Torah of the Not-First-Born

We begin this week’s Torah portion, “Toldot, Begettings,” at Genesis 25: 19 with the begetting of twins to Rivka [Rebekah], Isaac’s wife.

Says Torah [using mostly Everett Fox’s translation, in my view the best into English: “The Five Books of Moses,” published by Schocken],


The children almost crushed one another inside her, so she said:

“If this be so,

for what is this I?”

And she went to inquire of YHWH [Yahhhh]

[The Breath of Life, Interbreathing Spirit of the world].

YHWH [Yahhhh] said to her:

“Two nations are in your body,

Two tribes from your belly shall be divided;

Tribe shall be mightier than tribe,

Elder shall be servant to younger!”


I think Father Isaac loved Esau the athletic archer because he was like Isaac's older half-brother Ishmael, who had been stolen from him, sent into the wilderness; Rivka loved Jacob because she had heard the Voice proclaim that he, the younger twin, would be victorious over the elder. Here for the third time we see God favoring the younger son: Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau. It happens again: Joseph and Benjamin over their elder half-brothers, Ephraim over Manasseh. They are all reversals of the official legal framework in which the older brother is supposed to inherit more property, more blessing.

The first conflict between these pairs ends in murder when the elder refuses to back off, and Cain the killer suffers not death but a kind of continuing trauma of the oppressor –- the mark that makes him alien wherever he travels.  All the rest of these conflicts end in some sort of reconciliation, with the elder accepting the leadership of the younger. The repetitions in Genesis presage the moment in Exodus when God proclaims the People Israel first-born, when clearly Egypt is older, stronger, richer. And yet this disempowered people wins its freedom. And the Bible celebrates the day when in the long run Egypt too will win its freedom, and even Imperial Nineveh.

To me this seems an early set of mythic pointers toward a rough sort of social justice.  What does it mean in the relations between the seemingly powerful and the disempowered today -- Euros and Indigenes, Anglos and Latinx, Whites and Blacks, Men and Women, Humanity and Earth? Would the stories suggest it is time not for self-destruction or humiliation but humility, acceptance of Truth and Reconciliation?


P.S. My newest book is Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. Gloria Steinem, Ruth Messinger, Rev. William Barber; Rabbis Art Green, Jonah Pesner, and Jill Hammer; Bill McKibben, Marge Piercy, and Jim Wallis have all read and praised it. Join them! Order it from The Shalom Center for your own reading or from Orbis Books for a congregational conversation. See ---  This book is the harvest of my whole life-experience – and like a harvest, intended not only to draw on the past but to feed the future.



Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah Portions: