pri-mo-jen'-i-tur (bekhorah, from bekhor, "firstborn," from bakhar, "to act early"; prototokia):
1. Recognition of Doctrine:
The right of the firstborn to inherit the headship of the family, carrying with it certain property rights and usually such titles as those of the high-priesthood or kingship. The writings of the Hebrews take for granted the recognition of a doctrine of primogeniture from the earliest times. In the most ancient genealogies a distinction is drawn between the firstborn and the other son (Ge 10:15; 22:21; 25:13; 35:23; 36:15). In the bestowal of parental blessings in patriarchal times great importance was attached to preferring the firstborn (Ge 25:31; 27:29; 48:13; 49:3). The feud between Jacob and Esau (Ge 27:1 through Ge 28:21) grew out of the stealing of the firstborn's blessing by the younger brother. Joseph was displeased when, in his blessing, Jacob seemed to prefer Ephraim to Manasseh, his firstborn (Ge 48:18). The father in such cases seems to have had the right to transfer the birthright from one son to another, from the days of Abraham in the case of Ishmael and Isaac, through those of Jacob in the matter of Reuben and Joseph and in the matter of Ephraim and Manasseh, down to the days of David in the selection of a successor to the kingship. Nevertheless, the Mosaic code, which declared (rather than enacted) the law of primogeniture, prohibited the abuse of this parental privilege in the case of a younger son by a favorite wife (De 21:16 f).
2. The Double Portion:
The manner of acknowledging the firstborn incidentally referred to in Dt is "by giving him a double portion of all that he hath" (De 21:17), that is to say, double the share of each of the other brothers. Jewish tradition (Bekho. 46a, 47b, 51a, 51b; Babha' Bathra' 122a, 122b, 123a, 124a, 142b) accepts and elaborates on this right of the firstborn son. Thus, it applies only to the firstborn and not the eldest surviving son; it does not apply to daughters; it has reference only to the paternal estate, and not to the inheritance left by a mother or other relative, nor to improvements or accessions made to an estate after the death of the father.
3. Reasons for the Custom:
The object of the doctrine may be that the eldest son might be enabled to preside over the affairs of family with proper dignity, or that he might assume additional responsibilities, such as the support of unmarried sisters. Hence, one's birthright could be waived or sold (Ge 25:31,34). On the other hand it may be based in the ultimate analysis on the primitive feeling of favoritism for the firstborn reflected in the disappointment of Jacob, when he speaks of Reuben as his firstborn, his might, and the beginning of his strength (re'shith 'on, Ge 49:3; compare De 21:17). This theory would be in accord with the right of the parent to transfer the right to a younger son. The suggestion of favoritism conveyed by the Hebrew bekhor is manifested in its figurative use: of Israel (Ex 4:22), of Ephraim (Jer 31:9), of one dearly beloved (Zec 12:10); (compare figurative usage in the New Testament: Ro 8:29; Heb 12:23; 1:6; Re 1:5).
4. The Firstborn in Ancient Society; Sacrifice and Redemption:
Light is thrown on the attitude of the ancient world toward the firstborn, and hence, on the history of primogeniture, by the language used in connection with the plague of the firstborn: "from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the first-born of the maidservant that is behind the mill" or "the captive that was in the dungeon." Apparently no more dreadful catastrophe for all classes of society could be thought of than this slaying of the firstborn (Ex 11:5; 12:29). The misguided fervor of the ancient Semites who offered their firstborn as the thing most dearly beloved as a sacrifice to their gods must be considered in this light, whether it appears among the Moabites, the Phoenicians or the Hebrews themselves (Jer 32:35; Eze 20:26,31; 2Ch 28:3). It is difficult to predicate a connection between the basis of the doctrine of primogeniture and that of the Redemption of the First-born, other than that both are ultimately based on the importance of a firstborn son and the fondness of his parents for him. It is interesting to note, however, that the tradition of redemption and the law of primogeniture are kept so distinct that, while the latter has reference only to the firstborn of a father, the former has reference only to the firstborn of a mother (Bekho, viii. l, 46a; compare peTer rechem, "whatsoever openeth the womb," Ex 13:2). In a polygamous society such as that presupposed in De 21:1-23 it is natural to suppose that the distinction between paternal and maternal primogeniture would be clearly before the minds of the people.