I. Definition and Examples:
I. A. Definition:
In Genesis the birthright speaks of a cumulative set of patriarchal privileges, honors and responsibilities that where bestowed upon the firstborn of a father. This would include: 1. a double portion of the inheritance from the father’s amassed estate. The portions of the inheritance where subject to gradation, depending on the number of sons (e.g. if there where two sons the estate would be divided into three portions, the firstborn receiving two. If there were three sons, the estate was split into fourths – eldest receiving two, and so on). 2. The birthright gave the firstborn the leadership and authority of the father, in the father absence or death. 3. The birthright also entailed the continuation of legal representation of the family name, as well as the spiritual blessing and leadership of the patriarchal priesthood.
I. B. Examples from Genesis:
I. B.1. Jacob and Esau
The first mention of “birthright” in the OT is imbedded in circumstances of the flagrance and spiritual negligence of Isaac’s son, Esau. In the NT Esau’s actions with regards to forfeiting his birthright for the “lust of the flesh” earn him the titles of a “fornicator...and profane person” (Heb.12:16). There is nothing in Genesis indicating that the transaction between these two brothers was not legally binding, thus making Jacob the rightful heir to the blessing. The “trade” itself was certainly in accord with the purposes of God (cf.Gen.25:23; Rom.9:10-13). Nevertheless, Rebekah and Jacob’s deceptive means of acquiring the blessing were clearly unacceptable to God. Rebekah, as a result of her plan to see her favored son blessed, is never to see him again. Also is God’s exacting and extracting the deceptive nature from Jacob. At Peniel Jacob receives a new nature and name (cf.Gen.32:22-32).
The birthright (as defined above) and patriarchal blessing are inextricably linked together. However, in Gen.27:36, 38 Esau, in his irrational rage, makes a distinction between the birthright and the blessing. While Jacob receives the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant (27:27-29; cf. Gen.12:3), Isaac’s “quasi-blessing” in vv.39-40 should be understood as a prophetic word rather than “another blessing” of the birthright. The words of Isaac in v.40 would come to see their fulfillment in the progeny of his two sons. This is gradually realized at a national level over the span of approximately 1080 years (cf. “Two nations are in your womb...” Gen.25:23), with Esau’s people, the Edomites, finally breaking loose of the “yoke” of Jacob’s sons, Judah (see: II Kings 8:20).
I. B. 2. Rachel and the Teraphim (household gods)?
There is speculation surrounding Rachel’s act of thievery in Gen.31 and the teraphim or “household gods,” yet there is nothing conclusive offered by scholars as to the exact significance of the idols and the rights to an inheritance. Morris holds that, “It is also possible, as implied in some of the Nuzu tablets excavated around 1930, that teraphim were associated with the inheritance and property rights of their owner. If so, Rachel may have stolen them with the thought that possessing them would somehow help validate the legitimacy of her husband’s title to the flocks he had acquired while serving Laban and represent the inheritance she had a right to expect.” (Morris, Henry M, The Genesis Record, Grand Rapids: Baker. 1976. P.483). If indeed Rachel had taken and hid these idols in order to help insure Jacob’s right to the herds, which Yahweh had multiplied to Jacob from Laban’s stock before Jacob fled, it then seems strange that Rachel failed to disclose the “gods” as Jacob’s (or her own) “title deed” – as leverage to his rightful ownership of the livestock during the confrontation between the two men.
However helpful such background studies may be to our understanding of the historical events recorded in scripture, Laban’s idols and any representative value they may have had in his pagan context does little to augment our grasp on the biblical theme of “birthright.”
I. B. 3. Reuben and others
The patriarchal authority being exercised by the “firstborn” in the stead of the absent father can be seen in Reuben’s restraining, though still contemptible, actions over how the brothers should deal with Joseph (see: Gen. 37; 42:22). Reuben also served in this same capacity as the brother’s leader when going back into Egypt for grain (42:37). Yet, because Reuben the firstborn slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (35:22), he, like Esau, forfeited his birthright due to the “lust of the flesh.” Next in line to receive it was Simeon and Levi; due to their malicious murder of the whole house of Shechem (Gen.34) the birthright fell on Joseph (48:22) and Judah (49:8-12), from whose tribe came our Lord (Lk.3:33; Rom.1:3; Heb.7:14).
