What was the nature of Birthright that Esau so readily despised?
Alan H. Linton, Bristol, England
(Genesis 25. 28-34; Hebrews 12. 16-17) To the Israelite the nature of the birthright was well understood and no explanation is therefore given in the immediate text, but a wider reading of Scripture reveals that a number of outstanding privileges were peculiar to the firstborn son. The word birthright in the text of Hebrews 12. 16 and 17 is in the plural and is better rendered 'the rights of the firstborn'.
The Birthright involved the position of Authority and Pre-eminence
Next to his father the firstborn was pre-eminent in the family, Gen. 49. 3; and 'lord' over his younger brothers, Gen. 27. 29 and 37. An excellent example of this is seen when David's eldest brother 'commanded' him to be at the family sacrifice, which fact even King Saul was expected to respect, 1 Sam. 20. 27 and 29.
The Birthright involved a Double Portion
Deut. 21. 15-17; 1 Chron. 5. 1 and 2 This meant that the eldest son received twice as much of the family estate as did each of the other sons. Elisha's request to receive a double portion of Elijah's spirit indicated his desire to succeed to the prophetic office as though he were a firstborn son.
The Birthright involved Priestly Service
Israel's history reveals that birthright and priesthood are linked together. In the will of God, Israel was to become God's 'firstborn', Exod. 4. 22; and a 'kingdom of priests', Exod. 19. 6. When, however, God spared the firstborn of Israel at the passover He commanded that every firstborn should be separated unto Himself, Exod. 13. 2. Later, after the worshipping of the golden calf, this privilege of priestly service is transferred to the family of Levi for we read, 'I have taken the Levites instead of the firstborn', Num. 3. 12, 45. Despite this special calling of Levi the idea of a family priesthood lingered on as seen in the incident mentioned above, 1 Sam. 20. 29, when David's eldest brother attended the family sacrifice.
Occasionally in the Old Testament the privileges of the firstborn were transferred to another son, 1 Chron. 26. 10, thus indicating that the emphasis was not always on the order of birth but sometimes priority of position. For instance, the rights of the firstborn were not given to Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, 1 Chron. 5. 1; Gen. 49. 3 and 4, but were divinely distributed among three other sons. The preeminence and Messianic line was given to Judah, I Chron. 5. 2; Gen. 49. 10; the priesthood to Levi, Num. 3. 12; and the double portion to Joseph to be divided and transferred to his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Gen. 48. 5.
In a parallel manner, in New Testament days, we, who have no claim to the 'rights of the firstborn', have been blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ and are described as the Church of the firstborn ones whose names are written in heaven, Heb. 12. 23. It is little wonder that the writer to the Hebrews presents Esau as a constant warning to us lest we, like him, despise our spiritual inheritance.