My son, my firstborn
And you will say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn.”
Israel’s relationship to God is explained by various metaphors in the Bible: servant (Isa. 41:8, 44:1-2, 21, 49:3; I Chron. 16:13), flock (Ezek. 34:11ff, Psa. 23:1-4, 95:7, 100:3, etc.), and son, to name just a few of the more prominent ones.
The metaphor of Israel as God’s firstborn son appears at several places and under different circumstances in the Hebrew Bible. At least three ideas are suggested by a survey of these passages:
1) Israel as God’s chosen people;
2) God’s love for Israel;
3) The permanence of their relationship.
1. Israel as God’s chosen people
Granted, this idea appears more often with the servant passages listed above, but the two metaphors are related. For example, in Psalm 89 David is first introduced as God’s chosen servant (Psa. 89:3) then later identified as his firstborn son (Psa. 89:26-27), which is interpreted there as “the highest of the kings of the earth.” So likewise Israel, as God’s chosen servant and firstborn son, has been set first among the nations, as God’s portion and inheritance:
Deut. 32:6b, 9
Is he not your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you…. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of his inheritance. (cf. Psa. 135:4)
2. God’s love for Israel
I quoted selectively from Deuteronomy 32; in context the passage is fairly negative toward Israel: A “foolish and unwise people” (v. 6), Israel “abandoned the God who made him” (v.15), and the report only grows worse from there on. The context of the passage quoted below, from Hosea 11, is also hard on the shortcomings of Israel. Even so, God’s love for Israel remains steadfast: “For whom the Lord loves he reproves, even as a father, the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:12) Israel is the son in whom God delights. Even as God reproves Israel, there remains the special love of a father for his child:
When Israel was still a youth I loved him, and called my son from Egypt.
(The new JPS offers an interpretive translation: I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child; and I have called [him] my son ever since Egypt.)
3. The permanence of their relationship
God’s love for Israel is an everlasting love:
I have loved you with an everlasting love.
The prophet Jeremiah mixes the metaphors of flock and son, and in doing so places double emphasis on the enduring nature of God’s relationship with Israel:
They will come with weeping, and with supplications I will lead them; I will make them walk by streams of waters, on a straight way where they will not stumble; for I am as a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn…. He who scattered Israel will gather him, and guard him, like a shepherd guards his flock.
Then he completes the thought with assurance of God’s devotion to Israel:
Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a delightful child? For whenever I speak against him, I surely remember him still; therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord.
All of this does not make God a tribal deity, for the “nation” Israel has never been limited to an ethnic identity. Theoretically, any person who so chooses may “enter the status of Israel….by accepting God’s rule as set forth in the Torah.” (Jacob Neusner, The Emergence of Judaism, p. 26) Israel the people became Israel the chosen when they chose to accept the terms of the covenant, when, standing at Sinai, they declared, “We will do and we will hear.” (Exod. 24:7) When today observant Jews recite the Shema both morning and evening, they affirm the sovereignty of God and the centrality of his commandments in their lives, and in so doing they show themselves to be Israel.
The following passage from the Talmud makes use of Exodus 4:22 in a creative way:
R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: What is meant by the Scripture, For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us: you, O Lord, are our father; our redeemer, from everlasting is your name (Isa. 63:16)? In the future the Holy One, blessed be he, will say to Abraham. “Your children have sinned against me.” Abraham will answer before him, “Master of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of your Name.” He will say, “I will tell this to Jacob, who went through the pain of bringing up children: perhaps he will ask for mercy on their behalf.” He will say to him, “Your children have sinned.” Jacob will answer before him, “Master of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of your Name.” …. Then he will say to Isaac, “Your children have sinned against me.” But Isaac will answer him, “Master of the Universe! Are they my children and not your children? When they gave precedence to "we will do" over "we will hear" (cf. Exod. 24:7) before you, you called them, My son, my firstborn (Exod. 4:22). Now are they my children, not your children? Moreover, how much have they sinned? How many are the years of man? Seventy. Subtract twenty, for which you do not punish (Num. 14:29), there remain fifty. Subtract twenty-five that comprise the nights (when they are asleep and do not sin), there remain twenty-five. Subtract twelve and a half for prayer, eating, and using the privy, there remain twelve and a half. If you will bear all of them, good; if not, let half be on me and half on you. And if you say, all of them must be on me, don’t forget I offered myself up before you!’ When they say, ‘For you [i.e., Isaac] are our father,’ then Isaac will say to them, ‘Instead of praising me, praise the Holy One, blessed be he,’ and Isaac will show them the Holy One, blessed be he, with their own eyes. At once they will lift up their eyes on high and exclaim, 'You, O Lord, are our father; our redeemer, from everlasting is your name.'