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In Genesis, we see a motif of first-born sons being overly aggressive and ambitious. Kain slays Abel out of a jealous wrath. Firstborn Esau and Jacob have a long-running rivalry that ends with Jacob fleeing in fear of his life. Jacob's fear of Esua is so great that 20 years do not diminish it. Rueben attempts to usurp his father's authority by sleeping with the concubines.

At other times, the slights on the firstborn are more subtle. When Jacob/Israel blesses the sons of Joseph, he intentionally chooses the younger to receive the blessing. Genesis even points out that this was unexpected and displeased Joseph.

The theme culminates in the final plague of the Exodus when God slays the first born of Egypt. Shortly thereafter, God gives the commands for how the people are to live in the Land. One of those commands is quite surprising in light of the rest of the Bible. Exodus chapter 22:28 (with leading and trailing context) is not ambiguous:

You will not curse God, and a prince of your people, you will not smear. For your goods and your wine-pressings do not be late, your eldest son offer to me. Thus you will do for your oxen and your sheep: seven days it will be with its mother, on the eighth day, give to me. And a holy people thou shalt be to me, and predated carcasses in the field you will not eat, you shalt throw it to the dogs.—Exodus 22:27-29 (Wikiproject Wiki Bible, emphasis added)

The context makes "give to me" clear—it means sacrifice. Placed parallel with "offer," this is a call for child sacrifice. Although this interpretation is, of course, impossible in the context of the rest of the Bible. However, child sacrifice is documented in the religions of the Ancient Near East.

However, later on in Exodus, one reads:

All that breaks opens a womb, and all your livestock remember, first birth a bull and a sheep. And first birth of donkeys you will redeem with a sheep, and if you will not redeem it, break its neck. All your firstborn sons, redeem, and they will not see my face devoid of these.—Exodus 34:19-20 (Wikiproject Wiki Bible)

The call is to kill all that is firstborn of animals. The exceptions are donkeys, which one may redeem with a sheep, and sons which must be "redeemed." One can interpret this verse as saying that an animal sacrifice must be substituted for a human male.

Does Exodus 22:28 call for killing firstborn sons in ritual child sacrifice?

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This is a comment, not an answer, but I believe the earliest versions of the religion demanded child sacrifice, with reforms that abolish this coming later. This removes the interpretation stretches regarding these two verses. Unfortunately, I can't support this with anything else, it is just a suspicion, based upon the odd nature of Genesis 22, and the firstborn sacrifice logic of Exodus. –  Ron Maimon Apr 9 '12 at 2:14
There are certainly scholars who believe child sacrifice was an ancient Israeli practice. See Wikipedia and an interview with Thom Stark. –  user2082 Feb 26 '13 at 6:11

1 Answer 1

Offering the eldest, the firtsborn, the firstfruits, etc is all about putting God in the forefront of your life.

This is shown clearly in 1 Samuel 1 where Hannah dedicates her firstborn son to the Lord in service:

She made a vow and said, "O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head."

This is evidenced in myriad other places throughout the Bible - where the firstborn was to be consecrated to the Lord for the potential of special service.

With regards to the comment made about the "firstborn sacrifice logic of Exodus" - the firstborn of Egypt were not "sacrificed": it was a punishment from God against the nation of Egypt, with a clear and simple means to avoiding the judgement (the blood on the lintel posts of the door which became known as the Passover to be celebrated in perpetuity throughout Israel's history until it is fulfilled in Christ).

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This is a reasonable explanation +1 and I might accept--- but I am confused about the parallel with animal sacrifice in the two quoted verses. I am hoping there might be some other evidence relating to a previous child-sacrifice practice among the Hebrews. –  Ron Maimon Apr 9 '12 at 17:02
child sacrifice is explicitly forbidden to the Hebrews - however, using the same word in differing contexts with different thrusts is quite common –  warren Apr 9 '12 at 17:22
Conflict of interest disclosure: I am firstborn. –  Ron Maimon Oct 26 '12 at 17:46
Reuben was the firstborn, not Judah. Judah was actually 4th born, but his elder brothers all disqualified themselves for leadership. Reuben tried to usurp leadership from their father by sleeping with the concubines. Levi and Simeon massacred a city to avenge their sister. –  Frank Luke Feb 26 '13 at 21:19
@warren: it wasn't a misnote--- I meant Reuben. I was thinking of the story of Reuben sleeping with Jacob's concubine, the thing that makes him "unstable as water" and unsuitable for an inheritance. This is over-masculinity. The Judah was a brain-glitch, I know the stories. –  Ron Maimon Feb 27 '13 at 12:25

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