The Rights of the Firstborn (Genesis 25)

Illustration: Death of Pharao’s firstborn by Lawrence Alma Tadema

The Hebrew term bet av (“paternal household”) reflects the fact that in ancient Israel the family was patrilineal: Inheritances were passed through the male line. The patriarch had authority over the entire household, including sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters and grandchildren. Upon the patriarch’s death the firstborn son became the head of the family, and the paternal lineage of the extended family continued through him. The firstborn son, therefore, exercised both special privileges and unique responsibilities.

Several Biblical texts stipulate that the firstborn belonged to the Lord and needed to be redeemed (since all firstborn sons belonged to God after the plague on the firstborn in Egypt, Israelites had to symbolically buy them back with animal sacrifices, according to Exodus 13:2, 12-16, 22:29, Numbers 3:13). The firstborn took precedence over his younger brothers (Genesis 43:33) and received a double portion of inheritance, as well as a special blessing (chapter 27, 48:14 ff).

The patriarch/father was not free to arbitrary assign the first son’s birthright to a younger sibling (Deuteronomy 21:15-17), although the birthright could pass to another son in exceptional circumstances (e.g. Reuben lost his birthright because he had defiled his father’s bed (c.f. 1 Chronicles 5:1-2). Documents from Nuzi and Mari reveal that if a concubine bore the first son, his birthright could be withdrawn if the primary wife subsequently gave birth to a son. This occured in the case of Ishmael and Isaac.

We also have eccess to Nuzi documents called “tablet of brotherhood” contracts. These concern the sale of a birthright to someone outside the family (based on a legal loophole of adopting the outsider as a family member) for the purpose of transferring property. Although not identical in concept to what we see in Genesis 25:27 and following, these Nuzi texts do indicate that the birthright could be sold or traded and provide some precedent for Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob.

The concept underlying the rights of the firstborn son has theological implications. The nation of Israel enjoyed a special relationship with the Lord as His firstborn (Exodus 4:22 ff). But Psalm 8:27 indicates that Christ is the Lord’s firstborn. This is not to b seen as a contradiction. Believers who are in Christ share in the privileges His intimate relationship with the Father entail (Hebrews 12:23-24), and we are warned not to spurn or devalue our birthright as Esau did (Hebrews 12:16-17).

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