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No. 42: The Firstborn Son’s Double Portion

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 42
October, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

From time to time we receive questions that are interesting, and that other people would also be interested in. James B. Jordan discusses two such questions in this issue.

I think you are right to feel uncomfortable about the matter, and I think your reasons are substantially correct.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is the only place where it is required in the Bible to give a double portion to the firstborn son. The law states that if a man has two wives, one loved and one unloved, he may not bypass his firstborn if he is the son of the unloved wife in order to give the firstborn rights to the son of the beloved wife. What is interesting about this law is that this is exactly what both Abraham and Jacob did, and clearly neither was in sin in doing so. That says to me that the law of Deuteronomy 21 is something that came in with the Sinaitic covenant, and was not binding previously. As we shall see, it is not binding now either.

In Genesis 25:5-6 we read, "Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of the undowried wives who belonged to Abraham, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living." First, notice that Abraham gave all to Isaac, not a double portion. Second, notice that Isaac was not the firstborn; Ishmael was. Moreover, Ishmael was son of a "despised" wife. It cannot be said that Ishmael was passed by because he was an unbeliever, because Genesis 21:20 says that God was with him, indicating that he became a godly man. Of course, it was God who chose Isaac over Ishmael to be the carrier of the seed. Did God break His own law, or was the law not yet in effect? I opt for the latter.

On the face of it, Genesis 25:5-6 is a contradiction. Either Abraham gave everything to Isaac or he didn’t. The only way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to say that there is a difference between what is considered inheritance per se on the one hand, and other property on the other. In other words, there is some property that is considered "inheritance," and all of this went to Isaac; other property is not considered "inheritance," and Abraham gave some of it to his other sons. The point is that the "inheritance" is not divided, with Isaac receiving a double portion. It was "all" given to Isaac.

Isaac also gave everything to the one he thought was Esau (actually Jacob), as we see from Genesis 27:36-37.

When we get to Jacob, we see the principle of the double portion coming into play, but not in conformity with the law of Deuteronomy 21:15-17. Jacob gave Joseph some kind of double portion by blessing his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:22). Yet, in Genesis 49 we find Jacob bypassing his first three sinful sons in order to give the right of rule to Judah. Why didn’t Judah receive a double-portion? Judah had repented of his sin by this time, as we see from the fact that Jacob blessed him. If Deuteronomy 21:15-17 were in effect, Jacob would have been required to give "the" double portion to Judah. Moreover, Judah was the son of the despised Leah, while Joseph was the son of the beloved Rachel. Jacob passed by the older son of the despised wife in order to give some kind of double portion to the son of the beloved wife. This is a clear violation of the precise terms of Deuteronomy 21:15-17. But Jacob was acting under Divine inspiration. Was God leading Jacob to break His law? I’d rather believe that the law was not yet in effect. The double portion given to Joseph was not given in obedience to the law of Deuteronomy 21, but under inspiration from God.

If the law of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is uniquely tied to the Sinaitic covenant, what is its rationale? We notice that at the Passover, when the Sinaitic covenant began to come into being, God claimed the firstborn. Every firstborn had to be given to Him (Ex. 13:1-2; 22:29-30; etc.). This was a new thing. It seems to me that this is the reason why the firstborn was also given the double portion. God’s choice of the firstborn of Israel was not based on any virtue in the firstborn, but was a matter of election, symbolism, and typology. Those who were elected to represent the Firstborn of God Himself were also given a double portion, to display in symbolism and typology the status of God’s Firstborn to come. Now that Jesus has come, and has been given the double-portion inheritance of the Firstborn, all Christian children are younger sons, and all receive one portion.

There may be another Sinaitic dimension to this law. This inheritance would have included the land God had given to each family. It is this inheritance and not anything else that was at issue with the daughters of Zelophahad (Num. 27 & 36). Under the laws of the Jubilee (Lev. 25), this land reverted to its original stewards every fiftieth year. We saw above that Abraham gave all he "had" to Isaac, but gave gifts to his other sons. Possibly Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is not speaking of every bit of the father’s property, but only of some aspects of it, including the land. It is not the land as such that is spoken of in Deuteronomy 21, however. The technical term for "inheritance," which refers to the family land, is not used here, so we cannot say that only the inheritance of the land is in view. The law is actually phrased in language similar to what is used in connection with Abraham: He is to give a double portion of what is "with him," of what he "has." This might mean, of course, a double portion of every bit of his possessions, or it might mean, as I suggest based on Genesis 25:5-6, a double portion of what was regarded as inheritance in the broad sense.

But the land was surely a large part of the inheritance for every Israelite except the Levites (and those who had moved to the cities). Why give a double portion of the land to the firstborn? Again, to fulfill the symbolism and typology. This made the firstborn preeminent among his brethren, because he owned twice as much as they, and he always would. Even if he leased it out, it would come back to him in the fiftieth year. This had a practical benefit. As time went along, the family plots would be divided over and over again until they became ridiculously small. The Jubilee provision of Leviticus 25 took care of this problem by allowing people to lease out their small plots to the nearest competent farmer, while themselves moving on into the cities to engage in some other trade. (City land was not under the Jubilee law.) The younger brothers would tend to lease their land to the firstborn. The younger brothers would then take up some other trade. Over the course of time two things would happen. First, arable land would progressively come under the management of competent people, while those who were not good farmers and shepherds would move on. Second, the cities would become larger and larger, and a technologically and artistically advanced civilization would develop.

But I’m moving over into another topic. The concern here is with our own children. To summarize: It is clear that the requirements of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 were not in force during the patriarchal age. These requirements came into being with the Sinaitic covenant. Since they are requirements concerning the firstborn, it is only logical to tie them to the other requirements concerning the firstborn that came into being with the Sinaitic covenant. The entire system of firstborn laws seems clearly to have been typological in character, and has transparently been fulfilled in Christ. Thus, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 does not require new creation believers to give a double portion to their firstborn sons, nor does it require that land be divided up.

2 Corinthians 8:13-14 speaks of equality of blessing as a desirable thing in the Church. This does not have to imply the modern socialistic notion of equality, but it does mean something. I think if I were a father in Israel, I would give gifts to my younger sons and my daughters in order to balance out the double portion given to my oldest son. And I think the same applies today. If you give all your land to one son, give an "equality" of gifts to your others. In Christ we are all younger sons, and we all equally receive one portion.