Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 12
THE QUESTION OF PRIMOGENITURE
There are patterns in the Bible whereby the Messianic figure, who is Jesus in the Christian Bible, has absorbed the Old Testament types of authority, including the prophet, the priest and the king. And yet, as we saw all along, these attributes of authority are accompanied by other attributes, those of a suffering victim, and both seem to be essential to the rounding of the figure.
There is one pattern in the Bible that recurs so often that it must obviously be very deeply connected with the narrative and imagery of the Bible. In the life of Israel, as also in the surrounding nations, the ordinary rule was that of primogeniture. That is, the eldest son usually inherited the title, if there was a title, the property or the general rights of succession. That is something which of course has run all through human history, and the nations that have observed it are often more successful than the nations that haven't. In France, there was the tendency for aristocratic families to divide up their property among their various sons, whereas in England it was the eldest son who got everything, with the result that the younger son had to go into business, and eventually built up a bourgeois family which made so much money that he was able to buy out his elder brother's descendants. That is perhaps an aspect of the pattern that's not wholly missing from the Bible either. But we notice how often the firstborn son is explicitly passed over in favor of a younger brother.
The very first man born, according to the Biblical story, was Cain, who represents the agricultural economy which the Hebrews idealized much less than the pastoral one. So the firstborn son of Adam, Cain, becomes the first murderer through the death of Abel, he also becomes an exile, is sent out and founds cities. I think I've touched on the fact that the Cain stories come from a variety of sources, so no one needs to ask the question of where Cain found the people to put in his city. But it's the dispossession of the eldest son, and the fact that the line of succession goes through the third son, Seth, that is the important thing.
Then we have the story of Noah, who curses one of his sons: he is not said to be the eldest son, but the same pattern is clearly recurring. The story ends in the transfer of the curse of Noah's son Ham to Canaan, a story which rationalizes the treatment of the Canaanites by the Israelites. Abraham has a son Ishmael, and Ishmael is sent in exile into the desert. Sarah, Abraham's wife, is told that she will have another son. As she is long past menopause, she thinks that this is impossible and bursts into a laugh. Well, God was somewhat miffed at this, but he was relatively good-natured about it, and Isaac is born at an impossibly late age and is called by a name which means 'laughter'. So Isaac is the one who succeeds to the inheritance. Isaac has two sons, the hunter Esau and the rancher Jacob. Jacob, whose name is later changed to Israel, is again the younger son with the line of succession going through him. Esau is gypped out of it through some extremely dubious maneuvers on Jacob's part, many of them connived at by his mother. Jacob has twelve sons, the eldest of them being Reuben. But Reuben is done out of the patrimony because he committed the worst crime that it is possible to commit in a patriarchal society, which was that of approaching one of his father's women. It was not his own mother, although there is an Oedipal theme in the background; but nevertheless he is pushed out of the inheritance, which passes to the fourth son, Judah, and the eleventh son, Joseph. Of Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, again the elder son Manasseh is passed over and the preference given to Ephraim.
In all of these cases, the law of primogeniture is set aside, and the inheritance goes through a younger son. If one asks why this theme should be so emphatically repeated in the early books of the Bible, the answer seems to have something to do with the fact that so much human anxiety is bound up with the straight line of succession, preferably through the eldest son.
If you look at Shakespeare's history plays, for example, you will see how intensely the anxiety of continuity is built into society, how intensely the preserving of the legitimate line of succession seemed to the people of Shakespeare's day part of the necessary order of things. Consequently, the passing over of the natural heir for a younger one symbolizes the opposite, the direct intervention by the deity into human events.
In all these cases, we have the straight primogeniture situation of the elder son passed over for a younger son. But you can expand the pattern into other forms where it becomes more suggestive. For example, the Israelites entered on monarchy, as I remarked earlier, with many misgivings. The first king chosen was King Saul, and although he is said to have been chosen by God, the judge Samuel was very grumpy about surrendering the authority that he would lose by the choosing of a king, and never liked Saul, and was out to do him in from the beginning. Still, there is also a suggestion that Saul was the popular choice: and that consequently too much of the popular will was involved in selecting him as king. In any case, Saul is rejected and set aside. He and his son Jonathan are killed in a great victory of the Philistines, and the line of succession is passed over from Saul to David, a person of quite obscure parentage who is nevertheless explicitly pointed out by God to Samuel as representing the line that he is going to establish. Now from that time on, the law of primogeniture goes from David without change.
