Now that we have identified the pharaoh of Exodus, and we have seen some of the extravagance that God would perform on behalf of Israel, we can begin to assess the statement “Israel is My firstborn son”. Because Pharaoh refuses to allow Israel to leave, God will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son. It is an eye for an eye, a firstborn for a firstborn. Don’t be misled. God isn’t seeking revenge, and therefore bringing larger recompense than the sin deserves. Pharaoh has already killed Israel, especially in that they are no longer people, but only objects of torment, torture, and tools for building up his empire. That kind of mentality reveals all too well the heart of pharaoh.
To what degree do we believe Israel to be God’s firstborn? This question is comes in a multifaceted way. What about Jesus? Did God birth Israel? Aren’t all people ‘children of God’ in some sense? These questions are legitimate, though some of them being off-based.
Let us start with the first implications. To say that Israel is God’s firstborn is not a declaration of Israel being birthed by divinity (in a strict sense). Rather, the statement is a statement of Divine choosing. When we read in the New Testament things that suggest that God has chosen us from the foundations of the world, that choosing is not simply “predestination” in the classical Calvinist conception. There is something else happening in that statement that we are neglecting. Our neglect is upon Israel, because most Christians have an anti-Semitic bent, whether the recognize it or not.
We can start with something easy to swallow, and then get into the more mystical. God calls Abram out of nations to be established as God’s nation. His descendants are promised a very specific land, a very specific covenant, and to be a very specific people (i.e. God’s people). From Abram comes Ishmael and Isaac. It is not the son of the slave that is chosen, but the son of promise through Sarah that is chosen. Therefore, through Isaac comes Jacob and Esau. It is not through Esau that God chooses, but through Jacob, who shall later be known as Israel.
Jacob’s twelve sons are the patriarchs of twelve tribes, all of whom form “Israel”. Israel is both the man and the entirety of the people. God, in Obadiah, makes claims about Edom that demand they follow the example of their patriarch Esau. This is the way that God perceives. You cannot separate the patriarch and why God had established that man to become a people/nation with the nation itself. Thus, Israel is the people who descend from Jacob.
Now, from that simple understanding, we can ask again why Israel is called the firstborn of God. The answer is simple. It wasn’t Eber who received the call to come out of nations and be made into God’s nation. It wasn’t the Amalekites, or the Hivites, or the Arkites, or the descendants of Mizraim (Egypt), or the people of Cush, or the Dodanim, or the descendants of Kittim that were chosen. We find the lineage traced through Abraham’s offspring to come unto the man Israel, and so in that sense it is through Abraham that God’s nation is established. Therefore, the other nations, the Gentiles, who come to God are not the “firstborn”, but rather adopted children.
This is where it gets sticky, because many have separated Israel and the Church. Some have separated them in replacement theology, to say Israel means nothing anymore, and others have separated Israel from the Church in that Israel is put on the backburner until the end of the age, when we (as the Church) will be “raptured away”, and Jacob will suffer through the Tribulation (known in Jeremiah 30:5-7 as Jacob’s Trouble). The attitude is very much “Jacob’s Trouble, Jacob’s problem”.
Both of these views are based out of anti-Semitism. It places we, as a Gentile Church, as being greater than Israel, strictly based on the New Covenant, and therefore saved from “wrath”. However, this view, whether through replacement or rapture, degrades Israel, calls them “less than”, and declares that they who are better fit as the people of God are the Gentiles, who get it right and never get it wrong enough to suffer being cast away permanently or “Great Tribulation”.
Here is the point, and it gets back to Israel being the firstborn. It is not through the adopted children, nor through the second or third or fourth son that patriarchy continues. The laws of patriarchy, which God establishes in the Torah, is that the firstborn is the one who gets the double portion, who carries the family name, and in the time of Abraham through much of the Old Testament, it was the patriarch (the oldest son) who took care of the family.
Let me explain how patriarchy works. Lets say that my father was our patriarch. He was the one who stepped out from his father’s house, and became his own tribe. My father’s youngest brother, and his cousin, also left and joined themselves unto our father. Now, you, as the reader, are somehow a part of this. Maybe you’re my younger brother, or maybe your a descendant of my uncle. That doesn’t matter too much. It was my father’s duty as the patriarch to own everything, and to use his wealth to take care of your every need. You then do the daily chores that you’re assigned, continue to watch out for those who are a part of our “family”, and when there is trouble, you consult my father so that he will then take any necessary action to annul the trouble.
My father grows old, and he is about to die. So, my father calls me in, and he lays his hand upon me, as the oldest son, and he blesses me. In this blessing, there is a prophecy of what God will do through me for our family. There is also the inheritance proclaimed to me. I now own everything. I am now the patriarch. Instead of consulting my father, you now consult me. If someone is injured, then it is my responsibility to go out to the field, to get them back to the camp, and to take care of them to nourish them back to health. If someone is captured by bandits and taken to Egypt to be sold, it is my responsibility to go after those bandits, to find my lost relative in Egypt, and to either buy him back, or to wage war and spend all and be expended to get back the lost sheep who has been marginalized. That is my responsibility as the patriarch.
