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On having a ‘firstborn son’

Discerning readers of this blog’s comments will have picked up that our baby, due in July, is a boy. Our first child will be a son. Earlier this week, someone commented to me about how good this is ‘because having a firstborn son is so important in the Bible.’ Deep breaths, Tam.

I didn’t have a preference for the sex of the baby: I would have been happy either way. We mainly just wanted to know: there are enough uncertain things in our lives for the next few years. And it’s made things a little more real.

I think it’s kind of a nice idea to have a boy first up because he’ll (hopefully) be a ‘big brother’. I know not all big brothers are  kind to their younger siblings, but it would be nice if our son was protective of the younger ones and they looked up to him. (Of course, this can happen with an older sister too.) But that doesn’t have anything to do with the Bible or the biblical narrative. So how do we understand the Old Testament’s preoccupation with firstborn sons and the patrilineal line?

It’s all tied up with the idea of being an heir, with inheriting land and blessing as well as responsibility for the family. However, the Bible’s treatment of the firstborn son is not entirely uniform. There are a number of significant examples where this firstborn son motif is overturned – think Jacob and Esau, or Joseph. That ought not to surprise us. After all, God raises up the lowly. And even when the firstborn son motif is maintained, it is apprehended in the context of God’s glory, not the family or his own: the firstborn son is to be consecrated to the Lord (Ex 13:2, Num 8:17, Luke 2:23). So even in the OT, the primacy of a firstborn son is not as straightforward as we may first assume. There’s some sort of expectation that the cultural primacy of the firstborn son is not all there is to the picture.

As this language of firstborn and heir is carried through to Jesus, we understand that this has something to do with his supremacy and that he brings victory over death. This is not his inheritance alone, though. We, his brothers and sisters, share in that and are made holy in him. There’s an inclusion in the firstborn-ness. No longer is it a matter of firstborn sons and the rest, but rather all of us are heirs by our inclusion in Christ, The Firstborn Son.

In that sense, our birth order in our earthly families becomes irrelevant. Firstborn sons are no more special than anyone else. In God’s family, there’s The Firstborn Son, Jesus, and then there are his brothers and sisters who share in his inheritance. The firstborn stuff in the OT helps us to understand The Firstborn Son in the NT but The Firstborn Son in the NT in turn helps us to understand the place of that OT cultural construct

We can see in this cultural construct something of who God is and how his family is set up. But it is not a God-given paradigm around which to understand family. It’s an illustration used to tell us about God, not about earthly families. We need to read the illustration forwards, not backwards. To use a classic example, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ tells us more about Shakespeare’s lover than it does about the natural world. It would be backwards to read it as a description of the seasons! Likewise, we need to read the firstborn son paradigm as the Bible uses it: to tell us about Jesus, in whom we are included, rather than as prescriptive for families.

There’s no sense in which an earthly family with a firstborn son reflects God’s family more fully, because in God’s family, not only are male and female one in Christ Jesus, but we are all equally heirs because of him. That has nothing to do with our gender and everything to do with Christ.

Categories: Man Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, blogging at meetjesusatuni.com.

4 replies

  1. I agree, God will not love him more or less because of his time of birth. But I do think that the sex of the child and the birth order does have an effect on earthly relationships, but not eternal ones.

  2. Just thought I’d put in the random comment that at times in the OT, the firstborn son motif is more than just cultural, but is a memorial of the Exodus. By sparing the firstborn of Israel, God claims them for himself, to the extent that they need to be redeemed (or killed, in the case of animals). From this perspective, the concept of being an heir is secondary to being God’s own posession.

    This doesn’t really address the gender issues you were asking about, but does change our reading somewhat… (Of course, one could argue that, just as the Levites were never redeemed, so christians are never redeemed, whether male or female…)

  3. Great article, Tamie.

    There are other instances where the firstborn son motif is subverted (or “overturned” as you say) – Seth, the third son, became the son through whom Adam’s line was continued; so, too, did Isaac (rather than Ishmael). Add those to the examples from Genesis you’ve already offered, and it makes me think the author was quite deliberate in highlighting this.

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