First-Borns

Numbers 3:11-13 First-Borns – Parashat Bemidbar הפטרת במדבר

by

Howard Adelman

 

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 11 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
יב  וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם, מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תַּחַת כָּל-בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם, מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהָיוּ לִי, הַלְוִיִּם. 12 ‘And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine;
יג  כִּי לִי, כָּל-בְּכוֹר–בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי לִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאָדָם עַד-בְּהֵמָה:  לִי יִהְיוּ, אֲנִי יְהוָה.  {פ} 13 for all the first-born are Mine: on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto Me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast, Mine they shall be: I am the LORD.’ {P}

What’s the deal? Why did I pay my friend, a Cohen, whose actual name happened to be Aaron (the Cohenim are all descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron) to redeem one of my sons as a baby? It did not even cost me the five silver dollars I gave to Aaron, for he handed me the coin in the first place and asked me whether I wanted to keep it and give him, as a representative of God, my son, or whether I wanted to return the coin. I chose my son and he gave the five silver dollars as a gift to him. And I said a blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו. וְצִוָּנוּ עַל פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּן

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the redemption of a son.

I only learned much later that I should have redeemed my son for 100 grams of silver. I never weighed the five-silver-dollar coin to check if the weight exceeded the minimum amount. Was the whole ceremony invalid?

In any case, Aaron blessed my son. The ritual is called, “Pidyon Haben.”

It seems on the surface to be a nutty ritual. What does it mean that the first-born belongs to God? Why is a first-born redeemed? Why are the Levites provided as a substitute? What are these three verses about?

Exodus 13:2 reads: “Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites, is mine.” If you have four wives or two wives, assuming they are Jewish, the first-born son of each of them belongs to God.

Exodus 13:12-13 reads:

12 you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord.13 But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.

The commandment runs through the Torah text. (See Deuteronomy XV:19-22 where the reference is only to the first-born of animals.) It is not a one off in Numbers. Further, in Exodus it is connected to the tenth plague when the Lord slew all the first-born of Egypt. How? And why the first-born of animals as well as the first son?

In the case of animals, it must be unblemished, the best of the newborns among one’s herd. The Priest ate the flesh of the sacrifice. But no one eats the flesh of your first-born son. You do not want him to die. You get him back. And I even paid the money only symbolically. The rabbis say that a first-born is holy by nature. Ironically, holiness appears to be a given, not something acquired.

It is from this attribute that Christians insist that Jesus as the one and only son of God was sacrificed, as a beast is sacrificed, so that the sins of humans can be redeemed. What a contrast with Judaism. The Jewish ritual is a shell game. For I never gave Aaron my son. He never took him. It is all symbolic. Jews abhor sacrificing their children. Christians celebrate that God sacrificed his only son. Sacrifice is avoided for redemption, not to achieve redemption for oneself and clearly not for the sins of mankind.

Further, there is a twist. The first-born could be a girl. You do not have to redeem a daughter. Only a son. And only if he is the first-born, which he is not if a daughter is born first. The reference is both to boys and to first-borns. Both are necessary conditions. There are additional conditions. If the first-born son of a Jewish woman is delivered by caesarian section and does not “open the womb” himself, the child does not have to be redeemed. If the woman had a stillbirth, that child, even though born dead, was considered to have opened the womb so that even if she subsequently gives birth to a boy, that boy is not considered a first-born to be redeemed in the ritual of Pidyon Haben. But if she has twins, only the first out of the womb is redeemed. Finally, if the child himself is a Levite or a Cohen, he does not have to be redeemed. Why? Because he is destined to be a sacrifice and not someone sacrificed. Further, he is destined for religious institutional rather than political leadership.

There are a number of explanations for the ritual. One is that in Egypt, given Pharaoh’s command, the first-born sons were at risk. Another is that when God slew the first-born infants of the Egyptians, the first-born sons of the Israelites needed special protection. In another innovative interpretation, it is the first-born son of Jewish women, not Jewish men, who must be redeemed because the redemption is carried out for the shechinah, the feminine side, the nurturing side of God, the place where God actually dwells. In another account, the ritual is carried out in memory of Rachel whose fist-born son, Jacob, was sold into slavery.

I want to try another approach by trying to understand the nature of the first-born before trying to figure out the resolution of the puzzles and the connection with previous explanations.

Though key characteristics such as agreeableness, aggression, conscientiousness, extraversion and openness seem to be randomly distributed among children, first-borns seem to have a disproportionate share of the following twelve characteristics:

  1. Achievers who strive to win;
  2. Controlling;
  3. Careful rather than rash high-riskers;
  4. Diligent;
  5. Greater BMI (body mass index);
  6. Higher proportions of homosexuality;
  7. Lower insulin sensitivity, hence higher amounts required;
  8. Premature adults with a propensity for leadership;
  9. Reliable;
  10. Self-assured;
  11. Serious;
  12. Structured

Note that 21 of NASA’s first 23 astronauts who made trips into space were either eldest or only children. All seven of the original Mercury astronauts were first-borns. Fighter pilots are most likely to be first-borns or only children. Assuming the validity of the evidence concerning the significance of birth-order, though the data does not track first-borns following stillbirths, etc., what has all of this to do with the rituals described above? Even more significantly, what does it have to do with God and Jewish history favouring second-borns – think of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob; Ephraim and Menassah. First-borns may receive a double inheritance, but also need to be redeemed from God.

