God leads the freedom march
Promised land ahead1The LORD told Moses, 2“Every Israelite mother’s first child belongs to me. Whether the mother is a human or an animal, I want that first child or that first animal reserved for me and dedicated to serving me.” 3Moses told the people, “Everyone, remember this day—the day you left Egypt and your slavery. It took the power of the LORD to do this for you. So, do as I said and don’t eat anything made with yeast.
4Today, in the first month of the year, you are leaving this land. 5The LORD is going to do what he promised your ancestors. He’s going to take you home. He’s going to give you the land now occupied by Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites. It’s a fertile land where milk and honey flow like rivers. When you get there, this is how you’ll express your devotion to the LORD every year during this month.
Festival of Yeast-free Bread6For seven days you won’t eat anything made with yeast. Then on the evening of the seventh day, you’ll have a feast in honor of the LORD. 7But before the festival, during those first seven days, I don’t want you to even lay eyes on yeast—or anything made with it. Get all the yeast products out of your homes and off your land. 8On the day of the festival, day seven, tell your children, ‘We are free today, no longer slaves in Egypt, because the LORD freed us.’ 9This springtime festival will put your head and your hands to work, helping you remind your children each year that the LORD freed you from slavery in Egypt. 10So celebrate this sacred holiday every year at this time.
Firstborn children belong to God11Here’s something else you need to do when you get to the land of Canaan, which the LORD told your ancestors he’s giving to you, 12Give the LORD every mother’s first son. And give him the first male animals born to your livestock. 13You don’t have to sacrifice donkeys, though. You can buy them back with the sacrifice of a lamb in their place. But if you prefer to sacrifice the donkey, kill it by breaking its neck. As for baby boys, you have no option but to save them. 14In the years to come, when your children ask you what this is all about, tell them, ‘It’s about the LORD coming to our rescue in a powerful way, and freeing us from slavery in Egypt.
15Pharaoh was finally going to let us go, but he got stubborn and changed his mind. So the LORD took the lives of every Egyptian mother’s first son. He did the same to their livestock. And that’s why we sacrifice every animal’s first male offspring. But we save our sons from this. 16So this festival will put your head and your hands to work, helping remind you each year that the LORD freed you from slavery in Egypt.’”
Taking the road less traveled17When Pharaoh freed the Israelites, they didn’t take the coastal route through the land of the Philistines, which was the shortest route home. God said, “These people don’t have the stomach for war. When they see a battle brewing, they’ll run back to Egypt.”
18So God took them on the less-traveled secondary roads, far out of the way. This took them through the Reed Sea and into the badlands. They carried weapons with them. 19Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Before Joseph died, he had made his family promise to take his body back to their land when they went home. He said, “God will take care of you as you carry my bones with you.” 20The people left Succoth and traveled to Etham, where they camped along the border of the badlands.
21The LORD traveled in front of them, in a rising column of smoke by day and a column of fire at night, which lit their way. That allowed them to travel day or night. 22The fire or smoke was always there with the people.
God claimed dibbs on Israel’s firstborn children and animals. They didn’t belong to the parents. They belonged to God. The first male child in each family was often considered the most important. He got a double share of the family inheritance. In the first reported sacrifice offered to God, Abel “killed the first lambs born to his prized sheep” (Genesis 4:4). The order God gave Moses wasn’t about human sacrifice, which God would outlaw. He provided a way for the parents to buy back (redeem) their children. The reason behind the ritual was to remind Israelites and their descendants, including Jewish people today, that God took the lives of Egypt’s firstborn, but spared the children of Israel. See also Exodus 13:12-15 and Numbers 18:15-16 for the process of reclaiming the children.
The writer calls the month Abib, an older name of the month that became known as Nisan (March-April). In fact, the month is called Nisan in Exodus 12:2, where the feast of Passover is first discussed. See the footnote for Exodus 12.2.
Canaan was roughly the land now known as Israel and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories.
