Gift of the Firstborn of Israel

Firstborn (bechor) as one of the names of the Messiah is seen in the heavenly conversation found in Psalm 89:27. There God himself says of the Messiah, “I will make him My firstborn. The highest of the kings of the earth.” The Bible gives to the firstborn a significance that goes far beyond the laws regarding earthly inheritance. Commenting on the verse, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn” (Exodus 13:2), the midrash says, “God said to Moses, ‘Just as I have appointed Jacob firstborn – as it says, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22), so will I appoint King Messiah firstborn,’ as it is said, ‘I will appoint him firstborn'” (Exodus Rabbah 19:7).

-Tsvi Sadan from his book
The Concealed Light, pg 16
Firstborn (bechor)

A few days ago, on one of my meditations, I said:

The Master said that Salvation is from the Jews,” (John 4:22) but then, so is peace. This is another reason why we Christians, and indeed, the entire world, owes the Jews a debt that can never be repaid. It is their King who will finally come and bring peace for everyone, not just the nation of Israel, but the nations of the earth.

However, I had neglected to anticipate that this might be seen as offensive or at least inaccurate from a traditional Christian point of view. By way of explanation, I offered an additional comment:

Israel was always meant to the the beacon that would lead the rest of the world to God. Consider Isaiah 49:6 and Isaiah 51:4. By extension, Jesus said of himself that he was (and is) the light to the world (John 8:12) and he passed that torch (if you’ll pardon the obvious pun) to his disciples, including us, when we said that we are a light to the world (Matthew 5:14).

There’s an unbroken chain in the transmission of God’s Word from God Himself, to His people Israel, and to Israel’s firstborn son of Creation and the firstborn of the dead Jesus Christ. Jesus is called the King of the Jews, which hardly divorces his work of salvation from the Jewish people. We thank, praise, and honor God for our salvation and redemption from sin, however He chose to provide those gifts through the birth of Jesus and the light of His nation Israel, which was always to be our guiding light, since the very beginning.

God is God alone, but Jesus doesn’t exist in isolation. He was born, lived, died, and was resurrected within a specific context so that “The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:2)

(To be fair, I must say that the conversation that was started on my own blog post was continued at Steven’s blogspot, http://washedfeet.wordpress.com/)

To me, the connection between God, Israel as firstborn, and Jesus as firstborn is pretty self-evident, but apparently not everyone shares this view. In an attempt to be fair and check my thinking and perceptions, I decided to explore the names of the Messiah and how they reveal his character and relationship to God and Israel. Part of the result is that I found the above-quoted passage from Sadan’s book. It seems that not only does midrash confirm the near interchangeability between the Messiah and Israel but the Torah does too. If we feel we owe a debt of gratitude to Jesus Christ for being saved by the grace of God through the blood of the Messiah, then by inference, we are offering that gratitude to Israel as well; which is also God’s firstborn.

I know this will probably not sit well with some and it’s not like I’m going out of my way just to be a pest, but I do feel honor-bound to point out the truth of the Bible as best as I can understand it in defense of not only Israel but of God’s intent in choosing Jacob’s children as his own treasured, splendorous people. I do not believe the nature, character, and purpose of Messiah can be separated from Israel as a people or a nation, either in function or in prophesy.

The one who has “borne our griefs” and who has “carried our sorrows” that we Christians see in Isaiah 53:4 is viewed as the “Suffering Messiah,” Jesus Christ. The church can scarcely begin reading this passage before envisioning Jesus on the cross. However, from a Jewish point of view, it is Israel who is suffering, as a people, rather than Messiah:

“If the Holy One, blessed be He, is pleased with a man, He crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said: And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence] He crushed him by disease (Isa. 53:10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said: “To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution”. Even as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? “He will see his seed, prolong his days”. And more than that, his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. For it is said: “The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand”. It has been taught: R. Simeon b. Yohai says: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings.. These are: The Torah, the Land of Israel and the World To Come.”

sourced from Talmud – Brachot page 5a

I’m hardly an expert, but is it so hard to imagine that Isaiah may have been referring to both Israel and Messiah? I’ve never been a big fan of always applying a prophesy to a single event or person. I believe it’s possible for Isaiah to have been giving a “multi-layered” message that to his immediate audience may have meant one thing, and to an “extended audience” may mean something else.

Admittedly, this is a dangerous thing to do and I’m stretching the limits of Bible interpretation quite a bit here, but for a good purpose. I’m trying to illustrate that Jesus is not only (in some mystical fashion) the personification of the Divine, but the living personification of Israel as a people. To say that we are “saved by Jesus” in some way is to say that “salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22 ESV)

The link between Jesus and the well-being of Israel wasn’t lost on Paul either, and he went out of his way to communicate that message to the non-Jewish disciples in Rome. Apparently the non-Jewish disciples didn’t have a problem with this understanding:

For they (the Gentile believers) were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. –Romans 15:27 (ESV)

More than a few non-Jews in the Messianic movement have been accused of worshiping Judaism rather than God and sad to say, that’s true in many cases. I suppose in my comments, I could be accused of “the glorification of the flesh of Israel,” (though I’ve never been comfortable with some of the stereotypical Christian phraseology) but that is not my intent. What I am trying to communicate is not the exalting of Israel as a people above God or above the Messiah. The Master himself said that no servant is greater than his master (John 13:16) and certainly Israel serves God and not the other way around. On the other hand, Israel serves God and the living, breathing, walking, talking, expression of the ideal Israel is the Messiah, the Savior, Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.