It is noteworthy that Jesus was a first-born and Christ is considered “the first-born of all of Creation.” (Hebrews 1:6) Israel as a nation is referred to as God’s first-born son. (Exodus 4:22) Yet so many times it is a second-born who replaces a first-born in a leadership role. Relative to Judaism, Christianity, especially through the doctrine of supercession, can be considered a second-born which takes the blessing of Israel away. By nature and custom, in terms of privilege, first-borns have a clear edge.

Then why is the actual sacrifice of the first-born replaced by the dedication of that fist-born to service to God and then the Levites provided as stand-ins? Put another way, why does the first-born naturally belong to God while the second-born turns out to be the one chosen by God? Jesus, paradoxically, is a natural first-born, but the religion founded upon his sacrifice becomes the second born that historically Christians believed succeeded primogeniture in history.

I am sorry, but I do not have an answer. But I do have some thoughts. Four core ideas are involved: sacrifice; substitution; redemption and historical significance versus natural birth order. I begin with the last.

Of 44 presidents, 24 were first-borns, even more if one includes George Washington for his older siblings were half-brothers. (This was also true of FDR and Clinton who also had older half-siblings, adding further to the count.) John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson from the founding fathers were first-borns. In addition, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush were all first-borns. However, I suggest that although first-borns may be fighter pilots, fighter pilots are only the best political leaders for democratic monarchies or parliamentary democracies headed in that direction. Then you want first-borns as warrior kings, though with Jimmy Carter, the U.S. certainly did not get one.

The history of Canada, though a parliamentary rather than a residential system, is not much different. Of Canadian prime ministers who served more than a couple of years (this excludes John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell, Charles Tupper, Joe Clarke, John Turner and Kim Campbell), Sir John A. Macdonald, as wily a politician as one can find, had two older siblings; his oldest brother died (William) when he was two-years old. Alexander Mackenzie had older brothers. Wilfrid Laurier had an older sister who died two years before he was born. William Lyon Mackenzie King had an older sister who lived to the age of 41. Only R. B. Bennett and Robert Borden, two notable failures as prime ministers, were first-borns before WWII.

 

However, after WWII when Canada came into its own as a nation, things changed with respect to first-borns. Only Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were not first-borns. Louis St. Laurent John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau were all first-borns. Does that mean anything? Statistically, it certainly does. Being first-born plays a significant role in directing one towards political leadership.

 

Why then in the Torah did the Israelite nation in its genesis run counter to this propensity and told stories of younger siblings usurping the leadership role of his elders? Why would an unsteady and insecure character like Moses become the founding political leader of his people? Why does the Torah favour selection over the authority and natural leadership of first-borns?

 

Do first-borns tend to sacrifice others for their own advancement while second-borns sacrifice themselves for the public good? The careers of Justin Trudeau, Paul Martin, Lester Pearson, and Louis St. Laurent would seem to belie that. There is no evident correlation, though there is a possible one with ideology.

 

However, there is another sense of sacrifice. The first-born is the testing ground in parenthood, the child on whom all the inadequacies of parents (and God) are thrust. The first-born, with all the advantages of favouritism, is the sacrifice undertaken in raising children. Parents do learn something, as does God, from initial mistakes. Further, a later child can learn from those who go before, particularly lessons in figuring out how to get around road blocks. Relatively and disproportionately, first-borns are brave born leaders for the most part, but second-borns are more wary of direct confrontation. (There are exceptions, of course, Jean Chrétien is an example; as the 18th of 19 children, he had to learn to be scrappy to earn his place in the sun.) A second child inherits more experienced parents and has a chance to watch and learn more than the first-born. The second-born must rely more on his own wits to get ahead. This often makes the later-born a more cultivated leader without the brash thrust of the first-born.

 

Precisely because the first-born is up for sacrifice, the first-born must be redeemed from God. This requires that a substitute be offered to minimize the extent of that sacrifice. The suggestion is not that second-borns and later-borns have a propensity to make better leaders than first-borns, but, rather that the two groupings constitute very different kinds of leaders, ones wary of competing in a wide-open field or vast sky, but, instead, prepared to search for a niche where they can shine. Hence, Jews became a niche people instead of fulfilling God’s wish that they multiply and dominate the world as God’s physical expression in the world. Hence a polity very different than either the U.S. or Canada, in spite of the wide differences between the U.S and Canada.

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