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Moses’ sixth speech begins in Deut. 21:15 and extends through chapter 23. Ferrar Fenton’s title for this speech is “Domestic Laws.” The speech starts with the law of the hated (unloved) son in Deut. 21:15-17,
15 If a man has two wives, the one loved, and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the first-born son belongs to the unloved, 16 then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the first-born before the son of the unloved, who is the first-born. 17 But he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the first-born.
In our non-polygamous society, this law appears to have little relevance to us today. However, it was quite relevant in Moses’ day, and we also see its importance to the prophets when they applied it in their prophecies.
Essentially, this law sets forth the right of the first-born son to inherit the birthright of his father. A first-born son could not be disinherited except for real causes. Moses already knew the history of Israel and understood how their forefather Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel. Because his father-in-law had tricked him into marrying both of his daughters, Jacob was stuck with a wife that he did not love, along with the wife that he did love.
For this reason, Jacob desired to give Joseph—the son of Rachel, the loved wife—the birthright, but Reuben was the first-born, and he was the son of the unloved wife (Leah). We read in Gen. 29:31, 32,
31 Now the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.”
The name Reuben means “Behold, a son.” Leah was the tragic victim of her father’s manipulation. But “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved,” and recognized the injustice that had been perpetrated upon her. Hence, God gave her six sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Gad, and Asher. Meanwhile, Rachel was frantic, knowing how important it was in those days to bear sons, and so she gave her handmaid to Jacob as a wife in order to bear children to Jacob by proxy.
Just under the surface we see the tension between the two sisters, Leah and Rachel, for both understood that the birthright of Jacob was to be passed down to the eldest son, Reuben. Finally, seven years after Reuben was born, Rachel gave birth to her first son, Joseph. Finally, she had some leverage by which she might use Jacob’s love to induce him to give her own son the birthright.
But Rachel did not live to see her son receive the birthright, for she died a few years later giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (Gen. 35:18). Her death occurred near Bethlehem, while the family was moving from Bethel to a place “beyond the tower of Eder” (Gen. 35:21), which was later known as Hebron.
It was while the family was in Hebron that Reuben disqualified himself as the birthright holder, for Gen. 35:22 says,
22 And it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.
Bilhah was the mother of Dan and Naphtali. This incident was the legal cause by which Reuben lost the birthright, according to the genealogical record of 1 Chron. 5:1, 2,
1 Now the sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel (for he was the first-born, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he [Reuben] is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. 2 Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader [nagiyd, “prince, ruler”], yet the birthright belonged to Joseph.)
When Reuben “defiled his father’s bed,” he lost his right as the first-born, and Jacob had legal cause to disinherit him. Hence, we see that shortly afterward, in Gen. 37:3, Jacob placed Joseph as the heir of the birthright.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic.
In their Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, we read on page 38 that the term “son of his old age” was a Hebrew phrase that meant “a wise son—one who possessed observation and wisdom above his years—an old head on young shoulders.” Being young, nevertheless, Joseph was not wise enough to refrain from exalting himself over his older brothers. And when Jacob distinguished him as the heir-apparent by giving him the special tunic, the older brothers resented him greatly.
Though Reuben had been disqualified, it did not necessarily mean that his other brothers should be bypassed. Simeon was the next oldest, and Levi came next. They knew, however, that Jacob had been greatly displeased with them for making war against the town of Shechem. No doubt they knew that Jacob had considered their actions to be a sign of rebellion against their father (Gen. 34:30), even though they believed their act of rebellion was in the cause of true justice (Gen. 34:31).
But in the end, Simeon and Levi were disqualified, leaving Judah as the next oldest heir-apparent. How many times the brothers discussed the issue we are not told, but there is little question that Judah thought of himself as the next rightful heir of the birthright. He had done nothing to disqualify himself, after all.
