It’s not explicitly stated, but the theme of the firstborn first appears in the opening narratives of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 1 and 2, Yahweh elevates humans, the latecomers of creation, to rule the land. In Genesis 3, a snake, who is some kind of spiritual being, tricks the humans despite their authority as God’s image bearers. This story is echoed in other accounts of sibling rivalry that continue throughout the Hebrew Bible. Join Tim and Jon as they discuss the land rulers and sky rulers and the theme of the firstborn in Genesis 1-3.
The human rulers come last in the sequence of the six days. Even the animals are before them … The last-comer is the one who’s given the authority to rule over the land … Isn’t it interesting that as you read through the Hebrew Bible, it’s consistently the latecomer that God elevates to places of rule and authority?
In part one (00:00-14:38), Tim and Jon review the theme of the firstborn and explore the first place we see the firstborn theme occur in the Bible.
Humans constantly seek power and prestige, doing whatever it takes to dominate others, and we see this play out in the story of the Bible. Firstborn sons were the natural inheritors of wealth and power in the ancient world, and people went to great lengths to produce a firstborn son and secure his privilege. Yahweh consistently opposes this practice and elevates younger siblings and less-than-ideal leaders. This theme culminates with Jesus, who represents both the humble outsider who is elevated to a position of authority and the firstborn of creation.
The first time the firstborn theme occurs in the Bible is in Genesis 1-3. It’s not mentioned explicitly, but it is part of the dynamic at play between the human rulers of the land and the spiritual rulers of the sky.
In part two (14:38-36:14), Tim and Jon turn back to Genesis 1, the seven-day creation narrative. On the first three days, Yahweh brings order to the cosmos, depicted as chaotic and uninhabited. On the fourth through sixth days, Yahweh fills the cosmos with inhabitants.
On day four, Yahweh appoints ma’or (lamps or lights) to do what God’s light did on day one—bring order to chaos by shining light into the darkness. In the biblical imagination, stars and planets were visible images of spiritual beings. God gave a realm of authority to these lights to govern time (Gen. 1:16).
On day six, Yahweh creates humans and gives them authority to rule over the land, seas, and skies (Gen. 1:26). Yahweh exalts humans to rule, to the point of making humans images of Yahweh himself. In this way, the role of humanity in the creation story becomes the first example of exalted second-borns in the Bible.
In his way of relating to both spiritual beings and humans, Yahweh reveals himself to be an all-powerful being who wants to share his power and authority with others.
In part three (36:14-55:26), Tim and Jon discuss the relationship between land rulers and sky rulers.
The land rulers (humans) govern a large realm despite being created last, even after animals. In a figurative sense, humans are the second-borns of creation. Throughout the Bible, it’s consistently the latecomer whom God chooses to rule. This stands in contrast to how other ancient cultures viewed cosmology: Humans were at the bottom of the pyramid with no authority in comparison to spiritual beings.
Genesis 2 tells the story slightly differently than Genesis 1. In Genesis 2, Yahweh creates humans in Eden, outside the garden, but then he places them in the garden and instructs them to take care of it. The image parallels the command in Genesis 1 to rule and take care of the earth. While the responsibility of bearing God’s image is never explicitly mentioned, we see it in the instructions to take care of the garden God planted, therefore acting as his representatives.
The creation order in Genesis 2 is reversed from Genesis 1—God creates one human, then animals, and then splits the one human into two. However, the conclusion of both stories is the same: Yahweh creates two humans, makes them king and queen of his creation, and instructs them to rule as his representatives.
Genesis 3 introduces the story’s antagonist, a talking serpent (a phenomenon that would have been as strange for ancient readers as it is for us). The snake first questions God’s generosity and then his trustworthiness. He suggests to Adam and Eve that eating the fruit God prohibited would make them like elohim.
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like elohim, knowing good and evil.”
This snake represents both spiritual beings and the animal kingdom in its attempt to thwart humans. Most modern Bibles translate the word elohim as “god,” but it is the plural word “gods,” used to refer both to spiritual beings and to the singular Yahweh. This ambiguity is likely intentional. If we read this as “you will be like Yahweh,” the sad irony is that humans are already like Yahweh—they are his very image. If we read it as “you will be like the spiritual beings,” we see the selfishness and greed of humans who want yet another realm to exercise power over when they’ve already been given an entire world to rule.
While the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us the motives of the snake in Genesis 3, it’s safe to assume that envy was involved. Possibly, the firstborn sky rulers envied the exalted position of lowly, second-born humans. This attitude would be consistent with the theme of the firstborn that will continue to unfold throughout the Hebrew Bible. On the flipside, the humans clearly experience envy in this narrative too, which drives them to take what God prohibited to gain more power and privilege.
In part four (55:26-01:07:43), Tim and Jon explore other Jewish texts that comment on the dynamics at play in Genesis 3.
The author of Second Enoch suggests that the snake tricked the humans in an attempt to become equal with Yahweh. The author of Third Baruch sees the snake as envious of humans but doesn’t say why. In the Life of Adam and Eve, an imaginative re-telling of the garden of Eden story, the author hypothesizes a conversation between Adam and the snake after the humans are exiled from the garden, in which Adam asks the snake why he tricked them. The snake explains that Yahweh had exalted the humans over him, and he was unwilling to tolerate it.
Regardless of the snake’s motives, what we can clearly observe from this first appearance of the firstborn theme is that from the very beginning of the cosmos, Yahweh has defined power not as something to be seized but as something to be received as a gift from him.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo.
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