In ancient Near Eastern societies, firstborn sons were prized above all other children and inherited special privileges and authority simply because of their birth order. In this episode, Tim and Jon start a new theme study covering the theme of the firstborn. Spoiler alert: The God of the Bible opposes lots of human ideas about power, and the privilege of the firstborn is no exception. Again and again, we’ll see Yahweh picking younger siblings and people we wouldn’t expect to be his chosen representatives.
The basic human assumption when it comes to the future of the family is that the firstborn son should be elevated over all. Sometimes what humans do to put a son in that position, or to produce a firstborn son, causes pain and grief and division and abuse. What God is constantly doing is subverting and overturning human assumptions about power and privilege.
In part one (00:00-21:51), Tim and Jon begin a new theme study tracing the theme of the firstborn. Similar to the theme of the image of God, the theme of the firstborn is important but not mentioned directly very often in the Bible.
In patriarchal cultures, firstborn sons are given special authority and honor, along with the responsibility of managing their family’s inheritance. Firstborn sons are considered uniquely qualified to represent their fathers, purely because of their birth order. In cultures like these, stability and security doesn’t depend on an individual’s job or occupation but on their family—everything is shared within families. This is significantly different from how we think about birth order in the contemporary Western world, but this is how families operated in most cultures throughout time.
In part two (21:51-37:16), Tim and Jon discuss the only law in the Torah about firstborn children, found in Deuteronomy 21.
If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.
The Hebrew word for firstborn is bekhor, and it’s used in the Bible for humans as well as plants and animals. In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the firstborn of creation, using the Greek word prototokos.
The law in Deuteronomy 21 assumes that firstborn sons were elevated above other children, but also that this societal norm wouldn’t always be honored. It assumes people would try to play favorites and offer a child other than the firstborn the unique responsibilities.
Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and other ancient Near Eastern nations treated the firstborn similarly with some notable exceptions. For example, in Egypt, a dying father could choose to disregard the law of the firstborn and give his inheritance to a brother or another family member. In other societies, a father could designate a first son. The point is, it was generally agreed among ancient Near Eastern nations that the firstborn son would receive a special inheritance and responsibilities.
In part three (37:16-52:27), Tim and Jon explore the theme of the firstborn in Scripture, starting with the opening pages of Genesis.
Throughout the story of the Bible, God is continually subverting the privileges and positions we would expect firstborn sons to have and instead giving blessings and responsibilities to less likely candidates. Cain and Abel, Abraham (the youngest of three), Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers—there are countless examples of the theme of the firstborn being inverted.
Even after Genesis, most of the prominent leaders in the Hebrew Bible are younger siblings: Moses, Samuel, David, and Solomon, to name a few. Throughout the story of the Bible, Yahweh is constantly overturning human structures of power and privilege.
In part four (52:27-1:09:34), the guys discuss Yahweh’s role in the life of David, which explicitly reveals what other stories about siblings reveal implicitly.
1 Samuel 16:7
The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him [Eliab, David’s oldest brother]; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The firstborn theme reminds us that humans always have an idea of what is good, and we are drawn to the first, the biggest, and the most powerful. We repeatedly see humans attempting to seize power at any cost, regardless of how other people are abused and oppressed in the process. Yahweh opposes this pattern of abuse, so he continually subverts human expectations about firstborn sons.
Ironically, the New Testament authors repeatedly emphasize Jesus’ identity as the firstborn of God with all the rights and responsibilities of his Father over all creation.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Paul equates the image of God with being the firstborn of creation—a role fulfilled by Jesus but one that humanity is meant to live out as well. All humans, because of their responsibility to bear God’s image, are meant to live as firstborn heirs over creation. Jesus is the firstborn Son of God, but he also fulfills the thematic role of the humble, chosen younger sibling. He didn’t take his rights as firstborn as an excuse to avoid serving others (Phil. 2); rather, he lived as an outcast and served others even to the point of giving up his life.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.
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