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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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FIRSTBORN. 1. The dedication of the firstborn of men and beasts was probably a primitive nomadic custom, and therefore earlier than the offering of first-fruits, which could not arise until the Israelites had settled into agricultural life in Canaan. The origin of the belief that a peculiar value attached to the firstborn cannot be definitely traced; but it would be a natural inference that what was valuable to the parent would be valuable to his God. And thus the word ‘firstborn’ could be used figuratively of Israel as the firstborn of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] among the nations ( Exodus 4:22 , cf. Jeremiah 31:9 ), and the seed of David among dynasties ( Psalms 89:28 ). The law of the dedication of the firstborn is found in JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ( Exodus 13:11-16; Exodus 22:29 b, Exodus 34:19 Exodus 34:19 f.), D [Note: Deuteronomist.] ( Deuteronomy 15:19-23 ), P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ( Exodus 13:1 f., Numbers 3:11-13; Numbers 3:40-51; Numbers 18:15-18 ). It is not impossible that in very primitive times firstborn sons were sometimes actually sacrificed (cf. 2 Kings 3:27 , Micah 6:7 ), but the practice would soon grow up of ‘redeeming’ them by money or payments in kind.

2. The firstborn ( bekhôr ) enjoyed the birthright ( bekhôrâh ). He succeeded his father as head of the family, and took the largest share of the property; this was fixed in Deuteronomy 21:17 as a ‘double portion.’ [In 2 Chronicles 21:3 the principle of the birthright is extended to the succession to the throne. But this is a late passage, and it is not certain that the firstborn was necessarily the heir apparent]. If a man died without children, the heir was the firstborn of his widow by his brother or next-of-kin ( Deuteronomy 25:5-10 ). The right of the firstborn, however, was often disturbed, owing to the jealousies and quarrels arising from the polygamy practised in Israel. The law in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is directed against the abuse. Reuben, although the son of Leah, the less favoured of Jacob’s two wives, was considered the firstborn, and lost the right only because of his sin ( Genesis 49:3 f., 1 Chronicles 5:1 ). But Ishmael was allowed no share at all in the father’s property ( Genesis 21:10 ); and the superiority of Jacob over Esau (symbolizing the superiority of Israel over Edom) is described as having been foretold before their birth ( Genesis 25:23 ), and as brought about by Esau’s voluntary surrender of the birthright ( Genesis 25:29-34 ). And other instances occur of the younger being preferred to the elder, e.g. Ephraim ( Genesis 48:13-20 ), Solomon ( 1 Kings 1:1-53 ), Shimri ( 1 Chronicles 26:10 ).

3. The death of the firstborn was the last of the punishments sent upon Egypt for Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites go. Moses gave him due warning ( Exodus 11:4-8 ), and on his continued refusal the stroke fell ( Exodus 12:29 f.). The event is referred to in Psalms 78:51; Psalms 105:36; Psalms 135:8; Psalms 136:10 , Hebrews 11:28 . It is probable (see Plagues of Egypt) that the stories of all the other plagues have been founded on historical occurrences, and that the Egyptians suffered from a series of ‘natural’ catastrophes. If this is true of the first nine, it is reasonable to assume it for the last, and we may suppose that a pestilence raged which created great havoc, but did not spread to the Israelite quarter. The growth of the tradition into its present form must be explained by the ‘ætiological’ interest of the Hebrew writer the tendency to create idealized situations in a remote past for the purpose of explaining facts or institutions whose origin was forgotten. Thus the Feast of Booths was accounted for at a late date by the dwelling of the Israelites in booths after the Exodus ( Leviticus 23:43 ), the Feast of Unleavened Cakes by the haste with which they departed from Egypt ( Exodus 12:34; Exodus 13:7 f.), the Feast of the Passover by the passing over of the houses marked with blood at the destruction of the firstborn ( Exodus 12:12 f., Exodus 12:23; Exodus 12:27 ). And similarly the singling out of the firstborn for destruction was itself connected with the ancient practice of offering to God annually in spring the firstlings of beasts. Moses demanded release in order to offer the sacrifice ( Exodus 10:25 f.), and because Pharaoh refused to allow them to offer their firstlings, J″ [Note: Jahweh.] took from the Egyptians their firstborn. This explanation, though not explicitly given, is implied in the close connexion of the dedication of the firstborn with the Passover ( Exodus 13:11-13 , Deuteronomy 15:19; Deuteronomy 16:1-8 ). In a redactional passage ( Exodus 4:22 f.) a different explanation is offered. The death of the firstborn would be a punishment for refusal to release Israel, who was J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’s firstborn.

4. In the NT the term ‘firstborn’ ( prôtotokos ) is used of Christ ( Romans 8:29 , Colossians 1:15; Colossians 1:18 , Hebrews 1:6 , Revelation 1:5 ), and of Christians who have died ( Hebrews 12:23 ); see the commentaries.

A. H. M‘Neile.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Firstborn'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​f/firstborn.html. 1909.
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