Vayechi: First Versus Favorite

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539

Jacob dies at age 147 in Vayechi (“and he lived”), the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis. Next week Jews begin the book of Exodus in the annual cycle of Torah readings.

As for me, I am still working on my book about moral mistakes in Genesis. Recent research on moral psychology has made me eager to add new explanations for why many of the characters in Genesis keep acting shady.

Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first draft about how Jacob challenges the rules of his society regarding the firstborn son.

Primogeniture and Favoritism

            In ancient Mesopotamian towns including Mari, Nuzi, and Nippur,1 a man’s firstborn son was obligated to: “Carry on the father’s name (patronym); Manage the family estate;  Provide for minors in the family; Provide a dowry for unmarried sisters; Pay for his parents’ burial and mourning ceremonies and maintain their grave afterwards.”2

In return, the firstborn would receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance, while his brothers and half-brothers received a single portion each.

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1865

The Torah indicates that the firstborn had similar duties and rights among the ancient Israelites. When Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons in Vayechi, he entreats God:

“Bless the young men!

And may they be called by my name,

And the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” (Genesis 48:16)

In the Torah a son carries his father’s name when he is called “Isaac ben Abraham” or “Jacob ben Isaac”; ben means “son of”. Here, Jacob assumes the right to carry the name of his own father, Isaac. And he gives that right to the family of Joseph, his favorite son and the oldest son of his favorite wife, not to the family of Reuben, his actual firstborn son.

The firstborn son serves as the family’s priest in the Torah (until this duty is given to the Levites in Numbers 3:5-13). And as in Mesopotamia, a man’s estate was divided into shares equal to the number of his sons plus one, and his firstborn son inherited two shares.

A law in the book of Deuteronomy decrees that a man can assign the extra duties and extra inheritance only to his firstborn son, not to his favorite son.

If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and they have [both] borne him sons, the loved one and the hated one, and the [man’s] bekhor is the son of the hated one: on the day of bequeathing what he owns to his sons … he must recognize the bekhor, the son of the hated one, giving to him two shares out of all that is found to belong to him, because he [the man’s actual firstborn] is the first of his virility. The law of the bekhorah applies to him. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

bekhor (בְּכוֹר) = firstborn son.

bekhorah (בְּכֺרה) = rank and rights as firstborn. (From the same root as bekhor.)

This law is intended to protect the firstborn from losing his rights.


From birth to death, Jacob maneuvers to circumvent the rule of the bekhorah.

He and Esau are twins, but Esau is born first, while Jacob emerges holding onto his brother’s heel, as if he does not want to be left behind. Nevertheless, Esau ranks as firstborn.3 When the twins are young men, Jacob covets the role and rank of the firstborn. One day Esau comes home famished and asks Jacob for some of the stew he is cooking.

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

And Jacob said: “Sell today your bekhorah to me.” And Esau said: “Hey, I am going to die, so why this [bother about] my bekhorah?” And Jacob said: “Swear to me today.” And [Esau] swore to him and he sold his bekhorah to Jacob. Then Jacob give Esau bread and lentil stew … (Genesis 25:31-34)

Thus Jacob cheats his twin out of his rights. But by the time their father dies (at age 180), both brothers are already wealthy from their own efforts. Both Jacob and Esau bury Isaac.4 They have no sisters to marry off, and each brother takes care of his own children. The only firstborn right that Jacob inherits is God’s promise to give Canaan to his descendants. God made the same promise to Abraham, to his younger son Isaac, and finally to Isaac’s younger son Jacob.5


Despite his wealth and God’s promise, Jacob does not forget his resentment about the bekhorah. In fact, he challenges the rule during his two deathbed scenes in the portion Vayechi.

In the first deathbed scene, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim.

“And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, they shall be mine; Efrayim and Menasheh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)

In effect, the adoption gives Joseph the double inheritance of the firstborn.  Instead of getting one share, as Joseph, he will get two shares, in the name of his two sons.

