The image of the first born son figures prominently in the Bible and so does their death. The death of the first born and God’s role is not something anyone wants to talk about (at least not something anyone should want to talk about) but often it is necessary to talk about things we would rather not.
I have a couple of major interpretive themes I have been pushing lately that I believe have been lacking in public biblical interpretive reading – the need to read the Bible holistically with the New Testament being read in the light of the Old, the Old in light of the New and a recognition that the tools of God in the hands of humanity tend to be destructive and deadly.
The reality however is that the tools of God in the hands of God have also proven to be deadly as well. My readings this week have revolved around these things.
Before we speak of death however let’s speak of the honor of the first born.
In Exodus chapter 13 God commands Moses:
“Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal…And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.”
The point? Everything belongs to God…even us. Whether we like it or not is not the point…it is a simple and profound reality, one that we most often fail to live within. To consecrate the first born to God is not to give them to God so much as to acknowledge they are already God’s…they are already in God’s care along with all things.
Israel is God’s firstborn among the nations and God’s promise for Israel is God’s promise for the world…that of sonship, that of childhood.
Consider the following verse in light of the verses we just read from Exodus.
“A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.” – Revelation 14:9-10
Notice the parallels? If those marked on the hand and the forehead are God’s than those who knowingly mark themselves otherwise belong otherwise to this beast mentioned in Revelation…a creature of the world, a power that seeks to corrupt and disinherit those who belong to God. To knowingly deny one’s inheritance is to lose one’s saving heritage.
Reading the Bible in context of itself like this should also serve to encourage an understanding of how God often delivers truth in symbol and discourage people from assuming silly things like the mark being some sort of microchip in the hand or head etc.
Now to death.
There is much in the Bible I do not like. I have to be honest. The most distasteful elements of scripture have to do with God’s commands toward death. The final plague on Egypt that brings the death of all first born. Of course there are those who would point out that Pharaoh brought this on himself and his people but it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart and it is Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament that speaks to this uncomfortable truth about God when he writes in Romans 9:14-24:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
The truth of this is that God is God and we are not. This is where terrible trust must take the place of offense. But we cannot simply say God is who God is in the place of difficulty and then conveniently assume God-like knowledge in other areas of morality and virtue…we either know God or we do not…and ultimately we do not know God except that we are known by God. This may or may not be enough for you but it is, ultimately enough.
So God demonstrates that the first born belong to God by taking their lives and sparing those who would knowingly come under God’s protection and a multitude die and a multitude live and I hate it…but God is God and I am not (thank God). This is the ultimate truth that we all live under and will come to learn one way or another.
Death in Exodus (and elsewhere) is a tool in God’s hand to demonstrate God’s will and authority and because it is God wielding it, it is righteous…that is the definition of righteousness.
Later in the New Testament we see what happens when a human attempts to wield a tool of God`s without the authority of God.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. – Matthew 2:16
There is much happening here in these verses when read in light of the Old Testament that has disturbing similarities to the final plague against the firstborn in Egypt all those years earlier. It is another reversal such as what we saw with Revelation in comparison to Exodus. King Herod orders the death of the babies of Bethlehem in order to wipe out the source of righteousness. While one might look at both incidents and see no difference there is a very clear one – in one circumstance God is acting and in the other God is not. Furthermore in another interesting reversal God seeks and delivers sanctuary for one very important son in this circumstance by sending him into Egypt…a new Moses that will not only deliver Israel but the entire world from bondage.
Further to Herod’s act it should be noted that this is the act of a King of Israel against his own people, an act filled with profound and sad irony. An act that should not surprise if taken in consideration of the following verses of the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 8:6-9:
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
The desire for a king is a human desire. God says I am in charge even when it does feel or look that way and that to set up another authority has consequences…although God allows it…fast-forward to Herod who like so many rulers before and since has proven the point.
Death in the hands of humanity is death…always. Death in the hands of God can become redemption…it can become salvation…when God takes it upon God’s self in the death of a son; a first born…it can become life.