Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage (Genesis 25:29-34). We all know this. We might have to be reminded that “pottage” is a soup or a stew and that the original meaning of “mess” was a meal. But what’s a birthright?
The word only appears ten times in the Bible, always referring to either Esau or to Jacob’s son Reuben, both of whom lost their birthright through unwise decisions. (See Genesis 27:36, Genesis 43:33, 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, Hebrews 12:16.) The Hebrew word translated “birthright” in these passages, bekorah (בְּכוֹרָה) appears a handful of other times, where it is translated as “firstling” or “firstborn.” (See Deuteronomy 12:6, 17, Deuteronomy 14:23, Deuteronomy 21:17.) So the biblical meaning of birthright is a set of privileges uniquely bestowed upon the oldest son.
Except that it never seems to work out that way. Isaac was not the oldest son of Abraham. Jacob was not the oldest son of Isaac. Joseph was not Jacob’s oldest son, and Ephraim was not Joseph’s oldest. It almost seems like these stories are calculated to refute the notion that birth order creates any kind of entitlement.
The Book of Mormon begins with a similar example. After Nephi’s family leaves Jerusalem, he prays and receives blessings from the Lord. One of those blessings, which he references repeatedly is this:
Inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.1 Nephi 2:22 (See also 1 Nephi 3:29, 2 Nephi 5:19.)
Laman and Lemuel resented this, reasoning that since they were older, it was their right to be the rulers (1 Nephi 18:10, 1 Nephi 16:37, 2 Nephi 5:3). This resentment endured many generations later. (See Mosiah 10:15, Alma 54:17-18.)
This concept of a birthright is a zero-sum game. Only one child can receive it (in spite of Lemuel’s apparent expectation to co-lead with his older brother), and he receives it at the expense of the other children. Esau was furious when his father gave Jacob the blessing he thought he deserved, and he hated Jacob for it. (See Genesis 25:30-36, 41.) At least in that family, the birthright wasn’t conducive to sibling unity!
In modern usage, the term “birthright” generally has a more inclusive meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition: “A natural or moral right, possessed by everyone.”
Consider the following affirmations by church leaders:
- Gordon B. Hinckley: “Each of you is a daughter of God, endowed with a divine birthright” (“Women of the Church,” General Conference, October 1996).
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf: “The dust and filth of the world stain our souls, making it difficult to recognize and remember our birthright and purpose” (“He Will Place You on His Shoulders and Carry You Home,” General Conference, April 2016).
- Elaine S. Dalton: “Each of you has inherited a royal birthright. Each of you has a divine heritage” (“Remember Who You Are!” General Conference, April 2010).
Today, I will remember my birthright. I will take confidence in the knowledge that I am a child of God, with inherent rights and privileges. I will strive to live up to those privileges and to help others live up to them as well.