Since I am the third child in my family, I never thought much about the significance of being the “firstborn,” because obviously that doesn’t apply to me, right? However, in Exodus 4:22 the Lord describes the house of Israel as “my firstborn.” Thus, as a member of the House of Israel, it’s important for me to learn what it means to be the firstborn.
I’ll address this topic from four angles: birthright responsibilities, priesthood authority, symbolism of Christ, and covenant relationship.
What does it mean when we sing about “youth of the noble birthright” (Hymn 255)?
As Brad Wilcox explains (in his book Born to Change the World), when we’re children in Primary we’re taught that we’re special because we are children of God. When we’re teenagers, we’re taught that we’re special because we were reserved in the pre-existence to be born in the last days. But being a “child of God” and being “saved for the last days” doesn’t set us apart, because that applies to everyone on the earth right now. So what does set us apart? The answer is “birthright.”
In old testament times, a firstborn son (if worthy) received something called “birthright.” A birthright is an inheritance, but much more than that. Prior to reading Brad Wilcox’s book, I assumed that a firstborn son received ALL of the inheritance as his birthright. But if you look up “firstborn” in the bible dictionary, it says the birthright was the double portion. So, for example, if a father had three sons, the inheritance was divided into four shares, and the firstborn son got two shares—one share because he was a son and the second share because he was responsible to care for his mother and sisters and settle the affairs of his father’s estate till the end of his days.
Knowing that “birthright” is a double portion helps us understand the twelve tribes of Israel, and one of the reasons why there are more than twelve tribes. Israel had twelve sons, and his son Joseph received the birthright. Thus, Joseph received the double portion. So instead of having one tribe, Joseph had two tribes, one for each of his two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh. In Jeremiah 31:9 the Lord says “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Ephraim was placed before Manasseh, but both could be considered children of the birthright.
From patriarchal blessings, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints learn that they are from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. In Brad Wilcox’s book, he invites Church members to consider all the ways that we have been given a “double portion,” both temporally and spiritually. With all the blessings God has given us, it’s not surprising that God expects more from us. As children of the birthright, we have the extra responsibility to use our “double portion” to build our Father’s kingdom, temporally and spiritually.
(See this short article by Val Johnson for a great summary about birthright.)
In the last days, one of the responsibilities of the tribe of Ephraim is to bear the priesthood. As I did more research into “firstborn” and “birthright,” I was surprised to learn of additional connections between being the firstborn and holding the priesthood.
The priesthood was first given to Adam, the firstborn man on the earth, and he passed it on to his worthy descendants (in many cases, through the firstborn sons). But from the days of Moses until the ministry of Christ, only the descendants of Aaron could be priests, and only the Levites could assist in priesthood duties. Why?
In the Church, when discussing why women don’t hold the priesthood or why men of African descent didn’t hold the priesthood for a while, members often bring up the Levites to illustrate how the priesthood has always been restricted to a smaller group rather than given to everyone, so that through that smaller group of priesthood holders the blessings of the priesthood are made available to all. However, I was fascinated to learn that the Levites weren’t just arbitrarily chosen. There was more than one way to ensure that every Israeliste family had access to a priesthood holder, and it turns out the Levites were plan B.
ORIGINALLY, the firstborn sons of EVERY family in EVERY tribe were supposed to be priests! God wanted the priesthood to be present in every family. He wanted Israel to be a kingdom of priests (see Exodus 13:2, 19:6).
But the tribes of Israel forfeited this privilege after the golden calf incident. Since the Levites refused to worship the calf, God decreed that only the Levites would serve as priests thereafter.
However, the firstborn sons were never entirely out of the equation. To acknowledge that the Levites were standing in place of all the firstborn sons, Israelite families had to “redeem” their firstborn sons by paying the Levites a sum of money (see Numbers 3:11-13, 40-51). Some Jews continue this custom of payment to this day! And according to a Wikipedia article I read, some Jews believe that one day the priesthood will be returned to the firstborns.
This knowledge places the restoration of the priesthood in a whole new perspective. Perhaps the fact that all worthy males in the Church can now hold the priesthood traces back to that original intent for the firstborn of every tribe to hold the priesthood—and shows how the whole church fills the role of the firstborn.
Christ is the Great High Priest and the Firstborn of the Father (Hebrews 4:14, Colossians 1:15). One of the reasons the Israelites had so many customs and rituals surrounding firstborns (including animal sacrifice) was to point them to Christ. Thus, every firstborn male—whether of man or of the flock—was dedicated to the Lord.
