This phrase is not always to be understood literally; it is sometimes taken for the prime, most excellent, most distinguished of things, Ps 89:27; Ro 8:29; Heb 1:4-6. Thus Jesus Christ is "the firstborn of every creature," Col 1:15, inasmuch as he was the "Only begotten" of the Father before any creature was produced. He is "the firstborn from the dead," Col 1:18, because he is the beginning, and the author of the resurrection of all who die in faith.
After the destroying angel had slain the firstborn of the Egyptians, God ordained that all the Jewish firstborn, both of men and of beasts for service, should be consecrated to him; but the male children only were subject to this law. If a man had several wives, he was obliged to offer the firstborn son by each one of them to the Lord. The firstborn were offered at the temple, and redeemed for five shekels. The firstling of a clean beast was offered at the temple, not to be redeemed, but to be killed; an unclean beast, a horse, an ass, or a camel, was either redeemed or exchanged; an ass was redeemed by a lamb or five shekels; if not redeemed, it was killed, Ex 13:2,11, etc. The firstborn son among the Hebrews, as among all other nations, enjoyed particular privileges. See BIRTHRIGHT.
(See BIRTHRIGHT.) Primogeniture gave princedom and priesthood in patriarchal times. So Esau and Jacob (Ge 25:23-33; Heb 12:16), Reuben (Ge 49:3; 1Ch 5:1). The oldest son in all Israelite families was regarded as sacred to God, because Israel's firstborn were exempted from the stroke which destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt on the first Passover night. The firstborn represented the whole people; Jehovah said to Pharaoh, "Israel is My son, My firstborn, and I say unto thee, Let My son go, that he may serve He; and if thou refuse to let him go, behold I will slay thy son, thy firstborn" (Ex 4:22-23). Israel, as Jehovah's firstborn, was designed to be a" kingdom of priests and an holy nation" (Ex 19:6).
It shall hereafter realize this high Calling in a degree that it has not yet realized it, standing as "the firstborn among many brethren" (like the antitypical Israel, Messiah, Ro 8:29; Heb 2:12), and priest among all nations, which in subordination to Jerusalem, the spiritual metropolis, shall be the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ, then manifested (Isa 61:6; 66:21; Re 11:15; Zec 14:16; Jer 3:17). The tribe of Levi was substituted for all Israel's firstborn to minister to the Lord (Nu 3:12,45,50). There being 273 more of the firstborn in Israel than the males in Levi, the 273 were redeemed at five shekels apiece. Still, to mark the consecration of Israel to Jehovah, the redemption money was exacted for every firstborn (Nu 18:15). But the firstlings of cattle were to be offered to the Lord.
An donkey was however redeemed with a lamb, or else killed (Ex 13:13). Christ is the First-begotten. As such, He has the rights of primogeniture; for, as Heb 1:6 is in the Greek, "when God shall bring in again the First. begotten into the world, the shall be deemed worthy of not less honor, for "He saith (Ps 97:7), Let all the angels of God worship Him." His being "brought into the world" (oikoumenee, "the inhabited world"), as the theater of His power, mainly applies to His second advent. In (Col 1:16, "the Firstborn of every creature"; implying priority and superlative dignity. Ps 89:27, "My Firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth," David's antitype, the Messiah.
See Col 1:16 (proototokos pasees ktiseoos, as Joh 1:15,30; 15:18, prootos mou, "long before Me"), "begotten long before every creature"; the reason why He is so designated follows, "for He is before all things." "First-begotten" marks at once His eternal priority and His condescending to brotherhood with us (Ro 8:29). "Only begotten" marks His relation to the Father by generation from everlasting. Since He is "long before every creature," He cannot be a creature Himself but the Creator. And as He is the first begotten, originating the natural creation, so He is "the firstborn (proototokos, 'first begotten,' Re 1:5) from ("out of", ek) the dead," and therefore "the Beginning" (Col 1:18) of "the church of the firstborn" (Heb 12:23), the originating Agent of the new creation.
He was "begotten" of the Father to a new life at His resurrection (the day when the Father fulfilled Ps 2:7 according to Ac 13:33; Ro 1:4) which is His "regeneration"; so He is "the Prince-leader (archeegos) of life." "Regeneration," begun in the soul now, will extend to the body at the resurrection of the saints; and to nature, now groaning under the curse (Mt 19:28; Lu 20:36; 1Jo 3:2; Ro 8:11,19,23). As He is "the firstborn" in relation to the election church, so it is "the church of the firstborn," "a kind of first-fruits of His creatures" (Jas 1:18), in relation to the millennial church, and to the hereafter to be regenerated natural creation. As Christ is "the firstfruits," earnest and pledge of the coming resurrection, so believers are "a kind of first-fruits," a pledge and earnest of the ultimate regeneration of creation.
As He is first begotten by generation from everlasting, so believers by adoptions, "begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible," etc. (1Pe 1:3.) As Israel, on the ground of being God's "firstborn," was a king-priestly nation, so believers (Re 1:6). The figurative phrase, "the firstborn of death," means the deadliest disease that death (personified) ever gendered (Job 18:13). "The firstborn of the poor," the poorest.
1. The dedication of the firstborn of men and beasts was probably a primitive nomadic custom, and therefore earlier than the offering of first-fruits, which could not arise until the Israelites had settled into agricultural life in Canaan. The origin of the belief that a peculiar value attached to the firstborn cannot be definitely traced; but it would be a natural inference that what was valuable to the parent would be valuable to his God. And thus the word 'firstborn' could be used figuratively of Israel as the firstborn of Jahweh among the nations (Ex 4:22, cf. Jer 31:9), and the seed of David among dynasties (Ps 89:28). The law of the dedication of the firstborn is found in Jewish Encyclopedia (Ex 13:11-16; 22:29 b, Ex 22:30; 34:19 f.), Deuteronomist (De 15:19-23), Priestly Narrative (Ex 13:1 f., Nu 3:11-13,40-51; 18:15-18). It is not impossible that in very primitive times firstborn sons were sometimes actually sacrificed (cf. 2Ki 3:27; Mic 6:7), but the practice would soon grow up of 'redeeming' them by money or payments in kind.
2. The firstborn (bekh
Under the law, in memory of the exodus (when the first-born of the Egyptians were slain), the eldest son was regarded as devoted to God, and was in very case to be redeemed by an offering not exceeding five shekels, within one month from birth. If he died before the expiration of thirty days, the Jewish doctors held the father excused, but liable to the payment if he outlived that time.
The eldest son received a double portion of the father's inheritance,
but not of the mother's. Under the monarchy the eldest son usually, but no always, as appears in the case of Solomon, succeeded his father in the kingdom.
The male first-born of animals was also devoted to God.
Unclean animals were to be redeemed with the addition of one-fifth of the value, or else put to death; or, if not redeemed, to be sold, and the price given to the priests.