Birthright

The Biblical story of fraternal twins Jacob and Esau provides a fascinating look at the topic of dishonesty, trickery, theft, and destiny. You can read their story beginning in Genesis 25.

INHERITANCE

One obvious question that arises when mulling over the story of Jacob and Esau is what was the blessing these brothers wrangled over? What was the fuss about? What constituted a Biblical birthright or paternal blessing? Is there a difference between a blessing and a birthright? How can we apply this knowledge today?

The Biblical birthright referred to the special privileges and advantages that belonged to the first-born son. The first-born son was the priest of the family and received a double portion of the father’s wealth. He inherited whatever honorable title and judicial or royal authority the father had. Jesus Christ was said to be “the first-born among many brethren.” To the Hebrews, the Biblical birthright was quite important.

Although the birthright was just that, a right, it was a right that could be removed by God or the father of the first-born son. Although Reuben was the first born of the sons of Israel, twins2 by you.God removed his right to become high priest and gave the right of perpetual priesthood the tribe of Levi, from whom Jesus was descended. Because of Reuben’s poor conduct, God also removed the double portion of wealth he should have inherited. In another Biblical case of disenfranchisement, King David passed his judicial authority to Solomon rather than to his first-born son, Adonijah.

The only Biblical case of a first-born son who willingly gave up his own birthright is that of Esau, who traded his birthright to his twin brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. Esau’s action is particularly scandalous because only God or the father had the authority to confer or rescind the birthright and its attendant blessing. Esau’s decision to give up his birthright for something temporal and cheap wasn’t only willful, it was arrogant and showed the height of disrespect. In effect, Esau told his heavenly and earthly fathers that their treasures and titles were worth no more than a bowl of soup.

During patriarchal times, the effects and bounty of the birthright were not clearly defined except by custom. Once small clans or tribes grew into larger entities or nations, the royal right of succession applied to the firstborn son. Eventually, the rights of the eldest son became specific:

  • The rights, authority, and spiritual functions of the priesthood accrued to the firstborn son and his family, including the right to give prophetic blessings.
  • A double portion of the paternal property was given to the firstborn under Mosaic law.
  • The eldest son succeeded to the official political authority of the father. Thus, the first-born of the king was his successor by law.
  • The eldest son became the head of the family when the father died, and was thus responsible for the family property and property.

THE BLESSING

The spiritual and prophetic blessing given to the first-born son differs from the entire birthright, although the blessing can (and should be) part of the birthright of the first-born. In twins1 by you.Biblical times, because parents were inexorably bound to Yahweh in a theocracy, spiritual possessions were assumed to exist alongside the temporal. Parents thus saw their children through spiritual as well as physical eyes. When the parents became elderly and frail, or whenever they thought it was time to confer this spiritual blessing, they called the children to them and, laying hands on them, blessed them.

The blessing can be divided from the birthright, as was the case with Esau and Jacob. Initially, Esau traded only his birthright to Jacob, reserving the blessing for himself. Jacob and Rebekah, their mother, conspired together to cheat Esau out of his blessing, too, and managed to succeed (Genesis 27). Thus Jacob received the birthright because Esau willingly gave it up; but the prophetic, spiritual blessing he received through deceit.

Biblical blessings such as the one Esau lost had several elements, which Gary Smalley and John Trent identify in their book, The Blessing:

  • Meaningful touch
  • Spoken words
  • Expressing high value
  • Picturing a special future
  • An active commitment

As Smalley and Trent write, “Esau was willing to trade [the birthright] away without a second thought to meet a momentary hunger pang, but losing the family blessing was another story. When Esau lost his blessing from his father, he was devastated” (19).

As I mulled over the story of Jacob and Esau, it was helpful to understand that the birthright and blessing were two different things. Esau was never able to regain either; Jacob received the blessing and the birthright, but as far as anyone can tell, never inherited his father Isaac’s material property.

In my personal myth, what is my birthright? Where is my blessing? What meaningful touch and words were conveyed to me by my parents? And if my parents failed to convey a unique picture to me for my future path, what did God have to say about it? For what birthright and blessing was I willing to wrestle all night with an angel? For what have I been willing to be crippled for life? What truths and callings keep welling up inside of me, unbidden but irrepressible?

