Sonship, part 12: How Reuben lost the birthright of the firstborn

Sep 11, 2012

There is a third possibility concerning the legitimacy of Jacob’s disinheriting Reuben from the rights and privileges of the firstborn and that is the principle that the birthright can be forfeited for cause. Frankly, I can find nothing in the law to give that specific exception verbatim, but there are examples that it was done.

The first example is Jacob himself. He had obtained the birthright by trickery and deceit on the part of his mother and himself; but we need to also remember that Esau willingly
sold the birthright, and as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it; Esau thus despised his birthright.

Furthermore, the 1840 version (not the 1829 version) of The Book of Jasher (available from our office, $17 ppd) gives the fascinating background concerning the circumstances of why Esau was so willing to give up the birthright. We do not hold the book of Jasher to be inspired, but that does not mean that it does not contain a lot of truth. So I tend to believe all the surrounding circumstances about just why Esau was so willing to sell it.

What did Esau have in his possession that he valued even more than the birthright? The answer is in Jasher. Regardless, the fact remains, that Esau legally sold it to Jacob, which was perhaps cause enough for it to legitimately belong to Jacob, his own deception of his father, Isaac, notwithstanding.

Now, if we accept the proposition that the eldest son can be disinherited for cause, for what good cause or reason was Reuben disinherited? The answer is in…

1 Chronicles 5:1 Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, ….

We will stop right there in the verse because that is the reason Jacob used to disinherit him. Then we would ask: How did he defile his father’s bed? The answer to that is in…

Genesis 35:22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine: and Israel heard it.

Now let us return to 1 Chronicles 5 and pick up where we left off in the middle of the verse. I’ll re-read it…

1 Chronicles 5:1 Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright.

That last part is a bit confusing in the KJV. The meaning is more clear in the New American Standard version. Notice especially the last part of the verse:

NAU 1 Chronicles 5:1 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.

An even better rendering for that last phrase is found in the Ferrar Fenton Version. Concerning Reuben, it says that “…he is not recorded as the eldest”. Back to the KJV and verse 2 now.

1 Chronicles 5:2 For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler; but the birthright
was Joseph’s:)

Here we have a split in the privileges of the birthright. The material blessings—the father’s estate—(also the future rights to the material blessings) went to Joseph and his descendants, but the authority of rulership and the priesthood for the household, and the concomitant dignity and royal pre-eminence of those privileges went to Judah and his descendants. We see that played out in history, for we know that from Judah came the line of kings, including the King of kings and the eternal High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, Joseph received the birthright per se; he received the double portion of his father’s estate. We will see this in more detail later. But here is that idea of progression again. First, the split occurred between brothers in one family. Then it occurs on an increasingly larger scale as the centuries of history unfold.

Therefore, this split was also a type, a foreshadowing which would be played out later on a national scale. When the children of Israel came back to Canaanland under Joshua, the land was divided up, Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received a double portion of territory. But that’s not all. (To be continued.)

Category: Teaching