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We Are All Firstborn Sons

First Published JCF Newsletter April 2016

By GARY ALLEY

“According to the understanding of the son his father instructs him (m.Pesahim 10.4)”
לְפִי דַעְתּוֹ שֶׁלַבֵּן אָבִיו מְלַמְּדוֹ

Pharaoh said kill them all—every newborn Hebrew son.  This was either an eventual genocidal plot or a temporary population control measure for Pharaoh’s Hebrew slaves.  Either way, those that survived in that generation of Hebrew boys would be forever marked in their society as exceptional, their lives precious, and their future choices held to a higher standard. 

Moses was one of those fortunate sons, ironically spared by the daughter of his would-be executioner.  He must have lived with that near-death experience for the rest of his life.  Later, when he had sons and faced with the possibility of one of their premature deaths,[1] he would have been reminded again how fragile a gift is one’s life.      

When Moses returned to Egypt to lead his people, a new generation of sons would hear the death knell.  This time, however, the sons were Egyptian.  Every family which had not coated the entrance ways to their homes with blood, watched their firstborn sons die.  Passover’s name[2] was derived from the sons who were spared:

“I will pass through the land of Egypt in the same night, and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both of humans and of animals…The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, so that when I see the blood I will pass over you…” (Ex 12:12a,13a)

The sons of the Hebrews were as close to death as the sons of the Egyptians.  Only the visible display of blood separated their fates.  Only an earnest demonstration of each family’s faith, saved their eldest son’s life.

It should not be surprising then that the Passover Seder, the annual ritual meal where Jewish families gather to read, sing, and remember their nation’s deliverance from Egypt, contains a lesson on four sons who ask questions based on their understanding of Passover.

The first son is wise because he wants to understand Passover in a deeper and more thorough way.[3]  He seeks to apply all of the principles found in Passover to his life.  His wisdom is his obvious and sincere desire to obey.

The wicked son on the other hand excludes himself from the question and asks, rather, how Passover applies to you (not me).[4]  He removes himself from his historical community.  Because he does not identify himself with the deliverance of Passover, he has, in effect, annulled his own redemption.

The third type is the simple son who asks the most basic question, “What is Passover?”[5] Even though the question is simple, its answer is foundational; the redemption of the firstborn son is the basis for Passover.

“…you are to tell him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the land of slavery.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to release us, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of people to the firstborn of animals. That is why I am sacrificing to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb, but all my firstborn sons I redeem.  It will be for a sign…’” (Ex 13:14b-16a)

This answer explains why Passover will always be relevant for every generation.  It is a perpetual sign that reminds all future sons of their own necessary redemption—every firstborn son from every generation is held accountable. 

Finally, the fourth son is silent, because he is not able to ask a question.  Perhaps, he is a baby or a toddler.  The point is this son is a blank slate without prior instruction.  Therefore, it is even more important that the parent teach this son as he grows up about his association to Passover.

“You are to tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Ex 13:8)

This son learns that Passover’s generational power is found in personal testimony—“It is because of what the LORD did for me.”  In order to truly understand the depths of Passover’s foundation—the redemption of the firstborn son—we must identify ourselves as firstborn sons.  In order to identify, there must be a personal experience.

As followers of Jesus, like those firstborn sons of Passover, we have been saved from the clutches of death and bondage.  We have been called to a higher standard.  A father can only answer his son according to the quality of question asked.  Attitude, awareness, and thought are often signs of one’s level of maturity.   These daily decisions we make—how we treat others, how we respond to hardship, how we humble ourselves—are often predicated on whether we believe that God’s redemptive act was necessary for us.  If we believe, then the quality of our lives is a perpetual sign of that sacrifice.


[1] Ex 4:24-26’s account of an angel of the Lord coming to attack Moses’ family is a strange story in the Hebrew Bible.  While many translations have that the angel was going to kill Moses, the Hebrew text in fact does not specify which of the three males of the traveling party, Moses, or his sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Ex 4:20), was targeted.

[2] The Hebrew word is pesah (פֶּסַח) whose meaning is not clear.  The translation as “pass over” is derived from the context of its use in the chapter (Ex 12:13,23,27).  The Greek Septuagint also translates pesah as passing by/over (παρελεύσεται).  Besides Exodus 12, the only other usage of this verbal form (פָּסַח) in the Hebrew Bible is found in Isa 31:5 where its context seems to imply that God will “save” or “spare” Jerusalem.

[3] “When your son asks you later on, ‘What are the stipulations, statutes, and ordinances that the LORD our God commanded you?’” Dt 6:20

[4] “When your sons ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’” Ex 12:26

[5] “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is this?’”  Ex 13:14