15 responses

  1. Thank you so much for clarifying the difference between the birthright and the blessing. I also appreciate the practical applications in your article. However, your statement that Jesus came from Levi, the priestly tribe, and subsequently your connecting Jesus priesthood to the Levitical priesthood is inaccurate according to the Bible. Jesus was from the line of Judah. Both Matthew and Luke confirm this fact. Additionally, the book of Hebrews in demonstrating the superior nature of the New Covenant (Testament) to the Old Covenant (Testament) definitively and clearly shows that a direct ancestral relationship of Jesus to Levi did not occur.

  2. Very great thoughts as well as insight, certainly the Lord has “blessed” you with His Holy Spirit. Believers receive their birthrights and blessings; first in being “born-again”; secondly receiving “all spiritual blessings” in Christ Jesus our Lord.
    Thanks once again, brother.

  3. Isn’t it a fact that almost all the stories of the Bible are allegorical and often demonstrate the problems and difficulties of the times in which they were written?

    The fact is that bad parents are bad parents and that leaves each of us with a cross to bear (or not) in life. Some seek solace in religion, whilst others look for a “cure” in a greater understanding of their own motives and shortcomings. Still others seem to need the aid of what is popularly called a “shrink” in order to do this.

    Although I’m not religious, I do think there is often great wisdom contained in parts of the Bible and other religious books. That said, we each of us create our own heaven and hell within ourselves and perhaps that’s where the real problems (and answers?) lie.

    The Bible when taken literally seems to me to be dated and often out of touch with modern reality, but “interpreted” there is a huge amount of human insight there.

  4. I’m still learning about all this so bear with me. I’ve been making notes, but am waiting to see where you go with this Eve.

    So far, what has touched me most was your question “For what have I been willing to be crippled for life?” When I read RG’s interpretation, I realised I had come at it from a different direction, i.e. in my angle, does the lack of the blessing (“pointing out their strengths to them (children) and affirming their worth and value” or perhaps something more) lead us to allow ourselves to be crippled (self-doubt, etc or worse) through our lives? For the lack of the father’s blessing, has one ignored/abandoned the Father’s Blessing (our birthright, perhaps one’s spiritual focus/blueprint/path)? And in being so misguided, a person has deceived themselves, thereby going on to deceiving others (as in projecting behaviour)? Am I (regretfully) stating the obvious? Sorry if that is so. I’m still nutting it out.

    On another level, I think I understand that Esau (the hairy one, “a hunter, a man of the field”) could reflect the base, more primitive man who does not value his birthright, in fact, is more interested in his physical substantiation than the spiritual. I read that Jacob was perhaps more intuitive, “a dweller in tents, a simple man”. A more refined element?

    I read – I think in Wikipedia – that the blind father “feels Paradise when Jacobs enters (the tent), and Hell when Esau enters” (Rashi) “showing him he had been deceived all along by Esau’s show of piety”. I sense this part is quite important, but will think more on it.

    What I find entrancing is the inner/outer quality of these stories. Also, please remember I have not studied the Bible 🙂 and am feeling a little out of my league. I hope you will let us in on more soon.

  5. Eve, you have done a brilliant job here. I learn so much from you.

    I have read Smalley and Trent’s book and have put into practice the blessing of my children.

    Even secular people can “bless” their children by pointing out their strengths to them and affirming their worth and value. I wanted to say that for any who read your post but do not see themselves as religious believers.

    I am going to copy down your questions at the end and work through them myself. Thanks.

    Oh, I also wanted to say that I read a Rabbinic comment on the Esau and Jacob story that said that the mother’s favoritism was based on the spiritual attentiveness of the boys. Esau’s wandering lifestyle was literary code for his being unattuned to and unitnerested in spiritual matters, which Jacob’s agrarian lifestyle was code for his being spiritually aware. She knew that it was God’s will that the more spiritually attuned boy was the one to inherit the blessing.

    The main point of the story to me is not that one can get ahead through trickery, but that the oldest, physically strongest person is not necessarily the one destined to dominate.

    The story must also be kept in context with what happened afterward. Esau did end up prospering, and the brothers ended up reconciled.

