It is an interesting study here to understand the significance of the “Birthright” and the “Blessing”. But it is not quite as simple as it sounds. Why? Because one of these two words has a history of being used both ways! (You might know, right?) It is the word “Blessing”, and it is further complicated by the fact that both of these promised inheritances required a “blessing” from the patriarch of the family. Either (or both) must first be promised, and then confirmed with a blessing. And there can be any amount of time between the two events (from mere moments to many years!) No wonder there is so much confusion. So, for the sake of clarity, and in hopes of simplifying what has been a historically cumbersome concept, let’s call them by their more descriptive names:
The BIRTHRIGHT Blessing and The SCEPTER Blessing
What exactly are they? The answer is simple, but very important! The BIRTHRIGHT Blessing is the right to inherit the position as both spiritual and administrative head of the family, along with a double portion of its physical wealth. It also included the right to continue the family business and the use of the family name in that business. In other words, the BIRTHRIGHT Blessing was the right to become the family patriarch. In the oriental cultures of Jacob’s day, it was usually given to the eldest son, though the father was under no legal obligation to do so. This eldest son was expected to become the business patriarch responsible for the success of the family enterprises. In that day, the family unit was the most important institution in the life of the people. It was their government. Thus the family ruler enjoyed a very high prestige among his own family, as well as in the community at large. His word was law to his family. This was the power of the BIRTHRIGHT Blessing, which the firstborn son received from his father, who in turn had received it from his father, etc. Furthermore, he was expected to provide the family with spiritual leadership, and to be its high priest before God. Remember, the generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were well before the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. Thus, there was as yet no institutional priesthood; each family had to provide for its own spiritual life. The patriarch was to lead them in the way of righteousness and love, and to protect them from the attacks of Satan by teaching them to use mighty spiritual weapons, such as prayer, fasting, the offering of sacrifices, interceding for one another, praise, etc.
But The SCEPTER Blessing was something different, and utterly unique. It was a right that was restricted to royal families, because it was the right to inherit the position of monarch of the nation. Thus, it vastly transcended the rights of the common birthright, for the recipient of the SCEPTER Blessing was to become king or queen of the land. And the objects of their inheritance were nothing less than a throne, a crown, a robe, a signet ring, and a scepter!
Now with all that in mind, look at a very important event in Scripture that tells of a time when a father was bestowing the BIRTHRIGHT Blessing and the SCEPTER Blessing on his sons. It is found in Genesis 48 and 49. The aging Jacob gathers his sons together to give them each their blessings. (Which were actually prophetic words concerning the nature of each of the individual tribes – “sons”). In preparation for this event, Jacob calls his beloved son Joseph, the Prime Minister of Egypt at that time, and asks him to bring his two sons with him. Joseph arrives with Manasseh (the oldest) and Ephraim (the younger). He positions them before his father in such a way that Jacob’s right hand (the hand of the BIRTHRIGHT Blessing) can reach straight out and rest on the older, Manasseh, while the left hand can reach straight out and rest upon the younger, Ephraim.
But when it comes time to give this all-important BIRTHRIGHT Blessing, Jacob crosses his hands and rests the Right Hand on the younger. Manasseh receives the left hand of lesser blessing, the same kind of blessing that eleven other sons would soon receive. And Jacob certainly knows what he is doing because he refuses to allow Joseph to correct him. He even goes so far as to say to Joseph that the “older will serve the younger”.
But when Jacob calls his other sons to gather round him and receive their blessing, he does another remarkable thing. Remember, Ephraim has received the BIRTHRIGHT Blessing, and thus everyone naturally assumed that the SCEPTER Blessing was included in it. But NO! The old patriarch separates the SCEPTER from the BIRTHRIGHT! Look at Gen. 49:9-10. The scepter goes to JUDAH! And the birthright goes to Joseph in the form of a double portion (i.e., to both of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh – vs. 22-26)
Therefore, Judah is the tribe from which the Messiah – the King – must come, while Joseph is the tribe to provide administrative leadership to the house of Jacob.
Now, this is where the dividing of the BIRTHRIGHT Blessing and the SCEPTER Blessing first occurs. Remember, God gave both promises (i.e., the birthright and the scepter) to Abraham, who in turn gave them to Isaac. Jacob received them in just the same fashion: joined together. But he, under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit separated them as described above. This is made unmistakably clear in I Chronicles 5:1-2. Note: “Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not reckoned after the birthright. For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler; but the birthright was Joseph’s.”
In summary, the dividing of the blessings has four distinct features:
1. God causes Jacob to bypass the oldest son, Reuben – and even the second-born, Simeon – for either the Birthright or the Scepter;
2. God causes Jacob to separate the birthright from the scepter, for Joseph was given the Birthright and Judah was given the Scepter;
3. God further divides the Birthright between Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh;
4. Much later, in the time of Moses, the spiritual blessing of the Priesthood is taken from the Birthright tribe (Ephraim) and given to one of the sons of Levi: Aaron.
Not surprisingly – human nature being what it is – these divisions were the cause of much tension and strife in the history of the nation of Israel: Josephites jealous of Judahites, and vice-versa; Reubenites angry with both of them, with Simeonites equally angry, since their tribe, as the second-born would normally have received the blessings in the event the firstborn (Reuben) was disqualified; and Levites angry with them all for they end up with no inheritance in the land! And all of the rest of the tribes choosing sides with first one and then another of these five feuding tribes.