Redemption of the Firstborn (Parsha Bo Ex. 10:1-13:16)

This weeks (1/23/21) Torah Parsha is Parsha Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). In his work The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain, Philo of Alexandria gives a very insightful midrash on Exodus 13:11-16 dealing with the redemption of the Firstborn.

Lets begin by looking at Exodus 13:11-16:

[11] And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, as he sware unto thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it thee,
[12] That thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the LORD’s.
[13] And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem.
[14] And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage:
[15] And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.
[16] And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.
(Ex. 13:11-26 KJV)

Philo understands the “Land of the Caananites” to represent “fluctuating reason” while the “firstborn” represents Abel:

(89) Now the commandment is as follows: “And it shall be,” say the scriptures, “when God shall bring thee forth into the land of the Canaanites, in the manner which he swore to thy fathers, and shall give it to thee, that thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the womb of all thy flocks, and of all the beasts which thou hast, and shalt set apart all the males for the Lord. Every offspring of an ass that openeth the womb shalt thou exchange for a sheep; and if thou dost not exchange it thou shall redeem it with Money.”For that which openeth the wound is Abel, that is to say, a gift, the first-born, and you must examine how and when it is to be offered up; (90) now the most suitable time is when God shall lead thee into fluctuating reason, that is to say, into the land of the Canaanites, not in any chance manner, but in the manner in which he himself swore that he would; not in order that being tossed about hither and thither in the surf and tempest and heavy waves, you may be deprived of all rest or stability, but that having escaped from such agitation you may enjoy fine weather and a calm, and reaching virtue as a place of refuge, or port, or harbour of safety for ships, may lie in safety and steadiness.
(Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 89-90)

The first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria understood the conflict between Cain and Able as symbolic of the conflict within man. In his commentary to the story of the offerings made by Cain and Abel he gives is a very good illustration of this conflict:

(2) It happens then, that there are two opinions contrary to and at variance with one another; the one of which commits everything to the mind as the leader of all reasoning, or feeling, or moving, or being stationary; and the other, attributing to God all the consequent work of creation as his own. Now the symbol of the former of these is Cain, which name, being interpreted means, “possession,” from his appearing to possess all things; and the symbol of the other is Abel; for this name, being interpreted, means “referring to God.” (3) Now both these opinions were brought forth by one soul. But it follows of necessity that as soon as they were born they must have been separated; for it was impossible for enemies to dwell together for ever. Until then the soul brought forth the God-loving doctrine Abel, the self-loving Cain dwelt with her. But when she brought forth Abel, or unanimity with God, she abandoned unanimity with that mind which was wise in its own conceit.  
(On the Birth of Abel and the Sacrifices Offered by Him and His Brother Cain 2-3)

Philio (whose Bible was the Greek Septuagint) interprets “Cain” to mean “possession,” which is in keeping with the Hebrew verb KANA “to own, to possess, to acquire”.  He interprets Abel to mean “referring to God” probably understanding Abel (Havel in Hebrew) to be derived from HAV EL “to give [to] El”.

Philo sees Cain as representing the animal soul and the evil inclination which is completely self-centered and only desires to acquire, own and possess for self the pleasures of this world.  On the other hand Abel represents the divine soul and the good inclination, which only wishes to serve YHWH.

Elsewhere Philo writes:

And as Philo of Alexandria concluded:

“For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.”
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)

And as we read in 4th Maccabees:

21 Now when Elohim fashioned man, he planted in him emotions and inclinations,
22 but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all.
23 To the mind he gave the Torah; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.
(4Macc. 2:21-23)

Philo interprets the reference to the redemption of the “male” firstborn as tied to the idea that the female psychology is more prone than the male psychology, towards uncontrolled emotions. Philo, who writes in the first century, and not with today’s political correctness, writes:

(102) But it is most entirely in accordance with nature “to sacrifice the males of every creature that openeth the womb, to God.”For as nature has given to women the womb, as the part most excellently adapted for the generation of animals, so also for the production of things she has placed a power in the soul, by means of which the mind conceives and is in travail, and brings forth many things. (103) But of the ideas which are brought forth by the mind, some are male and some female, as in the case of animals. Now the female offspring of the soul are wickedness and passion, by which we are made effeminate in every one of our pursuits; but a healthy state of the passions and virtue is male, by which we are excited and invigorated. Now of these, whatever belongs to the fellowship of men must be attributed to God, and everything that relates to the similarity to women must be imputed to one’s self, on which account the command was delivered, “Of everything which openeth the womb the males belong to the Lord.”
(Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 102-103)

Philo concludes that the firstborn are redeemed in the Land of the Caanonites (fluctuation of reason) when “when the most dominant parts of blind passion are destroyed“:

(134) “But in the day,” says God, “on which I smote the first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated to myself all the first-born of Israel.” And he says this not to lead us to suppose that at the time when Egypt was stricken with this mighty blow by the destruction of all its first-born, the first-born of Israel all became holy, but because both in former times, and now, and hereafter, and for ever, this naturally happens in the case of the soul, that when the most dominant parts of blind passion are destroyed, then the elder and most honourable offspring of God, who sees everything with a piercing sight, becomes holy;
(Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 134)

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