Tuesday, May 07, 2019

That Wacky Old Testament (12)

“Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck.”

Well, that seems a little brutal, doesn’t it? “Hello, baby donkey. Nice to see you in the world. SNAP!”

What on earth is THAT all about?

Good question. Glad you asked.

Out of Egypt

What had happened was this. The Lord had called the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, delivering them from Pharaoh with convincing evidences of his power and goodwill toward them. He had brought the Israelites, their flocks and their herds out into the wilderness equipped for battle and enriched with the wealth of Egypt; moreover, he had promised to bring them safely to their new home in Canaan.

He then said to them through Moses:
“When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s.
As deals go, this was a pretty fair shake. The last of God’s signs performed in Egypt had been the death of all the firstborn Egyptian males. God had made a distinction between his people and their oppressors in order to show that he was unlike all the “gods” of Egypt and any others previously known in that part of the world. So the firstborn males of the Egyptians and their animals died, while all the firstborn of the Israelites lived.

An Anticipatory Act of Faith

But in order to perform this final miracle of destruction on their behalf, and thereby accomplish their deliverance from Egypt once and for all, God first required a demonstration of faith from Israel. The night of this terrible miracle, the people were instructed to eat the very first Passover celebration; one lamb per household. As evidence of their obedience and trust in God, the occupants of each household were to take a little of the lamb’s blood and brush it with a sprig of hyssop on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. Then, when the Lord passed through the land to strike the Egyptians, he would see the blood on the doorposts and literally “pass over” that door. He would “not allow the destroyer to enter your house to strike you.”

Technically, we know this blood-on-the-doorposts business wasn’t a necessary step, right? God knew exactly who lived where. He could easily have bypassed the doorways of those he wished to save while destroying all those he wished to destroy. He had already made these sorts of distinctions several times when afflicting the Egyptian oppressors with previous plagues.

But God is not interested merely in demonstrating his power while an impressed audience looks on uncomprehendingly. He is looking for willing participants in his purposes, not fence-sitters. In this case, he found them. The Israelites obeyed, and their firstborn were saved, both human and livestock.

Under New Ownership

Meanwhile, the firstborn sons of the Egyptians all perished, from Pharaoh’s own son right down to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon, as well as the firstborn males of all the Egyptian livestock. Pharaoh finally realized it was pointless to resist a God who could so effectively enforce his will, and he drove the Israelites out of Egypt. God’s people were free.

Thus the Israelites came to understand — some better than others, no doubt — that deliverance was expensive. It was not accomplished without cost. In this case, it was the innocent lamb that paid the price on their behalf and saved the lives of the firstborn of Israel. The spiritual significance of that sacrifice would become more obvious with the passage of time and further revelation of God’s coming Messiah.

As a result, God then tells the newly-freed Israelites that all the firstborn of Israel and the firstborn of their livestock now belong to him in perpetuity. He had delivered them; he owned them. That seems perfectly reasonable to me, and it seemed perfectly reasonable to Israel too.

Acceptable and Unacceptable Sacrifices

Now, sacrifices in Israel were not merely burned to ashes and discarded. When we say that all the firstborn males now “belonged to” God, it was not a matter of torching them on an altar by way of offering them up to him. It was not mere killing for killing’s sake. The animals sacrificed served a useful purpose. Even the first Passover sacrifice was not wasted, but rather was entirely eaten by the families themselves. This remained the custom under Israelite law in later days. Further, God intended to call one of the Israelite tribes to serve exclusively as his priests. His dedicated servants and their families would be fed by the continuous stream of sacrifices and offerings the people brought to God.

Now, lambs, oxen, goats — all these were acceptable offerings. But Jehovah was not like the demon-gods of the Canaanites, demanding human sacrifice. Far from it. The burning of a human being on an altar was utterly offensive to God. So while the firstborn males of the Israelites belonged to him too, it was obvious the treatment of humans had to be different from that of the firstborn male animals from the Israelite livestock. Thus it was necessary to redeem or “buy back” the firstborn males in every Israelite family by offering an acceptable substitute to God on their behalf. The Israelite families kept their firstborn sons, and God got something useful in exchange.

