Consecration of the Firstborn (13:1–16)
1–2 Because God had spared the firstborn of Israel on the night of the Passover (Exodus 12:12,29), He commanded that thenceforth all Israelite firstborn would in a special way “belong” to Him—that they should be “presented” to Him,32 consecrated to Him.33 The Israelites probably carried out this command (the consecrating of their firstborn) at the first stopping place on their journey from Egypt.
3–10 In these verses, Moses gives to the people God’s instructions for commemorating the Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Exodus 12:14–20 and comment). What is new here is the emphasis on teaching one’s children the meaning of the feast; it is necessary for each new generation not only to remember and understand God’s past acts but also to “appropriate” them—that is, be encouraged and instructed and motivated by them. Teaching one’s children about the greatness and mercy of God and the need to obey His commands remains the solemn duty of parents right up to our own day.
Thus the Israelites had hardly left Egypt when God, through Moses, began telling the people to observe this ceremony annually and to continue doing so after they arrived in the land of the Canaanites34 (verse 5)—the land of Canaan, promised to the descendants of Abraham (see Exodus 3:7–9 and comment). The observance of the feast would be like a sign on [their] hand and a reminder on [their] forehead (verse 9); it would be a sign to others and a reminder to themselves that their God was the only true Deliverer. However, the remembrance of God’s acts is not something merely external and automatic; it must affect our lips—our actions, our minds, our hearts.
11–16 Here Moses gives further instructions concerning the consecration—the “giving over”—of all the firstborn to God. The usual way to consecrate a living thing to God was to sacrifice it, to kill it. But in the case of firstborn humans, they were not to be killed but rather “redeemed” (verse 13). To redeem means to obtain the release of something by paying a price of some kind. For example, since donkeys were “unclean” and hence unsuitable for sacrificing (they were also needed as pack animals), a lamb could be substituted as “payment” for the firstborn donkey. The same principle applied to firstborn sons; the payment for a son was five shekels of silver35 (Numbers 18:14–17).
The idea that because God spared the firstborn of Israel they then belonged to Him may at first sound strange to us. But according to the New Testament it is not strange at all. We Christians, too, have been spared God’s judgment; we have come under the blood of Christ. Paul teaches that we, therefore, have been bought (redeemed) at a price (1 Corinthians 6:19–20); the “price” was Jesus’ blood. For us, redemption was free; we didn’t have to pay. Jesus paid; therefore, we—and everything we have—belong to Him. This is one of the most fundamental truths of our faith.36
The Journey to the Red Sea (13:17–22)
17–19 The Lord planned to lead the Israelites along a southerly route across the Sinai Peninsula. The shortest route eastward led through the land of the Philistines located along the Mediterranean coast. The warlike Philistines would likely have fought with the Israelites and discouraged them. The Israelites were armed for battle (verse 18), but their weapons were only spears, bows and slings, and they could not have stood against the better-armed Philistines. The Israelites may even have chosen to return to Egypt rather than fight the Philistines. So the Lord did not lead them that way. The Lord doesn‚t always lead us the shortest way; He leads us the best way.
Moses carried the bones of Joseph with him (verse 19), according to Joseph‚s request to his brothers (Genesis 50:24–25).
20–22 The exact route the Israelites took is not known; many of the places they stopped at cannot be identified today. The point at which they crossed the Red Sea37 (verse 18) also is not known. But it almost certainly was north of the present-day Gulf of Suez; it’s possible that at that time the Red Sea extended farther north than it does today.
The Israelites themselves may not have known exactly where they were! But that was not important. They had a guide, the angel of God (Exodus 14:19)—that is, the manifestation of God’s presence with them.38 Just as the Lord had appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), so He now appeared to them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In this way, the Lord provided them with shade during the day and light during the night. Whenever the pillar of cloud and fire moved, the Israelites were to follow (see Numbers 9:15–23 and comment). For the Israelites, as for us, it’s not as important to know where we are going as it is to know who we are going with (Hebrews 11:8).