Redemption of the firstborn

Redemption of the firstborn

Yoel Halevi No Comments


The significance of the first born in biblical literature is presented both in narrative and law. This current article will be dealing with the background and legal details of the redemption of the first born and how to practice the law in our current world. 

The Importance of the Firstborn

The term bǝḵôr (firstborn) is found 122 times in different variations in the Hebrew text. We find in multiple occasions the importance of the firstborn in law, narrative and poetry. The first born is the proper sacrifice (Gen 4:4, Lev 27:26, Duet 15:19), he receives double portion in inheritance (Duet 21:17) and he is the center of the sons in all families (Gen 48:18, Jer 31:8, Zek 12:10). We find the same principle in the ancient near east in different law codes where the sone inherits double portions called alâtu (Hartom, 1954, p.125).

Numbers 18:15-16

The main commandment for the redemption of the the first born is presented in Numbers 18:15-16:

כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לְכָל בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיבוּ ליהוה בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה יִהְיֶה לָּךְ אַךְ פָּדֹה תִפְדֶּה אֵת בְּכוֹר הָאָדָם וְאֵת בְּכוֹר הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּמֵאָה תִּפְדֶּה. וּפְדוּיָו מִבֶּן חֹדֶשׁ תִּפְדֶּה בְּעֶרְכְּךָ כֶּסֶף חֲמֵשֶׁת שְׁקָלִים בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הוּא.

 “Everything that comes first out of the womb, of all living things which they offer to YHWH, whether human or animal, will be yours. However, the firstborn of a human being you must redeem, and the firstborn of an unclean beast you are to redeem.  The sum to be paid for redeeming anyone a month old or over is to be five sheqels of silveras you value it, using the sanctuary sheqel , it is twenty Gerah”.

Key words

פֶּטֶר רֶחֶםConstruct form, masculine singleFirst to open the womb 
פָּדֹה תִפְדֶּהInfinitive abs.+ Imperative You will surely redeem 
בְּכוֹרNoun, masculine singleFirst born 
מִבֶּן חֹדֶשׁGenitive, preposition mem, masculine singleFrom one month of age
חֲמֵשֶׁת שְׁקָלִיםNoun Plural masculin, genitive, Five Sehqels (approx. 11.9 gr.) 
גֵּרָהNoun, masculine singleMaybe the weight of Carob seed. 


The overall context of Numbers 18 is about the gifts given to the Priests and the tithe given to the Levites.  Clean animals are considered property of the temple given to the priests and are consumed by the priesthood. 

The first part of the law addresses the place of livestock in biblical law. Livestock was a central posession on the world of people living agrarian life. Animals were used for both field work and food, and the reproduction of the animals was central for the survival of the family.

Biblical law separates between clean and unclean animals where clean animals can be used for sacrifices and human consumption. Unclean animals on the other hand were used for work and were considered nonfood. Because of this distinction the law divides up the animals based on the food laws of Leviticus 11 and states that firstborn clean animals (specifically mammals) are to be offered to YHWH. Unclean animals (and specifically the donkey, Exo 13:13) on the other hand are to be redeemed by the owner. The specification of the donkey in Exo 13:13 has led to an understanding that the older practice was to only redeem the donkey, but the law was expanded to all livestock (Hartom, p. 125). Because there is no temple today these animals should be left to paster and not be used. This would include the clean animal used to redeem the donkey. 

Human firstborn Israelite from the mother (non-Levite and non-Kohen) are to be redeemed as well and are not given to the priesthood. If the father had children from another wife, he is still to redeem this child from the second marriage. According to Exodus 13:12 and 34:19 only the males and not the females are to be redeemed (Milgrom, 1989, p. 152). Both Human and animal firstborn are to be redeemed by giving the priest five sheqels in the weight of the holy sheqel which is twenty Gerah. Archeological findings have shown that the average sheqel during the bronze and iron ages was 9-11.9gr. This means that five sheqels would have been 45-59gr. of silver. 

The new born was probably taken to a local shrine or the parents would wait until the next feast to go to the main temple and present the child before the kohen. If this assumption is correct then the age of one month is the starting point for the redemption but not the only day the action can be done. Hence, one can assume that even if the day of one month has passed the parent can bring the child the moment it is possible for them to show at the temple. One can also assume that if the redemption was not done in infancy, it can be done even into adulthood. 

In our times where there is no temple the child is presented to a local kohen who presents a choice to the parents, the child or the silver. This is done just for ceremony and the parents always chose the child (Hartom, p.124). The kohen is given five silver pieces and gives the child back to the parents. 

1 Sam 1:11

וַתִּדֹּר נֶדֶר וַתֹּאמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת אִם רָאֹה תִרְאֶה בָּעֳנִי אֲמָתֶךָ וּזְכַרְתַּנִי וְלֹא תִשְׁכַּח אֶת אֲמָתֶךָ וְנָתַתָּה לַאֲמָתְךָ זֶרַע אֲנָשִׁים וּנְתַתִּיו לַיהוָה כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ

She made a vow saying, “O YHWH of Hosts, if you would truly look on the suffering of your servantand would keep me in mind and not neglect your servant, and give your servant a male child, then I will dedicate him to the Lord all the days of his life. His hair will never be cut.”

