Sonship, part 11: Rights of the firstborn: Jacob “hates” Leah
The customs and laws of virtually all ancient cultures showed that “firstborn” not only meant a priority in birth order but also that they were entitled to certain privileges, authority and responsibility. God’s laws for His people Israel was no exception regarding the firstborn son.
One of the privileges was that the firstborn son would inherit a double portion of his father’s estate. On the prohibition side, God forbade that a firstborn son should be disinherited. We find both of these principles set forth in Deuteronomy 21.
Deuteronomy 21:15 If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:
16 Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit
that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn:
17 But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn
Notice first of all that in verse 17 is the idea that the firstborn is the beginning of the strength of the father. Secondly, the final phrase “the right of the firstborn” is essentially the definition of the word “birthright.” The Hebrew word is bekor or bekoraw and it is defined as “belonging to the firstborn.” So that the last phrase in verse 17 instead of saying “the right of the firstborn is his” could read “the birthright is his.
Obviously, it all has to do with inheritance because verse 16 says “when he makes his sons to inherit that which he hath.” The birthright means inheriting the father’s possessions, including the intangibles, such as inheriting promises of future blessings, and the intangibles of the father’s power and authority. This power and authority also extended to the idea that the father was the priest of his household. This ceased to an extent, though, when the tribe of Levi was selected by God to be priests on behalf of the nation. More on that later.
The statute here mentions a case of two wives where it says one is loved and one is hated. Does a particular example of this elsewhere in the Bible come to mind? How about the case of Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah?
It is important to understand that this idea of loving one and hating the other is sometimes used idiomatically. The relationship of Leah and Rachel to Jacob is a prime example. When it says that Jacob hated Leah, it does not mean hatred in the typical sense of the word to abhor, to detest, to loathe, or to despise in the extreme. The Hebrew word can and usually does mean that, but there are exceptions, and if we look closely at this passage, the context tells us as much.
Genesis 29:31 And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.
Normally, we would think that Jacob must have absolutely loathed her, but now let’s read the preceding verse.
30 And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah,…
So we conclude that he did have some love for Leah, it was just not as much as he loved Rachel. After all, if a man absolutely hates a woman in the ordinary sense of the word, then he is not going to sleep with her. Jacob obviously had no aversion to sleeping with the so-called “hated” wife.
It has been suggested that the word “hate” here has more the sense of reject, rather than a strong, emotional loathing. I think that has considerable merit both here and in a couple of other places in Scripture, which we shall forego for now.
In Jacob’s family, Leah was the mother of his firstborn. He was named Reuben. Remember the primary Hebrew word for “son?” It is “ben,” pronounced “bane” in Hebrew, and there it is in the name pronounced “Ree-yoo-bane,” which means “behold, a son.” Jacob’s oldest son’s name and his youngest son’s name both contained the Hebrew word for son, the youngest being Ben-yamin, (bane-yah-meen’); literally, “son of my right hand.”
But now consider the statute we read in Deuteronomy above. It said a father cannot disinherit the firstborn, just because he was not born of his favorite wife. This statute had a very practical purpose in those days because of the practice of polygamy. Do you think it can have any application today?
Well, in my opinion, I think that the principle applies even in the situation where there is only one wife. I think the principle has to do with the whole idea of parents playing favorites among their children. Is it a good idea to do that? …… How does it make the non-favored son or daughter feel to see the parent favoring a sibling? Jacob had that problem in his family, too, didn’t he?
This statute prohibiting disinheriting the firstborn really begs a question here in the history of Jacob’s family, because that seems to be exactly what old Jacob did? He disinherited Reuben in favor of the sons of Joseph, didn’t he? What gives? Well, I can think of three possible explanations.
One is that the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai had not come into existence yet, so Jacob’s actions get “grandfathered in,” so to speak. But I don’t find that to be a satisfactory answer because there is evidence to indicate that these weren’t new laws given to Moses; it was just the formal codification of God’s laws which had been in existence from the beginning.
The second possibility is set forth in Romans 5. Let me preface what we are going to look at there by presenting my readers with a single-question pop quiz. Question: What is sin? Answer: Sin is the transgression of God’s law. (1 John 2:29)
What we are trying to discover is how could Jacob disinherit Reuben if the laws of God had been in existence since Adam and Eve. Most Bible students agree that they were merely codified by Moses. Perhaps Romans 5 will provide a valid answer.
Romans 5: 13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
Do you see some sort of internal contradiction within v. 13? It is this: It is basically stating that sin was in the world before there was law in the world. Or… to substitute the definition of sin for the word “sin,” we would say that transgression of the law was in the world before there was law—which does not make sense. How can you transgress something that does not exist?
The answer to this is found in the meaning of the word “law” in verse 13.
It has to be referring to the laws as given to Moses. I think this is confirmed by the fact that at the beginning of the next verse, where it says ….. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses…—this refers to the period between Adam and Moses, not Adam and Abraham, not Adam and David, but Adam and Moses, because that is evidently when sin began to be imputed.
That is also the time when the whole system of animal sacrifices was institutionalized. So we now understand that verse 13 means: For until the law was codified by Moses, sin was in the world, etc…14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses,…
So in Jacob’s case of disinheriting Reuben in favor of the sons of Joseph, Jacob simply gets off on a technicality. But that somehow seems unsatisfying as well. There is, however, a third possibility concerning the legitimacy of Jacob’s disinheriting Reuben. We will discuss that next time.