    • Very great thoughts as well as insight, certainly the Lord has “blessed” you with His Holy Spirit. Believers receive their birthrights and blessings; first in being “born-again”; secondly receiving “all spiritual blessings” in Christ Jesus our Lord.
      Thanks once again, brother. As parents, we can pass on these two events by bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, thereby passing on to them our own birth(spiritual)right. The over-riding principle here is “what man meant for evil, God meant for good”. This is God’s Sovereignty that He works in all things together for “good” to them who love Him and are called according to His purposes…”
      God chose Jacob as He chose Isaac instead of Ishmael. Man cannot thwart what God has “purposes”. What man purposes, God “disposses”.

  6. It seems to leave out females.
    Is it correct to assume that my birthright and blessings were taken from me and given to my sister? That’s the feeling that I get when I read about Esau and Jacob. I’ve always been very curious about that story. I’ve been on the side of Esau when it came to the scheming of his mother against him. I hate favourites. One reason I only have one child, I want him to be the all special one and no one else, like I’m jealous for him. It amazes me when I see siblings that actually love eachother and you can really tell. I am the oldest of all my siblings. I do not want another child trying to usurp my sons authority over them like my siblings did to me, they got away with it. It’s a sore spot for me.

    • It does seem to leave out females; understandable in a patriarchal society. However, if there was no son, the birthright went to the daughter. There are a couple of cases in the Bible of it going to daughters (perhaps even in spite of sons, but I need to look that up).

      The more I’ve studied and thought about Esau and Jacob, the more whole they each have become in my mind, the more human and less mythical. They’re both very human people. I’m sorry for Esau that he had his blessing cheated away from him, that his mother would do that to him. I find Jacob’s heart of desperately wanting the birthright and blessing onthe one hand godly (these are certainly things to be desired) but on the other quite wicked: had both been part of his true legacy, he wouldn’t have needed to cheat his brother out of anything. Esau would have done himself out of them due to his shallow character.

      Anyway, at least you’re conscious of why you chose to have an only child. If it is an ongoing sore spot, though, it will still hurt you in other places too. I pray for your healing and a conscious awareness of what your wound can give you once your grief is fully realized.

  7. I still don’t like the whole story of Jacob and Esau, brothers, families fighting, dad loved you best, mom loved you more. Some things have not changed over the years, our capacity to hurt one another when we think we are being hurt.

    What is my birthright? We talked about this today at my therapist’s. My absent, angry father, my absent, angry husband, in fact all the men I’ve had relationships have been absent. My son too, absenting himself from our relationship, getting high, not visiting, not talking. What am I doing that is attracting absent men? How do I change this? What part of me is absent from my life? Why?

    I feel like I can almost see a vague outline of an answer in my mind, but no details. Makes me frustrated, it’s so close and still so far away.

    As always, thanks for making my poor brain work:)

    • Deb, as well read as you are, I know you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway by way of reminder: the absence may not be your own possession. It may be as simple as a pattern in relating that you learned from your father and then tried to heal (or succumb to again) by choosing men who were like your father.

      We all have an inner absentee, an inner abandoner and avoider, though. I think that introverts tend to be more avoidant than extraverts. Extraverts tend to be what we call “glommers” in our family: they glom onto you like gum stuck to your shoe! They don’t know what “enough” means; they don’t recognize that introverts have more area in their personal boundary bubble than the extravert does (etc etc). But I digress.

      So maybe the absent part in you wasn’t your own inner absentee who sought to avoid relationship with others; maybe it was your inner absentee who has avoided relationship with herself. Just as we need others (and especially needed our parents) to notice or “see” us, to accept us, to show us fond affection and to be glad that we were (are) alive, as well as to give us the freedom to grow into who we truly are, so we need that from ourselves. When we don’t give to ourselves in these ways, we’re in collusion with those parents who should have given us these needful things and didn’t.

      • I’m not nearly as well read as you would have me believe:)

        It probably is a pattern. I can still remember stepping off the train in Red Deer, we had moved across country to meet my father and start a new life. Before we left North Bay, my mother had my hair cut short. My father lifted me off the train, unaware of who I was. When my mother, brother and I were all standing on the platform, my father looked around and asked “Where’s Debs?”

        He didn’t recognize me, didn’t see me and that seems to have stuck with me.

        I think you’re also right about me avoiding a relationship with myself. I have always tried to remove the parts of myself that I disliked. My darkness, my anger, my judging, my controlling, thinking that if only I could get rid of these bits, then, then I would be happy, never really understanding that loving myself meant accepting all of my lovely and unlovely bits.

        I’m learning. Take care of yourself.

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