Power, Privilege and the Status of the Firstborn:
Sibling Rivalry in the Book of Genesis
Introduction: Adam and Eve (Gen. 2-3)
It might be argued that the creation of Adam and then Eve in Genesis 2 functions as an introduction to the theme of sibling hostility and the reversal of primogenitor. As the first people brought into existence by God, Adam and Eve represent a sort of primeval sibling pair. As such, Adam would be the firstborn, assumed according to the rules of classic caste systems to be the rightful heir and authority. The peculiar two-part creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 may be taken then to allude to future firstborn hostilities amongst key characters in Israel’s history. Indeed, many of the key hostility elements we will later see are there: Conflict and deception (Gen. 3:1-6), hostile separation and further deception follows (3:7-11), blame is placed and deflected (3:12-13), and a tragic fallout results including escalated enmity between peoples (3:14-19). However, restoration and an end to the hostility are still possible (3:15, 20-21).
Even if Adam and Eve are not intended to foreshadow the theme of sibling hostility related to the assumed privilege of the firstborn, they still function as an introduction to the theme. The serpent’s deception, Eve’s failure, and Adam’s knowing disobedience result in banishment from God and life in the garden, and a cursed existence marked by hostility. The serpent’s seed (lineage) will be at war with that of the woman (3:15), man will bring hostility to the life of the woman (v16), and everyone will be at odds with the rest of creation, from which they must find life and sustenance (v14, 17-19). Therefore, while there are yet no children or offspring to experience such enmity, the theme of worldwide hostility is introduced in Genesis 3.
It is not coincidental that immediately following the curses, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all living” (v20). Indeed the theme of offspring and childbearing is everywhere in Genesis 2 and 3, such that the characters who will most clearly experience these curses are those who are soon to be born to the woman (i.e. her seed; Gen. 3:15). Tellingly, the first lines following Adam and Eve’s banishment describes the arrival of such offspring: “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain…Later she gave birth to his brother Abel” (4:1a, 2). Here are the first seeds of the woman, siblings, and so the story just introduced begins.
Therefore, regardless whether Adam and Eve should be conceived as pre-figurations of sibling rivalry, the author of Genesis uses them to introduce our theme of sibling hostility. We will return later to address how this theme ought to inform theology pertaining to the order of Adam and Eve’s creation, a topic raised by the apostle Paul and used regularly to support male dominance and hierarchical gender roles.
Cain and Abel (Gen. 4)
Cain is the firstborn. The text implies Cain was somehow not doing what was right (4:6), while the author of Hebrews understands Abel to have brought a better sacrifice (Heb. 11:4). The favor and status bestowed on his little brother causes sin to hunt Cain, and God tells Cain to rule over it (v7). The word to rule here is timshal. It is used also of the lights in the sky ruling or governing day and night (Gen. 1:16-17), the warning that man will rule over woman because of the fall (3:16), and in reference to Joseph’s rule over his brothers (Gen. 37:8) and Egypt (45:8, 26). The usage here implies that Cain wanted to claim status of firstborn to rule over his brother, but that God instead wanted him to rule over the sin that was crouching at his door. When Cain fails to do so, he gets violent. Rather than rule over sin, he establishes violent rule over the perceived threat of his little brother by murdering him (v8).
As with Adam and Eve’s failure, God confronts Cain and Cain too deflects blame and abdicates his responsibility with the famous line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v9). Cain’s murder represents a pure, distilled example of sibling rivalry related to power and privilege. The author provides painfully scarce information about either brother, but instead simply tell the shortest possible story of a firstborn’s violent and hostile rule over a sibling. Cain is exiled and given to wander upon a cursed land, while the blood of Abel seems to live on within the ground itself. As Hebrews 11:5 says, Abel “still speaks” today as a kind of vindicated righteous sufferer, serving as a forefather for all those persecuted by the seed of the serpent, which Cain proved to be. (Ultimately, Abel testifies to Christ.) Here the fate of the two is the most dramatically distinguished – one gets to live now, albeit a life of exile and hardship, while the other gets death but also a kind of eternal glory that is spoken of as a form of eternal life.
