The epistle reading for this Sunday (July 21) comes from the first chapter of Colossians. In the 15th verse, Paul has written, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”
The right of primogeniture is a rule in patriarchal societies that structures the distribution of power and wealth by concentrating it among those at the top of the social ladder. The idea is that most of the power and wealth is passed down through the firstborn sons.
In the Bible, the right of the firstborn doesn’t fare well. In Genesis, it is not the firstborn Esau who ends up with the birthright, but the second son, Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons. The first was Reuben. Joseph was the 11th son, but the first by the beloved Rachel, so he was favored. At the end of the story of the descent into Egypt, Jacob chooses Ephraim (Gen. 48:14), the second son, to take Joseph’s place.
Among the other brothers it is the fourth son, Judah, who rises to the top of the heap. Later, when the nation of Israel has been led back to Canaan, the two most prominent tribes were Ephraim and Judah. When the monarchy was set up, however, it was from the tribe of Benjamin that the first king came. Benjamin was the 12th son. After Saul’s failure, Judah becomes the tribe of the royal line.
Judah had three sons (Gen. 38), the first of which married but died before leaving an heir. By the law of levirate marriage, the daughter-in-law, Tamar, was given to the second son who also died without an heir. The third son was only a boy and she was told she would have to live as a widow until he grew up, but then she was forgotten.
At last, Judah’s wife died. Tamar hatched a plan, put off her widow’s clothing, dressed as a prostitute and intercepted Judah. At the end of their encounter, he pledge payment to her with a cord marked by his seal and his staff.
Three months later, Judah was given the news that Tamar was pregnant. She was condemned to death for her infidelity, at which time she returned his pledge. The twins would be Judah’s fourth and fifth sons, or the second and third in line, given that the first two were deceased.
If one isn’t already confused, the story becomes more intriguing. When the time came for Tamar to be delivered, one of the boys stock out his arm, but “arm first” is a difficult way to deliver a baby. They tied a ribbon around the wrist of the child, and then jostled things around and pulled the other boy out first.
It is the son without the ribbon, whose name was Perez, who becomes the heir, the fourth son, by the daughter-in-law who pretended to be a prostitute, of the fourth son of the second son. Then David, who becomes the king, is an eighth son. At this point, the right of primogeniture is in shambles. The order of birth does not matter.
I am sure that many of the kings in both Israel and Judah were indeed firstborn, but most of them are not commended and didn’t amount to much, except the last one, the one Paul mentions in Colossians, who was given his birthright, and he is presented in the gospels as having fallen facedown (Matt. 26:39) and through bloody sweat (Luke 22:44) pleaded, unsuccessfully, to be released from his duties.
Jesus also said, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve others …” (Matthew 20:28). May we be caught up in the redemptive power of the offering Jesus gave, and inspired by his example to lead lives of sacrifice and service.
Dr. Mark Allison is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Delaware.