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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:51 And Moshe gave the redemption money to Aharon and his sons, according to the mouth of the L-rd, just as the L-rd commanded Moshe.
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What redemption money? Where did this come from? Let's go back a step or two in the story to see how this text is supposed to work. The immediate context is that after taking a census of the whole people of Israel - first the eleven other tribes, of military age, then the Levites from a month old and upwards - Moshe has been told to count the first-born males aged one month old and upwards among the non-Levite tribes so that the Levites can act as substitutes for the adult Israelites who were alive at the time of the Exodus and have never been redeemed. There are more first-born males than there are Levites, so a fixed amount per head is needed - the redemption money - to cover the excess so that every first-born male has been redeemed. But why do they need to be redeemed? Hasn'tHaShem just brought the people out of Egypt and released them from slavery? What is going on?
When we take another step back, we remember that during the Exodus itself, HaShem tells Moshe, "Consecrate to Me every first-born; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine" (Shemot 13:2, NJPS). During the tenth and last plague, the death of the firstborn, HaShem went through the land of Egypt, killing all the first-born "from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle" (11:5, NJPS). But all the first-born males of Israel, where the blood of the Pesach lamb had been daubed on the posts and lintels of the doors, were preserved. HaShem explained, "at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the L-RD's" (B'Midbar 3:13, NJPS). A life spared, a life saved, belonged to HaShem. So should every first-born male be sacrificed to the L-rd? Heaven forfend!
HaShem has already explained how this is to work: "you shall set apart for the L-RD every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be the LORD's ... you must redeem every first-born male among your children" (Shemot 13:12-13, NJPS). This is to be done throughout the generations as a witness so that when the children ask, "Why do we do this?", they can be answered, "When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the L-RD slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both man and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the L-RD every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every first-born among my sons" (v. 15, NJPS). This ceremony, known as Pidyon HaBen is still practiced within Judaism today, when the child is around a month old, as the Torah commands: "And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs" (B'Midbar 18:16, ESV). This also confirms the redemption value for each male that we saw in last week's parasha: "If the person is from a month old up to five years old, the valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver" (Vayikra 27:6, ESV). RabbiHirsch explains that this is "the symbolic expression of the imaginary value of a young male child in its relation to the Sanctuary."
The phrase , redemption money is a construct: , literally 'silver' but here more generically, 'money; and , an mp noun from the root meaning "redemption price". David Clines suggests the root means "to ransom, redeem, deliver oneself from an obligation",1 while Dennis Cole reports that "the term 'redemption' has its roots in theAkkadian literature, where in Babylonian texts the cognate term padû denotes a form of monetary payment equivalent to the market value of an object or person, remitted in order to transfer property from one party to another,"2 adding that "five shekels was the standard price of a slave in the Late Bronze Age in Egypt and Mesopotamia and amounted to six months' wages for the average day labourer."3 The Rabbis debate exactly where the money was sourced - a shared cost between all the first-born in general, or a cost that had to be borne by the individuals left over - concluding that Moshe eventually drew lots for the right number of people to pay the per-head fee for themselves.
All these actions have a profound meaning and teaching power as Dennis Olson writes: "At its most basic level, the tradition of dedicating the firstborn to G-d or some equivalent is a theological reminder that Israel owes its very life and freedom to G-d. The dedication of the firstborn is a tangible way of recalling Israel's history as a slave people redeemed by G-d. All that Israel has, including its very existence, is a gift from G-d. To return whatever first opens the womb to G-d is a tangible reminder that everything belongs to G-d and is available for our use only because G-d has given it as a gift."4
Israelites were not permitted to serve alongside the priests in the Sanctuary so, Thomas Dozeman explains, "Levites redeem the firstborn by releasing them from their legal obligation through substitution."5 The identity of the Levites as "sanctuary assistants" is formed by this transaction. In the wilderness, they carried the Tabernacle, its furniture and accoutrements; by the time of David and Solomon when the Temple is built, the Levites are re-assigned as the singers and musicians, the door-keepers and treasurers - they become the facilities management. But as Dozeman adds, "redemption through substitution becomes a model for interpreting the ministry of Yeshua and the life of all believers. Yeshua substitutes divine form for human and in this action acquires identity: 'though He was in the form of G-d, did not count equality with G-d a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men' (Philippians 2:6-7, ESV). The pattern continues in Rav Sha'ul's own life, when he writes of himself "I have been crucified with Messiah. It is no longer I who live, but Messiah who lives in me' (Galatians 2:20, ESV). In both of these instances, substitution leads to service and identity."6
Substitution becomes the way of the kingdom as we model our lives on Yeshua. As part of his appeal to the Corinthians to take up the role of ambassadors for G-d, Sha'ul reminds us that, "For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of G-d" (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV). This is the great exchange, the great substitution, the singularity through which we are enabled to be at peace with G-d and resume mankind's creation purpose. Yeshua substituted for us by becoming our atonement; we are substituted for Him as His representatives - His hands and feet - to serve the world and spread the good news of the kingdom: sharing G-d's invitation to be become a part of His family. Peter calls the followers of Yeshua to lives of holiness and obedience, "knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Messiah, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Peter 1:18-19, ESV).
Also noteworthy is that the last two phrases of the text - "according to the mouth of Adonai, just as Adonai commanded" - make it very clear that redemption and substitution were not Moshe's idea. They were instituted by HaShem, for the greater good of His people and to further His plans for His people. He alone has the authority and right to redeem people and allow redemption of people that belong to Him. In the same way, it is clear that Yeshua's mission to redeem mankind was G-d's initiative, not man's. He decided that it was necessary, then planned and executed the entire process - according to the mouth of Adonai - fulfilling His promises to our people, given through the prophets and written in His word. In the same way, when we respond according to the mouth of Adonai, we take our part - as did Moshe - in fulfilling HaShem's purposes and plans for His world.
Whether redeemed in person by a Levite or by the payment of a redemption fee, the first-born Israelites were released from their obligation to be dedicated to G-d either as a sacrifice or in service in the Sanctuary so that they might live according to His Torah and be a light to the nations, revealing His glory and wisdom in the world. In Messiah Yeshua, we too are redeemed; we are released from our erstwhile bondage to sin and death, so that we might live according to the ways of the Spirit and be witnesses to all the peoples, showing how G-d has "made foolish the wisdom of the world" (1 Corinthians 1:20, ESV). That is why Sha'ul writes, "For freedom Messiah has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 1:20, ESV). Live in that freedom today!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 353.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 99.
3. - Cole, page 100.
4. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 28.
5. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 698.
6. - Dozeman, page 699.
Further Study: Psalm 130:7-8; Luke 2:22-32; 1 Corinthians 7:23-24
Application: Are you sure of your redemption and why you have been redeemed? You are called to join Yeshua in His mission to fulfil HaShem's plans for the world and His kingdom. Stand firm in that call!
Comment - 11:15 14May23 Janet Gray: Yes and Amen. Lovely words of encouragement, Jonathan! An echo of chazak, chazak v'nitzchazak?
Comment - 12:30 14May23 Joshua VanTine: The point that really stuck out for me: "Also noteworthy is that the last two phrases of the text - 'according to the mouth of Adonai, just as Adonai commanded' - make it very clear that redemption and substitution were not Moshe's idea. They were instituted by HaShem, for the greater good of His people and to further His plans for His people. He alone has the authority and right to redeem people and allow redemption of people that belong to Him." Always great to ponder on the authority of the Most High and remind ourselves of His sovereignty and, therefore, righteous commandments and rulings that bring life and freedom. Thank you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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