Question: "Why is the firstborn so important in the Bible?"
Answer: In biblical times, the firstborn was given certain unique rights, responsibilities, and privileges. A married couple’s firstborn male child was given priority and preeminence in the family, and the best of the inheritance. The nation of Israel is identified as God’s “firstborn” in the Bible (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9); in other words, Israel held a special place of privilege and blessing among the nations.
People in ancient cultures attached great value to the eldest son, assigning him distinct benefits and obligations. The firstborn male was important because he was believed to represent the prime of human strength and vitality (Genesis 49:3; Psalm 78:51) as the “opener of the womb” (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15; Numbers 18:15; Luke 2:23). As a result, the firstborn son became the primary heir of the family. The firstborn’s birthright involved a double portion of the household estate and the leadership of the family if his father became incapacitated or was absent for some reason (Deuteronomy 21:17). After his father’s death, the eldest son usually cared for his mother until her death and provided for his unmarried sisters.
In the Old Testament, firstborn humans—and animals—were considered sacred to God (Genesis 4:4; Exodus 13:1–2; Leviticus 27:26; Numbers 3:11–13; Deuteronomy 15:19–23). After God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He commanded the people to consecrate every firstborn male human and firstborn animal to Him (Exodus 22:29–30). The dedication was in memory of God’s great deliverance and a sign to their children that God had brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 13:11–16).
At the beginning of Israel’s years in the wilderness, God took all the males in the tribe of Levi into service in place of the firstborn males from the other tribes, entrusting the Levites with the work of His tabernacle (Numbers 3). The number of Levite males did not equal the full number of firstborns among the other tribes, so, to make up the difference, some of the firstborn from other tribes were redeemed with a financial offering to the priests (Numbers 3:46–48). After the Israelites settled in Canaan, the firstborn sons of all Israelites were to be redeemed as a sign they they belonged to God (Exodus 34:19; Numbers 18:14–16). Among the clean animals, the firstborn male was to be sacrificed to God eight days after birth (Exodus 13:11–16; 22:39–30). The firstborn males of unclean animals were either redeemed through a financial payment to the temple, replaced on the altar of sacrifice by a clean animal, or killed (Exodus 34:20; Numbers 18:14–16). These symbolic acts represented the Passover. In the final plague against Egypt, God “passed over” the firstborn males of Israel, who were in their homes with the blood of a lamb as a sign on their doors as God had commanded. The firstborn Egyptian males, including the livestock, were struck down (Exodus 11—12:30).
The firstborn could sell his rights, as Esau did to Jacob (Genesis 25:29–34). In doing this, “Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34). The author of Hebrews warned his readers, “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done” (Hebrews 12:16–17). In taking his position as firstborn lightly, Esau sinned against God and his family.
The rights of the firstborn could also be lost, as was the case for Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son (Genesis 49:3–4). Reuben slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), an act that demonstrated the utmost disrespect for his father and his family. Jacob denied Reuben the blessing of the firstborn because of that sin (Genesis 49:4). In fact, Jacob withheld the blessing of the firstborn from the next two oldest sons, too, due to their violence against the Shechemites (Genesis 49:5–7; cf. Genesis 34).
The importance of the firstborn reaches its apex in Scripture in the person of Jesus Christ. All prior implications of the firstborn’s role in the Bible serve to illuminate Christ’s preeminence over all creation and in the family of God.
The New Testament describes Christ as the “firstborn” several times. In an earthly sense, Jesus is Mary’s firstborn son (Luke 2:7), and He was dedicated according to the law (Luke 2:22–24). Spiritually, Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers and sisters” in the body of Christ (Romans 8:29). In Colossians 1:15, the apostle Paul writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” This use of the title firstborn for Christ echoes the wording of Psalm 89:27–29, where God says of King David, “And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail. I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure.”
In the book of Hebrews, Christ is “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2) and God’s “firstborn into the world” (Hebrews 1:6). Just as the firstborn son is head over his earthly family after his father, Jesus Christ is head of the body of Christ—the church—after God the Father (Ephesians 1:20–23; Colossians 1:18, Hebrews 2:10–12). Just as the firstborn son receives the greatest inheritance from his father, Jesus Christ receives the world as His inheritance. God says to His Son, “Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the whole earth as your possession” (Psalm 2:8).
As a point of clarification, the term firstborn in relation to Jesus does not suggest that He is a created being. The Son of God has existed for all eternity along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is fully God (John 1:1–3). He took on human flesh so that He could become our Savior serve as the Mediator between humankind and God (1 Timothy 2:5). When Scripture refers to Christ as the “firstborn,” the message is that Christ’s supremacy, sovereignty, and priority extend over all things and all other beings.
In paying for our sin, Jesus Christ suffered death, but He also became “the firstborn from the dead” (Revelation 1:5); that is, He conquered death and is the first person to ever be “born” to eternal life after dying. By God’s grace, through faith in Jesus, we, too, can receive eternal life (Ephesians 2:1–10; John 3:16–18). Through His death and resurrection, Jesus is the “firstfruits” who guarantees the future resurrection and eternal life of many other sons and daughters of God (1 Corinthians 15:20–23). As He Himself said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).