In my recent readings through the Old Testament, in particular, something has jumped out at me a lot about older and younger sons. Older sons were, of course, supposed to receive the lion’s share of any inheritance. Culturally speaking, this was a no-brainer. Older son takes all. But for some reason, we see this culturally mandated pattern overturned repeatedly throughout scripture as a theme. We cannot do the Bible, as God’s singular written revelation about himself, justice if we don’t dig into repeated themes like this. We have to ask ourselves what God may be telling us about himself and his way of working.
Genesis 4:6-8 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Cain, by virtue of birth order, should have received the blessing, but his sacrifice was not worthy of the Lord. We cannot know for certain exactly why his offering wasn’t acceptable as the scripture doesn’t explicitly state. However, could it be that the contrast is embedded in the description of Abel’s offering? He brought the firstfruits. Perhaps Cain withheld the best for himself. Whatever the reason, the older brother was rejected, leaving the blessing of having given to the LORD an acceptable offering to his younger brother. God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice enraged his jealous brother who would then go on to kill him.
Then we see Ishmael and Isaac. God had promised Abram a son through whom he said he would bless all the nations of the world. Abram and Sarai both took this matter into their own hands, assuming this child would never come from Sarai due to her age and barrenness. In Genesis 15 where God first promises to Abram that he will have a son, he does not mention that it will come through Sarai, his wife after all. When their plan to have offspring together by proxy came to fruition, Abram surely believed that his only son, Ishmael, would be the one that would become the great nation through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. But years later God would appear to them again to tell them that indeed the younger son, who would receive the inheritance of nations, would be borne of an unused womb. Isaac received the blessing, even while God promised to make Ishmael’s offspring great as well. God would further offer a preview of his plans when he would command Abraham to lay the younger son, the son of promise, on the altar. While he ultimately spared the life of Isaac, God displayed again that the willing sacrifice of the most precious gift of all, the firstfruit of Sarah’s womb, was pleasing in his sight.
Genesis 21:11-13 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”
Next, we have Jacob and Esau. At odds with one another from conception, it would seem, these two jockeyed for position from day one. Esau was the first born, but scrappy little Jacob was hot on his literal heels, holding on for dear life.
Genesis 25:23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”
More beloved by his father, likely in part at least due to his position as the eldest, Esau ought to have received both the blessing and the inheritance. But by hook or by crook, Jacob and his mother schemed that he, the younger son, should receive the blessing and birthright instead of the older son.
Genesis 27:36-38 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.
Moreover, Esau was bent on vengeance and planned to kill Jacob, just as his forefather Cain had done to his brother. “How could this backward blessing be part of God’s plan? I was the rightful heir… I was here first!”
Again… Genesis 38:27-30 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb.And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.”But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.
Zerah technically “came first” but it was his brother, Perez, who was in the ancestral line of King David, and hence Jesus.
The theme keeps repeating itself again and again. We see it with Joseph’s sons when they come to be blessed by their aged Grandfather, the schemer himself, Jacob, now called Israel.
Genesis 48:17-19 When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.”
The younger brother is the greater. The older is still blessed and preserved. But the younger receives the greater blessing. Whenever we are given insight into the father’s thoughts in all of these stories, they seem confused, angry even, that their cultural and personal assumptions were wrong. God keeps doing things backwards and upside down. The lesser became the greater. The first became the last. The secondborn became the firstborn.
As the theme progresses throughout the Old Testament we are given more and more insight into what it might be foreshadowing. In Exodus 4, God refers to Israel as his “firstborn son.” This is the first glimpse we get that all of these firstborn and secondborn stories are amounting to a much bigger picture. For if God refers to Israel as his firstborn, is He not fully aware that there will be a secondborn?
Exodus 4:22-23 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go so he may worship me.” (emphasis mine)
Once free from the Egyptians, Israel received the gracious and merciful law of God. They received the blessings of God’s favor on them, as any firstborn son would have. They had a special place under their father’s arm. They heard his words whispered in their ears. They had promises of all that was on offer to them. But, they closed their ears… they bucked his commandments… They offered sacrifices that God said he despised. They ran after other gods. And their sorrows multiplied.
Exodus 6:6-9 Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.
The story of King David seems to even more pointedly illustrate this theme. Not only is David not the firstborn, he is the very youngest, a humble shepherd, arguably the last in line to any rights of inheritence.
Samuel 16:11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.”
As you can see, the Old Testament carries this theme throughout, where the secondborn becomes the firstborn. We even see Jesus echoing it in his story of the Prodigal Son. The older son was always there, dutifully doing what he was supposed to do, while the younger son went off into a far country doing whatever he pleased. Upon returning to the father, he was welcomed and rejoiced over and given the blessing that the firstborn thought was due to himself.
So, in all of this, who are we given to believe is the secondborn son? The one to receive the promised blessing? It is, as you may have guessed already, Jesus. The whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus pointed to the fact that though he came after the nation of Israel in time and space, the blessings of God’s ultimate favor would fall upon him, and upon all the families of the earth who find refuge in him.
When Jesus came onto the scene, the first Israel outright rejected him. Like Cain, they killed the one who provided the acceptable offering, a sinless life devoted to the will and heart of the Father. As Abraham willingly laid his secondborn son, the promised one, on the altar and God counted this obedience that came from faith as righteousness, so Jesus laid himself on the altar, an obedience that relied wholly upon the Father’s ability and will to carry out His good plan for all the nations of the world. Through this final act of humble surrender, his life of obedience and sacrifice was finished. And the proof of its acceptance was a birth. He was raised.
Jesus is the secondborn son that became the firstborn. He is the true Israel who came up out of Egypt. He was born from an unused womb. He was tested in the wilderness and did not grumble. He sustained himself on the word of God alone as he fought the temptation to run from the challenges ahead. He did not bow to anything false. When no other way was provided he drank the cup of suffering to its dregs. He laid himself down to die at the hands of his older brother, Israel, so that he might become the firstborn from among the dead!
Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
And in coming after Israel, the older brother by nature, he has supernaturally become our true older brother, bringing us into His blessing and his inheritance, even those of us who were far off.
Do you see yourself in this story? Has it made you see the sovereignty of God as he orchestrates history to tell a beautiful story of redemption of what exactly it means to be born again? Being born again is more than “a restart button” or a better version of our old life. No, it’s much more radical than that. We emerge with Christ from the grave as a baby from a barren womb. Following in the secondborn-turned-firstborn’s train, we are born out of death!