So, for Israel to be the firstborn, it is their responsibility – as the first nation to call upon the LORD – to go out to all the other nations and bring them back into the family of God. It is Israel’s responsibility – and not Ruben’s or Simeon’s or Joseph’s responsibility – because when you read Genesis, Jacob never gave the blessing to his eldest son. Rather, he blessed every single one of his sons, giving them all an inheritance and the patriarchal responsibility.
Now, let us examine the more mystical understanding. This is important because of the handful of verses in the New Testament that I’m sure you’re thinking. One of them is “Not all Israel is Israel”.
The name Israel means “He who wrestles with God”. Read Genesis 32:18 carefully. What is it that is missing from our statements? The angel tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God and man, and has prevailed. The word “prevailed” has great significance, because it is used in the New Testament as “overcome”. So, what is Israel? Israel is the overcomer. It is what Adam was intended to be from the beginning, who was supposed to overcome the darkness with the creation, thus taking all things (humanity and the cosmos itself) into a state of resurrection. To overcome is to resurrect. It is to pass from perishable to imperishable. It is to pass from potentially corruptible to incorruptible. It is more than passing from death to life (please read 1 Corinthians 15 carefully).
So, when we come to the question of Israel being the firstborn, we need to understand that Israel itself is one that overcomes. The name itself represents a struggle, and a prevailing. They who are truly part of Israel are not simply the ones who are genealogically descendants of Israel. You and I, who are overcomers in Christ, are also a part of Israel. We have been grafted in. We are not something altogether different, but rather one and the same. There has ever and always been a ‘spiritual Israel’, known as the saints of God – they who have overcome through the eternal covenant. There has always been they who exercise the same faith as Abraham, and therefore been more than descendants of Abraham, but have come to the place of truly being what God intended for humanity to be from the beginning.
This is what it means for Israel to be the firstborn. They, as the physical people, are the first nation to be considered “under God”. All other nations have their own pagan deities. Yet, there is a mystical aspect to it, where when Ruth declared, “Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God”, she was not simply saying that she no longer shall be Canaanite. She has now become Israelite, part of the firstborn, adopted into the family of God. She is no longer a Gentile. She is no longer far off, separated from God and alienated from the promises. Now Ruth has an inheritance in God, which she gets through Boaz being the redeemer (redeemer going back to what it means to be the patriarch and to bring the marginalized back into the family of God). For Ruth to gain that inheritance, which ultimately becomes King David’s inheritance, it took a redeemer named Boaz.
For you and I to have a part of the inheritance with Israel (Eph 1:13-14), it takes a redeemer as well (which is what the first chapter of Ephesians is actually about). Our redeemer is Christ Jesus, who didn’t simply pay with money, but with His own blood to redeem us from our nations that we might be adopted children, gaining an inheritance alongside of the natural children. This is what the prophecy over Ephraim means, when Jacob says that he shall be a “fullness of Gentiles” (Gen 48:19, Rom 11:25). It is what God meant when He told Abraham that he shall be the father of “many nations”, and what He meant when He said the same thing to Isaac.
Israel is the firstborn. Why? Because they are the patriarch by which all nations shall come unto God. In this age, it is by being grafted into Israel that we are able to become a part of the family of God. In the age to come, it will be that by Israel’s light – the light of the New Jerusalem – that the nations will walk. This is the incredibly deep significance of Jesus being the firstborn. You see, Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, and 51:4 all speak of this “servant” who brings light to the Gentiles. In Isaiah 42, we read that this “servant” must be distinct from Israel, because He is ultimately the redeemer of Israel, yet in Isaiah 51, the servant that brings light to the Gentiles is Israel itself.
How can there be such a contradiction?
There isn’t. Just as in the Olympics, when a man wins a medal the announcer will proclaim “America won the gold”, or “Israel won the gold”, so too is the messiah a representative of the whole nation. The whole nation didn’t run the race to win the gold, and yet it is America who won it, and not that one man or woman. As with Israel, so with Messiah; as with Messiah, so with Israel. The who are one, and cannot be distinguished from one another. You cannot have a King of the Jews without Him being the King of the Jews. You can’t separate God’s Kingdom from Israel any more than you can separate the president of the United States of America from America.
In conclusion, then, we see Israel as the firstborn has a lot of facets to it. We also see the claims of Jesus being “the only begotten son”, and in other places “the firstborn from the dead” and “the first fruit”, can go hand-in-glove with Israel being the firstborn. Our misconceptions of, and ultimately our stumbling over, this verse comes from preconceived biases that are based out of solely reading the New Testament text, severed almost completely from the Old Testament. Ephesians doesn’t say that we’re predestined from the foundations of the world to be saved, and therefore others are not. Romans 9:6 doesn’t say that “not all Israel are Israel”, and therefore it is only spiritual Israel that matters. These are things that we’ve made up completely, simply because we don’t know the Law or the Prophets, which ultimately means we don’t understand Jesus or the apostles either.