The Numbers:13 Project
For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s. Numbers 3:13
I never really understood the value of being first born. And I say that as a first-born son myself, the child of two first-born children. Some things are better (nobody’s reputation precedes you) and some things are worse (your parents work out all their inexperience on you), but the accident of birth order seems to be irrelevant to anything of real consequence.
The concept of privilege is so embedded in so many cultures, however, that I must admit I think about it plenty. In a society in which lineage and succession are central concerns, I suppose it makes sense that the first born enjoys a special status. (And mostly, we are talking about a first-born who is a son, not necessarily the first son born after one or more daughters.) But in a society in which we recognize that all people are created equal and that achievement is the result of personal effort, what possible difference could it make? For example, I am father to a first-born who is not a son, a son who is not a first-born and a child who is neither. Each of them is equally loved and valued, sharing plenty of traits, but following very different paths of accomplishment. None of them elected to succeed me or my wife in our chosen endeavors or, for that matter, in defining their lives according to the contours we decided on (except in both contexts by very broad definition).
I think there is no denying that this first-born designation has mixed reviews. And I think the verse we are considering this week is a great indication as to why. I write these words in the midst of the Passover festival in which the deaths of the first-born males among the Egyptians is the last necessary ingredient in the long process of liberating the Israelite slaves. On the plus side, this final catastrophe (from which slaves who followed God’s instructions were passed over by death) left Pharaoh no choice but to free the oppressed, and it required a society based on lineage to completely redefine itself. So much for the privilege of being first. On the other hand, I have never attended a seder at which someone does not note that the child chosen for involuntary privilege pays the ultimate price to right a moral wrong that was not their sin. The text of the Bible notes the anguish of the parents but notes no regret for the loss of innocent life. Moreover, if part of the lesson is that the moral shortcomings of one generation should not be considered the privilege of the next, then why do the instructions given to the liberated tribes codify the very same privilege?
Yes, it is possible to read the verse above as a caution – the price of freedom is a recognition that what a father thinks he can pass along to his son has been transferred to God to decide. And yes, despite this appropriation by God there is the instruction to “redeem” the first-born from this designation in favor of the tribe of Levi, designated to serve the divine will in place of the first-born. But this whole notion of privilege nonetheless survives, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively.
The saga of the family of Joseph Kennedy is a great example. Kennedy, not himself the most admirable of figures, placed the highest of expectations on his first-born and namesake. When Joe, Jr. was killed in World War II, those expectation shifted to John, and then to Bobby, and then to Teddy. Whether you were a fan of any or all of them, you must acknowledge that their place in the birth order had nothing to do with their similar (but by no means identical) accomplishments.
The religious sense of a permanent legacy of chosenness also plays out in America today. Our country was founded a group of white men who, though they differed widely in their beliefs and devotions, nevertheless were possessed of the conviction that they were in service to the divine will. Perhaps they were, but the subsequent generations of white males who viewed themselves as primary successors of the Founding Fathers relied more on that sense of being inheritors of privilege and authority than on the values of that exceptional generation. They had to be persuaded – sometimes violently – to extend the blessings of liberty to women, people of color, immigrants from around the globe, diverse faith communities and, most notably in our day, people of differing orientations and gender identities.
Matters of policy aside, the basest expression of this sense of entitlement has resulted in the wistful (and often pathetic) desire to “make America great again.” Led by old white guys and enabled by those who want to preserve a crumbling hierarchy of privilege, the look backward in an attempt to move forward has widened a gap that was narrowing by inches. Underlying this aggressive reassertion of dominance is not “birth order” in a biological sense, but an assertion made with umbrage and conviction that the United States was founded by the Fathers who intended the legacy for their Sons. The overlay of a literal (and often selective) reading of sacred text, including this verse, makes great misuse of the notion that certain officials elected by the voters were also elected by God.
I learned how wrong this notion of a first-born’s privilege was shortly after my bar mitzvah. I had asked my parents for one gift – a small TV – for my bedroom. The little ones were all black-and-white back then, deeper than wide because of the tube. It sat on the dresser in the room I shared with my younger brother who was the baseball outlier in my family – a White Sox fan. He had the good sense to ask me one Sunday afternoon if he could watch the Sox game on my designated Cubs TV. I refused (because, well, it was the White Sox and I may have had a proclivity to torture him.)
He protested loudly to my parents who wanted to know why I refused. When I told them that I did not want the White Sox on my television, I discovered that in certain circumstances it was not just the Lord who both giveth and taketh away. Just because I got there first did not give me a claim of privilege and authority. Even those who arrived later, with different and even demonstrably wrong team loyalties, were entitled to equal consideration and access to privilege.
Being first makes you first. That’s about it. And I would like to think that anyone who believes that such a designation makes them inherently special can take it up with the arbiter of right and wrong.