In the ancient world of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the inheritance within a family was given to the firstborn male entirely or in much higher measure (as opposed to equally divided) which carried with it an expectation that it was his responsibility to safeguard the continuance of the entire family. This is the dual blessing/birthright that is referenced in the Jacob/Esau narratives.
Esau is to some degree the image of negative masculinity. He has all the traits of a manly man – a hunter (a herculean task in the era in which he lived), a hairy man, a “man of the fields.” Yet, he chose wives which caused his parents great pain, and in that world such an arrangement was a bit more scandalous given the obligations of family. He does not safeguard the future for anyone except himself and his immediate interests. In other words, he wants the blessing but not the birthright, and his choices write that epitaph for him.
One day (Genesis 25:29-34), Esau comes in from the field and is hungry. He asks Jacob for some of the lentil stew Jacob happened to be cooking, and Jacob uses the situation to swindle the birthright from Esau. The scriptures aren’t clear how exactly it was transferred, if at all – Esau merely swore to him (something else that was much more significant in that era). But at the end of the narrative of this event, the verse states, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” That part is fascinating because it indicates a disdain for his family, his lineage, and the destiny bequeathed to him by that lineage.
Earlier in the narrative, Esau says “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” It’s highly unlikely he was literally starving, because he had just come from the field. If he was on the backside of 30+ days of fasting, he wasn’t coming from doing field-type activities. This is a statement of someone who overvalues the immediacy of a felt desire over more important issues on a longer time horizon. To his credit, Jacob knew he was willing to sell the birthright and knew its value.
After all of this, Esau still desired the blessing of his father because he knew it would benefit him, but Jacob stole that from him, too. This establishes that the blessing and the birthright are two separable concepts, and the biblical narrative casts faithfulness to the birthright as linked to the blessing.
Most of us receive many blessings from our heritage in the country in which we live, the family in which we were born, and in the modern world the respect of the birthright – of a need to perpetuate the good things from our culture and family – is lost except that part that naturally flows from our instincts. We would do well to see how important it is that we ditch elements of the notion of the nuclear family that quarantines our extended families to Thanksgiving and Christmas; it should be the desire of every member of a family to develop an identity, a blessing, and a birthright worthy of perpetuating.
Of Jacob’s sons, it was said that Judah was preeminent and the ruler came from him, but Joseph received the birthright:
[1Ch 5:1-2 ESV] 1 The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, so that he could not be enrolled as the oldest son; 2 though Judah became strong among his brothers and a chief came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph),
Israel blessed each of his sons particularly, but to Joseph’s sons he also gave a special blessing, uniquely imparting to Ephraim the younger sibling a greater blessing using crossed arms in defiance of Joseph’s initial attempt to follow custom by giving Manasseh, the older, the higher blessing from his father. While no portion of the scripture makes it perfectly clear that any of the sons of Israel received the blessing in the way that Jacob took the blessing from Esau, the strongest argument goes to the tribe of Ephraim receiving largest blessing.
It was also Caleb of the tribe of Judah and Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim that were the only Israelites to make it all the way from Egypt to the promised land (Moses was prevented from entering the land due to his failures as leader and instead was only permitted to view the land from the mountain on which he died), and after Solomon’s death the kingdom split into the tribe of Judah vs 10 of the other tribes headed by Ephraim, so this preeminence thing has a very long thread across the history of Israel.