Exodus 13:1-16: The Costliness of Belonging to Yahweh
Our passage today is Exodus 13:1-16. In terms of the story-line we are still between the exodus event and the crossing of the sea. As with our text last week, the major concern here is the teaching of the exodus event to future generations, or better, a teaching of the God of the exodus event to future generations, namely, Yahweh.
Two rituals are prescribed to assist in remembering and teaching: the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread and the consecration of all Israel’s firstborn to Yahweh. The Feast of Unleavened Bread has been prescribed/described by Moses already. Here we find it again in verses 3-10. The point of eating bread made without yeast for a week every year is to remember that Yahweh’s salvation was so swift and decisive (when it finally came) that the Israelites did not have time to put yeast in their dough and allow it to rise. When it was time to go, it was time to go. There was no time to wait for dough to rise. The bread had to be baked and eaten without leaven as the Israelites hastily got out of Dodge.
The annual week-long feast of bread that didn’t rise is a way to connect future generations with the event, a way to “taste the haste” in which they had to leave, a way to teach that Yahweh is the One who can bring sudden, unimaginable reversals - bringing low the puffed up, setting free the pressed down. The remembering invokes worship of Yahweh.
The new ritual prescribed in our text is the consecration to Yahweh of all of Israel’s firstborn. This is in direct correlation to Yahweh striking dead all of the firstborn of the Egyptians. Just as Yahweh claimed Egypt’s firstborn, so now Yahweh claims Israel’s firstborn. The way this worked was that every firstborn male animal, for example a sheep or a goat, would be sacrificed to Yahweh. In the ritual killing of every firstborn male animal Israel would be reminded of their salvation in Yahweh.
In the case of a firstborn donkey, the Israelites were permitted to “redeem” it with a lamb. In other words, the firstborn donkey belonged to Yahweh, but presumably because of its value as a beast of burden Yahweh permitted the Israelites to buy the donkey back from Yahweh at the price of a lamb without blemish. They could sacrifice a lamb in exchange for the life of the donkey. If they did not desire to redeem the donkey, then they had to break its neck, that is, kill it. It belonged to Yahweh.
The Israelites were to redeem their firstborn sons as well. The price is not mentioned here, but based on other texts the price was a lamb without blemish, or if the family was extremely poor, a couple of doves. This redemption of firstborn sons would be a stark reminder to every generation of Israelite fathers and mothers of Yahweh’s liberating death blow upon the Egyptians. The event would be relived with joy and reverent fear in every family. The firstborn belong to Yahweh.
Theologically, this ritual of consecrating the firstborn to Yahweh teaches something that we generally prefer to neglect: that although salvation is free, it is costly. The exodus teaches us that salvation is free in that salvation originates in the heart of Yahweh. The Israelites had done nothing to merit salvation. In Deuteronomy 9, when the Israelites are on the verge of finally entering the Promised Land, Moses lets them know in no uncertain terms that Yahweh is not doing this because they are righteous. They are a stiff-necked people, and their rebelliousness will soon show as they journey towards Sinai. Yahweh liberates them out of His own volition, out of faithfulness to the promises He freely made to Abraham. Salvation originates in the heart of Yahweh, not in the righteous character of the Israelites.
But while salvation is free in that it is Yahweh initiated, it is costly in that it places the Israelites under the claim of Yahweh. They are indebted to Yahweh. This is important for us to grasp. Salvation is not so much liberation for self-government as it is a change of masters. While the Israelites have been freed from Pharaoh, they are not absolutely free. They now belong to Yahweh. And belonging to Yahweh is costly. From exodus to eternity every first born male, of both humans and animals, belongs to Yahweh. That’s an awful lot of sheep literally going up in smoke.
When Yahweh saves, Yahweh places a lifelong claim upon those He saves. It is an expensive salvation, though a free salvation. Remember what Yahweh kept telling Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that they may serve/worship me.” From the beginning, exodus salvation never was about liberation for self-government. Exodus salvation is about Yahweh becoming Master.
I’m sure you’re starting to make some New Testament connections. When Jesus sets us free from sin, it is always to serve him. Salvation is not to be lived out in self-government, but under the lordship of Jesus Christ. “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…” (Mt. 11:28-30). It may be a yoke that is “easy,” but it is still a yoke nonetheless.
To whom did the Egyptians really belong? Who created the Egyptians? Who ultimately gave them up in death that the Israelites might be set free? I think the salvation of the Israelites was costly on God’s side, it cost God the firstborn of the Egyptians. While Yahweh knew what must be done in order that it might be known that Yahweh is the One Who Is, I just don’t see much of a smile on Yahweh’s face that exodus night. The price of liberating Israel to serve a new Master was exceedingly great, and Yahweh, creator of both Israelites and Egyptians, was the One who ultimately paid it.
Yahweh’s cost of saving the Israelites was the firstborn sons of Egypt. The cost of saving all humanity was Yahweh’s Son, His only Son, whom He loved. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son. . ..” Salvation, initiated out of the love of God, cost God His only Son.
What an immense price God paid in order that we might be saved from bondage to sin and guilt, that we might be reconciled unto Him and liberated to serve Him! Salvation was free, in that God initiated it out of God’s own loving heart, but it sure wasn’t cheap. I think of the Charles Wesley hymn, “And Can It Be?” The chorus goes, “Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou my God, shouldst die for me?” Yahweh bought us - Israelite, Egyptian, American, whoever - Yahweh redeemed us with the blood of His Son, Jesus.
Yahweh “bought” us. That does not sound too liberating, but that is New Testament salvation as well as Old. We have not been set free for self-government (or self-fulfillment, which is another version of the same thing), but rather we have undergone a change of masters. We have been saved to live under the lordship of Christ. Salvation is free, but it also indebts us for eternity. We are saved to serve/worship God.
Paul uses this metaphor of being bought to underscore this relationship between freedom in Christ that is really ownership by God. In 1 Cor. 6:12 ff. Paul is critical of the Corinthian Christians for their sexual promiscuity. His argument is that Christianity is not just a spiritual matter, but concerns the body as well. He urges them to flee sexual immorality, to keep their bodies pure from any illicit unions. Why? “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body” (6:19-20).
As Israel’s exodus salvation meant the offering to God of their firstborn, so our Christ salvation means the offering to God of our very bodies (as well as heart, mind, and soul). There is no other answer to the God-paid cost of free salvation. It is an expensive salvation (from both sides, and that not equally), free to us only in that it is initiated in God’s heart. It demands our all.
Isaac Watts in the hymn At the Cross touches on this dimension of cost:
But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe.
Here Lord, I give myself away; ‘Tis all that I can do!
It is in giving, in consecrating ourselves to God, that we teach the coming generations the salvation of God. When your children ask why you offer yourself to God without reservation, tell them it’s because God offered Himself, in His only Son, to us without reservation.
This idea of service to God continues to work out within the Exodus narrative as these former slaves of pharaoh covenant to be people of God and to live in the world as images of God.