Ramblings on the Firstborn

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Luke 2:25-38.  Simeon and Anna are at the Temple, and they bless the child Jesus.  They believe that Jesus will bring about the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem.

In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph pay the redemption of the firstborn at the Temple.  The pastor was saying that ancient Judaism associated the firstborn male with the redemption of Israel.  The firstborn male was educated to be literate and studied God’s laws.  If the Levites could not minister at the Temple, the Israelite firstborn males would do so.  Families that had a firstborn male considered themselves blessed.

According to the pastor, Simeon recognized when he saw Jesus that he was not just dealing with any firstborn male.  Rather, he was seeing the Messiah, the one who would console oppressed Israel.  The pastor taught us the lesson of desiring the well-being of communities, not just ourselves and our families.

Is my pastor correct on the significance of the firstborn in ancient Judaism?  In the Torah, the Israelite firstborn male was supposed to belong to God, but Israelite firstborn males were supplanted by the tribe of Levi for the priestly role after the Golden Calf incident (Numbers 3:12).  Interestingly, wikipedia cites Sefer Or Torah, Parashas Mikaitz and Sefer Halikutim Beis (page 305), which state that the firstborn would resume the priestly role in the future Messianic Temple.  Were Israelite firstborn males educated in God’s laws?  Josephus in Against Apion 1.60 and 2.204 says that Israelite children were taught God’s laws, and he may mean children in general.  Other than inheritance rights, I do not know in what respect the Israelite male firstborn was considered significant: if he was believed to bring blessing on the family, or to fulfill some spiritual role.  I remember reading Martin Luther’s commentaries on Genesis, and Luther seemed to regard the firstborn in the Genesis stories as the priest of the family.  Where Luther was drawing that idea, I do not know.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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