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B'Midbar/Numbers 3:40 "Count every first-born male among the sons of Israel from one month old ..."
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The first word in the text - - is a Qal ms imperative from the root , a verb that has an extensive range of connected meanings. Davidson lists nine distinct meanings for the Qal stem alone, including "to visit; to punish; to review, muster, number; to look after or take care of; to set over or appoint". As the immediate text is followed by the instruction to "take account of their names", this suggests that this is a more detailed or even intimate counting that the numbers alone might indicate. The resulting count of first-born males is 22,273 from a total army population of 603,550 (cf. B'Midbar 1:46), which Jacob Milgrom correctly points out is a difficult proportion as it would "presume an average Israelite family of fourteen male children." Even 22,273 is a substantial number of men to individually count and know and it would seem to predicate a fairly perfunctory and mechanical counting process if it were not for the mention of the individual names.
The phrase - literally, 'son of a month' - is a typical instance of a class of biblical Hebrew phrases used to denote ages for both people and animals. Moshe is described as "the son of eighty years" (Shemot 7:7) and Aharon his brother as "the son of eighty three years" when they are called to appear before Pharoah to presentHaShem's demand that he let the people of Israel go free from Egypt. When establishing the liturgy and ritual for Yom HaBikkurim, the Day of early First-fruits, the priests are told, "Now on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb one year old without defect for a burnt offering to the L-RD" (Vayikra 23:12, NASB); once again, the lamb is literally, "the son of his year". Suspecting a high infant mortality rate among the Israelites in the desert, after their recent release from Egypt, Rashi comments that this command excludes new-born sons who, although circumcised on their eighth day, might not survive as long as a month, so should not be counted as permanent members of society. The practice of not counting, or in many cases not naming for some months, new-born children persisted even in western societies until early in the nineteenth century. Although children often didn't survive until adulthood, it was considered unwise to form too close an emotional attachment to or waste a traditional family name on a baby until they had proved a certain level of viability.
Hirsch points out that the exercise being carried out by Moshe and Aharon at this point is unique; this is the only time that the first-born of Israel as a group are redeemed by the Levites. While HaShem has previously told Moshe "every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem" (Shemot 13:13, NASB), the exact way this was to be done didn't come until several chapters after this point in the narrative: "Every first issue of the womb of all flesh, whether man or animal, which they offer to the L-RD, shall be yours; nevertheless the first-born of man you shall surely redeem, and the first-born of unclean animals you shall redeem. And as to their redemption price, from a month old you shall redeem them, by your valuation, five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs" (B'Midbar 18:15-16, NASB). This ceremony is known as pidyon ha'ben and is still practiced today, by taking the child to a cohen - a Jew who is of priestly descent - and giving him a number of coins and asking him to bless the baby. In modern times, the money is usually not retained by the cohen but is used to start a savings account in the child's name for when they become an adult. The Greek Scriptures record an occasion when it was observed during Second Temple times: "There was in Yerushalayim a man named Shim'on. This man was a tzaddik, he was devout, he waited eagerly for G-d to comfort Isra'el, and the Ruach HaKodesh was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Ruach HaKodesh that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah of ADONAI. Prompted by the Spirit, he went into the Temple courts; and when the parents brought in the child Yeshua to do for him what the Torah required, Shim'on took him in his arms, made a b'rakhah to G-d, and said, 'Now, ADONAI, according to your word, your servant is at peace as you let him go; for I have seen with my own eyes your yeshu'ah (salvation), which you prepared in the presence of all peoples - a light that will bring revelation to the Goyim and glory to your people Isra'el.' Yeshua's father and mother were marvelling at the things Shim'on was saying about him. Shim'on blessed them and said to the child's mother, Miryam, 'This child will cause many in Isra'el to fall and to rise, he will become a sign whom people will speak against; moreover, a sword will pierce your own heart too. All this will happen in order to reveal many people's inmost thoughts'" (Luke 2:25-35, CJB). Yeshua Himself was a first-born male!
In the verse following our text, Moshe is told, "And you shall take the Levites for Me, I am the L-RD, instead of all the first-born among the sons of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the first-born among the cattle of the sons of Israel" (v. 41). The service of the Levites is taken in place of the redemption that should - had the instructions been given in time - have been made for the first-born in all the other tribes when they were born.
The importance of the first-born in the mind of the people continued through the early days in the Land. Influenced by the remnant of the Canaanite peoples who had not been expelled from Israel, some of the people offered their children to pagan gods as child sacrifices. During the days of the kings, Josiah - a reforming king who tried to make the people turn back to HaShem - "defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech" (2 Kings 23:10, NASB). One of the prophets asks, "Does the L-RD take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:7, NASB)
Rav Sha'ul explains that Yeshua is "the image of the invisible G-d, the first-born of all creation" (Colossians 1:15, NASB). More, Sha'ul goes on, "He is head of the Body, the Messianic Community - He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might hold first place in everything" (v. 18, CJB). Yeshua's first-born status is more than just being the first-born of Mary His human mother; He is also the only begotten Son of G-d, His first-born, who is from eternity to eternity. He is the model G-d uses to shape us who believe in Him, so that Yeshua should be the head of a family of brothers and sisters sharing His life: "because those whom [G-d] knew in advance, He also determined in advance would be conformed to the pattern of His Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29, CJB). This is also the order for the resurrection: "Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep ... each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:20,23, NASB).
Moshe was told to count the first-born among the children of Israel, in a personal way, taking note of their names. Yeshua, who has been given the name that is above all names, is the first-born not only of Israel but of all creation and He has been raised first from the dead. Uniquely, since several people have been raised back to life after dying, but subsequently died again, Yeshua was restored to life for ever, for He is "the Resurrection and the Life" (John 11:25). Because He lives, we live and will live for ever in Him and He knows each of our names!
Further Study: John 6:39-40; Revelation 1:17-18
Application: How can you know more of the power of Yeshua's resurrection life in your life today? Know that you have been counted individually and that He knows your name; take fresh hold of the promise that you are already being changed into His image, to be like Him; be inspired that His resurrection - a certain and immutable fact - means that you will live forever in Him! Now, that's life!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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