by Horace Alexander | 19 September 2023 |
We are all aware that there is a long-standing cultural custom that the first son takes over the authority and property of the family. This has been well-attested through history in many instances, and is still seen in royal families today: the king of the United Kingdom is Charles, not Andrew.
Yet frequently in Bible stories younger sons gain preeminence over the first-born. The circumstances leading to this vary, but a pattern is evident:
- Cain is the first born of Adam, but Abel is the favored one (Gen. 4:1-5).
- Ishmael is the first born of Abraham, but Isaac is the one God chooses to favor (Gen. 17:15-22).
- Esau is Isaac’s first born, but Jacob supersedes him, and his progeny becomes the nation of Israel (Gen. 27: 1-30).
- Joseph is the second-to-last child of Jacob, but he becomes the national deliverer, preeminent over his older brothers (Genesis 45:7).
- Reuben is the first born of Jacob, but Judah is the one blessed by his father (Genesis 49:3, 8).
- When Tamar is giving birth to twins, Zerah makes the first attempt to emerge, but Perez seems to pull him back and is born first. From Perez descended most of the kings of Judah (Genesis 38:27-30).
- Aaron is three years older than Moses, but Moses is the preeminent leader (Exodus 7:7).
- David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, becomes king of Israel (1 Samuel 17:12-14; 2 Samuel 5:1-4).
What do we do with the Bible’s seeming bias against the custom of automatically honoring the oldest son?
Case Study: Abraham’s Sons
The sons of Abraham became the ancestors of both Israelites and their Arab cousins, of both Judaism and Islam. It’s an Abrahamic family affair. Ishmael is the first-born son of Abraham. Isaac is clearly the second son. Genesis 16:3 says Hagar, an Egyptian servant, had been given to Abraham by his wife Sarah “to be his wife.” She bore him Ishmael because Sarah was unable to conceive. Ishmael was a son of Abraham—a legitimate son of Abraham.
Interestingly, in the Koran it is Ishmael whom Abraham attempts to offer to God on Mount Moriah, not Isaac (Qur’an 37:103).
Note that later, of the twelve tribes of Israel, there are four that are the children of Jacob’s concubines: Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali; Zilpah bore Gad and Asher (Genesis 30:4-12). These are bona fide sons of Israel, regardless of who their mothers were, and their tribes are regarded as authentic Israelites (Genesis 35:21-26).
So whether Hagar was a second wife or a mere servant-surrogate like Bilhah and Zilpah, Ishmael is the first born of Abraham. Yet when, upon God’s intervention before Isaac was to be sacrificed, God is quoted as saying,
Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son (Genesis 22:12,16 NIV).
Only son? (The term “only son” appears again in verse 16 when an angel quotes God.) So Ishmael doesn’t count? He, traditionally the father of the Arab nations, is a non-entity?
Isaac was never Abraham’s only son. Ishmael was born to him when the latter was a comparatively young 86-year-old, while Isaac was born to him when he was 99. For 13 years Ishmael was Abraham’s only son.
Clearly, the Bible is showing a bias. Paul delegitimizes Ishmael by designating Isaac as “the son of promise” (Galatians 4:22-23), for the nation of Israel is descended from the second son of Abraham.
The selection of biblical stories featuring the younger son as the preeminent one suggests that this is part of God’s pattern of action. While it surely justifies the national agenda and interests of Israel that they are God’s chosen people—not their Ishmaelite cousins—there are deeper lessons to be learned here.
Some of them should be learned by modern-day Adventists.
God’s Patterns Aren’t Ours
First, God isn’t bound by societal norms.
Although the first born as heir was the cultural norm in Bible times, (e.g., Esau was the designated heir until Jacob stole the birthright), God is not bound by our cultural mores.
He sometimes thumbs His nose at human customs, such as when He instructs His prophet Hosea to marry an adulteress and to be a father to children of questionable paternity (Hosea 1:2,3). Birth order, and whether a mother was a slave girl or a wife, are issues of human concern that pale in importance compared to God’s plans and purposes. And Matthew 1 proudly displays a prostitute, Rahab, and an adulteress, Bathsheba, as part of Jesus’ genetic line!
For centuries in the Christian church it was assumed that God called men, and usually only men of a certain class and race. That a clergyman must be educated, white, old, and white-haired seemed to be the societal norm.
But the founders of our denomination weren’t old gray-haired men: many of them, such as the young woman named Ellen Harmon whom many believe God sent to guide our movement in our early days, were precisely those whom our denominational leaders today would refuse to ordain!
God seems to like to upset our societal norms.
Equipped for Leadership
Second, God chooses people for more substantial reasons than humans do.
Dynastic succession of the first born is a custom fraught with risks. Britain’s King Edward VIII, great-uncle of the current Charles III, was a womanizer and Nazi sympathizer who, thankfully, abdicated in favor of his younger brother Albert. Albert—crowned George VI—proved a superior leader for wartime Britain in spite of a speech handicap.
When Samuel and the other Israelites were charmed by the tall and handsome Saul, God warned Samuel, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Saul was a failure as a king, while David—chosen when still quite young—had the talent to be Israel’s monarchical superstar.
No one is qualified for leadership merely by accident of birth. Esau and some other first-borns were clearly unsuited for the leadership roles that God’s plans required. And later on, Paul, a born Pharisee (a group upon which Jesus pronounced His most angry judgments) was called to be the founder of the Christian church!
Jesus’ cryptic “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30) tells us that the algebra of God’s kingdom doesn’t always line up with human logic.
How many times have employers hired charming, confident people whose resume is perfect, only to see them fall on their face in the job? I’ve done it, and perhaps you have, too. And I’ve also seen the opposite happen: that someone who is young and untried becomes, given a chance, a star.
This should teach us something. For years, people of certain races weren’t advanced in church leadership. When African-American pastor Charles Bradford was hired as the first president of the North American Division, he proved to be one of the best administrators the church has ever had.
Some today say women shouldn’t be called to ministry. But seeing great female ministers like Chris Oberg (retired from La Sierra University) and Brenda Billingy of the North American Division (to name just two of many) proves that can’t be true. We seem to have overlooked Acts 2 :17,18:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people…even on my servants, both men and women, and they will prophesy. (NIV)
How about giving young people a chance to prove themselves? “But they don’t have experience,” the oldsters say. How will they get it if we don’t give them opportunities?
Besides, many of us can attest that sometimes “experienced” people are merely old leaders stuck in a rut, who repeat the mistakes of their predecessors without doing anything new or interesting. Sometimes ten years’ experience is merely one year’s experience repeated ten times. Why is it that the bossiest, least innovative leaders in our denomination right now are those who could have retired a decade ago?
Is there no room for new leaders? Perhaps what we need is not an aging church headquarters with a Youth Department, but a youthful church headquarters with a Geriatric Department. That would be a church with a future!
The lesson of the younger sons teaches us that God, because of His divine foresight and insight, sees what humans cannot always see. Let’s learn from that.
Horace B. Alexander M.A., Ed.S., Ed.D., is a Professor Emeritus of English with a specialty in the literature of the Bible. The author of the historical novel Moon Over Port Royal, he has also served as a school principal, District Superintendent, Dean of Instruction, and College Vice President.