Posted by: biblestudyseattle | February 28, 2023

Not Enough Firstborn

“So all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go to war in Israel, all the numbered men were 603,550.” Numbers 1:45-46

“So Moses counted all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded him; and all the firstborn males, by the number of names from a month old and upward for their numbered men, were 22,273.” Numbers 3:42

How could there be only one first born male for every 27 males in Israel? One Jewish commentary suggests a translation error leading to much smaller numbers exiting from Egypt. Some Jewish commentaries even cast doubt on the Exodus happening at all!

The answer probably has to do with the ongoing genocide since the time of Moses’ birth.

“Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah, and the other was named Puah; and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but let the boys live.  So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and let the boys live?”  The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife can get to them.”  So God was good to the midwives, and the people multiplied, and became very mighty.  And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.  Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born, you are to throw into the Nile, but every daughter, you are to keep alive.” Exodus 1:15-22

The fact that Pharaoh kept the Israelites as slaves means he would not have killed all the boys or he would have had no work force. He probably meant to thin the herd. He reasoned thus:

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, otherwise they will multiply, and in the event of war, they will also join those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” Exodus 1:8-10

He may have specifically instructed the Hebrews to kill the first born boys. We don’t know but we can reason, assuming the numbers given in the Torah are accurate. One clue is the tenth and final plague on Egypt:

“Now it came about at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle.  And Pharaoh got up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead.  Then he called for Moses and Aaron at night and said, “Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the sons of Israel; and go, worship the Lord, as you have said.  Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go, and bless me also.” Exodus 12:29-32

God repaid Pharaoh and his people for what they had done to the Israelites. Conundrums such as this apparent impossibility of 22,273 firstborn among 603,550 are the invitation by God to ask questions. Those that are looking for quick reasons to mock God and the bible will do so without serious inquiry. But those whose heart is in the right place will follow Jesus’ injunction to “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

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