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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(בְּכוֹרָה, bekorah'; Sept. and N.T. τὰ πρωτοτόκια ) denotes the special privileges and advantages belonging to the first-born (q.v.) among the I Hebrews. These were not definitely settled in the patriarchal times, but gradually became defined to include the following peculiar rights:
1. The functions of priesthood in the family. The eldest son naturally became the priest in virtue of his priority of descent, provided no blemish or defect attached to him. The theory that he was the priest of the family rests on no scriptural statement, and the rabbins appear divided on the question (see Hottinger's Note on Goodwin's Moses and Aaron, i, 1; Ugolini, 3:53). Great respect was paid to him in the household, and, as the family widened into a tribe, this grew into a sustained authority, undefined save by custom, in all matters of common interest. Thus the "princes" of the congregation had probably rights of primogeniture (Numbers 7:2; Numbers 21:18; Numbers 25:14). Reuben was the first-born of the twelve patriarchs, and therefore the honor of the priesthood belonged to his tribe. God, however, transferred it from the tribe of Reuben to that of Levi (Numbers 3:12-13; Numbers 8:18). Hence the firstborn of the other tribes were redeemed from serving God as priests by a sum not exceeding five shekels. Being presented before the Lord in the temple, they were redeemed immediately after the thirtieth day from their birth (Numbers 18:15-16; Luke 2:22). It is to be observed that only the first-born who were fit for the priesthood (i.e. such as had no defect, spot, or Llemish) were thus presented to the priest.
2. A " double portion" of the paternal property was allotted by the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 21:15-17), nor could the caprice of the father deprive him of it. There is some difficulty in determining precisely what is meant by a double portion. Some suppose that half the inheritance was received by the elder brother, and that the other half was equally divided among the remaining brethren. This is not probable. The rabbins believe that the elder brother received twice as much as any of the rest, and there is no reason to doubt the correctness of this opinion. When the first-born died before his father's property was divided, and left children, the right of the father descended to the children, and not to the brother next of age. Such was the inheritance of Joseph, his sons reckoning with his brethren, and becoming heads of tribes. This seems to explain the request of Elisha for a " double portion" of Elijah's spirit (2 Kings 2:9). Reuben, through his unfilial conduct, was deprived of the birthright (Genesis 49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1). It is likely that some remembrance of this lost pre- eminence stirred the Reubenite leaders of Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16:1-2; Numbers 26:59). Esau's act, transferring his right to Jacob, was allowed valid (Genesis 25:33).
3. The first-born son succeeded to the official authority possessed by his father. If the latter was a king, the former was regarded as his legitimate successor, unless some unusual event or arrangement interfered (2 Chronicles 21:3). After the law was given through Moses, the right of primogeniture could not be transferred from the first-born to a younger child at the father's option. In the patriarchal age, however, it was in the power of the parent thus to convey it from the eldest to another child (Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Genesis 25:31-32). David, nevertheless, by divine appointment, excluded Adonijah in favor of Solomon, which deviation from rule was indicated by the anointing (Goodwin, 1. c. 4, with Hottinger's notes). The first-born of a line is often noted in the early scriptural genealogies, e.g. Genesis 22:21; Genesis 25:13; Numbers 26:5, etc.
4. The Jews attached a sacred import to the title of primogeniture (see Schottgen, Hor. Hebr. i, 922), and this explains the peculiar significance of the terms "first-born" and "first-begotten" as applied to the Messiah. Thus in Romans 8:29, it is written concerning the Son, " That he might be the first-born among many brethren;" and in Colossians 1:18, "Who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence" (see also Hebrews 1:4-6). As the first-born had a double portion, so the Lord Jesus, as Mediator, has an inheritance superior to his brethren; he is exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on high, where he reigns until all his enemies shall be subdued. The universe is his rightful dominion in his mediatorial character. Again, he alone is a true priest; he fulfilled all the functions of the sacerdotal office; and the Levites, to whom, under the law, the priesthood was transferred from all the firstborn of Israel, derived the efficacy of their ministrations from their connection with the great high-priest (Jahn's Biblical Archeology, § 165). (See PRIMOGENITURE).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Birthright'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​b/birthright.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.