The rest of Sadan’s commentary on “firstborn” (bechor) as a name for the Messiah links these ideas together with how we disciples of the Master tend to see his most outstanding act on behalf of the world:

Reference to Messiah in connection with the command to consecrate all the firstborn is highly significant. Moses gives two reasons for the injunction: remembrance of the Exodus by celebrating Passover and remembrance of the death of the Egyptian firstborn. Exodus 13 appears to suggest that Israel’s freedom is achieved through the Passover lamb and the Egyptian firstborn. In addition to the classic clash over the rights of the firstborn, here the decisive divine act reveals that the right of the firstborn belongs not to Pharaoh but to Jacob. In a manner of speech, this massive human death is responsible for Israel’s redemption; in a sense, the death of the Egyptian firstborn was a sacrificial death.

The rather shocking idea that the death of the firstborn brings about redemption is found in the very command to consecrate all of Israel’s firstborn. The translation, “You shall set apart to the LORD all that open the womb, that is every firstborn” (Exodus 13:12), fails to reveal the true meaning. The Hebrew for “set apart” here actually signifies “sacrifice.” Israel, accordingly, was to sacrifice their firstborn. It is only in verse 15 that we learn that the death of the firstborn is replaced by the process of ransoming. Further still, it is the tribe of Levi that becomes the substitute for the firstborn (Numbers 8:18), since the Levites have no inheritance in Israel…

By appointing Messiah as the Firstborn, God thus sets him up to be the preeminent Firstborn, the ultimate Lamb. As such, he has no substitute; no one can pay the ransom for him. Rather, he is bound to pay the ultimate price to redeem Israel by sacrificing his own self.

Sadan, pp 16-17

There doesn’t appear to be a reasonable and legitimate way to separate Messiah as the firstborn, from Israel as the firstborn. Further, the ultimate and “preeminent Firstborn” must sacrifice himself as the “price to redeem Israel.” That was and is the great purpose of the Messiah as the sacrifice of the firstborn, to act as the substitute for firstborn Israel, much in the matter that the Levites were “sacrificed” for the sake of each firstborn child of the other tribes. It was Messiah’s purpose to die for the redemption of all Israel.

Most Christians are probably asking right about now, “but what about us?” That’s where God’s grace comes into play and where our gratitude should be expressed. Up until this point, everything is happening within the context of Israel’s relationship with God. Up until this point, the Gentiles; the rest of the world, haven’t been involved except in the role of conquerors and persecutors of the Jews. Except for Israel, up to this point, all of the other people groups on earth have been pagan, polytheistic, idol worshipers.

Period.

But the endlessly bountiful graciousness of God (and this was always part of His plan) opened the doors of salvation for the rest of us, too. Though from a Jewish perspective, this was completely “out of scope” for the plan, God allowed the sacrifice of the ultimate Firstborn to redeem not only Israel, God’s firstborn, but the entire human population of the earth.

I can’t even begin to express how amazingly HUGE this is. The Jewish disciples couldn’t have possibly understood the fantastic impact of the Master’s words in Matthew 28:18-20 when he commanded them to “make disciples of all nations.” I’m not even sure that they “got it” until nearly two decades later when Peter, seeing the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit, exclaimed:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. –Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)

I think this must have been the moment when it truly dawned upon Peter what God had in mind and the staggering and mind-blowing impact the Messiah’s sacrificial and redemptive death and resurrection would have in the world. Not only would all Israel be saved (Romans 11:26) but “that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17 ESV)

The Jewish Pharisee Paul (also known as Saul among the Jews) was specifically commissioned by the Master (Acts 9) to be the emissary to the Gentiles and to carry the Good News of salvation offered by God through the Jewish Messiah to the nations. I promise you, the Gentiles had no idea what was about to happen to them, how their lives would be changed, and how the entire fabric of the next two-thousand years of human history would be inexorably altered by the will of God, all thanks to the grace of the Creator of the Universe and His choice of the Israelites as His “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).

This entire debate started when I tried to describe Jesus as the Minister of Peace to the entire world. This point was entirely lost on my audience (apparently) and so, employing Sadan’s book once again, I’ll conclude with part of his commentary on another name for the Messiah: “Prince of Peace” (sar shalom):

Rambam very likely based his interpretation on the opinion of Rabbi Yose Haglili, who lived shortly after the destruction of the Temple and who is recorded as saying, “The name of Messiah is Shalom, as it is said, ‘Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace'” (Masechtot Ketanot, Derech Eretz II).

…The Prince of Peace therefore, is greater than Moses, Isaiah, Ezra, and the rest of Israel’s prophets, for none of them were able to establish lasting peace.

Sadan, pg 239

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6) and the security of Israel, for in praying for Israel’s peace, you are praying for your own, thanks to Jesus Christ, our Lord, King, Master, and Savior.

Amen.

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