Then Israel said to Joseph: “Hey, I am dying, but God will be with you [all] and return you to the land of your fathers. And I myself give to you one shekhem over your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my sword and my bow.” (Genesis 48:21-22)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם) = shoulders; an Amorite town about 30 miles (50 km) north of Jerusalem, where Jacob bought a plot of land in Genesis 33:18-19.

The campsite that Jacob bought near the town of Shekhem could not be of any interest to Joseph, the viceroy of all Egypt. But the author of the story knew that by 900 B.C.E. the two kingdoms of Israel would consist of the territories of twelve tribes. Three tribes (Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon) would occupy the southern Kingdom of Judah, while nine tribes (Efrayim, Menasheh, Reuben, Gad, Dan, Issachar, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali) would own territories in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

So what Jacob is really bequeathing to Joseph is a future double portion of the lands of the Israelite tribes in Canaan, lands they do not even begin to conquer until the book of Joshua.  When Joseph is on his own deathbed at the end of the book of Genesis, he asks to be embalmed and buried in Canaan when the Israelites return there someday.6 Joshua buries Joseph at Shekhem.7 By 900 B.C.E., Shekhem is an important city-state in the territory of Efrayim.


Jacob Blesses his Twelve Sons, by Pieter Tanje, 1791

Jacob’s second deathbed scene consists of prophesies about his twelve sons and the tribes that will descend from them.  In his first prophesy he explicitly demotes his oldest son, Reuben.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,

            My might and the first of my virility,

            Prevailing in rank

            And prevailing in strength.

Reckless like water, you will no longer prevail,

            Because you mounted your father’s couch.

            That was when you profaned my bed.

            He mounted it!”  (Genesis 49:3-4)

Here Jacob’s reason for stripping Reuben of his firstborn rights is Reuben’s incest with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s two concubines.8

The first book of Chronicles explains:

… Reuben, the firstborn of Israel—for he was the firstborn, but when he profaned his father’s couch, his firstborn-right was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, and he is not pedigreed as the firstborn, because Judah was more powerful as a leader than his brothers, and the firstborn-right [went] to Joseph— …  (1 Chronicles 5:1-3)

In other words, although Reuben was the first of Jacob’s sons to be born, he does not get either the duty to lead his brothers nor the right to inherit an extra share of their father’s property. Judah is the leader, and Joseph gets the double inheritance.

Sleeping with one’s father’s concubine amounted to a challenge to the father’s authority over the household.9 Yet for decades Jacob and Reuben behaved as if it had never happened. There is no indication in the Torah that Jacob ever punished Reuben or Bilhah, that Reuben ever apologized, or that Jacob ever forgave him.

For decades Reuben retains his position as the firstborn. Although his fractious brothers do not treat him as their leader, Reuben can still expect a larger inheritance when their father dies.

But at the end of Jacob’s life, all he wants is a pretext for  giving the firstborn’s extra inheritance to Joseph, his favorite son. He is not interested in either justice or mercy where Reuben is concerned.

Jacob could use Reuben’s long-ago attempt at usurpation through incest to disinherit his firstborn son altogether. But he does not.  He takes away Reuben’s birthright, but still leaves him one portion of the inheritance, like any of his other sons except Joseph.  In a way, this counts as unspoken and partial forgiveness.

Yet Jacob remains guilty of playing favorites, from the day he gives a fancy tunic only to Joseph, to the day he gives Joseph the double share. He also violates a social institution by depriving Reuben of the role and property he expected to inherit, leaving him in an embarrassing position.

On his deathbed, Jacob remains too self-absorbed to achieve a higher ethical resolution.

  1. The Mesopotamian towns of Mari, Nuzi, and Nippur were all extant during the Akkadian period, the 24th to 22nd centuries B.C.E., and continued as population centers in subsequent empires. Mari was a Semetic town later occupied by the Amorites, with whom the Israelites traded.
  2. Kristine Henrickson Garroway, “Does the Birthright Law Apply to Reuben? What about Ishmael?”,
  3. Genesis 25:24-26.
  4. Genesis 35:28-29.
  5. Genesis 35:12.
  6. Genesis 50:24-26.
  7. Joshua 24:32.
  8. Genesis 35:22.
  9. 2 Samuel 16:20-22.


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