On what the concept ‘birthright’ meant and referred to, in regard to inheritance, in ancient times
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Many Anglo-Israelist writers have talked about “Jacob’s birthright”. This article clarifies what the concept “birthright” meant and referred to in ancient times, in regard to inheritance. It has also some notes on what the Bible says about Jacob’s birthright and that of his son Joseph.
This study belongs to a series on what biblical prophecy says about the fate of the ten “lost” tribes of Israel.
In short: “Birthright” was the firstborn son’s right to a special share, when an inheritance was divided.
The Scriptures do not contain any “footnote” where the right of the firstborn son is especially clarified. That was not necessary, because people of old times knew what that right was. Deuteronomy 21:17 gives us an example of how this with “birthright” affected the division of an inheritance. (Traditionally, it was the firstborn son who had the birthright, a right to a special share when a man’s property was divided between his sons, either after his death or already before that.) We read:
Deuteronomy 21:15 “Suppose a man has two wives, but he loves one and not the other, and both have given him sons. And suppose the firstborn son is the son of the wife he does not love. 16 When the man divides his inheritance, he may not give the larger inheritance to his younger son, the son of the wife he loves, as if he were the firstborn son. 17 He must recognize the rights of his oldest son, the son of the wife he does not love, by giving him a double portion. He is the first son of his father’s virility, and the rights of the firstborn belong to him. (NLT04)
Verse 17: The rights of the firstborn – birthright – had to do with a “double portion”. This meant that when a man’s property was divided between his sons, the portion of the firstborn son was two times larger than what each of his brothers received. An example:
If there were twelve sons, the inheritance was divided into thirteen parts. Eleven sons received a thirteenth part each, but the firstborn son received two thirteenth parts of the inheritance. Putting that in other words: If there were twelve sons, the firstborn one got 2/13 (circa 15.4%) of the inheritance, while the remaining 11/13 (circa 85%) was divided between the other sons, each of whom then got 1/13 (circa 7.7%).
A note: For various reasons, there could be special arrangements in regard to which son was to receive the larger or better share of the inheritance. This is also what happened, in the case of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, in the case of Isaac’s sons Esau and Jacob, and in the case of Jacob’s twelve sons.
The patriarch Abraham had children with three women, Hagar, Sarah and Keturah. The Scriptures tell us mostly about his descendants through Sarah’s son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob whose other name was Israel.
The Lord said to Abraham, “to your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7, NKJV). – Abraham lived in the area in question for a time, but he never got all of it under his control. The right to it was inherited by his descendants.
It appears that the Lord’s in Genesis 12:7 recorded words “this land” covered more than just the land of Canaan – see even Genesis 15:18 which mentions the Euphrates. It could be that while Abraham’s grandson Jacob inherited the land of Canaan, the other parts of the area which Genesis 12:7 refers to, were given to Abraham’s other descendants, such as Esau and those through Hagar and Keturah.
Genesis 25:29–34 records how Isaac’s firstborn son Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob. (Esau and Jacob were twins, but Esau was born first.) This led to that it was Jacob’s descendants who came to possess the land of Canaan.
Esau did not care about his right to a better inheritance which he would have had as the first-born. He sold his birthright to Jacob, for a portion of food. Later, Esau felt bad about this, but then it was too late. (The Scriptures record that even Esau was given land, but the right to the land of Canaan went to Jacob.)
As things went, the inheritance after Jacob came to consist of the land of Canaan (which has come to be called “the Promised Land”). He never gained control of all of that land but only a part of it. And then, he moved to Egypt and died there. Thus, the right to that land went further, as an inheritance, to his sons and then to their descendants. It was only in the days of Joshua that Jacob’s descendants began to take the land of Canaan into their control. (See Joshua 11:23 et cetera.)
“The land of Israel” is the same as “Jacob’s land”. Israel was Jacob’s second name; see Genesis 32:24–28. His descendants were called, in translation, “Israelites” and “the sons of Israel”, or “the children of Israel” as many bible-versions have it.
Among Jacob’s twelve sons, Reuben was the oldest. Thus, he would have been in line to receive the larger portion (of inheritance) which belonged to the firstborn son. But he offended, and the birthright was taken away from him and given to (the descendants of) Jacob’s favourite son Joseph. This is recorded in 1 Chronicles 5:1.
