Opening Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your great wisdom. We thank you that you have given us your wisdom here in your Word and that you promise to impart that to us through the Holy Spirit. Teach us now as we consider these things, and give us grace to know you, love you, and serve you more faithfully. Through Jesus,
All That Opens the Womb
The chapter opens with instructions about the “sanctifying” of the first born of Israel (13:2: lit. “every firstborn that opens every womb”). First, we should understand this term “opens the womb” to refer to “firstborn.” In order to understand the point of this, we must go back to the fact that Yahweh has already declared that the nation of Israel is his “first born son” (4:22). The fact that Pharaoh has oppressed his firstborn son is central to why Yahweh has struck down the firstborn sons of Egypt (4:23). But Yahweh says that the firstborn are now HIS, they are to be “sanctified” to him. What does this mean? This becomes explicit later when God reiterates that the firstborn are his (Ex. 22:29-30, Ex. 34:20). This is essentially the beginning of Israel’s priesthood. Later, the Levites are taken as substitutes for the all of the firstborn sons of Israel (Num. 3:12-13, 40-51, 8:19). Here Yahweh explains explicitly that all the firstborn became his when he struck down the firstborn of Egypt and sanctified the firstborn of Israel (Num. 3:13).
We should note that the heavy emphasis on firstborn males goes back to the beginning. The reason males are focused upon is because it is Adam’s sin that cursed humanity. The first firstborn son was Cain. For God to come and bring judgment on all of the “Cains” of Egypt and Israel is for God to begin to rectify the sin of Adam/Cain. Cain was a murderer who was sent away into the land, away from the presence of God. God is coming after this new “Cain” who is oppressing Yahweh’s righteous son (“Able”). If God is judging Cain and defending Able then God is preparing to bring Israel back into communion with Him. We see this in the fact that when God “sanctifies” the firstborn of Israel they are marked out as his “holy ones.” God has not only spared them; he has made them holy. If they are holy they have been made acceptable to God and can come back into his presence. Holiness means access to God.
Feast of Unleavened Bread
We need to remember what leaven means. Biblically speaking, leaven symbolizes growth. Ridding themselves of leaven is ridding themselves symbolically of the life and culture of Egypt. Leaven is not bad in itself, but God requires us to get rid the old leaven when it has become old or infested with sin. Once Israel is out of Egypt she will be free to make new leaven, leaven from the new land and new life God is giving her.
Notice the contrasts of service/labor: Yahweh is bringing Israel out of the house of “labor” (13:3), and now they are to “serve this service/labor at this labor” (13:5). The people are again instructed that they must teach their children while they keep this service of unleavened bread (13:8). Notice that they are to put this in the first person (“when I came out of Egypt…” 13:8). This liturgy remained largely the same throughout the generations of Israel. Passover/Unleavened was to be celebrated as a reenactment. This means that parents were not only to instruct their children about what God has done in the past but also explain its personal significance to them. Verse 9 says that this feast will be a “sign” on their hands” and for a memorial “between their eyes” so that the Lord’s law/torah may be in their mouths. Literally, they are to keep this ordinance at its appointed time “from days to days” (13:10).
Unleavened Firstborn Sons
The thing that ties the sanctifying of the firstborn together with the Feast of Unleavened bread seems to be this theme of a “sign on your hand and a memorial between your eyes” (13:9, 16). These are to be the ongoing “law” (cf. 13:9) that Israel keeps in their mouths. It also includes a confession of faith that “with a strong hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt.” Notice that the “you” has become an “us” in 13:14, 16 (compare 13:9). Thus, Yahweh has redeemed his firstborn son Israel by “passing over him” and therefore Israel is to remember this by doing the same: “you will cause to pass over everything that opens the womb for Yahweh” (lit. 13:12). The word translated “dedicate/set apart” is just another form of the word that was used to describe Yahweh’s passing through the land of Egypt (cf. 12:12, 23). (Note: this is not the word “pesach,” the specific word for “Passover.”) They are to “cause to pass over” everything that “opens the womb” from the young of the animals; the males are for Yahweh. The offspring of donkeys are to be “ransomed” with lambs and those they do not “ransom” they are to break their necks (13:13). “All the firstborn of Adam” are to be ransomed also (13:14). The instructions will be made more explicit later, but every firstborn of man and animal belonged to Yahweh. Unclean animals (like donkeys) were substituted with lambs (13:13) as were children (13:15). Holy people are to live holy lives.
Notice that God directs his people in order to secure their deliverance. Even during one of the greatest acts of salvation God recognizes that his people are likely to turn back in disbelief (13:17). Israel went up out of the land of Egypt “by fives/fifties” (13:18). Yahweh goes before Israel in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This is the same Yahweh that appeared to Moses in the burning bush. God is with his people.
Conclusions and Applications
Remember that the Old Testament is the story of Jesus (Lk. 24:27). Jesus is our Passover lamb, the ransomed-only begotten son for God’s firstborn son, Israel. This is the glory of God’s story. Thousands of years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, people were acting out the gospel, telling their children the gospel, believing the gospel in hope. This is the God we serve, the God who tells the story from the beginning to end, a story that displays his power, his goodness, and his mercy. So teach your children this story. We ought to make a big deal out of the salvation God has won for us in Jesus: celebrate the Lord’s Day, read Scripture and sing together regularly, and talk about all the time. Just be thankful for all of the good gifts of God. This is holiness. You are a royal priesthood.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Concluding Prayer: Almighty God, we thank you that when you saved us you not only took our sins and dealt with them on the cross but that you also made us your holy people. Enable us to live holy lives not like the hypocrites who think they will be rewarded for their show. But enable us to live faithful lives in joyful obedience.