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Sibling Rivalry in Genesis: Am I My Brother's Keeper?
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is full of families. With families come the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and brothers and sisters. Conflicts are sure to arise in any family, even Biblical ones. Genesis could be considered a story about brothers and the conflicts that they must work through. Read Genesis and you'll see a pattern: these brothers do not get along! Jealousy, anger, and rivalry threaten to tear them apart, and God has to come and straighten them out.
Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers all have their share of problems. Favoritism in particular stirs up trouble in the Biblical families. When siblings perceive that their parents favor one child over another, rivalry, jealousy, and even violence are the results. So the next time you think your siblings are going to drive you crazy, remember that these family issues go way back...
"Your brother's blood calls out to me from the ground!"
Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, are the first brothers in Genesis. Cain is also the first murderer, committing fratricide out of jealousy (it does not appear to be a good start for brothers in Genesis). God is pleased with Abel’s offering of the best of his flock, but He rejects Cain’s offering of some fruit. While God is not the biological father of Cain and Abel, for the narrative purposes of the story “God is represented as taking on the role of the surrogate father” (Perry 259). God “looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen” (Gen. 4:4-5).
Perry argues that Cain’s jealousy and murdering of Abel “is seen as arising from his fear of an upset of fraternal roles and loss of birthright to his brother” (259). Birthrights are an important concern for brothers. Cain is the firstborn, but he feels threatened by Abel, and God’s favoritism confirms his fears. It is hard to distinguish between the brothers and their offerings, as God is not only displeased with Cain’s offering but with Cain himself. It is hard to judge from this short story whether God is displeased with Cain because his offering is inadequate, or because the inadequacy of the offering shows Cain’s unworthiness of favor. Either way, paternal favoritism is enough to drive someone to make rash and angry acts.
"Of what use is a birthright to me?"
Another pair of brothers, Jacob and Esau, is also concerned with birthrights and their parents’ favor. They are twins, Esau being born first with Jacob clinging onto his ankle. In this story it is the younger brother who gives the older one a hard time. From the very start Jacob tries to usurp his older brother’s rights. While the boys are still in the womb, the Lord tells Rebecca that “two peoples are quarreling while still within you; But one shall surpass the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
It is interesting that while Isaac favors the elder son Esau, Rebecca favors Jacob and even helps him trick Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. One scholar suggests that the parents’ favoritism can be explained by the theory that opposites attract, as if “to compensate for his failing eyesight and old age, Isaac identifies with the outdoorsman, Esau. Rebecca, having been exposed to the wily character of her deceptive brother, Laban (who will later exploit Jacob), is attracted to the scholarly Jacob” (Rackman 42).
Esau apparently cares little for his birthright (trading it for some of Jacob’s stew), but he is furious when Jacob takes the blessing meant for him. It is not made completely clear what exactly the birthright entails, or how a blessing obtained under false pretenses can be valid, but “Esau sees them both as acts of deliberate trickery by his brother in which items of great value are in effect ‘stolen’ from him” (Spero 246). Esau’s sense of being wronged leads him to hate Jacob intensely, enough that he plans to kill him. Jacob is forced to run away to protect his own life.
Even though Jacob is a trickster, he also has God’s favor. Once again God favors the younger son, bringing into question the rights of the firstborn. Perry notes that “in the world of Genesis, primogeniture can be bypassed in favor of other factors such as good deeds” (265). Jacob’s trickery and calculating nature make him an odd choice for God’s favor, but God recognizes in him the worthiness of receiving His blessing. Fortunately, Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile, putting aside their past differences. However, the murderous tendency between brothers still surfaced in this story, as a result of the rivalry between brothers.
"Here comes this dreamer. Let's kill him and throw him into one of the pits."
Joseph’s story is perhaps the most notorious when it comes to paternal favoritism. Whoever has experienced “envy and hatred of a brother or sister perceived as a rival or favored child...can surely identify with one or another of the characters who participate in the family drama of Jacob” (Schimmel 60). Jacob loves Joseph best of all, giving him a special tunic. When Joseph’s “brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him” (Gen. 37:4).
The oblivious Joseph shares his dreams about his brothers bowing down to him, infuriating them even more. All but Reuben want to kill him, but Judah convinces them to sell him into slavery instead. “After all,” he says, “he is our brother, our own flesh” (Gen. 37:27). Somehow they find selling their brother less reprehensible than killing him (and the money is no drawback either).
Joseph’s story is ultimately one of redemption and forgiveness, although with a curious twist. When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers after subjecting them to some harsh tests of character, he says: “But now do not be distressed, and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you” (Gen. 45:5).
Schimmel asks if “Joseph really believed that his being sold by his brothers into captivity was a divinely preordained act, why was it necessary or even proper to subject them and his father to the prolonged anguish reported in Genesis 42-44?” (62). A plausible solution is that Joseph is testing his brothers to see if they have really repented of their former ways. When Benjamin, the youngest son favored by Jacob, is falsely imprisoned, the brothers beg for his release. They know that Jacob would feel the same grief for Benjamin that he had over Joseph’s supposed death. Judah even offers to take Benjamin’s place. When one of their brothers is faced with a similar situation that they put Joseph into, this time they act selflessly (Schimmel 62-63). Thankfully, Joseph and his brothers reconcile. However, this story serves as another warning about the dangers of a father’s extreme favoritism and how jealousy drives siblings to extreme measures.
In all these cases of brothers, parental favoritism leads them to make bad choices. This should be a lesson against favoring one child, but even God does it. God looks beyond the birth order and sees the inherent worthiness or potential of His chosen people. The dangers come when the non-favored son realizes that his birthright is not enough to win favor or guarantee his superiority. He must strive like anyone else to get ahead in the world and hopefully live in peace with his family.
New American Bible. Gen. New York: Catholic Book Co., 1992.
Perry, T. A. "Cain's Sin in Gen. 4:1-7: Oracular Ambiguity and How to Avoid It." Prooftexts 25 (2005): 258-275. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 20 Feb. 2007 <http://proxy.kennesaw.edu>.
Rackman, Joseph. “Was Isaac Deceived?” Judaism 43 (1994): 37-45. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 24 Apr. 2007 <http://search.ebscohost.com>.
Schimmel, Sol. “Joseph and his Brothers: A Paradigm for Repentance.” Judaism 37 (1988): 60-65. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 24 Apr. 2007 <http://proxy.kennesaw.edu>.
Spero, Shubert. “Jacob and Esau: The Relationship Reconsidered.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 32 (2004): 245-250. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 24 Apr. 2007 <http://search.ebscohost.com>.