When worshipers gave something alive to God, it usually involved ending the life. But God gave the Israelites a way of protecting the life. They could redeem it. That is, they could buy it back, substituting it with another sacrifice. See Numbers 18:16 for the ceremony to redeem a son. This ceremony usually took place on the thirty-first day after the birth. It’s the process Mary and Joseph went through when they redeemed Baby Jesus (Luke 2:21-35). Today the ceremony is called Pidyon-ha-ben, “redemption of the son.” It can also take place on the day after the birth if that day falls on the Sabbath or on a major religious holiday, such as Passover.
Those who killed the donkey, scholars say, usually struck the back of its neck with a hatchet. It’s unknown why the law doesn’t allow the usual method of slaughter, which is swift and perhaps less painful: cutting the throat. However some Jewish scholars later reinterpreted this passage by saying the donkey had to be saved. Some went so far as to say it was a sin to kill the donkey.
When the book of Numbers was written, the cost of buying the life of a firstborn Hebrew was set at five silver shekels. That’s half an ounce of silver, or 14 grams. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the priest Simeon to perform this Pidyon-ha-ben ceremony, as Jewish people call it today (Luke 2:21-35).
Egyptians maintained military outposts and forts along that popular route into the heart of their country, which was built along the banks of the Nile River. Even today, most Egyptians live near the river, which is framed in the natural barriers of deserts and seas.
Many Bibles say “Red Sea.” But the Hebrew words are yam suph, “sea reeds.” Later in the story, Moses and the Hebrew refugees will escape through a path God makes in this body of water. Scholars usually track Moses and the Hebrews escaping Egypt by walking southeast, out of the Nile Delta fields and toward the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula. They would have passed through lake regions along what is now the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. These lakes and ponds reportedly had reeds growing along the banks, like the ones the Bible says grew along the Nile River and helped anchor Baby Moses in a basket (Exodus 2:3).
Joseph was the one who invited his family to Egypt 430 years earlier. His father was Jacob, whose dozen sons produced the extended families and clans that became the 12 tribes of Israel. Egyptians embalmed Joseph’s body (Genesis 50:24-26). The Israelites buried Joseph in the city of Shechem, known today as Nablus.
Succoth was both a city and a region, much like Samaria would be in Israel. The city of Succoth was a one-day trip from what was likely the Rameses palace. That’s according to an Egyptian letter from about 1200 BC, in the time of Pharaoh Seti II.
Etham’s location is unknown. One guess places it near Lake Timsah: at the eastern end of the usually dry river valley called Wadi Tumilat. That’s along the border of the vast Sinai Peninsula. Caravans used the path as a main road into and out of Egypt. Egyptians later used the valley to connect the Nile River to the Red Sea, as a forerunner to the Suez Canal, “Canal of the Pharaohs,” which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.
The Hebrew word, anan, can mean “cloud,” “smoke,” or “mist.”
BY ROBERT V. HUBER
Chapter 13 of Exodus begins with a single, isolated verse that tells all Israelite mothers that they must dedicate their first-born child to God. This command comes in the middle of the story of how the Israelites’ escape from slavery. Why do you think this mandate is placed here in the middle of the story?
We are told that the Israelites did not take the shortest and most traveled route out of Egypt. Why do you think God sent them on a more circuitous route?
We are told that the Israelites took the bones of Joseph with them. Joseph was Jacob’s son, who was sold as a slave in Egypt but who later got appointed by the Pharaoh to a high office thanks to his gift of interpreting dreams. He’s the one who invited the family of his father, Jacob, to migrate to Egypt. What’s the point of taking his remains back to what is now Israel and Palestinian territories?
As Moses and his people moved on to the badlands they were guided by the LORD, who went ahead of them in a column of fire at night and a column of smoke in the daytime. What do you think these columns might have been?
LIFE APPLICATION. So, God insisted that the first child born into a family had to be dedicated to him. Second child, not so much. Why would God do that to the kids born later? And how does “playing favorites” affect families today.