FIRSTBORN

The Bible is not "the word of God," but the result of repeated compilations and redactions of many different sources. The fundamentalist fanatic editors produced a text full of redundancies, inconsistencies, and tendentiously sanitized history. Fortunately, their censorship of the original documents was not entirely successful. Close study reveals traces of a less "politically correct" reality.

One example is the subject of Ashera, the chief goddess of the Canaanite pantheon, always referred to in the Bible as an abomination. If so many kings were congratulated for removing Ashera from the temple, she must have been present there a good deal of the time. Indeed, the arithmetic according to the books of Kings and Chronicles reveals that the statue of Ashera stood in the first Jerusalem temple for 236 of the 370 years of its existence. Apparently, she was part of the legitimate religion, opposed by only a few zealots. Furthermore, King Jeroboam of Israel established a polytheistic "idolatrous" temple at Bethel (1 Kings 12:32-33) including a statue of Ashera (1 Kings 14:14-15, mistranslated in the King James Version as "grove"). That temple operated for over 300 years, even surviving the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by a hundred years. It was finally destroyed by King Josiah of Judah (2 Kings 23:15).

Another such example is the subject of this essay: the firstborn. The laws and practices relating to the first fruits, the firstlings of domesticated animals, and the firstborn sons of humans, were varied and contradictory. Here also, the censored final version of the Bible does not completely hide the "unseemly" reality.

ULTIMOGENITURE

The first hint of inconsistency is the improbable frequency with which the eldest son was removed by some circumstance, to be replaced by the youngest son. The eldest was sacrificed, or dedicated to God, or dishonored, or driven away, or killed -- but the upshot was always that he was deprived of his birthright. The youngest son became the heir, and received the blessing and the place in the family tree. This happened so often in the Biblical narrative, that one suspects that the norm was not primogeniture but ultimogeniture.
 
CAIN was the firstborn of Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1) but God rejected his offering, and instead accepted that of his younger brother Abel (Genesis 4:4-5). Cain murdered Abel and was driven away (Genesis 4:17). The youngest son Seth was the heir (Genesis 4:25) and occupied the place in the family tree (1 Chronicles 1:1).
     ISHMAEL was Abraham's firstborn (Genesis 16:11) but his mother Hagar was driven away before he was born (Genesis 16:6). God chose Abraham's younger son Isaac to inherit the covenant and continue the genealogy (Genesis 17:19-21).
     ESAU was Isaac's firstborn (Genesis 25:24-25) but he sold his birthright to his younger brother Jacob (Genesis 25:33). Jacob deceived his father and received the blessing instead of the firstborn (Genesis 27:1-37).
     JOSEPH was Rachel's firstborn (Genesis 30:23-24) but he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:28). His place in the genealogical table was taken by his younger brother Benjamin (1 Chronicles 2:1-2).
     MANASSEH was Joseph's firstborn (Genesis 41:51) but when Jacob blessed Joseph's sons he laid his right hand on the younger brother Ephraim (Genesis 48:13-14) and insisted on blessing the younger son more than the firstborn (Genesis 18:17-19).
     REUBEN was Jacob's firstborn (Genesis 35:23) but he "lay with Bilhah his father's concubine" (Genesis 35:22). His birthright was transferred to his younger brother Judah (1 Chronicles 5:1-2),
     ER was Judah's firstborn, but he "was evil in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him" (1 Chronicles 2:3).
     ELIAB was Jesse's firstborn, but when Samuel searched for the son destined to be king, God told Samuel to reject him (1 Samuel 6:6-7). God indicated that the chosen one was the youngest son David (1 Samuel 6:12-13).
     AMNON was David's firstborn (2 Samuel 3:2) but Absalom arranged for his murder (2 Samuel 13:28-29). Ultimately, the youngest son Solomon was heir to David's throne (1 Kings 1:33-34).

CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTBORN

The first offspring of any living thing was considered sacred, belonging not to man but to God. Even the first fruits of agricultural produce were not for human consumption, but must be sacrificed on the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:26) at the temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:6). Even at the beginning of the world, Cain sacrificed "of the fruit of the ground" (Genesis 4:4). This ritual was reinstated in the second temple (Nehemiah 10:35-37).

The firstborn of every man and beast, that "openeth the womb," belonged to God (Exodus 13:2). The firstlings of domesticated animals were not to be raised or consumed, but sacrificed (Exodus 13:12). Even at the beginning of the world. Abel sacrificed "the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof" (Genesis 4:4). When God killed all the firstborn in Egypt, he also decreed that all the firstborn of Israel were dedicated to him (Numbers 3:13).

A bride had to be a virgin, not only to satisfy male chauvinism, but also to make sure that her firstborn "openeth the womb." In the genealogical tables in the Bible, care was taken to identify the firstborn (e.g. Genesis 10:15). Since the Israelites were God's chosen people, he called them his firstborn (Exodus 4:22). When the prayers of a barren woman were answered, and God "opened her womb," she would dedicate her firstborn to the service of God. This was the case with Hannah when she gave birth to Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11,26-28) and with the wife of Manoah when she gave birth to Samson (Judges 13:3-5,24-25).

