The Flight Of The Firstborn Nation
Defining Israel's Role As God's Firstborn
After the plague of the firstborn, Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1–13:16) tells the story of how we're finally freed from years of slavery! Mazal Tov! But before we get to the triumphant splitting of the sea, we read a whole section of laws relating to firstborn children and animals. Wait, what?!
Can’t this wait until we're across the Sea?? What's the deal with these bechor laws and what can they teach us about the true meaning of the Exodus? More importantly, how do these laws shape our definition of what it means to be God's firstborn?
In this video, we explore the biblical connections between the Egyptian plague and the Israelites' laws of the firstborn. In doing so, we shape our understanding of what God meant when he declared that 'Israel is My firstborn,' and the significance behind the laws of dedicating and consecrating the firstborn as belonging to God.
Watch Rabbi Fohrman’s Passover course on the concept of the firstborn: "What Does It Mean To Be God’s Chosen People?"
David: Welcome to Parshat Bo. After years of suffering, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go.
Immanuel: Actually, no. Smack in between the triumphant escape from Egypt and the story of the splitting of the sea is a very strange interruption... there's a whole section of just... laws.
Bechor: Why Do We Have Laws of the Firstborn?
Immanuel: And they're not even relevant right now. They're for when the people eventually get to the land of Israel: Firstborn children should be redeemed. Firstborn animals should be sacrificed. There's even a special procedure for every firstborn donkey.
David: What!? This is so anticlimactic! Can't this wait until the story's finished?? But these laws may actually be telling us something essential about the Exodus itself.
Let's explore it together, this week on the Parsha Experiment. Hi, I'm David Block.
Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Let's pull up our 20-second parsha recap.
- Pharaoh's people desperately want the plagues to end, but Pharaoh still refuses, and God brings the 8th and 9th plagues.
- Before the 10th plague, God commands Israel to sacrifice a lamb and paint its blood on their doorposts. God adds that the lamb should be brought each year to remember this event.
- God slays Egypt's firstborn but passes over every Israelite home.
- Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go… they rush out with their unleavened bread.
- Then, we have a section of laws pertaining to the firstborn.
Parallels to the Death of the Firstborn Plague in Egypt
David: So what's that final section of laws doing here, interrupting our story? God actually gives the reason for these laws. Did you notice that all the laws have to do with the bechor, Israel's firstborn? And that this section comes right after the plague of Egypt's firstborn – Makkat Bechorot?
That's not a coincidence. God says: When your children ask about these laws, tell them:
וַיְהִי, כִּי-הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ – when Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us go,
וַיַּהֲרֹג יְהוָה כָּל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד-בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה – God killed every firstborn of Egypt, people and animal.
עַל-כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַיהוָה, כָּל-פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים, וְכָל-בְּכוֹר בָּנַי, אֶפְדֶּה – therefore, I sacrifice to God every firstborn animal and redeem every firstborn person.
Immanuel: Now, let's do a thought experiment. If you were on God's legal committee, and you were trying to create laws that commemorate the Exodus, what would those laws look like?
You probably wouldn't say: "Play leapfrog to remind you of the plague of frogs" because plagues were just a means to an end. You'd want laws that commemorate freedom from slavery!! And we do get some laws like that in the Torah.
But, here, God does ask us to commemorate a plague – the plague of the firstborn. Why? For that, we have to understand what a firstborn really is. What does it mean to be a bechor?
The Significance of the Firstborn in the Bible
David: The bechor plays a unique role in a family. Practically, he's the one who's closest in age to the parents and to the rest of the kids. He's the transitional figure – the generational bridge.
The bechor is in the best position to take the parents' values and bring them to the next generation. At least symbolically, he continues his parents' legacy. The very word "bechor" indicates that role.
In the system of Gematria, every letter in the Hebrew language has a numerical value. If you look at the root of bechor, it's ב-כ-ר. In Gematria, ב is two, כ is twenty, and ר is two hundred. It's all increasing multiples of two.
As we said, the bechor is supposed to carry his father's legacy. In Hebrew, father is א-ב – numerically, that's one and two. If you put the words one after another, look at what you get: The father starts with one, and he tries to expand – to transmit his values – one to two.
Then the bechor takes the two, he makes it twenty, then two hundred. There's an expansion of the father's values to the next generation… and the firstborn becomes the vehicle through which this expansion happens.
Immanuel: Now, the bechor doesn't have to be the actual firstborn. The one to continue his parents' values isn't always the oldest child. Isaac carried on his father's legacy, not Ishmael. Jacob carried on Isaac's legacy, not Esav. Joseph was Jacob's bechor, not Reuven. Genesis teaches us that bechor is more of a construct than a literal definition based on age: the one who chooses to carry on his parents' legacy is the bechor.
So with all this in mind, let's revisit the plague of the firstborn.
Why Did God Kill the Firstborn Sons of Egypt?
