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.
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, 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 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 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?