Spelling Out Who Owns What

A male donkey was in a unique position among Israelite livestock. As would later become plain once God spelled out the sacrifices he was prepared to accept and those he was not, donkeys were neither sacrificed nor eaten. A donkey could not be directly “given” to God in the same way as other livestock, and yet he too had been saved by the Passover lamb; moreover, he was still a very valuable and useful animal.

So, like human males, God ordained that donkeys also needed to be bought back. When your she-donkey had her first male foal, it belonged to God, not you. If you wanted to keep it for your own use, you had to give God an acceptable substitute — in this case, a lamb. Those who refused to do so were not allowed to keep the unredeemed donkey for their own use. They were required to break its neck.

God owned that donkey, and if God could not have it, then nobody else would.

Give to God What is God’s

Now, I can tell you with great confidence that God has nothing whatsoever against donkeys. He even speaks through them on occasion. The purpose of the donkey law was not to institutionalize cruelty. The law existed to make a point, and the point is this: what belongs to God belongs to God. It belongs to him entirely, and from the get-go. His people do not get to make exceptions because they’d like to keep this or that for themselves. He saved it, it is his, and that is to be respected. Jesus taught this principle too: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The donkey law existed to draw a clear and unmistakable distinction between what belonged to man and what belonged to God; one that by its very nature could not be easily forgotten.

I cannot say with certainty that no donkey in Israel ever got his neck broken, but simple economics dictates it was a very unlikely event. Donkeys were too valuable and the price of their redemption far too reasonable. If the plunder of Midian serves as a representative example, the average property owner in those days had more than ten sheep for every donkey he owned, and even ten sheep together could not carry you or your property on their backs like a donkey could. Even if you had donkeys to spare, it would still make way more financial sense to redeem a baby male and sell it than to break its neck. So this tradeoff was a good one for the Israelites. In fact, we do not read of a single historical donkey neck-breaking in the rest of our Old Testament.

The Sacrifice of a Greater Lamb

Now, we too have been redeemed by the sacrifice of a (much greater) Lamb, and we too belong wholly to God. Not a third of us, not a tenth of us ... all of us, and entirely. In that respect Christians are all a bit like firstborn male donkeys, and not just those of us with cranky dispositions.

The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians:
“He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Earlier, he says to the same group of Christians:
You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
The one who paid the price gets to call the shots. It was true in Israel, and it holds true in the spiritual realm as well.

Law and Grace

Of course, we are not under the Law of Moses, but under God’s grace. Nobody is making us give anything we don’t want to give, or breaking any necks at all, either figurative or literal. However, just as a devout Israelite was to recognize God’s right to enjoy the benefit of the things which belonged to him by reason of his having saved them from physical destruction, the Christian is to recognize that God did not save us from eternal destruction in order to turn us loose in the back forty to graze away our lives as we please.

God has every right to the property for which he paid the astounding price of his own beloved Son. That property is you and me. The Christian who fails to recognize and acknowledge this very basic reality is certainly capable of thwarting God’s will for his life if he so determines. We can all live our lives primarily for ourselves if that’s what we choose to do.

Bear this in mind though: a Christian living for him- or herself is about as useful as a donkey with a broken neck.


  1. I would say that many people would sort of be appalled at the fact that the Egyptian (mostly politically innocent, depending on age this could be into young adulthood) first born had to bear the brunt of this whole affair. What would the conversation between God and that creature be when they met? Also, does this justify similar thought processes and actions that undoubtedly also occurred in human history well into our days? God to first born - sorry I just had to kill you because your king had a major attitude. How would that go over?

    1. Actually, that's probably a good enough question to rate an entire post in response. Let me cogitate on that a bit, Q.