What is the difference between a birthright and a blessing?

Q. Esau gave up his birthright and then Jacob stole his blessing. What is the difference between the birthright and the blessing?

A birthright is the right that a person has, through the circumstances of their birth, to assume the leadership of their family in the next generation. In many cultures this right belongs initially to the firstborn child, whether a son or a daughter. In patriarchal cultures, it belongs to the firstborn son, and in matriarchal cultures, it belongs to the firstborn daughter.

However, this right is not automatic. A person can forfeit it. We see this happen in the Bible in the case of Jacob’s sons. This was a patriarchal culture, and so the firstborn son, Reuben, would have had the birthright. But Reuben forfeited that right through his own wrongdoing. He had sexual relations with one of his father’s concubines, and as a result, his father took this right away from him. He gave it instead to his brother Joseph.

Joseph was actually his eleventh son, but he had already assumed leadership in his generation by rescuing the whole family from famine, and he had proven his godly character. As the official record in the book of Chronicles says about Reuben, “He was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s marriage bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel; so he could not be listed in the genealogical record in accordance with his birthright.”

Since the birthright is not automatic, the leader of the family in the previous generation needs to confer it officially on a person. They do this before they die in the form of a blessing. So a blessing is the official confirmation of a birthright.

To use Jacob’s sons as an example once again, in his dying words to his sons, Jacob disqualifies Reuben and blesses Joseph. About Reuben he says, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength… but you will not have the preeminence” (that is, the birthright). About Joseph he says:

Your father’s blessings are greater
    than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
    than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the brow of the prince among his brothers.

So in this blessing, Jacob confers the birthright on Joseph, making him the leader in his generation, after taking that right away from Reuben.

In Jacob’s own generation, his brother Esau was the firstborn, but Esau himself gave away his birthright. (He actually sold it to Jacob for bowl of stew! That is why the Bible says that he “despised” his birthright, meaning that he thought very little of it.) But even though there was this arrangement between Esau and Jacob for Jacob to have the birthright, which of them would ultimately get it was not official until their father Isaac conferred it on one or the other of them through his blessing. And so Jacob later tricked his father into giving it to him.

When Esau found out about this, he said, “This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” I hope that this post has helped explained the difference between those two things and how they are related.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “What is the difference between a birthright and a blessing?”

    1. 1 Chronicles 5:1, after explaining why Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob, forfeited his birthright, adds, “though Judah was the strongest of his brothers and a ruler came from him, the rights of the firstborn belonged to Joseph.” Chronicles is looking back on David becoming king, and that is who it means by “a ruler.” God’s choice of David to be the king of Israel, and for David’s line to become the royal line and for his descendant Jesus to be the Messiah, was not based on birthright. Over and over again in the Bible we see God choosing to use younger brothers to advance his purposes rather than the older brothers who had the birthright. David himself had seven older brothers. So the line of Judah leads to the Messiah by God’s sovereign choice to advance his own redemptive purposes, which do not depend on considerations such as birthright. I hope this is helpful.

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