Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15
1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”
3 Then Moses said to the people,
11 “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’
Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day we remember the little boys who were killed in Bethlehem when wicked king Herod sought to slay Jesus (Matthew 2). Paul Maier calculated that the size of Bethlehem suggested that there would have been about 24 such children at the time within Bethlehem. When placed within the larger butchery which marked the reign of Herod, it is not surprising that the historians at the time make no mention of it outside of Matthew. The emperor Augustus once commented that he would rather be Herod’s pig than one of his sons. Herod observed Jewish kosher laws so would not eat pork, but he did kill several of his sons whom he thought were conspiring to seize the throne.
This day smacks us in the face a bit. We have just concluded another Christmas season. The lights have been strung, the gifts given, the feasting has largely taken place. Is your tree still up or have you deposited its tinder dry biomass at the curb to be recycled? We sweep up the wrapping paper and stray tinsel and come back to “normal.” Except, it isn’t normal. The sentimentality which passes for Christmas has papered over a brutal and broken reality which comes rushing back to us in full force.
This reading also speaks of brutal events. In the days of Moses, the final plague visited upon stubborn pharaoh and the people of Egypt was a terrible plague of death, claiming the lives of eldest sons. That sounds awful and it was, but it also is a large prophetic arrow pointing ahead to the Lord Jesus. This day reminds us that God sent him on a mission which would end in death, a cruel, brutal death which sums up all the brokenness of this creation. He died because children die, because mothers grieve, because fathers weep, and in countless other ways this world is broken. He died to make all these death’s right and to raise these children to life.