Passing Over the Firstborn

Text: Genesis 49:3-4

In ancient times, the firstborn (particularly the firstborn son) held a place of prominence – inheritance, assume leadership role after the death of the father. There are several examples in the book of Genesis about the firstborn being passed over for a younger brother who would later appear in the genealogy of Christ. Why were they passed over? Answering that question will provide some important lessons for us today.

Cain (Luke 3:38; Genesis 4:1, 25)

  • In the incident with Abel, Cain allowed himself to be ruled by his emotions (Genesis 4:1-8) – we must not be controlled by our emotions; instead, be sober-minded (1 Peter 5:8; cf. Genesis 4:7)
  • Cain did not worship according to divine instructions (Hebrews 11:4; Romans 10:17) – we must worship as God has instructed (John 4:24)
  • Cain did evil (1 John 3:12) – we may do the same by doing what is convenient (Acts 24:25), what is a personal expression instead of careful obedience (John 17:4), or what seems right (Proverbs 14:12)

Ishmael (Luke 3:34; Genesis 16:15-16; 21:2-3)

  • God made a promise to Abraham that would be fulfilled through his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3) – it took 14 years after Ishmael was born for Abraham to have the son of promise (Genesis 16:16; 21:5)
  • Abraham tried to help God (Genesis 15:2-5; 16:1-4) – demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s plan
  • Many today also lack faith in God’s plan – the gospel is God’s power for salvation (Romans 1:16), but many use the “social gospel” (1 Corinthians 11:22) or a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-7); the church is sufficient to do His work (1 Timothy 3:15), but many use a missionary society or a sponsoring church arrangement instead (2 Corinthians 11:8)

Esau (Luke 3:34; Genesis 25:24-26)

  • Esau sold his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) – Jacob later tricked his father into blessing him (Genesis 27)
  • Esau “despised” or disregarded his birthright (Genesis 25:34; Hebrews 12:16-17) – he valued the things of this world (Genesis 25:32, 34)
  • Similarly, we have an eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:5, 11; 1 Peter 1:3-4) – this can be sacrificed for the things of this world (Matthew 16:26; Hebrews 11:24-26; 2 Timothy 4:10)

Reuben (Luke 3:33; Genesis 29:32, 35)

  • Jacob told Reuben why he would not have preeminence (Genesis 49:3-4)
  • He was not only guilty of immorality, he also tried to take his father’s place (Genesis 35:21-22)
  • We can be guilty of the same type of sins as Reuben – we must avoid immorality (Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5); we must be humble (Romans 12:3) and not try to take the place of God (3 John 9-10; Acts 20:29-30)


  • We are sons of God through Christ (Ephesians 1:5) – as such, we have an inheritance (Ephesians 1:11)
  • But we must learn from the accounts of Cain, Ishmael, Esau, and Reuben – they were the firstborn and were expected to receive the birthright, yet they were all rejected
  • We can be rejected in the same ways

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