Birth Order Burdens

Mesu Andrews Featured Articles 3 Comments

Cooley kidsBirth order can be an interesting topic. I’m the baby of the family—nine years younger than my brother and fourteen years younger than my sister. I was officially an “oops,” but my parents called me their “bonus baby” to shield my little psyche.

Babies of the family typically don’t need a lot of shielding, however. Here are a few traits (good and bad) researchers have consistently noted in the youngest children of a family (

  • Charming
  • Affectionate
  • Immature
  • More agreeable
  • Rebellious
  • Empathetic
  • Artistic
  • Persistent
  • Popular
  • Social
  • Confident
  • Attention-loving
  • Impatient
  • Manipulative

Birth Order Matters

In our culture, birth order may affect our personality or chances at financial aid in college, but it seldom dictates our choice of spouse, occupation, or dwelling. Not true for those in Scripture.

Many of you will remember the story of when Isaac’s firstborn Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25). Years later, through treachery and deceit, Jacob stole the firstborn blessing that was intended for Esau. Understandably, Esau was outraged, and Jacob fled Canaan—setting into motion a complicated tale of birth-order blues.

Jacob’s Birth Order Boys

Surely Jacob—after having begged, borrowed, and stolen a birthright—would be especially respectful of birth order.


Upon arriving at his uncle Laban’s house in Padan Aram, Jacob fell in love with…a second-born daughter. But Uncle Laban deceived him into marrying the firstborn daughter—Leah. Seems rather fitting, eh? Jacob was given the second-born daughter—Rachel—after Leah’s wedding week was over.

And the family feud began (Gen. 29:31-30:24).

Though Leah was first born, first wife, and first to bear Jacob four sons, she was always second place Jacob’s heart. Realizing the score was 0 sons to 4, her older sister in the lead, Rachel gave her maidservant Bilhah as wife to Jacob, letting the maid bear sons in Rachel’s name.

Well, Bilhah bore two sons…but they were always Bilhah’s sons. Refusing to be outdone, Leah gave her maidservant as wife to Jacob in order to bear more sons in her name…but these boys too were always Zilpah’s sons.

Leah realized she’d better get back to baby-making, so she produced two more boys, and finally, God opened Rachel’s womb. She bore Jacob one son—Joseph—in Padan Aram, whom Jacob adored and doted over. Rachel then died giving birth to her second-born.

From Padan Aram to Canaan to Egypt

Jacob fled from Canaan to Padan Aram—a frightened, single man in his eighties. He returned to Canaan, the land of his father Isaac, twenty years later (Gen. 31:38). When he crossed the Jabbok River, his brother Esau approached with an army. Jacob’s fear dictated his protective strategy, placing his wives—and sons—in order of importance, the least first and the most last. As you can see, the maidservants’ sons were always maidservants’ sons:

“Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear.”       Genesis 33:1-2

Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph drove his ten older brothers to sell him to slave traders. Genesis 37-50 tells how Joseph rose from a slave to Pharaoh’s right-hand man and was instrumental in moving Jacob and his sons’ families to Egypt’s land of Goshen when Jacob was 130 years old (Gen. 47:9). But birth order issues didn’t stop when Jacob moved to Egypt.

More Birth Order Burdens

If you have time, read all of Genesis 48, and consider the difficulties that developed between Joseph and his aging father. What had been a special bond now seems distant and strained. Joseph—busy with running the most powerful nation in the world—was summoned to his dying father’s bedside to introduce Joseph’s two sons:

“[Jacob said to Joseph]…your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine…When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to him, ‘No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.’ But his father refused and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.’”         Genesis 48:5,17-19

Birth Order Blessings

When Jacob was dying, he blessed his twelve sons in Genesis 49. The sons were listed in different order than in the Genesis 29-30 narrative. In Exodus 1:1-5, Moses introduced the sons of Israel (God changed Jacob’s name to Israel), but in a different order than the two previous listings. Moses shuffled the order of names again when he blessed the twelve tribes at the end of their forty years of wilderness wandering (Deuteronomy 33), and this time he ignored the second-born son, Simeon—leaving him off the list completely.


