In ancient Israel, was the line leading to the Messiah tied to the right of the firstborn?
We have at times made comments to that effect. That seemed to agree with what we read at Hebrews 12:16. That verse says that Esau did “not appreciate sacred things” and “gave up [to Jacob the] rights as firstborn in exchange for one meal.” This appeared to suggest that when Jacob gained the “rights as firstborn,” he also came in line to be an ancestor to the Messiah.—Matt. 1:2, 16; Luke 3:23, 34.
However, a review of Bible accounts shows that a man did not need to be a firstborn son to be an ancestor of the Messiah. Consider some of the evidence:
Of the sons of Jacob (Israel), his firstborn by Leah was Reuben. Later, Jacob’s first son by his favored wife, Rachel, was Joseph. When Reuben became guilty of misconduct, the right of firstborn passed to Joseph. (Gen. 29:31-35; 30:22-25; 35:22-26; 49:22-26; 1 Chron. 5:1, 2) Still, the Messianic line came down through neither Reuben nor Joseph. It was through Judah, Jacob’s fourth son by Leah.—Gen. 49:10.
Luke 3:32 lists five later links in the line leading to the Messiah. Each man seems to have been a firstborn. Thus Boaz fathered Obed, whose son was Jesse.—Ruth 4:17, 20-22; 1 Chron. 2:10-12.
However, Jesse’s son David was not a firstborn. He was the last of eight sons. Yet the line of the Messiah was through David. (1 Sam. 16:10, 11; 17:12; Matt. 1:5, 6) Similarly, the next link was Solomon, though he was not David’s firstborn.—2 Sam. 3:2-5.
This is not to say that being firstborn was of no importance. The firstborn son held an honored position and often became the next head of the household. He was also the son who inherited a double portion of property.—Gen. 43:33; Deut. 21:17; Josh. 17:1.
But the right of firstborn could be transferred. Abraham dismissed Ishmael, passing the firstborn’s right to Isaac. (Gen. 21:14-21; 22:2) And as noted, the firstborn’s right was transferred from Reuben to Joseph.
Now let us return to Hebrews 12:16, which reads: “Watch that among you there is no one who is sexually immoral nor anyone who does not appreciate sacred things, like Esau, who gave up his rights as firstborn in exchange for one meal.” What point was being made?
The apostle Paul was not here discussing the ancestry of the Messiah. He had just urged Christians to ‘make straight paths for their feet.’ Thus they would not ‘fail to obtain the undeserved kindness of God,’ which sadly could happen if they engaged in sexual immorality. (Heb. 12:12-16) If they did that, they would be like Esau. He failed to “appreciate sacred things,” and he literally gave in to what was profane.
Esau lived in patriarchal times, and he may even occasionally have had the privilege of offering sacrifices. (Gen. 8:20, 21; 12:7, 8; Job 1:4, 5) But with his fleshly bent of mind, Esau gave away all such privileges for a bowl of stew. He may have wanted to avoid the suffering foretold to come on Abraham’s offspring. (Gen. 15:13) Esau also showed himself inclined toward the profane, lacking appreciation for sacred things, by marrying two pagan women, to his parents’ grief. (Gen. 26:34, 35) What a contrast he was to Jacob, who made sure to marry a worshipper of the true God!—Gen. 28:6, 7; 29:10-12, 18.
Consequently, what can we conclude about the line of descent leading to Jesus, the Messiah? Sometimes that line passed to and through the firstborn son—but not always. The Jews recognized this and accepted it, as when they admitted that the Christ was to descend through David, Jesse’s last son.—Matt. 22:42.