David's son and successor of course was Solomon; Solomon's was Rehoboam. As I have previously remarked, the great legendary figure of wisdom, Solomon, was actually so weak and so foolish and so extravagant a king that when his son Rehoboam proposed to carry on his policies, he instantly lost five-sixths of the kingdom as the ten tribes in the north revolted and set up their own king. Well, it appears to the Deuteronomic narrators of the Book of Kings that it was somehow wrong to upset the line of David. That was partly of course because Jeroboam, the king of the Northern Israelites, refused to have anything to do with the Jewish claim that all worship should be centered at Jerusalem. He realized that that would simply make his kingdom a vassal kingdom of Judah, and so according to the historians, he set up a local cult of golden calves or bulls, which was regarded as idolatrous.
But the line goes straight through David until the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and from that time it can still be traced. It is an unquestioned assumption in Messianic times, that is, in post-Old Testament and early New Testament times, that the Messiah would be sprung from the line of David, and that he would in fact be born in David's birthplace of Bethlehem.
We find this same pattern of an older person or generation set aside in favor of a younger generation elsewhere too. For example, the actual redemption of Israel by the Exodus is split between Moses and Joshua: Moses, remember, dies in the desert, and it is his successor, Joshua, who achieves the conquest of the Promised Land. That transfer of the work of redemption from one figure to another fits this same pattern, where Moses, though the greatest prophet of Israel, as he is called, is nevertheless set aside for the crucial act. Similarly, even David, the most glorious figure in the Old Testament, is set aside as far as the building of the Temple goes, and is told that that is to be reserved for his successor.
You can find different traces of that pattern in the wandering in the desert, which took forty years. The reason it took forty years to cover so relatively small a space was that the first generation, we are told, was hardhearted and disobedient, so that God resolved that the entire generation that had entered the desert from Egypt would have to die in the desert, and that a new generation would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. So Moses, to some extent, represents the entire generation of Israel which he led into the desert, all of whom had to die before a new generation would enter the Promised Land. In the 95th Psalm there is the verse, 'unto whom I sware on my wrath that they should not enter into my rest', which is a verse quoted by the author of Hebrews for reasons of his own that we'll come to in a moment.
After the Babylonian captivity, the same pattern is picked up by Jeremiah, who says the old generation and its contract with God has been destroyed and abrogated. A new contract will be made with the new generation, an inner or spiritual contract which will be the new covenant or, as you might translate, the New Testament. Of course, Christianity promptly seized on this prophecy of Jeremiah as referring to its own teachings. And again, the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah on that conception of a new covenant or a new testament.
There are many examples, therefore, of this pattern of setting aside the oldest son or older generation and making them either exiles or victim figures. In Exodus 4:22, God is represented as saying, 'Israel is my son, even my firstborn'. Anybody belonging to Israel who had read through the Bible might feel a chill in his heart at those words, because it's the most ambiguous blessing, according to the general fate of firstborn sons in the Bible.
Here again, one has to take into account the law which we've already referred to in connection with the doctrines of sacrifice of the Old Testament, that every firstborn male is theoretically to be sacrificed to God and is to be redeemed with a lamb instead, the law of Exodus 34:19: 'all that openeth the womb is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male… all the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem'.
We've already gone into the practice of sacrificing the eldest son as a particularly desperate attempt to attract the attention of one's god, as in the case of Mesha of Moab, who offered his son as a burnt offering on the wall when he was besieged by Israel. But in the general context of the symbolism attached to firstborn sons, one would expect Israel to be passed over and to become either an exiled figure or a victim figure. And as a matter of fact, that is precisely the inference that Paul draws in what is probably the earliest of his letters, the letter to the Galatians. If you can find Galatians 4:21: 'tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons the one by a bondmaid, the other by a free woman. But he who is of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory'. The Greek word is allegoria, and it's very important, I think, that Paul is telling you explicitly that he reads the Old Testament allegorically. 'For these are the two covenants, the one from the Mount Sinai which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar'. That's the mother of Ishmael and the first wife of Abraham. 'For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all'.
Well, from the point of view of Judaism, of course, Paul's interpretation of the story of Abraham could hardly be more preposterous. He is saying that Judaism belongs to Ishmael, who represents the wandering bedouin tribes outside Israel. Isaac represents the New Testament, the new covenant of Christianity. But the author of Hebrews makes the same claim, that Christianity is in fact the inheritance promised to Israel. In both Paul and the author of Hebrews, there is a polemic streak which identifies the legalism which Christianity is supposed to transcend with Judaism. So far as I can see, that is not part of the teaching of Jesus, but it is certainly written into some parts of the New Testament.
Now this being born of the flesh and being born of the promise means that the eldest son, Ishmael, represents the normal, natural succession by primogeniture, where the right passes from the father to the eldest son; and that Isaac, being born of the promise, is the result of a deliberate divine intervention into human affairs.
