… Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus … having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body… ¹
When the first-born male infant in a Jewish family passes the thirtieth day of his life, he is by destiny of his birth assigned the role of non-speaking but leading actor in an unusual ceremonial drama. It ends well despite the crisis, to the complete satisfaction of all concerned.
This rite, performed since time immemorial, is called Pidyon Ha-Ben (Heb: פדיון הבן). The figurative act and the fixed dialogue is recited before an assembly made up of relatives, friends, and other invited guests, who collectively stand by as witnesses takes place between the infant boy’s father and a Cohen, a Jew of priestly descent. The Cohen performs during this rite as the official representative of the priesthood of ancient days.
The ceremony, which is performed in the home, commences with the father handing over his first-born son to the Cohen. As he does this, he recites the following formula in Hebrew: “This, my first-born, is the first-born of his mother, and the Holy One, blessed is He, has given us the commandment to redeem him.”
The commandment is firmly stated in the Book of Numbers 18:15-16: “…the firstborn of man you shall surely redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem.” The redemption fee is fixed by Scripture at “five shekels of silver.” In the United States the fee has by custom been fixed at five dollars, payable in silver. The sum usually goes to charity.
The dialogue then proceeds:
COHEN: Which would you rather have: give me your first-born son-the first born of his mother-or redeem him for five shekels, which you are bound to give according the Torah?
FATHER: I want rather to redeem my son. And here you have the value of his redemption which I am obliged to give according to the Torah.
The Cohen accepts the redemption money and restores to the child to his father who, rejoicing at this accomplishment, recites two benedictions of Talmudic authorship, offering thanksgiving to God for having given Israel the commandment to redeem the first-born son. The Cohen then places the money upon the head of the child and recites: “This instead of that, this in commutation for that, this in remission of that.” And he goes on with the traditional formula which utters the fervent hope that even as the child this day has received his redemption, so that he may be destined when he grows up to enter into a dedication to the “Torah, Chuppah (marriage), and good deeds” — the three most prized values in the life of the Jewish man. Then, over a goblet of wine, the Cohen recites the benediction and the prayer for God’s protection, favor, and peace in a life of righteousness for the redeemed infant.
The question that has long puzzled many thoughtful Jews and Christians is: What is the first-born male child being redeemed from? One tradition attempts to explain the rite of redemption as being performed in commemoration of that time during the Israelite bondage when “the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt [but] … spared the first-born of the Israelites.” The same tradition holds that because of this providential act of mercy and protection, all in Israel for all the generations to come were commanded to consecrate their first-born sons to God; they belonged to Him because He had spared their lives. This “belonging” was interpreted to mean that all the first-born males were to be consecrated to the personal service of God in His temple in Jerusalem. There is even a Talmudic tradition that, until the time when the building of the sanctuary in Jerusalem had been completed, the priesthood which ministered to the Children of Israel in the Wilderness was composed of first-born sons, but that thereafter, it drew its priestly personnel for the Temple solely from the tribe of Levi. And to help support the vast priesthood, as well as to become legally and ritualistically released from the obligation of serving as priests, the first-born sons were redeemed by their fathers for five shekels in the ceremony of the Pidyon Ha-Ben.
These various interpretations fall short of the ultimate fulfillment, which is found in Jesus Christ. As King of kings and Head of the Church, Jesus has first rank in everything. He is the Messiah, the Firstborn of the Dead — the Resurrected One — Who by shedding His blood has released us from our sins. We, as adopted children of God, now have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of God the Father ³.
… the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many… Matthew 20:28