Nahum Sarna's approach in "Understanding Genesis" is to point out
the cultural and religious traditions the early Israelites shared
with the ancient Near Eastern world, while stressing the crucial
points of departure from the prevailing mythological and spiritual
world-view. "These new ideas of Israel," writes Sarna in his introduction,
"transcend, by far, the range of the religious concepts of the ancient
world. The presence of this or that biblical motif or institution
in non-Israelite cultures in no wise detracts from its importance,
originality and relevance." On the contrary, this scientific approach
depicts Israel as able to withstand and overcome powerful contemporary
forces to develop a unique moral civilization of universal and eternal
The passage below illuminates how the patriarchs, like their non-Israelites
contemporaries, tended to ignore the rules of primogeniture (inheritance
by the firstborn); Biblical narrative and law, however, express
implicit disapproval with this socially accepted standard of the
If the validity of claim on the birthright, with its accompanying privileges
and prerogatives, is determined by nature (i.e., who is born first; see
Firstborn: An introduction), how is it then
that the birthright was transferred from one son to another?
Legal prohibitions in the Torah are an excellent sociological indication
of practice at the time. If a practice is suddenly forbidden by law, it
may be safely assumed to have been previously both socially and legally
acceptable. If, for example, Deuteronomy expressly forbids displacing
the first-born, it must reflect an earlier situation in which it was socially
acceptable and legally valid to disregard the laws of primogeniture (firstborn).
We read in Deuteronomy 21 that a father with two wives (one loved, one
unloved) must allot a double portion to the firstborn son, even if he
is the son of the unloved wife, a law designed to alter a custom that
had been practiced earlier.
The disregard of the rules of primogeniture in patriarchal times accurately
reflects contemporary social and legal customs in the ancient Near East.
In a record on a Nuzi tablet, a gentleman reveals that he had once annulled
his firstborn's special status (and now has decided to reinstate it and
give him his double inheritance portion). A marriage contract from northern
Syria stipulates that a groom promises to appoint a "first-born" from
the future sons of his present bride for special status, despite the fact
that another wife might give birth to a son first; this conferring of
"firstborn" status pre-natally parallels Isaac's oracle in which he elevates
Jacob to status of firstborn, displacing the elder Esau even before he
In the Torah, this practice is demonstrated clearly in two incidents.
Jacob's first-born, Reuben, is deprived of his birthright because he committed
a crime against Bilhah, his father's concubine; this event is recalled
in Jacob's farewell address:
"Reuben, you are my
My might and first fruit of my vigor
Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor,
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;
For when you mounted your father's bed,
You brought disgrace...." (Genesis 49:3)
In Chronicles I (5:1)
it is explicitly recorded that "because he polluted his father's couch,
[Reuben's] birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel."
The second incident involves Jacob's decision to pass over Menasseh in
favor of his younger brother Ephraim, much to the displeasure of Joseph.
The striking correspondence between patriarchal and contemporary practice
points once again to the amazing accurate historical memory reflected
in the biblical narratives. There is no doubt that the way Jacob acquired
his brother's birthright could not have been considered unusual or objectionable
in the context of his times. On the contrary, there is every reason to
believe that Jacob's dealing with Esau and his father represent a stage
of morality in which the successful application of shrewd opportunism f
was highly respected.
[Given the above] .. it is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the
Torah should have cast the story in a mold of implicit disapproval...depicting
the unbroken chain of Jacob's misfortunes as the direct results of actions
not regarded as reprehensible according to the standards of the time.
on Nahum Sarna's discussion of The Birthright, in Understanding
Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, Schocken, 1966