Redeeming the Firstborn Sons
A new count is to take place that counts the Israelite FIRSTBORN males starting at age 1 month; that is this new count uses the same criteria that was used to count Levites.
And what is discovered is that there are 273 more Israelite firstborns than there are Levite males to substitute for them.
Interestingly even the firstborn cattle of the Israelites (in Hebrew, behemah, which means domestic field animals used for food; this included goats, sheep, and cows) were to be redeemed by means of being replaced by animals belonging to the Levites.
In case it’s not clear: the Levites that were being used for redemption consisted of ALL Levite males, not just Levite firstborn. But among the secular Israelites (the 12 tribes) it was ONLY the firstborn who were being redeemed, not all Israelite males.
One regular Levite male of any birth order redeemed one FIRSTBORN Israelite male.
So what to do about the problem that there were not enough Levite males to redeem every Israelite firstborn?
A redemption price was set and that price was 5 shekels. At this point in history a shekel was NOT a coin like it is now (and was during Jesus’ time). Rather a shekel at that time was just a unit of weight…like an ounce or a gram.
The 273 Israelite firstborns, that were to be redeemed with money were chosen by lot. And those who were chosen had to come up with 5 shekels of silver each and present it to Moses, who then gave it to Aaron.
So 22,000 Israelite firstborns were redeemed in a one-to-one swap with 22,000 Levite males; and the remaining 273 Israelite males were redeemed with 5 shekels of silver each, which was given to the priesthood.
In this way every Israelite firstborn was redeemed and thus no longer automatically devoted to the service of the Lord. The transfer was complete. The Levites now belonged to God in place of the Israelite firstborns and the Israelite firstborns lost their special status to the Levites.
Let me comment that this was, for the most part, a spiritual status that the firstborns lost and the Levites gained. Other typical firstborn traditions and customs about family authority and wealth and leadership, etc., still fully applied.
So what was the status of all FUTURE Israelite firstborns from this time forward?
Well the Hebrews felt that it was STILL necessary to redeem each Hebrew Firstborn. It was less a matter that God still automatically owned all the firstborns but rather that it was done in commemoration of the Exodus when God struck dead all the Firstborns of Egypt, but saved all the Firstborns of Israel.
So the idea was that when a firstborn son was born the parents dedicated that child to God in gratitude. Then, after 30 days, they redeemed that firstborn son BACK by going to the priesthood and paying the redemption price.
When a firstborn was born, after 30 days a ceremony was held and the father took his son to the Tabernacle and he paid the Priesthood a sum of 5 shekels of silver to redeem his son.
By doing this the firstborn son was no longer devoted in service to God; he was redeemed FROM God, the price of redemption being 5 shekels.
Let me stress: this concerned ONLY the firstborn. If a man had several sons it was ONLY the first one born that he redeemed, not the others, because the others were not dedicated to God, thereby essentially becoming God’s holy property.
Theoretically if that redemption did NOT occur, that firstborn son was obligated to lifetime service to God, or to the priesthood, or both. In reality there was very little that firstborn could have done for the priesthood, because it was the Levite’s task to be of service to the Priests. And anyone who was not a Levite, but undertook a Levite’s task, was to be executed.
Now, there were some parents who determined that they DID want their firstborn son to be in service to God; and so they intentionally did NOT redeem him.
We’ll see this particularly in the Nazarite vow whereby a child is offered into service to God before he’s even born. We see this in the Bible with Sampson for example.
By the way, John the Baptist was also NOT redeemed even though he was a firstborn.
Perhaps for the reason few might expect; John was not a Jew in the strictest sense, he was a Levite!! His father was a priest and his mother Elisheva (Elizabeth) was of the line of Aaron. John the Baptist was not eligible for redemption.
Rather just like the all the male members of the tribe of Levi, beginning in the Book of Numbers, he is permanently in service to God and cannot be redeemed from that position.
In fact even Jesus was redeemed from God by means of a price paid by his earthly father Joseph. We’ll find this story in Luke chapter 2.
Go there now with me, so we can see this entire principle we’re learning about in Numbers, take place with Jesus as the focus, some 1300 years after the practice was first begun.
Here is a story we are all pretty familiar with but likely really didn’t fully understand. What we’re witnessing is just a standard every day firstborn redemption of a Jewish baby boy (firstborn). In this case, it is Jesus.
The Hebrew title of this entire process is called pidyon-haben. As part of the law of pidyon-haben notice that it was not until Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day that He was given His name.
The reason for this delay is that names held great significance and until Jesus was 8 days old, and had a circumcision ceremony, He was not put under the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant. On the 8th day He received His Hebrew name because He officially became an Israelite.
Next it says that the redemption was after the time of purification according to the Law (meaning the Torah), when Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem. The purification that is being discussed is NOT about Jesus, it’s about Mary; and this, too, is contained in the law of pidyon-haben.
When a woman bore a child, if it was a boy, she was ritually unclean for a period of 40 days. So we know that it was AFTER 40 days that this scene in Luke took place because she could NOT have come to the Temple in an unclean condition.
Further the sacrifice that is spoken of (two turtledoves or two pigeons) again concerns Mary, not the baby Jesus. This is the sacrifice necessary to complete her ritual purification after childbirth.
Going to the Temple was somewhat of an ordeal, and when several things could be accomplished in one trip that’s what usually happened?
So Mary was purified and Jesus was redeemed apparently in the same visit. This passage does NOT mention the amount given for Jesus’ redemption but it would have been the standard amount of 5 shekels because it didn’t matter whether the family was rich or poor, the cost of redemption was the same for every Hebrew firstborn.