The conflict presents an ultimate eschatological threat to the hope of restoration through the woman’s seed. Cain is typologically the seed of the serpent, and therefore banished not only from the land but from his place in the woman’s destined lineage. With Abel gone then, there is no seed. Added to the conflict is the escalation of violence perpetuated through Cain’s city and Cain’s lineage, climaxing in the seventy-sevenfold wrath of Lamech (4:17-24). Temporary resolution and a renewed hope for an antidote occurs when God enables Adam and Eve to have another son, Seth (v25). This enacts a kind of narrative peace summed up in the concluding line, “At that time people became to call on the name of the Lord” (v26b).
Though very little is said of Cain and Abel as individual persons, much is introduced here related to the theme of firstborn hostilities. First, power, status and privilege are subtly but forcefully highlighted. In the Septuagint, Greek word archois used to translate the Hebrew timshal. Interestingly, archomeans both “first” and “rule”, containing both aspects of the firstborn theme. The authority to rule and privileges that come with it are derived from the status of being first. Additionally, Cain’s infamous remark about being his brother’s “keeper” repeats the same word (from shamar) used in the original mandate to Adam keep and care for the garden (2:15). Adam was supposed to rule over the garden on God’s behalf by keeping and taking care of it, but the warning given to Eve is that fallen man will rule over her instead (3:15). Cain’s violence is the first act then in the quickly unfolding and rapidly spiraling story about the corruption of the divine mandate given to mankind to rule creation.
Cain is a type of individual and relational corruption of the very real power and authority that God granted mankind. In other words, one might say that the greater theme is mankind’s distorted rule and corruption related to power, and that sibling relationships and especially the rivalry over firstborn status are the first and primary scene in which we can expect this theme to play out.
This also suggests that Cain’s violence over his brother is example A in the soon-to-unfold story of the hostility between the serpent’s family and the woman’s family. This suggests that both the seed of the serpent and seed of woman are ideas that stretch beyond biological lineage into some realm of typological characterization and even eschatological hope. By choosing to rule over his brother, Cain proves that he is not truly a seed of his mother but of his mother’s enemy, and indeed of the enemy of all mankind. And apparently Abel’s innocence and acceptable offering reveals that he was truly his mother’s seed, such that his death meant the end of the family line. Yet Abel, the persecuted, innocent second-born somehow seemed to live and speak beyond the grave. The significance of the woman’s seed is nothing less than the future restoration of the entire creation. Therefore, the sibling hostility seen here and elsewhere in Genesis poses a threat to the salvation of the entire world. The theme, in other words, is woven into the major themes of the cosmic war between good and evil as well as the eschatological hope of a messianic victor in that war.
In summary, the juxtaposition of Genesis 3 and 4 suggests that violent sibling rivalry over power and status is one primary example of both hostility between the woman’s family and serpent’s family, as well as man’s authoritarian rule over woman. As Genesis unfolds these issues of ruling, hostility, violence and agricultural hardship expand beyond sibling rivalry. There are issues involving divine beings, sex, great reproductive struggle, scheming and deception, and more. But the sibling rivalry, and more specifically the hostility that occurs over competition for the authority and status of firstborn, is offered as the first such example. If we heed the interpretive guidance of the likes of Postell and Sailhamer and interpret the opening chapters of Genesis as a figural introduction to Israel’s own tumultuous story, a new line of questions opens up: What is the significance of firstborn status in Israel’s story? How does hostility between siblings shed interpretive meaning onto the Biblical story about Israel? Put differently, how does this early narrative about sibling rivalry as an archetype for the world’s downward spiral into hostility train us to read the rest of the story?
