“The Struggle Over the Birthright”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The struggle over the birthright is a recurring theme throughout the book of Genesis: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Joseph, Menashe and Ephraim all vie for the right to be recognized as the firstborn.

The struggle, however, is not over primogeniture, but rather over spiritual leadership and/or the privilege to receive the ancestral blessings. It is fascinating to note that in each of the above cases the Torah rejects the biological firstborn and chooses the younger sibling, indicating that the spiritual birthright is determined not by chronological age, but rather by the personal qualities of the one designated as firstborn.

Even though Cain is the firstborn child of Adam, G-d prefers Abel, accepting Abel’s sacrificial gift and rejecting Cain’s. Even after Abel’s death, the birthright transfers not to Cain, but to Seth, the youngest child of Adam and Eve. In fact, Cain’s entire family and all his descendants are eventually lost in the flood.

Ishmael was the firstborn child of Abraham, but Isaac, the son of Sarah, is designated as the firstborn. It is through Isaac that the divine destiny for the seed of Abraham is to be realized. The older son, Ishmael, is sent away from Abraham’s home and is directed from the land of his birth to another land.

Esau was born before Jacob, but the birthright winds up in the hands of Jacob for he was considered more worthy. Jacob is twice blessed by his father Isaac. The first blessing, given when Isaac thought that he was really blessing Esau, consisted of the blessing of economic prosperity (much grain and wine), and the blessing of temporal power over the nations. The second blessing, given by Isaac to Jacob when he clearly knew that he was blessing Jacob, was the Abrahamitic blessing, transmitting the promise that was given to Abraham and Isaac of inheriting the land of Israel.

Despite the fact that Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn child, he loses the birthright for several reasons:
1. Reuben violates the sanctity of Jacob’s private relationship with Bilhah (Genesis 38:22).
2. Reuben fails to save Joseph from his brothers and is unsuccessful in preventing his sale.
3. Even though Reuben “magnanimously” offers that Jacob kill Reuben’s own two sons if he doesn’t bring Benjamin back, it is considered a perverted offer and is rejected by Jacob.

Notwithstanding the fact that Jacob had a firstborn son from each of his four wives, he eventually chooses Joseph as the rightful firstborn. This is confirmed when Jacob publicly designates Joseph’s two children, Menashe and Ephraim, to serve as full-fledged tribes along with Jacob’s other biological sons, fulfilling the Torah’s directive that the firstborn be given a double portion (Deuteronomy 21:16-17).

The struggle over the birthright does not end with Joseph. In fact, it continues to the next generation when Jacob, for unknown reasons, designates Ephraim as the firstborn over his older brother, Menashe (Genesis 48:19).

It cannot be simply a coincidence that in each instance the Torah designates the younger child to serve as the firstborn. It is the Torah’s way of teaching that no person may merit the spiritual birthright due to the “accident” of birth order. It is only the worthy person who achieves the birthright, even if he is younger.

Interestingly, this pattern is confirmed, as well, in G-d’s choice of the people Israel as His, even though they were not the first nation. At the time that Israel became a nation during the enslavement in Egypt, tens of nations already existed, including powerful and great nations, such as the Egyptians and the Edomites. It was the quality of the nation of Israel that resulted in its being chosen and receiving the divine designation (Exodus 4:22): “B’nee b’cho’ree Yisrael,” You, Israel, are my firstborn child.

One might think that it is Jacob’s blind love for Joseph that causes him, possibly unfairly, to choose Joseph as his firstborn who merits the double portion. Nevertheless, Jacob does not allow his extreme attachment to Joseph to lead him astray when appointing a temporal leader. Indeed, Jacob holds fast and designates Judah as the temporal political ruler, who is destined to serve as the king of Israel throughout all future generations (Genesis 49:10).

The struggle between Joseph and Judah is not soon resolved, and continues for many generations. Perhaps because of Jacob’s blessings, the tribe of Ephraim always sees itself as a privileged tribe. After all, the tribe of Ephraim is the great and noble clan from which Joshua, conqueror of the land of Canaan, came. Shortly after the death of King Solomon, the tribe of Ephraim, along with nine other tribes, splits away from Reheboam, the Davidic royal leader, to form the Northern Kingdom of Israel. However, only Judah emerges triumphant and survives today.

May you be blessed