of animals, at times designated as “firstlings.”—Gen. 4:4.
From earliest times the firstborn son held an honored position in the family and was the one who succeeded to the headship of the household. He inherited a double portion of the father’s property. (Deut. 21:17) Reuben was seated by Joseph at a meal according to his right as firstborn. (Gen. 43:33) But the Bible does not always honor the firstborn by listing sons according to birth. The first place is often given to the most prominent or faithful of the sons rather than to the firstborn.—Gen. 6:10; 1 Chron. 1:28; compare Genesis 11:26, 32; 12:4.
The firstborn came into considerable prominence at the time that Jehovah delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. Among the Egyptians, the firstborn were dedicated as sacred to the sun-god Amon-Ra, the supposed preserver of all the firstborn. The tenth plague that Jehovah brought upon the Egyptians served to discredit this god and showed up his inability to protect the firstborn. By obeying God’s instructions concerning the slaying of a lamb and the splashing of its blood on the doorposts and upper part of the doorway of their houses, the Israelites did not lose their firstborn in death, whereas all the firstborn of the Egyptians, both of man and beast, were slain. (Ex. 12:21-23, 28, 29) Evidently the firstborn son of each household is meant in most cases and not the head of the household, who may have been a firstborn. Pharaoh himself was probably a firstborn and yet his life was not taken. However it may be that not every Egyptian household had a literal firstborn son (the married couple being childless or the firstborn son having already died), and in view of the statement at Exodus 12:30, “there was not a house where there was not one dead,” the destruction could have included the chief one in the house occupying the position of firstborn.
Since the firstborn sons among the Israelites were those in line to become the heads of the various households, they represented the entire nation. Jehovah, in fact, referred to the whole nation as his “first-born,” it being his firstborn nation because of the Abrahamic covenant. (Ex. 4:22) In view of his having preserved their lives, Jehovah commanded that “every male first-born that opens each womb among the sons of Israel, among men and beasts,” be sanctified to him. (Ex. 13:2) Thus, the firstborn sons were devoted to God.
Later Jehovah took the male Levites, evidently aside from the 300 Levite firstborn (compare Numbers 3:21, 22, 27, 28, 33, 34 with 3:39), in place of the firstborn sons of Israel, from those one month old and upward. A ransom price of five shekels had to be paid to Aaron and his sons for each of the 273 in excess of the Levites. Also, Jehovah took the domestic animals of the Levites in place of the firstborn domestic animals of the other tribes. (Num. 3:40-48) From that time forward, a firstborn son was to be presented to Jehovah at the tabernacle or temple after the period of the mother’s uncleanness and be redeemed by the payment of the estimated value for those from a month up to five years old, “five silver shekels by the shekel of the holy place.”—Lev. 12:1-3; 27:6; Num. 18:15, 16.
The firstborn males of clean animals, such as the bull, lamb or goat, were not to be redeemed. Such a bull was not to be worked nor the lamb sheared. Instead, they were to be presented to Jehovah as a sacrifice at the tabernacle or temple on the eighth day after birth. (Ex. 22:30; Num. 18:17; Deut. 15:19, 20) If, however, the animal had a bad defect it was not to be sacrificed to Jehovah but was to be eaten at one’s place of dwelling.—Deut. 15:21-23.
The firstborn of an ass, an unclean animal, could not be presented as a sacrifice and, therefore, was to be redeemed or bought back by substituting a sheep in its place. Otherwise, its neck was to be broken, since it belonged to Jehovah and was not to be used by man. (Ex. 13:12, 13; 34:19, 20) However, Leviticus 27:27 reads: “If it is among the unclean beasts and he must redeem it according to the estimated value, he must then give a fifth of it in addition to it. But if it should not be bought back, it must then be sold according to the estimated value.” Some commentators view this text as a modification of the regulation concerning the redeeming of an ass. Apparently, though, Leviticus 27:27 deals with a different matter. Rather than referring to an unclean animal, such as an ass, the words “if it is among the unclean beasts” may denote an animal that was unclean in the sense of being unfit for sacrifice because of being blemished.
David, who was the youngest son of Jesse, was called by Jehovah the “first-born,” due to Jehovah’s elevation of David to the preeminent position in God’s chosen nation and his making a covenant with David for a dynasty of kings. (Ps. 89:27) In this position David prophetically represented the Messiah.—Compare Psalm 2:2, 7 with 1 Samuel 10:1; Hebrews 1:5.
Jesus Christ is shown to be “the first-born of all creation” as well as “the first-born from the dead.” (Col. 1:15, 18; Rev. 1:5; 3:14) On earth he was the firstborn child of Mary and was presented at the temple in accordance with Jehovah’s law. (Luke 2:7, 22, 23) The apostle Paul speaks of the followers of Jesus Christ who have been enrolled in the heavens as “the congregation of the first-born.”—Heb. 12:23.
At Job 18:13 the expression “first-born of death” is used to denote the most deadly of diseases.—See BIRTHRIGHT; INHERITANCE.
Jehovah required of the nation of Israel that the firstfruits be offered to him, whether it be of man, animal or of the fruitage of the ground. (Ex. 22:29, 30; 23:19; Prov. 3:9) Devoting the firstfruits to Jehovah would be an evidence of the Israelites’ appreciation for Jehovah’s blessing and for their land and its harvest. It would be an expression of thankfulness to the Giver of “every good gift.”—Deut. 8:6-10; Jas. 1:17.
Jehovah commanded the nation, representatively, to offer firstfruits to him, especially at the time of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes. Then, on Nisan 16, the high priest waved before Jehovah at the sanctuary some of the firstfruits of the grain harvest, a sheaf of barley, the first crop of the year based on the sacred calendar. (Lev. 23:5-12) Again, at Pentecost, fifty days later, the firstfruits of the wheat harvest in the form of two leavened loaves made of fine flour were presented as a wave offering.—Lev. 23:15-17.
Besides these grain offerings by the high priest on behalf of the nation, the Israelites were required to bring the firstfruits of all their produce as offerings. Every firstborn male of man and beast was sanctified to Jehovah, being either offered or redeemed. (See FIRSTBORN, FIRSTLING.) The firstfruits of coarse meal were to be offered in the form of ring-shaped cakes. (Num. 15:20, 21) Fruitage of the soil was also put in baskets and taken by the Israelites to the sanctuary (Deut. 26:1, 2), where they then recited certain words recorded at Deuteronomy 26:3-10. The words were actually an outline of the nation’s history from their entering into Egypt to their deliverance and their being brought into the Promised Land.
It is said that the custom arose whereby each locality would send a representative with the firstfruits contributed by the inhabitants of the district in order that not all would have to undergo the inconvenience of going up to Jerusalem each time that the firstfruits were ripe. The quantity of these firstfruits to be offered was not fixed by the Law, it apparently being left to the generosity and appreciative spirit of the giver. However, the choicest portions, the best of the firstfruits, were to be offered.—Num. 18:12; Ex. 23:19; 34:26.
In the case of a newly planted tree, for the first three years it was considered impure as though uncircumcised. In the fourth year all its fruit became