Here’s what struck me from this chapter: "The Lord also said to Moses, 'I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine.'" (vs 11-13)
I’ve been thinking about this all day. I think God was trying to teach a very important lesson with the "plague of the firstborn" in Egypt. Let’s think about this for a moment. Firstborn children (especially firstborn sons) were nearly worshiped in Israel, and they were literally worshiped in Egypt! For God to threaten the life of the firstborn of Egypt was a direct assault on one of the most powerful "gods" the Egyptians had. Remember, it was the first plague God warned Pharaoh about, but it took a long time to actually get around to it in the sequence of things.
And, if you remember the actual plague, the firstborn of Egypt didn’t have to die. In fact, there was no household in Egypt — Hebrew or Egyptian — which was exempt from the conditions of the plague. The conditions were that every household with blood on the doorpost would still have a living firstborn child at sunrise. The Egyptian firstborn didn’t die in the plague because they were Egyptian any more than the Hebrew firstborn survived because they were Hebrew. If an Egyptian family put blood on the doorpost, their firstborn child would have lived through the night. And if a Hebrew family had failed to meet the conditions of that first Passover night, their firstborn child wouldn’t have survived.
And now, after the Exodus, after the Israelites are out in the wilderness, God lets them know that their firstborn children still belong to Him. I think God was trying to teach the Israelites (and us) a very important lesson: We don’t belong to ourselves. We didn’t create, nor do we sustain, our own lives. We are dependents. And as created beings, it is in our nature to be mastered by something. And I think God is trying to help us see that we have a choice: We can be mastered by Him, or we can be mastered by something else. Being mastered by Him leads to life and freedom. Choosing to be mastered by something else (by rejecting God) leads to death.
In Numbers 3, the lesson was that, when we choose to be "mastered" by God, we discover that He isn’t into slavery. Yes, we acknowledge that we are not our own. We acknowledge that He is our rightful Ruler. But then, He offers a "redemption," just like He gave the Israelites the opportunity to reclaim their firstborn. When we give ourselves to God, He responds by giving us freedom instead of slavery. When we give ourselves to sin, sin responds by enslaving us and leading us right down to death.
It’s an age-old paradox in Christianity. Jesus said, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it." (Lk 9:24) The fact is, we all belong to God — whether we want to believe it, acknowledge it, or even know it. But it is in surrendering to Him as our Master that we will find the yoke of slavery removed. If we "give up" our life into His hands, we will truly find it. If we don’t surrender to Him as our Master, we will wind up in the slavery of things we can’t get out of. In trying to live our life "free" of God’s restraints, we will truly lose our freedom.
The remarkable thing is that God lets us choose. He could choose to make slaves out of His "firstborn," but He doesn’t do that. Instead, He offers the right of redemption. And if we decide to surrender to Him, the more we surrender, the more He is able to release us into true freedom — the freedom which is only found in Him.