There is no suggestion in Scripture that Judah had the right to receive the birthright. Jacob’s only legal obligation was to the firstborn. Nonetheless, much to Judah’s consternation, Jacob bypassed him and gave Joseph the varicolored tunic. At that point, the brothers heartily disliked Joseph, as we read in Genesis 37:4,
4 And his brothers saw that their father loved him [Joseph] more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.
The Hebrew text at the end of the above verse should be understood, “They could not even speak to him the normal greeting, Shalom, (Peace) when they would meet.” And so one day, when Joseph was sent to find his brothers and to report their activities, they decided to get rid of him once and for all. As they discussed killing Joseph, Reuben insisted that Joseph should not be killed outright, but suggested that they cast him into a dry well, where he would die of natural causes (Gen. 37:22). They agreed to this.
Genesis 37:22 also tells us that Reuben’s intent was “that he might rescue him out of their hands, to restore him to his father.” Perhaps Reuben thought that he might prove himself to his father and be reinstated as the heir. But his plan was thwarted, for while he was away from the camp on some unexplained business, Judah suggested that they sell Joseph to traders who were passing by their camp.
Judah, of course, had the greatest motive to get rid of Joseph, since he was the one most likely to replace Joseph as the birthright holder. And so Judah betrayed Joseph, setting the prophetic pattern that would be repeated many years later when Judas (the Greek form of Judah) betrayed Jesus.
Nonetheless, in the end Judah repented of his sin in Gen. 44:18-34, and Joseph—who by that time was the Prime Minister of Egypt— revealed his identity to his brothers. No doubt it was for this reason that Jacob gave honor to Judah, giving him the scepter temporarily “until Shiloh comes” (Gen. 49:10). The birthright still was given to Joseph, but it was a stripped-down version, as 1 Chron. 5:2 indicates.
Jacob broke the birthright into three main parts, giving Levi the priesthood, Judah the scepter, and the remaining portion to Joseph. This was a temporary situation that would end with the coming of the Messiah. The first coming of Christ stripped Levi of the priesthood, after the priests had proven themselves unworthy by rejecting the word of truth. Christ then became the true High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:24).
At the same time, Judah (as a nation) rejected Christ, and the rulers usurped His throne (Matt. 21:38). In doing this, they followed the pattern of originally set by Judah when he betrayed Joseph by selling him as a slave to Egypt. At the same time, this betrayal also followed the pattern of Absalom, who, as a son of David, was of the tribe of Judah. Absalom had overthrown David in a dispute over the throne in 2 Sam. 15-18. In doing so, Judah legally disqualified itself from rulership, even as Reuben had disqualified himself from the birthright many years earlier.
This set up the eventual showdown in the second coming of Christ. That showdown was depicted in the story of Absalom, when David returned to reclaim the throne that had been usurped by Absalom. Absalom did not rule with David but was killed (2 Sam. 18:15). This, then, became a prophetic type of what will yet occur when Christ comes to settle forever the dispute over the scepter.
Christ’s first coming was through Judah, for He was born in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah, and as such was the rightful heir of the scepter and throne of David. However, His second coming, while pictured in David’s return to the throne, is actually to fulfill the prophecies of Joseph and Shiloh. For this reason, He is pictured in Rev. 19:13 as being “clothed with a robe dipped in blood.” This is the exclusive mark of Joseph, whose robe was dipped in blood (Gen. 37:31).
Joseph had two prophetic dreams in which he saw his brothers all bowing down to him. This included Judah, and this was first fulfilled when Joseph ruled over the entire family in Egypt. But this also prophesied of a later time when Judah (in particular) was to bow to Joseph and recognize Joseph’s authority over him. Hence, Jacob’s prophecy in Gen. 49:10 tells us that Judah’s possession of the scepter was temporary, for in the end the scepter, along with the priesthood, would have to be reunited with the birthright under Joseph.
The theme of the birthright is central to the biblical story and to Kingdom history in general. There is no way to comprehend Bible prophecy without having some understanding of the birthright, its temporary splintering, and its ultimate reunification in the hand of Christ. Furthermore, the law of the hated (or unloved) son forms the backdrop for this history, and it helps us understand the mind of God and the rules by which men must live. Violation of those laws have had far-reaching consequences throughout history, beginning with Levi, Judah, and Joseph, but later extending into the conflict in the New Testament and even today.