In ancient cultures, the first-born son normally held the place of privilege within important families. The first born was the heir, not only of the father’s property, but of the father’s prerogatives and place in society. This pattern persisted among the landed gentry at least into the 18th century *.
Surprisingly, then, God displays an unmistakable pattern of choosing second sons in the Book of Genesis.
Cain was Eve’s firstborn. Abel was her second. When they became adults, Abel kept flocks. Cain grew crops. Both made offerings to the Lord, but only the second-born son’s sacrifice was accepted. There is no explanation as to why God accepted one and not the other. Instead, God simply offers the despondent Cain a way ahead. Cheer up and you’ll be lifted up. If you don’t, sin is crouching at your door. Despite God’s warning, Cain chose moodiness and murder.
Abram’s first born was Ishmael, the son of Sarai’s servant Hagar. When Sarai was unable to conceive and her prospects for motherhood looked dim, Sarai gave her servant to Abram in order that Hagar might bear a child on her behalf. As an enslaved person, Hagar of course had no say in the matter. Sarai looked at it as a kind of surrogacy, and perhaps legally it was. Of Jacob’s twelve sons, four were the offspring of his wives’ servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. There was apparently no issue with including the sons of enslaved women as bearers of the covenant promise. In the case of Abraham, however, God chose years later to fulfill the covenant promise through Abraham’s elderly and infertile wife Sarai. Thirteen years after Ishmael’s birth, God announced that Abraham and Sarah (now renamed) would become parents. When God said this, Abraham literally rolled on the floor laughing.
Abraham fell facedown. Then he laughed and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, give birth?” So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to you!” But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as a permanent covenant for his future offspring. Genesis 17:19
Through Abraham’s miraculous second son Isaac that the promise of God’s covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled.
“Through Isaac your descendants shall be named.” (Genesis 21:12, quoted by Paul in Romans 9:7)
Isaac himself fathered two sons, twins, Esau, the firstborn, and Jacob. The younger would serve the elder. It was the clever conniver Jacob who would become the father of all Israel.
Finally, even Jacob’s grandsons – the two sons of Joseph – display the “blessed second son” pattern. At the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph brings his sons Manasseh and Ephraim to his nearly blind father (now named Israel), with echoes of Jacob’s own blessing ringing through the story.
Then Joseph took them both—with his right hand Ephraim toward Israel’s left, and with his left hand Manasseh toward Israel’s right—and brought them to Israel. But Israel stretched out his right hand and put it on the head of Ephraim, the younger, and crossing his hands, put his left on Manasseh’s head, although Manasseh was the firstborn. … When Joseph saw that his father had placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it was a mistake and took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. Joseph said to his father, “Not that way, my father! This one is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know! He too will become a tribe, and he too will be great; nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his offspring will become a populous nation.” So he blessed them that day, putting Ephraim before Manasseh when he said, “The nation Israel will invoke blessings by you, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” Genesis 49:13-20
So what are we to make of this? Reflecting on God’s election of Isaac and Jacob, Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 with reference to the mystery of God’s saving work. “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Romans 9:15) I don’t believe that the either Paul or the author of Genesis was trying to lead us to an academic theology of divine election. Rather, the second-son motif functions in Genesis to remove all pride and self-justification from the fact of Israel’s election.
The election of Israel was unnatural according the ways of men. God chose Isaac and Jacob despite their less-privileged birth. When the children of Israel were tempted to take inordinate pride in their status as God’s chosen people (despite their less-than-holy behavior), or when they were tempted to despair in their frequent humiliation at the hands of their neighbors, the story of Isaac and Jacob reminds them that God does not look at people in the same way as the world does. Israel cannot presume to deserve God’s mercy because of its birth or its status. God shows mercy simply because he chooses to show mercy.
Isaac and Jacob were not chosen because they were special; they were special because God chose them. In fact, the full nature and purpose of Israel’s election will not become clear until the birth of the messiah.
* The crescent on the flag of South Carolina is the European heraldic symbol for “second son”. Many of the early landowners in the colony were second sons of English landed gentry. Therefore, they did not stand to inherit land in England. They sought their fortune instead in the American colony. The crescent, then, became a point of pride, an ironic symbol of the success these second sons achieved across the Atlantic. (Of course their enslaved servants did almost all the work, but the plantation owners still felt pretty proud of their accomplishments.)
During the War of American Independence, the crescent first adorned the headgear of South Carolina regiments as a way of thumbing their noses at their English “betters”. During the naval battle for Charleston, it was added to a flag flown at Fort Moultrie and it has remained a symbol of South Carolina ever since.