The case of 1 Samuel 1-2 indicates that in some cases children were given to the temple as servants. This is what the text means by of all living things which they offer to YHWH, whether human or animalBased on this verse the expected practice is to present animals and firstborn before YHWH. Clean animals are to be sacrificed, humans and unclean animals are to be redeemed (Licht, 1991, pp.164-166). Hence, the case of Samuel is unique and probably does not reflect the cultural norm. It is also noteworthy that the fact that Samuel’s mother is the one who dedicates her son can lead to the understanding that the mother can be the one redeeming her son. This conclusion comes from the recognition of the text that a mother has authority over her child, and not only the father. 

The reason for the law

In the Torah text there are two different events which define why the first born is to be redeemed. One text connects the redemption to the exodus, while the other to the loyalty of the Levites to YHWH. 

Exodus 13:11-15, Numbers 3:11-13

וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה. וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ  מִמִּצְרַיִם יהוה מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג יהוה כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַיהוה כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה.

 When YHWH brings you into the land of the Kenaanite, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and gives it to you,  you are to set apart for YHWH everything that is first from the womb. Every firstborn male animal will belong to YHWH.  Every firstborn from a donkey, you are to redeem with a lamb; but if you choose not to redeem it, you must break its neck. But from people, you are to redeem every firstborn son.  When, at some future time, your son asks you, ‘What is this?’ then say to him, ‘With a strong hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery.  When Pharaoh was unwilling to let us go, YHWH killed all the firstborn males in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of humans and the firstborn of animals. This is why I sacrifice to YHWH any male that is first from the womb of an animal, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.”

In this text the historical event of the exodus is in the backdrop of the repletion of the first born. Israel (the first born of YHWH) was protected when the destroyer went through Egypt killing all the firstborn man and animal. Due to YHWH protection Israel is in debt to YHWH and need to give to YHWH all the first born in Israel. However, as in the law in Numbers, both man and unclean animals are to be redeemed. 

Numbers 3

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם.כִּי לִי כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה לִי יִהְיוּ אֲנִי יְהוָה.

Then YHWH spoke to Moses: “Look, I myself have taken the Levites from among the Israelites instead of  every firstborn who opens the womb among the Israelites. So the Levites belong to me.  Because all the firstborn are mine. When I destroyed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I set apart for myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They belong to me. I am YHWH.” 

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. קַח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֶּהֱמַת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת בְּהֶמְתָּם וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם אֲנִי יְהוָה.וְאֵת פְּדוּיֵי הַשְּׁלֹשָׁה וְהַשִּׁבְעִים וְהַמָּאתָיִם הָעֹדְפִים עַל הַלְוִיִּם מִבְּכוֹר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְלָקַחְתָּ חֲמֵשֶׁת חֲמֵשֶׁת שְׁקָלִים לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ תִּקָּח עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשָּׁקֶל. וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו פְּדוּיֵי הָעֹדְפִים בָּהֶם.

Then YHWH spoke to Moses: “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn males among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock. And the Levites will be mine. I am YHWH.  And for the redemption of the 273 firstborn males of the Israelites who exceed the number of the Levites.  collect five shekels for each one individually; you are to collect this amount in the currency of the sanctuary shekel this shekel is twenty gerahs. And give the money for the redemption of the excess number of them to Aaron and his sons.”

Numbers 3 gives us a full description of the first time the redemption of the first born is done. However, this text gives us a different reality than the one described in Numbers 18. In this description only the first born who do not have a Levite to replace them have to give the five sheqels. On top of this, the reasoning for the law is presented only on the context of the exodus, but the presence of the Levites connects the redemption of the first born to the choosing to the tribe of Levi as well. This choosing has to do with the rebellion of the golden calf and the loyalty of the tribe of Levi to YHWH (Exo 32:29). Hence the text before us is harmonizing two different historical backgrounds of the law. One side of the law links the commandment to a positive event in Israel’s history which is the Exodus, but the other even is a negative one relating to Israel’s rebellion. This is a classic case of dual reasoning employed in different places around the bible and should not be seen as a contradiction but as a supplementing of each other, though in some places it can be seen as a contradiction (Seeligmann, 1963, pp. 386, Amit, 1987, pp.392-395). 


The first born is the male offspring of any marriage even if the man has already sired a son from another wife. 

The child is to be redeemed by the parents after 30 days with a kohen present.

The weight of the silver is 100 gerah which is approximately 45-59.9gr. of silver. 

Firstborn clean animals are to be offered to YHWH, and unclean animals redeemed with a clean animal. In out days where there is no temple the animals should be left to paster and not be used. 


Amit, Yairah, “The Dual Causality Principle and Its Effects on Biblical Literature”, Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 37, Fasc. 4 (Oct., 1987), pp. 385-400

Licht, Jacob, Numbers vol. I-III, (Hebrew) Jerusalem, 1991.

Milgrom, Jacob, Numbers, 1986

Seeligmann, I.L, “Menschliches Heldentum und g6ttlich Hilfe: Die doppelte Kausalitait im alttestamentlichen Geschichtsdenken”, ThZ 19 (1963), pp. 385-411.

הרטום, א.ש, ״בכור״, בתוך אנציקלופדיה מקראית כרך ב, ירושלים 1954, עמ׳ 126-123. 

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