Throughout the Old Testament, we can see how significant the birthright is, and how it becomes even more symbolic through Jesus Christ.
What is a birthright? The birthright was a tradition that stated the firstborn son of each family would receive a special inheritance from their father. The firstborn son would be the priest of the family (until that task was transferred to the Levites by God), they would receive a double portion of their father’s inheritance and the authority of the father.
I didn’t know a lot about birthrights before I wrote this post, and I hope that my research will help you to understand this topic better, just like it did for me.
Biblical Basis For Birthrights
While we don’t see a specific place where the birthright was established in the Bible, we do see its use throughout and several instructions in place to protect or rework the birthright.
For example, in Deuteronomy, we see God’s concern for protecting the birthright by asserting that the father can’t pick and choose who will benefit from it depending on whose mother he loves more.
The birthright belongs to his firstborn son. It doesn’t matter if he loves one wife more than another, the firstborn gets the birthright.
If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons,
he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to 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 firstfruits of his strength.
The right of the firstborn is his.Deuteronomy 21:15-17 ESV
Another example is found in Numbers, where we see God making a change to the current birthright system. Up until this point, the firstborn son was to be dedicated to God as the priest of the family. However, God has decided to change that.
Instead of taking the firstborn as a priest, God transfers this responsibility to the Levites. The Levites then are in service to Aaron as priests for Israel on behalf of all the firstborn.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the Lord.”Numbers 3:11-13 ESV
Biblical Examples Of Birthrights
As it turns out, some of the most prominent examples of the power of the birthright in Scripture are when it did not, in fact, go to the first born son due to surrounding circumstances. However, each example still illustrates the power of the birthright in the Old Testament.
Jacob & Esau
The birthright situation between Jacob and Esau is probably the most well-known. Genesis 25 provides the account of the birth of twins, Jacob and Esau.
Esau was the eldest, a hunter, and loved by his father while Jacob was a quiet man who preferred to stay indoors and was loved more by his mother.
To his mother was also given a word from God:
Two nations are in your womb,Genesis 25:23 ESV
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.
Fast forward to their adulthood, Esau goes hunting, and when he returns Jacob is making a pot of soup. Esau is hungry from his trip and begs for some soup which Jacob gives him in exchange for Esau’s birthright.
Even though Jacob is younger he will receive more of his father’s inheritance and will have his place of authority.
Later on, Jacob also tricks his way into getting the special blessing from his father as well. God’s words rang true, the older would serve the younger.
Jacob & Joseph
Another example of the birthright in action is in the story of Joseph. Jacob, his father, had two wives, Leah and Rachel (you can read more about their story in Genesis 29). Jacob loved Rachel, and not Leah, however, his first born son was born to Leah and was named Reuben. Eventually, Rachel would bear her first son named Joseph.
Traditionally, the birthright would go from Jacob to Reuben, however, Genesis 49 reveals that this was not the case. Rueben had sinned greatly against his father and therefore the birthright was given instead to Joseph, the firstborn to Rachel.
Reuben, you are my firstborn,Genesis 49:3-4 ESV
my might, and the firstfruits of my strength,
preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.
Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence,
because you went up to your father’s bed;
then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!
Joseph is a fruitful bough,Genesis 49:22,26 ESV
a fruitful bough by a spring;
his branches run over the wall….
…The blessings of your father
are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.
Significance Of Birthrights
The birthright is significant because, through Jesus, it applies to us. Colossians tells us how Jesus is God’s firstborn, and therefore inherits the birthright of God. He has all authority and inherits all of God’s creation (Psalm 2).
Not only that, through Jesus atoning death and sacrifice on the cross we have become heirs with Christ, and a piece of that inheritance is for us as well. We get to partake in the eternal life that comes from God.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.Colossians 1:15-20 ESV
I will tell of the decree:Psalm 2:7-8 ESV
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.Galatians 3:29 ESV
The birthright is not some ancient thing with no bearing on the present. God’s promise to Abraham, fulfilled in Jesus Christ results in grace being available to all those who believe, Jew or Gentile. When we accept that grace, we become heirs with Christ and can accept the inheritance of God which is eternal life.