International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
burth'-rit (bekhorah, from bekhor, "firstborn"; prototokia): Birthright is the right which naturally belonged to the firstborn son. Where there were more wives than one, the firstborn was the son who in point of time was born before the others, apparently whether his mother was a wife or a concubine. Sarah protests against Ishmael being heir along with Isaac, but it is possible that the bestowal of the rights of the firstborn on Isaac was not due to any law, but rather to the influence of a favorite wife (Gen 21:10). The birthright of the firstborn consisted in the first place of a double portion of what his father had to leave. This probably means that he had a double share of such property as could be divided. We have no certain knowledge of the manner in which property was inherited in the patriarchal age, but it seems probable that the lands and flocks which were the possession of the family as a whole, remained so after the death of the father. The firstborn became head of the family and thus succeeded to the charge of the family property, becoming responsible for the maintenance of the younger sons, the widow or widows, and the unmarried daughters. He also, as head, succeeded to a considerable amount of authority over the other members. Further, he generally received the blessing, which placed him in close and favored covenant-relationship with Yahweh. According to the accounts which have come down to us, all these gifts and privileges could be diverted from the firstborn son. This could happen with his own consent, as in the case of Esau, who sold his birthright to Jacob (Gen 25:29-34), or by the decision of the father, as in the case of Reuben (Gen 48:22; 49:3,4; 1 Ch 5:1,2) and of Shimri (1 Ch 26:10). In the Deuteronomic version of the law, a provision is made, prohibiting the father from making the younger son the possessor of the birthright, just because his mother was specially beloved (Dt 21:15-17). The blessing also could be diverted from the eldest son. This was done when Jacob blessed the children of Joseph, and deliberately put the younger before the elder (Gen 48:13,14,17-19); even when the blessing was obtained by the younger son in a fraudulent manner, it could not be recalled (Gen 27). Jacob does not appear to have inherited any of the property of his father, although he had obtained both the birthright and the blessing.
In the New Testament "birthright," prototokia, is mentioned only once (Heb 12:16), where the reference is to Esau. In various passages where our Lord is spoken of as the firstborn, as in Col 1:15-19; Heb 1:2, the association of ideas with the Old Testament conception of birthright is easy to trace.
See also FIRSTBORN; FAMILY; HEIR; INHERITANCE; LAW.
J. Macartney Wilson
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