“For all the firstborn of the children of Israel are mine, both man and beast: on the day that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for myself.” (Numbers 8:17)
In the Scriptures, the word “firstborn” refers not just to birth order but also to preeminence. King David was the youngest in his family, yet the Lord said “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27). King David himself was a symbol for Christ. He was a remote shepherd boy who became a king, and as a king his duty was to watch over all of Israel, just like an older brother watching over his younger siblings.
Christ has many names and titles, each one denoting a different aspect of our relationship with him. For me, one of Christ’s most meaningful titles or roles is that of my Elder Brother. For those who do not have an elder sibling, or who have a poor relationship with their elder siblings, this title for Christ may not have much meaning. But, in my case, I have two elder brothers. As a child, the approval and acceptance of my elder brothers meant everything to me, and they set a very high bar for me to strive to follow. In a very real way, my other brothers became symbols of Christ to me.
What are some of the characteristics and responsibilities that come with being the eldest child? If you’re the eldest, you get to do everything first, you initially get more attention from your parents, you get to be admired and looked up to by your younger siblings, and you get to share in the joy of seeing your younger siblings grow. Your parents may be stricter with you, and you may be assigned heavier responsibilities. Your parents expect you to set a good example, but with those expectations comes greater trust.
These characteristics give us insight into the character of Christ, and also insight into the role of the House of Israel, as well as the role each of us play when we make covenants with the Lord. In large families, the eldest child becomes a third parent, in a sense, and when I think about acting as an older sibling to God’s children, I’m reminded of Elder Renlund’s admonition to look at others through a parent’s eyes:
“To effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant obligation to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes.” (October 2015 General Conference, “Through God’s Eyes”)
As we make covenants with God, we become “joint heirs” with Christ, and thereby we are jointly firstborn children, and as such we are to be filled with love and concern for all our siblings.
Priesthood ordinances and covenants involve taking upon ourselves the name of Christ. Perhaps taking on Christ’s name also entails taking on his roles and titles, including the role of elder brother.
Just as the eldest sibling is often held to a higher standard, the house of Israel has always been held to a higher standard, by virtue of the covenant God made with Abraham (a covenant that was renewed with Israel, Abraham’s grandson). Among other things, God covenanted with Abraham that through Abraham’s seed all nations of the earth would be blessed (see Genesis 12:3). Thus, the house of Israel is meant to bless and help the world, similar to the way an older brother serves his siblings.
Does God love the house of Israel more than his other children? Of course not. A parent loves all their children, but a parent has a unique relationship with each child. The purpose of all covenants is to help us develop a special, closer relationship with God, a relationship based on mutual trust. It’s one thing to be loved, but it’s another thing to be trusted.
God loves all his children, but He entrusts them with different responsibilities, because He is a god of order. God has placed great trust in the House of Israel to partner with Him in bringing about the salvation of all his children. (See one of my previous posts about the gathering of Israel.)
My husband and I have two young children so far, and when people ask us how many children we plan on having, our reply is usually, “As many as we can handle, and we won’t know how many that is until we reach it.” To myself, I add, “And it depends on how willing, responsible, and loving our oldest children are.” If my oldest son and daughter resent having to care for younger siblings, that will no doubt have a strong impact on how many children we have overall, because I won’t be able to handle many children without their help.
In future pregnancies, I can see myself looking my firstborn son in the eyes and asking him if he’s willing to promise to live up to his role as an elder brother.
We can imagine a similar exchange when we make covenants with Heavenly Father.
When my daughter was a few weeks old, my son (almost two-years-old) yanked her off of our changing table while I was distracted sorting baby clothes. Thankfully, my daughter was okay. But later, as my mother and I discussed the incident, my mother pointed out that I needed to be mindful of how I talked to my son about his little sister. I need to plant in his mind from an early age what his role is as a big brother. I need to tell him repeatedly that he is his sister’s “protector” and that he and his sister are best friends. Otherwise, he will see her as a rival.
Similarly, we need to tell ourselves everyday about who we are as “firstborn” leaders in the house of Israel. We need to repeat to ourselves that everyone we see is a brother or sister. We need to review our covenants.
A few years ago, a convert from my mission called me on the phone to tell me that she had just received her patriarchal blessing. As we talked, she had lots of questions about what “tribe of Ephraim” meant. As I did my best to explain it to her, she became more and more excited. As understanding dawned on her, she exclaimed, “Whoo hoo! Go team Ephraim!”
Team Ephraim. Team Birthright. Team Israel. Team Firstborn. Team of Priests. No matter what tribe we are from or what our birth order is or what calling we hold in the Church, I hope we can emulate my friend’s enthusiasm about being on the same team, Christ’s team.