SACRIFICE OF THE FIRSTBORN

There is much in the Bible about other idolatrous nations sacrificing their firstborn. The Ammonites burned theirs in the belly of the Molech (1 Kings 11:7). When the Israelites attacked the Moabite city Kihareseth, King Mesha of Moab saw that he was losing the battle. He sacrificed his firstborn son "for a burnt offering upon the wall," and the Israelite army departed with "great indignation" (2 Kings 3:27).

Joshua prophesied that anyone who would rebuild Jericho would entomb his firstborn and his youngest son in the foundations (Joshua 6:26). This was not much of a curse, since that was a common practice. (Archeologists have found newborn infants entombed in cornerstones all over the Middle East.). When Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt Jericho, he did indeed entomb his firstborn and his youngest son in the foundations (1 Kings 16:34).

The infant Moses, a firstborn, was exposed on the Nile in an ark of bulrushes (Exodus 2:2-3). (He was in good company. Other notable firstborns exposed in their infancy, and rescued and brought up by strangers, include Gilgamesh, Sargon, Oedipus, Perseus, Romulus and Remus, and Siegfried.) The tenth plague that Moses unleashed upon Egypt was the death of all the firstborn, man and beast (Exodus 11:5).

There are indications that the sacrifice of the firstborn was also practiced among the Israelites. Otherwise it would not have been necessary to forbid it so many times (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, Deuteronomy 12:31, Micah 6:7). King Solomon built a Molech (1 Kings 11:7) and therefore he must have used it. Jeremiah raged against the practice (Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35). King Josiah put a stop to the sacrifices to the Molech in Tophet (2 Kings 23:10) so previously there must have been such sacrifices.

REDEEMING THE FIRSTBORN

In spite of insistence on the sanctity and the sacrifice of the firstborn, there was a way out. One could "redeem" a human firstborn, but also the firstling of a ritually unclean beast unfit for sacrifice.(Numbers 18:15). One could pay the priest the value of the firstling of an unclean beast (Leviticus 27:11-12). In the specific case of the firstling of an ass, one could substitute a lamb to be sacrificed (Exodus 13:13, 34:20).

In the above verses, the obligation to redeem a human firstborn was mentioned, but not explained. Elsewhere, an inclusive alternative was provided. God commandeered the entire tribe of Levi to serve him "instead of all the firstborn that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel" (Numbers 3:12) so everyone else was off the hook.

To this day, even Jews who are not religious, and who would not dream of sacrificing anyone or anything, perform the ceremony of "pidyon haben" [redemption of the firstborn son]. The fledgling father pays five silver coins to a "cohen" [a descendant of the temple priests] to "redeem" his newborn son.

ISAAC AND JESUS

Isaac combined in his story different, even contradictory, traditions. He was Sarah's firstborn (Genesis 21:2-3) so there was nothing new in his.being a candidate for sacrifice. He was also Abraham's youngest son, so there was nothing new in his being chosen to inherit from his father and continue the succession (Genesis 17:19-21).

In another sense, Isaac was not really Abraham's son. Compare the following: Hannah, who was barren, prayed for a son (1 Samuel 1:10-11) and God "remembered her" (1 Samuel 1:19-20). An angel told the wife of Manoah, who was barren, that she would bear a son (Judges 13:3) and indeed it came to pass (Judges 13:24). The angels who visited Abraham promised that Sarah, who was barren, would bear a son (Genesis 18:9-10). It had "ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women" (Genesis 18:11) and Abraham also was 100 years old at the time (Genesis 21:5). But in this case "The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken" (Genesis 21:1). The birth of Isaac was miraculous, and he was the son of God.

There was also nothing new in the fact that Isaac was not sacrificed, but redeemed by the substitution of a ram (Genesis 22:13). The only thing that was not consistent with the tradition, was the statement in the first sentence, that "God did tempt Abraham" (Genesis 22:1) -- so much so, that one wonders if it is not a later interpolation.

Jesus similarly combined in his story different, even contradictory, traditions. He was Mary's firstborn (Matthew 1:25, Luke 2:7) so there was nothing new in his being consecrated to the service of God (Luke 1:32-33). There was nothing new in an angel informing Mary that she would bear a son (Luke 1:30-31). There was nothing new in the fact that Mary was still a virgin at that time (Luke 1:34-35). (She was in good company. Other notable firstborn sons of virgin mothers include Horus, Osiris, Dionysus, Krishna, Buddha, and Lao-Tse.) The birth of Jesus was miraculous, and he was the son of God.

There was also nothing new in Jesus being redeemed (Luke 2:22-23) by substituting an animal sacrifice. The required sacrifice was a lamb, and a pigeon or turtledove (Leviticus 12:6). Those who could not afford a lamb might substitute two turtledoves or two pigeons (Leviticus 12:8) and Jesus' parents took advantage of that option (Luke 2:24). Christians call this event "The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple," and they celebrate it on February 2, called "The Feast of Candlemas."

MY OPINION

This hodgepodge of puerile myths emanates from the monstrous decree that the first offspring of any living thing belongs, not to man, but to God. Such was the lust for power of the self-appointed spokesmen of the god they invented, that they did not shrink from sadistically imposing this savage law upon their fellow men. What could be more evil than this: to teach that one has no right to one's pride and joy -- that the hard-earned first fruits of one's labor in the field and of one's animal husbandry, and even one's beloved first child, must be delivered into the insatiable maw of the jealous god, all the while singing his praises? Were it not for this abomination, the rest of the whole disgusting mishmash would have been superfluous.