God, not quite satisfied with having killed all the first-born among the Egyptians, now sets his sights on the Hebrews.

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt by József Molnár

Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt by József Molnár

“Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exod. 13:2). This applies only to the males, of course.

Now, the symbolism here is fairly obvious. In a culture where livelihoods depend on cattle being born, and where worth is determined by the continuation of one’s lineage, sacrificing the first places a great deal of trust in God that he will provide more.

This chapter seems to show a cultural shift from an era in which child sacrifice is the religious norm to one in which it is not. Perhaps this is a different way of perceiving/explaining the same shift fictionalised in the story of Abraham and Isaac. So while the personal story of Abraham and Isaac has the son replaced with an animal, so this corporate story offers the alternative of “redeeming” sons by substituting an animal.

Incidentally, many Jews today perform a ritual called Pidyon ha-Ben, which involves giving a small sum of money to a kohein in lieu of sacrificing a first-born son.

Into the wilderness

God and the Israelites set off towards Canaan. But instead of taking lovely straight route “by way of the land of the Philistines” – where there’s a lot of fighting, so God is worried that the Israelites will get scared and turn back – he takes them “by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Exod. 13:17-18).

The idea that they are trying to avoid the land of the Philistines seems a bit problematic. If we accept the Pharaoh of this section to be Ramses II, that would put the Exodus at around 1213 BCE. But the Philistine civilization wasn’t established until 1175 BCE, a full 40 years later. Does anyone have a plausible explanation for this?

In any case, they are carting around the bones of Joseph, which is a nod back to Genesis 50 where Joseph predicts that God will lead the Israelites out of Egypt and that they will take his bones with them.

“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exod. 13:21). This sounds pretty impressive until you think about it for a moment and realize that this sounds remarkably like some guy at the front holding a brazier. It’s times like these that poetic language really obfuscates.