Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5769/ January 17, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Israel is My First-Born Son”

Yehudah Ha-Tzvi

Tel Aviv

In Exodus (4:22) Moses is commanded to tell Pharaoh:  “Thus says the Lord:  Israel is My first-born son… Let My son go, that he may worship Me.”  This is an eternal declaration establishing the status of the Israelites as the first-born son of the deity.  It helps us understand the tenth plague delivered against Egypt – the death of every first-born.  This was an instance of dealing measure for measure, as we seen if we read the full verse:   “Thus says the Lord:   Israel is My first-born son.   I have said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.”

The laws of the Torah show us the privileged status enjoyed by the first-born son.   He was “master over his brothers” and respected by them.  The first-born also received a double portion of the inheritance of his father (Deut. 21:17) and enjoyed other benefits.  However, countering what we have said above, we note that in biblical stories the preferred son is not necessarily the first-born:   Cain (the first-born) and his brother Abel gave offerings to the Lord, “but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed” (Gen. 4:5), while Abel’s offering was willingly accepted.   This well-known   story ended in murder, with the mark of Cain being placed on the brow of the world’s first first-born son.

Terah begot Abram, Nahor and Haran” (Gen. 11:27).   Both Abraham and Nahor married daughters of their brother Haran, whence we might surmise that Haran was the eldest in Terah’s family.   However the chosen one was Abraham.   Haran died in the lifetime of his father in his native land, and the Lord called upon Abraham to go to the land of Canaan.

Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, and after living in Canaan for ten years she suggested to him, “Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her” (Gen. 16:2).  Hagar the Egyptian brought Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, into the world.   G-d, however, chose Isaac:   “For it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you” (Gen. 21:12).

The contest over the birthright between the twins, Esau and Jacob, began from the moment of their birth, with Jacob’s hand grabbing Esau’s heel, as if to prevent him from coming into the world first.  As a grown man Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.

Jacob received his father’s blessing, but only by deceitful disguise.   Yet ultimately, prior to his departure for Padan-Aram, Isaac blessed him explicitly, knowing that it was Jacob standing before him:  “May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Abraham” (Gen. 28:4).   Once again, the line of the dynasty slipped out of the first-born’s hands and passed to the second son.

A similar thing happened with Judah’s twins, born to him by his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen. 38:27):

While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify:  This one came out first.  But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said:  “What a breach [Heb. perez] you have made for yourself!”  So he was named Perez.  Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.

Perez, who was not the first-born, was the one who became privileged to head the family tree from which King David was descended (see Ruth 4:18).

The same thing repeats itself with Jacob’s sons.  The first-born Reuben, who fell into sin and violated his father’s wife, was pushed aside and even rebuked by Jacob in his testament to his children before his death.   In contrast, Jacob’s words to Judah and Joseph clearly bring out who were the more important and honored of the tribes of Israel.

Prior to Jacob’s last testament, we witness the special blessing that Jacob gave his grandsons through Joseph:  “But Israel [Jacob] stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head – thus crossing his hands – although Manasseh was the first-born… Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh” (Gen. 48:14-20).

Throughout the biblical narrative we see that the first-born is pushed aside.   That being the case, what force does the divine proclamation, “Israel is My first-born son” have?  Wherein lie our privileges?

We must not forget that historically and chronologically the people of Israel were not the first nation to emerge in the world.  As far back as the patriarchal period (according to Scripture) there were populous nations and strong kingdoms in our region.  As for Israel, in contrast, Jacob’s family descended to Egypt numbering only seventy persons, in the time of Joseph viceroy of Egypt.

So we conclude that the people of Israel are G-d's first-born son in the sense of being favored.  The people of Israel were chosen to be the first among peoples, a light unto the nations.   The annals of the Jewish people, the eternal people, are fraught with hardship and obstacles, persecution and troubles.   Indeed, ours is not the usual, “normal” course of history, rather a wondrous meta-history in the full sense of the word.

The fate of our people appears to be a fulfillment of the verse:  “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father the son whom he favors” (Prov. 3:12).  Being the first-born son of the Lord does not give the people of Israel special privileges and pleasures from the good things in life.   Quite the contrary, a weighty responsibility is placed on Israel to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), and to constantly prove its moral superiority, under all circumstances, in order to be worthy of the title of the first-born and most preferred of nations.