Firstborn Problems in the Bible
The concept of the firstborn child held great significance in Biblical times. As the first child born into a family, the firstborn son inherited a birthright conveying honor, authority, and a double portion of the inheritance. However, with these privileges also came great responsibilities and sometimes difficult trials for the firstborn. The Bible contains several examples of the unique challenges, adversities, and dynamics experienced by firstborn children.
The Plight of the Firstborn in Egypt
One of the most well-known Biblical stories involving the firstborn is the 10th plague in Exodus – the final plague God inflicted upon Egypt before Pharaoh released the Hebrews from slavery. As this story goes:
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. (Exodus 12:29-30)
God sent this severe plague as judgment against the Egyptians for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt. The firstborn in each household symbolized the family’s strength and future, so God punished the Egyptians by taking the firstborn sons.
This devastating plague highlights the significance of being the firstborn in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. As the primary heir and future leader of the household, the tremendous loss of the firstborn son represented a dire blow to Egyptian families. The hereditary privileges borne by the firstborn made their deaths all the more catastrophic.
Jacob and Esau
The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau provides another example of how birth order impacted sibling dynamics and family conflicts in ancient times. As twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, Esau had the honored status as the firstborn son:
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:27-28)
The privileges conferred upon the firstborn enabled Esau to have authority over his brother. However, Jacob schemed to take away Esau’s birthright by trading a bowl of stew for Esau’s status as firstborn when Esau was hungry from a hunting trip (Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob later deceived his father Isaac into giving him the firstborn blessing (Genesis 27).
This deception caused lasting strife between the brothers. Esau held a grudge and threatened to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). While Esau enjoyed the elevated position and privileges of being the elder, firstborn son, Jacob’s plotting to usurp the birthright and blessing created enmity and broken relationships. The account of Jacob and Esau reveals some of the jealously, competition, and conflict that could surround being the firstborn.
David’s Status as the Youngest Son
In contrast to the favorable advantage firstborn sons enjoyed in Biblical times, the story of David highlights some of the disadvantages that could come with being the youngest son. As the prophet Samuel searched for a new king of Israel, God led him away from David’s older brothers to anoint the lowly, humble youngest son instead:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Despite being overlooked by his powerful father Jesse and veteran brothers, God saw leadership qualities in young David. However, David’s lower social status as the lastborn son meant he still had to prove himself worthy of the throne.
As a lowly shepherd, David was an unlikely choice who had to display immense courage by defeating Goliath (1 Samuel 17) before eventually becoming king. David’s beginnings as the unimportant youngest reveal the disadvantages that could accompany a lower birth order in ancient times.
Cain and Abel – The First Sibling Rivalry
The very first children mentioned in the Bible were Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. Their story encapsulates some of the difficult family dynamics that have continued between siblings down through history:
Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. (Genesis 4:2-5)
The Bible does not explicitly say why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected Cain’s. Regardless, Cain’s jealousy reveals the inner competitiveness that can exist between siblings, as the firstborn child likely expected preferential treatment. God’s favoring Abel’s offering despite Cain’s firstborn status illustrates that birth order does not always dictate God’s blessings.
Sadly, Cain’s resentment led him to murder his younger brother:
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:8)
This tragic outcome graphically demonstrates how bitter rivalries between siblings can fester when the firstborn feels envious of a younger sibling. The story serves as a warning that cherishing birth order privileges over relationship leads only to sin and destruction.
The Laws of the Firstborn
Various Mosaic Law guidelines helped ensure firstborn sons received fair treatment in ancient Israelite society. For instance, the law stipulated a double portion of inheritance for the firstborn:
He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him. (Deuteronomy 21:17)
This law prevented fathers from being tempted to favor a son born to a more loved wife, affirming the preeminent rights of the firstborn regardless of circumstances.
Another law allowed parents to redeem, or buy back, firstborn sons dedicated to temple service:
But if the animal is unclean, you may buy it back at its set value, adding a fifth of the value to it. (Leviticus 27:27)
This provision showed mercy to families that needed their firstborn heir to return home and inherit the estate. God made a way through these fair laws for firstborn sons to receive their due privileges.
Jesus as the Firstborn
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is presented as the preeminent firstborn Son of God:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Colossians 1:15)
As the only perfect Son of God, Jesus rightfully holds the supreme status as the firstborn heir over all of creation. Through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, those who believe in Him are adopted as sons and daughters of God (Galatians 4:4-7). Amazingly, this adoption confers a firstborn inheritance with all the attendant privileges:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. (Hebrews 12:22-23)
Because of their faith in Christ, believers gain the right to be called children of God and fellow heirs with Jesus, obtaining the spiritual blessings of the firstborn.
Love and Relationships Above Birth Order
While the concept of the firstborn carried great weight in Biblical culture, Scripture teaches that human-to-human love and compassion should rise above fleshly status. For instance, when faced with a dispute between two sisters over inheritance rights for their children, Jesus did not give preference to the firstborn but upheld the one born out of love:
The Lord said to her, “Your sister is coming back to life, and your brother-in-law is alive again; you are to have the child from her.” (1 Kings 3:22-23)
In another lesson emphasizing spiritual ties over earthly ones, Jesus asked:
Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Living in harmony and doing God’s will matters more than biological firstborn privileges. The emphasis is consistently on treating one another like cherished spiritual brothers and sisters.
From the earliest Biblical stories through the New Testament, the concept of the firstborn child represents a motif woven throughout Scripture. The accompanying privileges and status frequently led to conflict, jealousy, and difficult family dynamics. However, God also instituted laws and guidelines to protect the fair treatment of firstborns. Ultimately, the Bible elevates principles of love, spiritual adoption, and harmony in Christ above any earthly benefits of birth order. Through Christ, all believers become honored children of God, with equal access to His inheritance. While firstborns faced unique challenges, in God’s family all are loved and cherished the same.