Ham and Shem (Gen. 9)
Noah was the descendent of Seth who was expected to bring about the promised restoration for the woman’s seed (Gen. 5:28). As the son of another “Eve-ian” Lamech, Noah is to be the anti-Lamech who brings rest to the violence. The author of Genesis is unnecessarily redundant in repeating that Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth, thereby highlighting the importance of this generation (5:32, 6:10, 9:18, 10:1). God destroys all mankind in the flood but preserves Noah’s family to start over, and then establishes a new covenant with Noah akin to the creational mandate given to Adam and Eve. Restoration seems to be in sight when suddenly, as in the garden, all goes awry.
The scene involving Noah, alcohol, nakedness and Ham has traditionally been interpreted as some form of paternal incest. However, linkages with Leviticus 18:7-8 suggest that Noah’s nakedness was an idiom for Noah’s wife, and that Ham sought to dishonor his father and seize control of the family line by raping his mother. As second in line to Shem, Ham acts as a kind of undercover agent of the serpentine line and stages a coup to seize power on the newly purged earth. This interpretation explains Noah’s subsequent curse on Ham’s son Canaan, who was likely the offspring resulting from the incestuous rape. This is further support by the text’s subsequent assertion that all of Israel’s future enemies and most violent foes – Canaan, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria – descended from Ham (10:6-20), while the Shemites (Semites) would go on to produce Abraham, Israel and the people of God (10:21-29, 11:10-27).
Once again a second-born sibling was driven by competitive rivalry and a thirst for power to act with unthinkable familial violence. And again, this fall from peace into enmity and violence resulted in a downward spiral producing the likes of Assyria and its bloodthirsty tyrants like Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-11, Mic. 5:6). The result of the sibling hostility is the long existential threat to the people of the seed and the hope of worldwide redemption. Literally, the author of Genesis asserts here that the Canaanite kingdoms who would threaten Israel’s life in the Promised Land, just as the serpent had in Eden, would never have come into existence if Ham hadn’t raped his mother (10:15-19).
As the second sibling rivalry story set within the “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11, Ham further establishes that the problem plaguing the world is mankind’s thirst for power and status. Cain was the firstborn offended by his little brother’s esteemed status. Ham was the second-born, cruelly seeking to seize firstborn status by violently overthrowing his family line. In other words, the author of Genesis doesn’t put forth being born first or second or otherwise as having any special moral significance. Rather, what matters is humanity’s serpent-inspire thirst for power, status and privilege that leads to gross violence. Both those deemed by society as rightful heirs (Cain) and those second in line (Ham) can fall prey to this sin. When they do, the entire world is threatened and forced to bear the consequences.
Ishmael and Isaac (Gen. 16:1-18:15, 21-22)
The prominent theme of worldwide redemption through the blessed seed of Eve finds its next point of hopeful fulfillment in Abram and Sarai, and more specifically, the offspring they will bear (Gen. 12:2-3, 14:19, 15:2-5, 18-19, 17:3-8). While God promised a child to Abraham, however, it was not specified when or by whom the child would come. Therefore, barren Sarai impatiently, though understandably, sought a child through surrogacy and had Abraham sleep with their servant, Hagar. Thus Ishmael was born, the first child of Abraham’s. Immediately, hostility broke out between Sarai and Hagar. The hostility borne from these reproductive tensions is emphasized in the angel of the Lord’s prediction that Ishmael himself would live in hostility toward all his brothers (16:12). This is peculiar given the fact that Ishmael, at this time, had no brothers or any promising sign that there would be some to come.
Only after this did God clarify to Abraham the promise that Sarai would actually bear a child. Interestingly, it is at this moment God grants her the name Sarah, a noun connoting feminine nobility and royalty but also a verb meaning to struggle in hostility. Sarah would become a kind of new Eve, as royal mother of nations and their kings (17:15-16). This would all begin with the birth of a son named Isaac who would replace Ishmael as the recipient of the blessing (17:19-22).
