The Birthright
(The Rights of the Firstborn)

by Thomas W. Finley

The warning concerning Esau and the birthright (Heb. 12:16-17).

Esau’s birthright (actually plural: literally “rights of the firstborn”) was what belonged to him because he was the firstborn son. The Old Testament reveals special privileges for the firstborn of the family. This passage on Esau’s loss of this birthright privileges is a part of the fifth warning passage given to the Hebrew believers in the letter to the Hebrews. Chapter 12 taken as a whole may be considered as the fifth warning.

Immediately following the case of Esau a contrast is given between the Old and New Covenants (Heb. 12:18-24; O. T. in verses 18-21 and the N. T. in verses 22-24). One of the blessings of the New Covenant is the fact that we have come to the “church of the firstborn.” Although God has given us certain privileges belonging to a firstborn, it is clear from the warning passage that these privileges can be forfeited by our actions, as was the case with Esau. The “birthright” does not have to do with our eternal salvation, which cannot be lost because it is not based upon our works (Eph. 2:8-9): rather, it has to do with our reward.

The birthright as seen in the Old Testament

The birthright of a firstborn son in Israel consisted of the following major three privileges:[1]

  1. He had a double portion of the inheritance from his parents, whereas the other sons had only a single portion (Deut. 21:15-17)
  2. He received a position of authority in the family, and also in the kingdom if the king’s son (Gen. 27:37; 1 Sam. 20:27, 29; 2 Chron. 21:3).
  3. Priestly service. Instead of the firstborn of all Israel serving in the tabernacle, the Levites were taken for service. Num. 3:12-13; 8:17-19. Besides the temple service given to the tribe of Levi, there was also a measure of priestly duty within the family given to the firstborn son. The record of 1 Sam. 20:27, 29 indicates that the (eldest) brother made arrangements for the family sacrifice.

The birthright could be transferred to one who was not literally the firstborn. In 1 Chron. 26:10 we see that Shimri, not the firstborn, was made first (“chief”) by his father, giving him the privileges of the firstborn. The main meaning of being the firstborn, then, becomes one of being chief, or having the pre-eminence in rank, as opposed to being just biologically the first son born. This privilege of having the chief rank normally belonged to the first one born, but could be transferred. The meaning of Christ as “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) carries with it the idea of pre-eminence and ruler over all, not birth order.

Examples of loss of the rights of the firstborn:

  1. Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob. Gen. 25:31-33.
  2. In Jacob’s family, Reuben was literally the first one born. However, he lost his birthright due to his sexual sin (Gen. 35:22; 49:3-4) “Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright.” (1 Chron. 5:1). Reuben’s sexual sin and loss may have been the thought behind the first clause of Heb. 12:16: “that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau...”

When Reuben lost his birthright, those privileges were divided up as follows:

  1. The double portion of the inheritance (of the land) went to Joseph through his two sons (Ephraim and Manasseh), each being given a portion of the land. Gen. 48:21-22 reads: “Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your fathers. I give you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.’" See also 1 Chron. 5:1 above.
  2. The priestly service was given to the tribe of Levi. Num. 1:47-51; Deut. 33:8-10.
  3. The position of authority was allotted to Judah, the tribe from which the Messiah, the future King, would arise. 1 Chron. 5:2.

New Testament application

The “rights of the firstborn” in the Old Testament typify the privileges of the overcoming believer of the New Testament. The Greek verb for “to inherit” is kleronomeo (Strong’s #2816) and it means to obtain an inheritance through the casting of lots. The O. T. Israelites took possession of their allotments of the promised good land (Num. 26:52-55, 34:2) in this way, and thus their inheritance of the land pictures our inheritance of spiritual possessions. Lots are not cast, of course, for our inheritance, but God’s will determines our inheritance. In the O. T. family, all sons received a portion of the inheritance, but the firstborn received a double portion (Deut. 21:17). In God’s N. T. plan, all believers freely receive eternal salvation through grace, apart from works (Rom. 4:1-4; 11:5-6; Eph. 2:8-9). However, the New Testament affirms again and again the principle of reward according to works. It is on this principle that some Christians will obtain an extra portion of spiritual possession or blessing.

The common single portion of eternal salvation inheritance is spoken of in verses like Eph. 1:14 and Heb. 9:15, where our works are not noted. The extra portion of the inheritance has to do with the 1,000 year Kingdom reward, and is spoken of in verses like Col. 3:24 -- “the reward [consisting] of the inheritance.” Note that the context of Col. 3:24 is related to our doings, our works.

One verse in particular points out both the common inheritance of all believers and the extra portion of inheritance together with Christ (in His 1.000 year Kingdom). “and if children, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Rom. 8:17). In this verse being an heir of God is dependent solely upon being His child. However, being a joint-heir with Christ when He inherits His coming 1,000 year Kingdom (at Christ’s return: “when He again brings the firstborn into the world”, Heb. 1:6; Matt. 16:27-28; Lk. 19:15) is dependent upon our willingness to suffer with Him (experience His crucifixion in our lives to die to the world, sin and self).

The threefold spiritual possessions of the Kingdom reward for the overcomer:

  1. A special portion of the enjoyment of eternal life (the life of God and Christ – Jn. 17:3) in intimate fellowship with Him during the 1,000 year Kingdom age (Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:30; Rom. 2:6-7).
  2. Priestly service in partnership with Christ (Jn. 12:25-26; Rev. 1:6 with Heb. 3:14 [“partakers” means companions or partners], sharing priestly service with Christ; Rev. 20:6).
  3. Ruling with Christ (Lk. 19:17, 19; Rev. 2:26, 27; 20:6).

The warning to the believer of the possible loss of the birthright.

The sole place n the N. T. where the loss of the “birthright” is mentioned specifically is in Heb. 12:16, where Esau’s story is brought forth as a warning. The lesson here is that Esau despised his birthright by selling it for a bowl of stew. The spiritual meaning for us is that he traded the temporal enjoyment of the pleasures of this world for the future enjoyment of the Kingdom reward. He did not clearly see the value of his birthright. The decision he made was irrevocable. Once the decision was made, it could not be reversed. The verses on Esau may be paraphrased as follows:

“Lest there be any fornicator or profane person, as Esau, who for one serving of stew sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance – a change of mind by Isaac, altering his father’s decision – though he sought the blessing diligently with tears.”

The great spiritual warning to the believer is that one’s heart may be so subtly enticed by the pleasures of this world that an inward decision is made, setting his course, to pursue worldly pleasures at the expense of a complete consecration to follow Christ, at any cost, for the Kingdom reward. Verse 16 shows us that what we may think of as “sin” (“lest there be any fornicator”) is not the only danger to the Christian’s life and the Christian’s reward. Equally dangerous is the love of this world and the pleasures it offers. These pleasures can often seem quite “innocent” compared to immorality, yet they can be just as costly to a believer as gross sin.

The warnings against the dangers of worldly pleasure are numerous in the Scripture. Here are some passages: Lk. 8:14, 12:19-21, 17:31-33; 1 Cor. 10:6 (cross reference to Num. 11:4, 31-34); Phil. 3:17-20; 1 Tim. 6:6-10; 2 Tim. 3:4, 4:10; Jas. 4:3-4; 1 Jn. 2:15-17. Yet, the loss of the 1,000 year Kingdom inheritance can stem from other lifestyle problems besides the love of this world. Note 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph.5:5-7. The “kingdom” in these verses refers to the coming Kingdom of 1,000 years, the “age to come.”

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Insights into these three privileges come from chapter 7 of the book “In the Arena of Faith” by Erich Sauer.