.  (So Bruckner)

God plans the route

‘Nothing takes God by surprise, for in His providence He plans the best way for His people to take. We may not always understand the way He chooses, or even agree with it, but His way is always the right way. We may confidently say, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3, NKJV), and we should humbly pray, “Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me” (25:4–5, NKJV).’ (Wiersbe)

13:19 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the Israelites solemnly swear, “God will surely attend to you, and you will carry my bones up from this place with you.”
13:20 They journeyed from Sukkoth and camped in Etham, on the edge of the desert. 13:21 Now the LORD was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them in the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel day or night. 13:22 He did not remove the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night from before the people.

A piilar of cloud…and…a pillar of fire

What were the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire?
Various explanations have been offered.

Some think that they were purely supernatural in origin.  This interpretation is supported by the (repeated) comment that the Lord (or the Angel of the Lord) was in them.  The Apologetics Study Bible notes that ‘the Bible does not indicate the physical origin, if any, of the cloud or fire. However, it emphatically claims that throughout the exodus events the cloud was inhabited by God (v. 21) and possessed lifelike qualities. When Israel was threatened by the Egyptians the cloud moved between the Israelites and their enemies, expanding and spreading so as to hide the Israelites (Ex 14:19). Whenever Moses entered the sacred tent the cloud would descend and stand at the door (Nm 12:5). It could also come down and rise up again to execute judgment (Num 12:5–10).’

Others thinks that these phenomena originated in volcanic activity.  Although this would account for their appearance (cloud by day, fire by night), does the text not imply that they moved?  Humphreys says that the text does not state that the two pillars moved in front of the Israelites.  He further notes that there are no volcanoes in the Sinai peninsula, but that there volcanoes in Midian in Arabia.  A volcano in that region, although over 220 miles distant, might well have been visible to the Israelites from the beginning of their journey.  What we would say, however, is that this interpretation should not be dismissed as ‘explaining away’ the miracle.  All of nature belongs to God, and it is clear that in many miracles he does indeed use natural phenomena to achieve his ends.  In the present case, the miracle would be one of timing.

Still others think that some sort of brazier was carried on a pole.  This, again, would explain the appearance by day and by night, but it does not account for the consistent terminology (which describes them as moving, not being moved), nor for the function of the cloud and fire as guides by day and by night.