From early on, hostility existed between Ishmael and Isaac (21:1-10). It soon led to the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael who survived only by the grace of God (21:11-21). Interestingly, all of the hostility in this case stemmed from the parents, rather than the siblings themselves. Other than some teenage mocking by Ishmael, neither of the kids contributed much to the rivalry. Instead, the two mothers battled over the status of their sons. Indeed it was Sarah, and Abraham with her, who care most about who was to be given the family reign. This parental concern was tested and reached its ultimate trial when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (22:1-18).
It appears that the primary thematic twist in this unique version of the sibling rivalry story was a concern for Abraham and Sarah’s willingness to relinquish the hope of an heir and dynasty. Only when Abraham proved willing to let go of such a hope did God vow to fulfill all the promises of blessing through Isaac and his descendants (21:15-18). Really, the sibling rivalry motif has here been transformed into a rivalry between the barren wife and surrogate slave, which Paul picks up on as a figuration of spiritual freedom and enslaving legalism in Galatians 4. Many of the common elements such as escalating hostility and the need for separation are all present here, so there is no doubt this is another link in the chain of firstborn hostility narratives. However, it seems that this particular story focuses more on Abraham and Sarah’s relationship to the power and status of children, which is fitting as they function as the mother and father of faith.
Esau and Jacob (Gen. 25:19-34, 27-28, 32-34)
After Sarah died, Abraham had many other children and grandchildren through a second wife, but Isaac retained the right of firstborn and was given possession of everything Abraham owned (25:1-5). Isaac married Rebekah and she became pregnant with twins (25:19-24).
If Cain and Abel was a pure, distilled version of the sibling rivalry motif, the story of Jacob and Esau was a kind of exaggerated cartoon version. Even in Rebekah’s womb the twins wrestled each other, giving the impression that they were fighting to be closest to the birth canal so as to emerge first. God spoke to Rebekah about the boys, saying, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (25:22-23). Even during gestation the themes of usurping, hostility, separation, and reversal of primogenitor were already at work.
As it happened, Esau was born first but Jacob came out grabbing his heal in an early effort to deceive his way into the rank of firstborn (25:25-26). This comical picture was captured in Jacob’s name (literally, he grasps the heel, which became a Hebrew idiom for deception and usurping) and served to foreshadow Jacob’s more sinister later plots as an adult.
First, Jacob would take advantage of the starving Esau by bribing him with food in exchange for his birthright (25:29-34). The birthright seems to have included the right to a double portion of the allotted property inheritance (Deut. 21:15-17) and to be named in the family genealogy (1 Ch. 5:1-2). Later, however, Jacob further took advantage of Esau by disguising himself as Esau in order to receive Isaac’s deathbed blessing (27:1-39). Thus, Jacob seized not only Esau’s birthright, but his blessing as firstborn, which meant control of the estate and the power and status as lord over his brother (27:29, 37).
Here Jacob the deceiver takes center stage, but attention is given to Rebekah’s parental role in aiding and abetting his schemes (27:5-17, 42-45) because she loved him more than Esau (25:28). Hostile separation between the siblings ensued, including the exile of both brothers from the family, and the hostility and deception would later escalate and come back to bite Jacob.
In the end, this story is likely the central climax of this theme. Jacob becomes Israel - the father of God’s holy nation - and his entire identity is wrapped up in scheming for power. This behavior is neither commanded nor condoned, but neither does God rebuke it. Rather, Jacob’s wrestling with Esau over firstborn status is put in analogy to wrestling with God (Gen. 32). Indeed it is only after Jacob both re-encounters Esau later on in life and then immediately has a divine encounter in which he wrestles with an angel that he is given the name Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (32:28). Israel then, both the individual character and the nation as a whole, encapsulates the mixed moral idea of one engaged in a messy struggle with God that involves a struggle for power amongst fellow people, even siblings.
Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29-31)
Jacob’s love life was marked with deceit and rivalry from the onset. Fearing Esau’s wrath, he took his mother’s advice and fled to live with his uncle Laban. There he and Laban find themselves in a ludicrous battle of deception. At the center of this hostility between Jacob and Laban stood two sisters, Leah and Rachel.
