Prof. 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 value.

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 time.

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 is born.

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 first-born
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.


Based on Nahum Sarna's discussion of The Birthright, in Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, Schocken, 1966




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