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.