We said in Parshat Va'era that the Exodus story isn't just about freeing the Israelites – it's also about teaching everyone to recognize God.
Egypt had their own idolatrous worship and corrupt values to spread – they brutally oppressed the Israelites, and committed genocide, they refused to recognize God – so God kills their firstborn, symbolically destroying Egypt's generational bridge, preventing the transmission of idolatrous values to the next generation.
David: But the symbolism of the plague goes even deeper than that. When's the first time we hear about the plague of the firstborn? It's actually NOT right before it happens. This plague was not a surprise at all.
God warned them of the plague way back at the beginning of the story, when he first charged Moses with the mission to free the people. Moses says to Pharaoh:
כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל – so says God: Israel is my firstborn child.
וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ, שַׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי, – I've told you to send my people to serve me!
וַתְּמָאֵן, לְשַׁלְּחוֹ–הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג, אֶת-בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ – and if you continue to refuse, I'll kill your firstborn.
What Does It Mean That Israel Is God's Firstborn Son?
Immanuel: It's kind of a poetic plague – if you don't give me my firstborn, I'll take away yours. But it's more than just a tit-for-tat. God actually describes the nature of His relationship with Israel – Israel is God's firstborn child. What does that mean??
They certainly aren't the actual first… many nations existed before them. If a firstborn carries his parents' values to the next generation, then God's firstborn is meant to transfer God's values to the world. It doesn't mean that God loves Israel more than any other nation. Parents love all their children. It just indicates this unique role of spreading God's values to the rest of the world.
David: But what exactly are those values that they're supposed to transmit? Ultimately, it's recognition that everything we have is from God, not us.
Throughout the Exodus story, God says over and over וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה – the goal of the plagues is so that Egypt will know that I'm God. And that goal actually takes us all the way back… to the very beginning of humanity.
Biblical Clues to the Meaning of Being God's Firstborn
Immanuel: Back in the Garden of Eden, God gave humanity one rule: eat from all the trees, but don't eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Why create the tree only to make it off-limits?
God wanted humanity to enjoy the world but in the context of a relationship with Him. By abstaining from ONE tree, humanity acknowledges that it's all from God. God's in charge, not them. But when they ate from the tree, they threw God out of the picture and made themselves the deciders of right and wrong.
David: Now, God is choosing a nation to help bring humanity back to God, to help them recognize God so that they can be in relationship with Him again.
This nation is charged with actualizing the mission that their founding ancestor – Abraham – began hundreds of years earlier: V'nivrichu vicha kol mishpachot ha'adama – through you, blessing will come to all the nations of the world.
But there's an irony to being God's bechor.
If there's ever a moment in which we're extremely susceptible to forgetting about God, to thinking that we are masters of the universe – to replaying the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge – it's when one has their first child.
At that very moment, you become a creator. There's the irony: The child that turns its parents into creators has the responsibility to remind the world that God is really the ultimate creator.
The Symbolic Meaning of the Firstborn Plague
Immanuel: So let's bring it back to the Plague of the Firstborn one last time. God says to Pharaoh: Israel is my bechor. They represent the idea of showing the world that I'm the ultimate creator.
Think about it. What's really going on when Pharaoh doesn't allow Israel to leave, when he denies the very symbol of God's recognition in the world? It's Pharaoh's way of saying, "I make my own rules… I'm creator. I am god."
And you know what God does? He kills Egypt's firstborn, the product of their own creativity, the thing that turned them into creators. You, Egypt, are not the ultimate creators. I am.
So, the plague of the firstborn is really about two different but intertwined ideas. On the practical level, it symbolically prevents the transmission of Egyptian values. But more deeply, it shows Egypt that they're not the creators… That is God alone.
The Significance of the Laws of the Firstborn
David: And now let's go back to that very last section of our parsha – a seeming digression of the laws of firstborn people and animals. Why are these laws there? And why do they call on us to remember the plague of the firstborn?
That plague is a microcosm of the whole reason for the Exodus in the first place. It expresses God's entire agenda. It's all about teaching the world to recognize that everything we have, everything we are, is from God.
Immanuel: And the symbolism of these laws is meant to capture that for us. It's so much more than just a simple mnemonic – that redeeming our firstborns reminds us when God killed their firstborns.
When we have our first children and our new animals, when we are most susceptible to thinking that we are creators... we take the very object that turned us into creators and symbolically devote it to God. And that's why these laws are here.
David: With the plague of the firstborn still fresh in our memories – before Egypt's chase, before the splitting of the sea, before Israel becomes God's nation – God wants us to internalize what really happened during that plague.
This moment defines our national role – God shows Egypt that He's the creator and charges us to teach that to the rest of the world. Keeping these laws of bechor recommits us to that mission.
Join us on the Parsha Experiment as we continue to explore what it means to become a nation and how this nation will carry out its divine mission.