Jacob loved Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and offered to work seven years for permission to marry her (29:14-19). However, when time came for them to be married, Laban offered Leah instead, deceiving Jacob on the grounds that the younger daughter shouldn’t marry before the first. In exchange for another seven years of work, Laban then offered Rachel also. So, Jacob had both sisters as wives and, as might be expected, hostility and competitive rivalry immediately broke out.
Jacob thought Rachel more beautiful, and loved her more. But God saw this, and increased Leah’s value by enabling her to conceive while Rachel remained childless (29:31). Leah bore Jacob four sons and was confident that this would elevate her status over Rachel in Jacob’s eyes (29:32-35). Rachel became jealous of Leah and angry toward Jacob and Jacob became angry with Rachel in return. Then Rachel repeated Sarah’s surrogacy tactics and offered her servant to bear children in her stead, and then claimed to have struggled with her sibling and overcome just as Jacob had (30:7). Then Leah offers her own servant and more children ensue, then one of the boys gets involved in the family strife, and eventually God remembered Rachel and enabled her to bear a son. Literally the author of Genesis depicts the births of the twelve sons of Israel as the direct result of almost satirical family drama and infighting. The sibling rivalry and scheming hostility that so marked Israel’s own life now took over his entire household such that the promised nations that would come from him were conceived in and of hostility.
Once again the scheming continues leading to the necessary separation between people (Gen. 30-31), and again a struggle for children’s inheritance is at the center of it all (31:14-16). In this rivalry between sisters for whom there is no possibility of patriarchal reign, the competition was for status of the most beloved wife. While a kind of twist on the theme of firstborn sons, it contained all the major elements and served to show how Jacob’s fight for firstborn status begot further rivalries that would affect the very creation and future of the promised lineage.
Joseph and His Brothers (Gen. 35-50)
The following is a summary of the birth of Israel’s sons: Leah bore four sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah), Rachel’s servant Bilhah bore two sons (Dan, Naphtali), Leah’s servant Zilpah bore two sons (Gad, Asher), Leah bore two more sons (Issachar, Zebulun), and finally Rachel bore the last two sons (Joseph, Benjamin) (Gen. 30, 35, 46). Reuben therefore was Israel’s firstborn, but Joseph was the first born to Israel’s beloved wife, Rachel. Also, the birth of Benjamin killed Rachel. Therefore, while Reuben was the firstborn, Jacob especially loved Joseph and Benjamin, and he “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” (37:3). This caused Joseph’s brothers to hate him (37:4).
Joseph’s real trouble began, however, when he dreamt that he would rule over his older brothers and that even his parents would one day bow down to him (37:5-11). As a result, his brothers plotted to kill him (v18). Interestingly, Reuben used his authority as eldest to deter the brothers, convincing them to dump him in a cistern instead so that he might later rescue him (37:21-24, 42:22). Judah, however, convinced the rest of the brothers to later sell Joseph into slavery (v25-36).
Interestingly, the author of Genesis takes time to assert that Israel’s first four sons born to Leah –Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah - were all morally compromised in Israel’s eyes, apart from the ordeal with Joseph (34:25-31, 35:22, 38:1-30). Yet Joseph unbeknownst to Israel, Joseph proves righteous even under the cruelest persecution (Gen. 39). Indeed Joseph is eventually rewarded by being promoted to Pharaoh’s secondhand man and set to rule over all of Egypt (41:41-43, 42:6). When the famine strikes, Israel and his brothers go to Egypt – and hence to Joseph – to seek salvation. Thus Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled and the 11thson of Israel came to rule over his entire family, creating a Biblical archetype of the righteous sufferer who is vindicated and exalted to rule over his oppressors.
