Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Hebrew Birthrights and Blessings


Elephantine Island is the largest of the Aswan islands.

Alice C. Linsley

Among the Hebrew ruler-priests, birthrights and blessings were a serious matter and were a long-established custom before the time of Abraham. This is attested by the testimony of the wise judge and administrator who governed from Elephantine Island. Pepinakht-Heqaib lived during the reign of pharaoh Pepi II (2800 BC), about 700 years before Abraham. 

The Pepinakht-Heqaib inscription appears on the two jambs of the facade of his tomb at Qubbet el-Hawa near Elephantine Island. From the inscription we surmise that he had to judge cases between two brothers and refused to deprive a rightful heir. The inscription reads: "Never did I judge two brothers in such a way that a son was deprived of his paternal possession."

It appears that Pepinakht-Heqaib was concerned that both sons should receive their legal due. However, only one could become the head of his deceased father’s household. This suggests that there were different birthrights. 

(The Elephantine papyri pre-date all extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and offer a picture of how Judaism was practiced in the Upper Nile during the fifth century B.C.)

The Distinction between Birthrights and Blessings

Birthrights and blessings should not be confused. Birthrights involve ascendancy to rule over the father’s territory and household, and to inherit property. Blessings expressed the father’s aspirations for his children.

The birthright is the right of possession given to the ruler's proper heir. This son might not be the ruler's first-born son, however. Consider that Abraham's proper heir was Isaac, but he was not the first son born to Abraham. In the Hebrew ascendancy system, the proper heir was the first-born son of the first wife who was usually as half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. 

There was not a single "birthright" among the Hebrew. There were birthrights for the ruler’s proper heir, and for the first-born son of the ruler’s second wife, and for sons who were sent away from the proper heir (Gen. 25:6). Birthrights pertained to the inheritance of property and to the proper heir’s ascension to rule over a territory upon the death of his father. Sent-away sons received gifts as their birthright.

Hebrew birthrights were within the authority of the head of the clan. The birth order was generally recognized and honored. However, a younger son is often found to take the superior position in the Scriptures. Abraham, Moses, Ephraim, and David are examples. In most cases, the legal succession of first-born sons was honored, but sometimes God overruled. 1 Chronicles 2 states that: "Boaz was the father of Obed, and Obed was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of Eliab his firstborn..." If Eliab was born to Jesse's principal wife, we may assume that Eliab was elevated to his proper position as Jesse's heir and the ruler over Jesse's territory. David was Jesse's youngest son, but God elevated David to rule over all the clans of Israel.

In some cases, the heir received his father’s property and a priestly blessing. Esau was Isaac’s first-born son and his proper heir. He was to receive the priestly blessing from Isaac before Isaac died, but Rebekah connived with Jacob to usurp the "blessing" of Esau. When this failed, Jacob was sent away to live with his maternal uncle (avunculocal residence).

The “blessings” pertained to the father’s hopes and aspirations for his sons. The father granted a priestly blessing that apparently expressed the hierarchy of his sons. This custom is reflected in the litany of blessings and condemnations delivered by Jacob in Genesis 49. 

In Genesis 48, Jacob extends blessings upon his grandchildren Manasseh and Ephraim. Ephraim receives the blessing of Jacob’s right hand though he is the younger of Joseph’s two sons. This is understood as a foretelling of a later time when Ephraim’s greatness would outstrip that of Manasseh.

Related reading: Pepinakht-Heqaib: Upholding the Rights of Two Sons; The Hebrew Hierarchy of Sons; Abraham's Proper Heir; Royal Sons and Their Maternal Uncles

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