Again, “birthright” referred to the firstborn son’s right to a larger share, when an inheritance was divided. In the case Jacob, the inheritance consisted of (a right to) the land of Canaan. But, it was a long time after Jacob’s death, in the days of Joshua, that Jacob’s descendants actually settled in that land. This is also what the Lord had foretold, see Genesis 15:13–16.
Jacob’s 12 sons – in reality, their descendants – were to divide the inheritance after him. The son with the birthright was to receive a larger portion than the other sons. That was Joseph, because Reuben had lost the birthright.
So, in theory the inheritance after Jacob – the land of Canaan – would have been divided so that the descendants of Joseph got 2/13 of it (around 15%), while the remaining 11/13 (circa 85%) was divided between the descendants of Jacob’s eleven other sons.
However, in the days of Joshua when that land was divided between Jacob’s descendants (“the tribes of Israel”), the division was done in a somewhat different way.
For the first, the Levites (the tribe of Levi, the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi) did not receive a portion of that land the way the other tribes did, but only smaller parcels around towns. This was because of certain arrangements that had been made after the golden calf offence.
Secondly, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh, had already settled east of the Jordan river, outside the actual Promised Land.
Further: It appears that when the Promised Land was divided between the other tribes, that was not done in “equal shares” but more according to practical considerations, such as the number of people that each tribe consisted of. (In all likelihood, even the quality of land was considered when the division was done, and not only the area.)
Also: It became clear that the tribe of Judah had received more land than they needed, and so, the descendants of Simeon were placed among the descendants of Judah and shared their lot.
For details on how that land actually came to be divided, see the book of Joshua, chapters 14–19.
Some writers have talked about “Ephraim’s birthright”. It appears that they have wanted people to think that God somehow gave large parts of the world as an “inheritance” to the descendants of Ephraim the son of Jacob.
Please note that Ephraim was not Joseph’s firstborn son. The Bible does not mention any such thing as “Ephraim’s birthright”.
And again, the inheritance which Manasseh and Ephraim received (through their father Joseph), consisted of a part of the land of Canaan. The Scriptures do not mention any other earthly promised land.
Links to the other 14 parts in this series on the tribes of Israel are found in the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa091.htm
On the words “gentiles”, “pagans” and “heathen” and what they actually mean and refer to. → nga011.htm
Covenant signs, including the sign of the New Covenant which shows who are God’s people. → nca071.htm
The other parts in the ‘tribes’ series:
The lost ten tribes of Israel in prophecy. → nya010.htm
Leviticus 26:19, “and I will break the pride of your power”. How and when was the Israelites’ pride broken? → nya021.htm
On the meaning of Genesis 22:17, the words “and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies”. → nya031.htm
On the meaning of the words “seven times” in Leviticus 26:18, 21, 24 and 28. Does the wording in the Hebrew text mean “seven times more” or “sevenfold” as many translations have it, or “2520 years” as some writers have claimed? → nya051.htm
Jeremiah 30:7, “the time of Jacob’s trouble”. On what chapter 30 in the book of Jeremiah means and refers to. → nya061.htm
On the prophet Ezekiel and his mission, and the “Ezekiel message” dogma. → nya071.htm
The lost sheep of the house of Israel of Matthew 10:6 – who were they, and where? Also: Where did the apostles go? → nya081.htm
Did the ten lost tribes of Israel move to Europe? Are the white north-west Europeans Israelites, as some say? → nya090.htm
Is the line of David the king of Israel still ruling somewhere on Earth? → nya100.htm
The meaning of the words “branch” and “twig” in Ezekiel 17:22. Some notes on Anglo-Israelist dogmas regarding king Zedekiah’s daughters. → nya111.htm
The prophet Jeremiah – where did he die? Did he go to Ireland, as some have claimed? Also, what about the “stone of destiny” which some writers talk about? → nya120.htm
Did people of the ten “lost” tribes of Israel travel to Greece, Denmark and Ireland? Some notes on certain Anglo-Israelist dogmas. → nya131.htm
Regarding Anglo-Israelism: What if it is Russia and her Slavic sisters who are the lost ten tribes of Israel? → nya140.htm
Ethnic groups which could eventually belong to the “lost” tribes of Israel. → nya151.htm
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