Thus the final chapter in Genesis’ sibling rivalry motif occurs amongst the very sons of Israel. It is a reversal of primogenitor on the grandest scale where the rejected younger brother comes to receive not just a family birthright but rule over the entire known world. Thus the motif transcends to a new eschatological height beyond the realm of family inheritance and sibling rivalry and into the realm of kingdoms and nations. First, it re-locates the motif to the concern of any person who experiences unjust suffering not just from their siblings but from any of the so-called “firstborns” of the world, such that it paves the way for God’s repeated promise to oppose the mighty and exalt the humble (1 Sam. 2:7-8, 2 Sam. 22:28, Ps. 18:27, 147:6, 149:4, Is. 2:9-17, Prov. 3:34, Matt. 23:12, Lk. 1:48-52, 14:11, 18:14, 1 Pet. 5:5, Jas. 4:6-10). Secondly, it paves the way for the concept of a messiah modeled after Joseph, the suffering and powerless servant who is vindicated and exalted (Ps. 22, Is. 49-53, Zec. 3). In other words, the Joseph story takes the entire sibling hostility motif and makes it into a messianic signpost pointing to Christ.
Interestingly, Israel acknowledges the sin of his first four sons in his deathbed blessing. Reuben, Simeon and Levi are effectively rebuked, so that the right of the firstborn to rule the clan is taken from Reuben but passed all the way down to Judah (49:2-12). Interestingly, Israel doesn’t praise Judah but seemingly passes the scepter to him begrudgingly, and with trepidation. Likely this is because the next four sons in line all came from servants rather than a true wife, leaving Israel no choice. So Judah gets the throne, but Joseph receives the father’s true adoration and blessing as “prince among his brothers” (v22-26).
Israel even blessed Joseph’s sons as though they were his own, marking his favor upon Joseph (48:8-22). And in a kind of final comical overture to the theme of firstborn reversal, blind old Israel mixed up Ephraim and Manasseh and blessed the younger as the firstborn. When Joseph tried to correct him, Israel refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know” (48:19). It is as if the final lesson of Israel’s long life of wrestling with God over the power and status related to patriarchal heirs was to see the subversive beauty and wisdom in the exaltation of the younger. It is likely that the author intends that as we readers conclude the book of Genesis, we too are meant to learn this surprising lesson and nod in agreement with dying Israel.
Remarkably, Israel declares, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come” (v10). In other words, Israel will be ruled by the line of Judah until one more worthy of the throne, like Joseph, arrives. Judah received the technical authority, but Joseph established a figure of the ideal beloved son who would truly be worthy of the throne (Ps. 2, Mt. 3:17).
The finale of the Joseph story means that the primary significance of the sibling hostility theme is messianic. All of the competitive turmoil and violent hostility that the human thirst for power produces points ultimately to one who can overcome this snare through an utter resistance to pursuing power. This is how the gospels present Jesus of Nazareth. The wilderness temptations, for example, depict Jesus passing the test that all the children and parents in Genesis failed to pass, aside from Joseph and perhaps Abraham (Mt. 4:1-11). Jesus refused to take up power or to vie for worldly status and relinquished power even to the point of death, and therefore God exalted him to ultimate power (Php. 2:5-11).
The modern day takeaway then from this ancient literary theme is precisely the same message the apostle Paul spoke to the church in Philippi: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Php. 2:5). Jesus is the messiah ben Joseph par excellence and thereby ordained for all time the way of weakness, powerlessness, humility, nonviolence, and self-sacrificial suffering. Our calling is to resist both the self-protective impulses of the threatened firstborn and the covetous thirst for power of the jealous younger sibling. Those who have power and status over others ought to give it away, and those without power ought to find Christian joy and dignity in their lowly service rather than seeking power for themselves. Abraham proved faithful in his willingness to sacrifice the privilege of an heir (Heb. 11:9) and Joseph proved righteous in spite of tremendous injustice and suffering. As the greater Abraham and better Joseph, Jesus’ blood doesn’t just cry out from the ground like Abel’s (Gen. 4:10, Heb. 11:4) but rather Jesus himself was resurrected to lead us all into a new way of eternal life (Jn. 3:15-16, Heb. 12:24).