The First Shall Be Last

Lately, I’ve been struck by just how pervasive God’s antipathy for firstborns is. Redemptive history is littered with firstborn Seeds of the Serpent who were overthrown as God raised up a younger Seed of the Woman: Cain and Abel (and Seth); Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Reuben, Simeon, and Levi were skipped as the line of Christ passed through Judah (and ten senior brothers were humiliated by the exaltation of Joseph). Aaron the Priest played a jealous second fiddle (and Miriam sang along) behind Prophet and baby brother Moses. David was elected over seven older brothers (and also replaced the poster-boy for earthly leadership potential, Saul), and Solomon leapfrogged a number of older brothers in his accession to the throne.

Not only is it easy to find examples of younger brothers favored over older, but many examples of firstborn patriarchs have their firstborn-ness somehow tempered. Samuel was the firstborn of Hannah, but he had older half-siblings, and in his dedication to the Lord became a youngest son of Eli — a replacement for Samuel’s own worthless biological sons, Hophni and Phineas.

Abraham was firstborn of Terah, but it seems that his faith-ful obedience — leaving country, kindred and father’s house — was equivalent to renouncing his inheritance as firstborn of an earthly family, placing his hope instead in God’s promised inheritance of a city whose designer and builder is God.

And of course, Jesus himself, only-, eternally- (and thus first-) begotten of the Father, has a critically significant redemptive role as the second Adam, picking up the shattered, cursed pieces of the world broken by the failure of his “older brother,” Adam #1.

So I can only think of two unmitigated examples of redemptively significant firstborn Seeds of the Woman: Noah was firstborn, but his brothers perished in the flood. And Noah’s firstborn, Shem, was was the ancestor of the chosen people (“Semites” = Shem-ites), while middle brother Ham bore the curse.

As a firstborn myself, I find this all pretty disturbing. But I take relief at least in the fact that God is no longer in the business of hand-picking a lineage to a Messiah!

So what do you think — did I leave out any older-younger brother pairs that reinforce or contradict the pattern?

There are statistically significant differences between people based on birth-order, no doubt the unavoidable consequences of firstborns getting the most-possible attention from the least-experienced parents.  But other than that, our Western culture doesn’t really have any concept analogous to the biblical primacy of the firstborn.

So, with this pattern, is God knocking down a sinful anti-meritocracy (such that the Christianized West has gotten the point better than biblical cultures did)?  Or is it necessary to maintain (regain) a biblical view of firstborns (apart from questions of salvation — in which God is no respecter of persons — do firstborns have a distinct role within a family, within society, etc.)?

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9 Responses

  1. If we firstborns are considered last, perhaps we can at least take comfort in the theme of the last becoming first!

    Personally, I think this pattern in Scripture is one looong illustration of the principle revealed in I Samuel chapter 16 concerning the selection of David over his older brothers as king: “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 man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.'”

    My secondborn arrived 4.5 months ago, 27 months younger than my firstborn — almost exactly the interval between my own younger brother and myself. And while I certainly don’t view my own younger brother as any less capable or intelligent than me, I am astounded at the differences between my two sons. One sings “Amazing Grace” as he assembles train tracks; the other drools. One can repeat entire children’s books verbatim from memory; the other sometimes knows to look at the pages. It seems impossible for the secondborn ever to catch up to the first, yet their leveling out is inevitable. God knows it. He is timeless; He sees what we don’t. And so it seems natural that He would use this fundamental curiosity of family dynamics to illustrate the transcendence of His own perspective. We can all relate to it.

    RubeRad: As a firstborn myself, I find this all pretty disturbing. But I take relief at least in the fact that God is no longer in the business of hand-picking a lineage to a Messiah!

    Of course you’re being funny. As a firstborn I actually find all this relieving, because it focuses us on the invisible rather than the visible. The principle of rejecting the entitled elder and receiving the weaker younger is the same principle that welcomes an unentitled, broken sinner like me into God’s kingdom.

    RubeRad: So what do you think — did I leave out any older-younger brother pairs that reinforce or contradict the pattern?

    God choosing the firstborn to be dedicated to Himself? “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Dedicate to me every firstborn among the Israelites. The first offspring to be born, of both humans and animals, belongs to me.'” (Exodus chapter 13)

  2. this pattern in Scripture is one looong illustration of the principle revealed in I Samuel chapter 16 concerning the selection of David over his older brothers

    To be sure; as well as the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, and God’s strength is made manifest through our weakness, God uses the not-very-wise to manifest his wisdom, God chose Israel to be his chosen people, even though they were puny compared to other nations, etc.

    It seems impossible for the secondborn ever to catch up to the first, yet their leveling out is inevitable.

    Or he might not, in many respects. There are statistically significant differences between people based on birth-order.

    God choosing the firstborn to be dedicated to Himself?

    You know, I don’t even know what that means. For livestock, I suppose that might mean the firstborn are all sacrificed, but are all firstborn children given to the temple for service, like Hanna dedicated Samuel? Or is it just like a modern dry-baptism (baby dedication), in which case why shouldn’t the younger children also be dedicated?

  3. UPDATE to post:

    There are statistically significant differences between people based on birth-order, no doubt the unavoidable consequences of firstborns getting the most-possible attention from the least-experienced parents. But other than that, our Western culture doesn’t really have any concept analogous to the biblical primacy of the firstborn.

    So, with this pattern, is God knocking down a sinful anti-meritocracy (such that the Christianized West has gotten the point better than biblical cultures did)? Or is it necessary to maintain (regain) a biblical view of firstborns (apart from questions of salvation — in which God is no respecter of persons — do firstborns have a distinct role within a family, within society, etc.)?

  4. Jesus is the firstborn of the dead.

  5. You mean the firstfruits of the resurrection?

  6. Col 1:15, Rev 1:5.

    But he’s also the firstborn of all creation. How’s that for a title for the Creator?

  7. Yeah, those are the kind of verses that anti-trinitarians love to literalize.

    But in terms of being firstborn, it’s crucial that firstborn-ness alone is not sufficient to characterize his role or purpose. He is the firstborn that didn’t trumpet his firstborn-ness (didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped), but accepted humiliation as a necessary step to becoming a perfect savior — a necessary prerequisite to exaltation.

  8. Allison and I have discussed this very topic at length. We agreed that it seems to point to the typology of first Adam/second Adam.

  9. For an exploration of the meanings of “Firstborn”, linking it with the term “Redeemer”, you could consult Tom Holland’s “Contours of Pauline Theology”.
    Solomon wasn’t even Bathsheba’s firstborn, and there are doubts as to whether Shem was Noah’s firstborn (In Genesis 10:21, the KJV suggests he wasn’t and the Septuagint definitely states it. I would have thought that he wasn’t would be the most natural way to translate the original Hebrew, but I am less than no expert in Hebrew). On the other hand, ALL the antediluvian patriarchs after Seth, including Enoch and godly Lamech were firstborns.
    I’m a firstborn myself. Once my brother becomes a believer, he’ll soar well ahead of me.

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