A firstborn son held a special place in ancient families (GENESIS 49:3). His was the birthright, which included three great benefits. First, leadership of the clan upon his father's demise (cf. GENESIS 27:29;GENESIS 49:3). Secondly, a double portion of the inheritance (GENESIS 48:22; DEUTERONOMY 21:17). Thirdly, the status of family priest, the spiritual head by whom the covenant relationship with God was perpetuated (GENESIS 8:20;GENESIS 12:8). In Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God established a spiritual dynasty upon which was based the later expectations of Israel (EXODUS 3:6). But these privileges could be withdrawn. Reuben forfeited his birthright by an immoral act (GENESIS 49:4; 1 CHRONICLES 5:1); Esau forfeited his by a profane attitude (GENESIS 25:32-34; HEBREWS 12:16). So then, being born first did not always secure firstborn status.
In process of time, the emphasis of birthright privileges was shifted from primogeniture to moral excellence. It is remarkable how many "firstborn" in the Bible had to take a lesser place because better men were exalted to prominence by God. Abel was preferred to Cain (GENESIS 4:3-7; HEBREWS 11:4). Japheth was the eldest son of Noah (GENESIS 10:21), yet in all the lists, Shem (father of the Semitic races) comes first (cf. GENESIS 5:32;GENESIS 10:1; et al). Abraham was the younger son of Terah, yet as Dr. Robert Jamieson says, "Although in the enumeration of his sons, Abram, like Shem, is, from his great eminence, mentioned first, he was not the eldest of the family. That honour belonged not to him, but to Haran (GENESIS 11:29)." Jacob was preferred to Esau (MALACHI 1:2) and obtained God's approval.
"unstable as water") lost his birthright. The benefits were distributed among the other sons of Jacob. Judah (
"the sceptre") received tribal leadership (GENESIS 49:10) and Joseph was blessed with the double portion (GENESIS 49:26). Levi, though "scattered in Israel" (that is without tribal lands), eventually obtained priestly status by the sovereign decision of God (EXODUS 28:1), which was confirmed by their faithful stand against idolatry at Horeb (EXODUS 32:26-29). His curse became a blessing: as his name implies (Levi means "to join together"). The tribe became a uniting influence throughout the whole of Israel in its ritual and teaching ministry (2 CHRONICLES 35:3). They served to keep Israel spiritually alive.
Perhaps the most outstanding case is David. He was the youngest of eight sons (1 SAMUEL 16:10-13). Samuel was directed in a vision to the household of Jesse the Bethlehemite, and dramatically instructed to anoint David for kingship. Red-haired, handsome, athletic - yet despised by his older brothers (cf. 1 SAMUEL 17:28), he nevertheless was adopted by God as His firstborn (PSALM 89:27).
This emphasis upon character-fitness rather than chronological fact is very significant. In such cases, the birthright has nothing to do with time but with worth. And in this light we may explain the use of the term "firstborn" with regard to our Lord Jesus. He is
"firstborn of every creature" (COLOSSIANS 1:15), that is, not only Creator of all things and heir of all things (HEBREWS 1:2), but also Lord of all things (MATTHEW 28:18). He is also
"firstborn from the dead" (COLOSSIANS 1:18), not the first to rise, but the greatest to rise; not only conqueror over the tomb, but also able to deliver us from death, and even from dying (JOHN 11:25,26; JOHN 14:19; 1 CORINTHIANS 15:20,45). He is
"firstborn among many brethren" (ROMANS 8:29);
"head of the body, the church" (EPHESIANS 1:22; COLOSSIANS 1:18); who with Him are
"heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ" (ROMANS 8:17); sharing His throne (REVELATION 3:21); and as the
"...church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven..." (HEBREWS 12:23) reigning in life forever
"by one, Jesus Christ" (ROMANS 5:17). The Church of Jesus Christ is not the first of God's chosen people; that honour belongs to Israel -
"to the Jew first" (ROMANS 1:16), but though the Church may not be the first, it certainly is the foremost in God's plans. We are exalted in Christ above all height,
"...set among princes, and made to inherit the throne of glory..." (1 SAMUEL 2:8 para.)
by Aaron Linford
Source: 'Redemption Tidings' (August 1984)