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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
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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

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

This text does not call for child sacrifice. Note in the first passage you quote (citation?), it says that the first-born child is to be redeemed, not killed. This is optional for animals (apparently), but not for people.

God asserts ownership of first-born, but this does not necessarily mean sacrifice. Numbers 3:12-13 (and later in the chapter) makes this clear:

וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם, מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תַּחַת כָּל-בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם, מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהָיוּ לִי, הַלְוִיִּם.

כִּי לִי, כָּל-בְּכוֹר--בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי לִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאָדָם עַד-בְּהֵמָה: לִי יִהְיוּ, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

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; 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.'

The Levites are, explicitly, a substitute for the first-born that open the womb. And they are not sacrificed; they serve God in the mishkan/temple. To be given to God, then, means to be used as God sees fit -- the altar for animals, priestly service for people. This is consistent with Hannah's son as noted by @Warren.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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yes, it is interesting. I'll need to read further and see for myself before accepting, tho. –  Ron Maimon Apr 12 '12 at 16:54
    
I accepted this answer, although I disagree with this. I have a dark-feeling regarding firstborn sacrifice after close-reading Genesis/Exodus/Leviticus, the stories repeatedly make firstborns look murderous and undesirable, and it looks like a setup for a firstborn sacrifice tradition. But when the sacrifice comes in the E section, the child is saved by grace of God, and sacrifice is forbidden. I fear that the earlier J text demanded child-sacrifice, and that J makes this the source of Hebrew magical power, and that only after E is it forbidden. These verses made this suspicion explicit. –  Ron Maimon Oct 25 '12 at 17:09
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If you're looking for a more explicit consideration of practices at the time (you mentioned elsewhere that you were hoping for an archaeological answer), maybe History.SE would be better able to help you? I can't speak for anybody else here, but I know I don't have that kind of expertise to bring to the table. –  Gone Quiet Oct 25 '12 at 17:15

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
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Conflict of interest disclosure: I am firstborn. –  Ron Maimon Oct 26 '12 at 17:46
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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
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@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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