  Genesis 29:31-30:24 growing family Genesis 49family of 70 people Exodus 1:1-5 – grew into nation – @the Exodus Deuteronomy 33 – 601,730 ppl after 40 yrs. of wandering
1 Reuben (Leah) Reuben (Leah) Reuben (Leah)– 46,500 Reuben (Leah)– 43,730
2 Simeon (Leah) Simeon (Leah) Simeon (Leah)– 59,300 Judah (Leah)– 76,500
3 Levi (Leah) Levi (Leah) Levi (Leah)– 22,000 Levi (Leah)– 23,000
4 Judah (Leah) Judah (Leah) Judah (Leah)– 74,600 Benjamin (Rachel)– 45,600
5 Dan (Bilhah) Zebulun (Leah)  Issachar (Leah)– 54,400 Joseph (Rachel) –Manasseh: 52,700;Ephraim: 32,500
6 Naphtali (Bilhah) Issachar (Leah) Zebulun (Leah)– 57,400 Zebulun (Leah)– 60,500
7 Gad (Zilpah) Dan (Bilhah) Benjamin (Rachel) – 35,400 Issachar (Leah)– 64,300
8 Asher (Zilpah) Gad (Zilpah) Dan (Bilhah) – 62,700 Gad (Zilpah)– 40,500
9 Issachar (Leah) Asher (Zilpah) Naphtali (Bilhah) – 53,400 Dan (Bilhah)– 64,400
10 Zebulun (Leah) Naphtali (Bilhah) Gad (Zilpah) – 45,650 Naphtali (Bilhah)– 45,400
11 Joseph (Rachel) Joseph (Rachel) Asher (Zilpah) – 41,500 Asher (Zilpah)– 53,400
12 Benjamin (Rachel) Benjamin (Rachel) Joseph (Rachel) –Manasseh: 32,200;Ephraim: 40,500 **Simeon (Leah)– not mentioned– 22,200

Are these discrepancies? Inconsistencies? Did the scribes make a mistake while copying the ancient texts? Or are there deeper lessons we can learn by studying the passages on a deeper level?

God Orders Birth Order

I’ve often heard it said, “The devil’s in the details.” I strongly disagree. When studying these intriguing facts of God’s Word, I find it comforting to remember that God is sovereign over even the tiniest of details.

He knows the flight path of an insect, the number of hairs on your head, and He most certainly determined the birth order in Jacob’s family—as He did yours.

The names listed in Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49 and Moses’s blessing in Deuteronomy 33 were NOT misspeaks or clerical error. They were prophetic utterances directed by the Almighty God. And keep in mind that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible including Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. When he wrote these lists of names—in each specific order—he did so at the perfect direction of God’s Holy Spirit.

So our question should be: Why?

  • Why did Jacob give Ephraim the firstborn’s blessing before he died—and then Ephraim’s tribe declined during the wandering years?
  • Why did Jacob elevate the maidservants’ sons above Rachel’s sons in his deathbed blessing when he had so clearly favored them all his life?
  • Why did Simeon’s tribe—the second-born of Jacob’s sons—decline from third largest at the Exodus to the smallest tribe after the wilderness wandering (and forego even a mention in Moses’s blessing)?
  • What other “why” questions come to mind when you look at the chart above or read the stories of Jacob’s life?

Know the Hebrews

As with any biblical novel, my prayer for you, dear reader, is that The Pharaoh’s Daughter will send you back to God’s Word to find the Truth that awaits you there.

Today’s exercise was to help you understand the full scope of Jacob’s family—the Children of Israel—who were subjected to Pharaoh’s forced labor.

“So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor…But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly.”            Exodus 1:11-13

Those were the sons and daughters of Jacob’s sons and daughters. Real people like you and me. They loved, they laughed, they lived, they lost. They once had hope that was quashed by ruthless slave masters, but it was out of that hopelessness that a single child was saved…by The Pharaoh’s Daughter.


Today’s Questions:

  • What other observations do you find intriguing from the chart or the story of Jacob and his sons?
  • Do you find discrepancies/inconsistencies in God’s Word disconcerting or fascinating? Why?

Comments 3

  1. OHHHH that was wonderful! It made me THINK and not just skim over genealogies because I am familiar with them. Real people experiencing real likes, loves and disappointments. These people REALLY lived, laughed, were disappointed, and were placed in God’s Book. Thanks. This made these people more real. Good job, Bonus Baby!! ( :

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  2. This is an interesting look at birth order in a major person of the Old Testament. This will definitely take some studying. Thank you for the prompt to look into this deeper.

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