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D'varim/Deuteronomy 21:17 For the firstborn ... he shall acknowledge to give to him two parts in all that is found of his
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These commands come as part of the inheritance regulations for split and blended families. We need to remember that polygamy was acceptable within ancient Israel and that mortality was higher, so that at the point when a father died, he might have had a number of children with a number of wives, plus possibly step-children who came with their mothers. ANE households could sometimes be quite complex. In particular, the previous verse has been legislating that even if a father has come to hate the wife with whom he had his firstborn son and has one or more sons with a wife that he loves, he may not deny the rights of the (now) hated wife's son on that account; firstborn still means firstborn. RabbiHirsch distinguishes between (firstborn for inheritance) and (sanctified firstborn). The latter is a son through whom a wife first becomes a mother; the former one through whom a man first becomes a father. These may be co-terminous, but may not be depending on the number of wives, marital history and so on.
So what are the rights of the firstborn? Firstly, the sanctified firstborn must be redeemed. The Torah tells us that "You shall set apart to the L-RD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the L-RD's ... Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem" (Shemot 13:12-13, ESV). Every male child that is the firstborn son of his mother - even if the father has already had sons with other wives - must be redeemed. This is the ceremony known as Pidyon HaBen and is cited in Luke's gospel, quoting this verse from the Torah: "And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moshe, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the L-rd (as it is written in the Law of the L-rd, 'Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord')" (Luke 2:22-23, ESV).
The other two rights apply to the firstborn for inheritance, who may have been redeemed as the sanctified firstborn, but won't if he has an elder sibling: if an elder sister, then although she opened her mother's womb, girls do not need redeeming; if an elder bother, then he will have been both the firstborn for inheritance and the sanctified firstborn but must have died for the younger son to now be counted as the firstborn for inheritance. These two inheritance rights are firstly that his father must acknowledge him and secondly that he is given a double portion of his father's estate. WhileTargum Onkelos changes , recognise/acknowledge, to , separate, to teach that the father must distinguish him from his other sons by giving him the double portion, other rabbinic sources maintain that simply giving the double portion is insufficient and that the father must formally and publicly declare this son to be the firstborn for inheritance so that all the family are fully aware of the son's status. Sadly, Chizkuni reports that "since Scripture uses masculine pronouns throughout, a firstborn daughter has no special claim on her father's property."
The ancient Sages offer two opinions about what the double portion means. The Hebrew means "a portion [literally 'a mouth'] of two" or "two portions [mouths]". We might think of this in modern slang vernacular as "having two bites at the cherry". Jeffrey Tigay comments that "the ancient translations and halakhic exegesis understand this as meaning two shares of the estate. This interpretation is consistent with the fact that that in some parts of the Ancient Near East a man's estate was divided into shares equal to one more than the number of his sons; his chief heir received two of these shares and the others each received one." TheSifrei commentary offers the two opinions that since he may be the co-inheritor with as few as one or with as many as five, "just as he receives twice the amount of his co-inheritor when there is only one, so he should receive twice the amount of any of the five; or "just as he receives two-thirds of the estate when there is only one, so he should receive two-thirds of the estate when there are five" (Sifrei 217). The halacha concludes that the first option - simply a double portion - is what is intended.
Ibn Ezra comments, "I believe Elisha's request to Elijah, 'Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me' (2 Kings 2:9, NJPS), is also to be interpreted this way. Hermann J. Austell agrees, suggesting that Elisha's request was more than just a request for acknowledgement. Both Elijah and Elisha knew that Elisha was the successor-heir after HaShem told Elijah, to "anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet" (1 Kings 19:6, NJPS) at Mt. Horeb. Rather, Austell writes, "the enormity of the loss of Elijah must have so gripped the humble Elisha that, claiming his position as heir, he asked for the firstborn's 'double portion' - that is, for specially granted spiritual power far beyond his own capabilities to meet the responsibilities of the awesome task that lay before him."1 He knew that he didn't have what it would take, so asked for the same anointing only more so for what he had to do in the years to come. Walter Brueggemann also picks up on our text, adding that "the 'double portion' is one more portion than is normally distributed" and notes that this in an unusual request since inheritance portions were usually physical and quantifiable, but Elisha has asked for "Ruach, for the force and vitality, energy and authority of Elijah, none of which is quantifiable."2
Elisha gets his request; he sees Elijah taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot and goes on to a career of the prophetic and miraculous to match if not outstrip Elijah in the years ahead. Although not couched in the same inheritance terms, Yeshua told His disciples, "I tell you that whoever trusts in Me will also do the works I do! Indeed, he will do greater ones, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12, CJB). That double portion is available to those who follow Yeshua, who believe in Him, who have faith to speak out in His name. This is followed by one of the most outrageous and prodigious prayer promises in the Bible: "In fact, whatever you ask for in My name, I will do; so that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (v. 13, CJB). If we ask truly in Yeshua's name, for the glory of the Father, then miracles will be seen upon this earth.
Rav Sha'ul recognises Yeshua as G-d's uniquely firstborn Son. As we have seen above, Luke records that He was redeemed as the sanctified firstborn: although He had younger brothers and sisters, He was the one who opened Mary's womb. He is G-d's only begotten Son and is His delight; He was recognised and acknowledged at His baptism, when the Father's voice announced, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17, ESV) and again at the Transfiguration, when "a voice from the cloud said, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him'" (17:5, ESV), delegating authority to Yeshua. Paul says that we are being "conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Romans 8:29, ESV), and later describes Yeshua as both "the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15, ESV) and "the firstborn from the dead" (v. 18, ESV).
But what's all that to us? Yeshua may the firstborn of the Father, but we are not. Where does that leave us? We still get a single portion and - if the double portion is the measure of what Yeshua has - I don't mind having half of that! We should look to see great things being done, the miracles of the kingdom being worked in our midst, words of power and authority spoken again the forces of darkness and - in maximum humility - the name of Yeshua and the glory of the Father being lifted up. We have been given no less than the Spirit - who is "the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (Ephesians 1:14, ESV) - to remind us of everything that Yeshua said and to tell us what is to come, to be the voice behind us when we turn to the right or the left saying, "This is the way, walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21, ESV). We have everything we need to build the kingdom of G-d and - what is more - Yeshua Himself will acknowledge us before the Father as we serve Him.
1. - Hermann J. Austell, "1 & 2 Kings" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol. 3, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Zondervan 2009, page 813.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2000, page 295.
Further Study: Matthew 10:32-33; Matthew 17:20; Mark 16:16-18
Application: Do you have a firm grasp upon your inheritance now and are you walking in the power of the Spirit, not just in word but also in deed, building the kingdom and bringing glory to our Father in the name of Yeshua?
Comment - 14:07 19Aug18 'LC': Fascinating - especially as last week's sermon was on Elijah so the part about Elisha's double portion drew me in.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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