II. “Birthright” elsewhere in the Pentateuch
II. A. Deut. 21:15-17
In surveying Genesis, one sees a degree of arbitrariness in the approbation of the birthright. The unconditional right of the firstborn to the inheritance does not seem to have divine imperative at this point in redemptive history but was rather a commonality in the cultures around them. Deut.21:15-17 then offers the first preserved (e.g. canonical) records forbidding a father’s favoritism over his wives and/or children, when endowing the blessing and duties to the firstborn.
Syriac tablets have revealed that the “birthright” program was certainly not restricted to the people of Yahweh (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. I, Chicago: Moody Press. 1975. pp. 609-10). These same discoveries have also shown that the capricious bestowment of the blessing based solely on the father’s favoritism too was not exclusive to Israel, but rather commonplace in the ancient world. Gen.4:4 and 25:6 imply that there were more divine directives concerning the “firstborn/birthright” – both words being derivatives of the Heb. Term “BeKOR” – thus explaining the universal observance of the custom in the near east. However, it was not until 1400 B.C. that God gave apodictic statutes concerning the perpetuation of the birthright inheritance (Deut.21:15-17).
III. Spiritual implications.
III. A. In the Hagiographa: Elijah and Elisha
One does not have to skip forward to the NT to find a spiritual appraisal and application of the “birthright.” In the lives of Yahweh’s prophets, Elijah and Elisha, the template of the birthright/firstborn concept is found to be used in the passing on of the prophetic office. In II Kings 2 there are many “sons of the prophets” (both in Bethel v.3, and at Jericho v.5), yet for Elijah, Elisha has priority over them all – Elisha is a firstborn of sorts. In vv.9-10 Elisha asks for the “blessing,” and this blessing entails a “double portion,” just as did the corporeal “birthright.” Elisha, though not Elijah’s biological son (see: I Kings 19:19-21), refers to Elijah as “My father, my father...” (v.12). Elijah’s mantle is the physical object in the account and is representative of the birthright’s inheritance and responsibility (vv.8, 14), with the “Spirit” being the blessing (vv.9, 15).
III. B. In the New Testament: Jesus and the Church
The birthright/firstborn program is a concept which spans both the Old and New Covenants. In Ex.4:22 and Jer.31:9, Israel is call by Yahweh “my firstborn,” however, in the NT Jesus is revealed as the “The Firstborn” – the Father’s True Son and Heir (comp. ‘Israel the vine’ in Ps.44:2; 80:8; 92:13; Song 6:11; 8:11; Is.5:2; 60:21; Jer.2:21; Eze. 15:2; Hos.10:1, to Jesus, “the True Vine” in Jn.15:1-27).
Rom.8:29; Col.1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6, and Rev.1:5 all call Jesus God’s firstborn. In all of these passages the meaning of the Greek πρωτοτοχος or “firstborn,” refers to Christ being the first (unique) in priority with relationship with the Father. First, chief, principle in rank over all creation (Col.1:15), and re-creation (vv.17-18; cf. Rev.1:5). Only in Lk.2:7, concerning “Mary’s firstborn son,” does this word speak of Jesus being first in respect to ordinary physical generation and/or to having had a beginning (contra JWism/Arianism).
In Heb.12:23 the congregation of believers is called the “church of the firstborn.” Here believers are seen as “firstborn” through their union and covenant identification with Christ – thus Jesus is then the “first” among “many brethren” (Rom.8:29b). The author of Heb.12 is not concerned with contrasting varying ranks of hierarchy within the family of “sons and children” (v.5), but the distinction between true “sons (children)” and “bastards” (v.8). Therefore, Paul can rightly say in Rom.8:17, “And if children (by adoption in Christ, cf. v.1), then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ...” Because of this Paul also proclaims, “For all the promises of God (from Genesis to Revelation) in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us” (II Cor.1:20)!
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4