If you turn in the New Testament to the accounts of the Nativity in Luke, you will find that the New Testament counterpart or antitype of the birth of Isaac is attached to John the Baptist, who again is born at an impossibly late period of his mother's life. His father does not believe that this can happen, and is therefore struck dumb until the child is born.
Now it is clear that Jesus is the firstborn son of his family. He is quite explicitly said in the New Testament to have brothers, but there is no doubt from the Gospel account that he is the firstborn of his family. And he is a devoted sacrificial victim partly in consequence of being so.
If we look at the opening of the Gospel of Matthew, we see again this curious paradoxical relationship of the line of descent with the divine intervention which passes over the line of descent. You can't have it both ways except in the Gospel of Matthew—well, you get the same thing in Luke in a different form. But Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. Now the purpose of that genealogy is to show that Jesus conforms to the pattern of a Messianic figure in being born of the line of David. Matthew sums up his genealogy in verse 17 and counts forty-two generations. Then he begins verse 18: 'now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise', and proceeds to tell the story of the Virgin Birth, according to which Joseph is not Jesus' father at all, and the entire genealogy from Abraham is pointless.
The way to overcome these apparent difficulties and contradictions in sacred stories was provided by the discovery of continuous prose. In continuous prose, if you only write enough sentences, any statement can be reconciled with any other statement whatever. You just have to put in enough intervening sentences, which will eventually connect A with Z. So we're not surprised to find that many hundreds of volumes have been written reconciling the difficulty in these two accounts of the descent of Christ in Matthew; and as it would take a lifetime to read through all these books, it is much simpler to assume that the difficulty has been somehow or other taken care of. But if you go back to the Gospel of Matthew, you can see that he just leaves a gaping, yawning paradox; and the paradox is in fact part of his whole conception of Christ, who is born after the flesh like Ishmael but also after the promise like Isaac. So that his birth in the line of David—he is occasionally addressed as the son of David in the gospels—fulfills the law of primogeniture, but his actual birth represents a divine entry into history. So that you have in addition to the horizontal line of hereditary succession the vertical line of divine entry into the pattern of human life.
There is another story of a very late birth, which begins I Samuel and describes the birth of Samuel. We're told that his mother Hannah had prayed for a son for a long time, until it became reasonably clear that, in the normal course of events, she would not have one. She had made a vow that is in accord with the whole symbolic pattern of the Bible, that if she had a son she would devote him as a sacrificial victim to the service of the Lord; but that of course meant putting him in the Temple as a priest, rather than carrying out the original sacrificial ritual.
Samuel is born, and Hannah sings a song of triumph that is very interesting, because one of the things it stresses is that this birth at a late, late age is a symbol of the continuously revolutionary activity of God in human affairs, of God's intervening with special acts which upset all the normal standards of procedure and hierarchy.
The Song of Hannah is in chapter 2, and the theme of the reversal of social fortunes in I Samuel 2:6: 'the Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory'. So that this revolutionary activity of God, which means a complete overturning of social standards, where the poor are raised up to become rich and powerful, is something symbolized by the birth of Samuel at that late stage of his mother's life.
In the New Testament, if you look at the beginning at the Gospel of Luke, you find again the story that I referred to about the birth of John the Baptist, which picks up and repeats the theme of late birth. The birth of Jesus is not said to be a late birth of the same kind, but again a triumphant hymn of thanksgiving is ascribed to the Virgin Mary at the time of the birth of Christ, the hymn which we know as the Magnificat. The Magnificat has obviously been influenced by, if not modeled on, the Song of Hannah, and repeats this theme of social overturn.
In Luke 1:46: 'And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord'. Verse 51: 'he has shewed strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away'. That overturn of society, which is repeated in some of Jesus' parables, like the parable of Dives and Lazarus, indicates again this vertical movement down into human society and up again, overturning its values.
The Bible is thrown into the form of a narrative which, as I so frequently remarked, resembles the general structure of comedy, in that it passes through tragic events but passes out of them again into a final deliverance. It follows therefore that we don't look to Biblical culture for patterns of great tragedy. The Biblical view of man does not accommodate that conception of the semi-divine hero which gives such tremendous power to Greek tragedy. So one doesn't really find tragedies in the Bible. The Book of Job is very often classed as a tragedy, but it's not one, at least not according to the Greek pattern.
What you do find is that certain nodes, so to speak, of the tragic form around these rejected and passed-over figures, who have often been made exiles or victims for no fault of their own that they can possibly discern. There is, for example, Cain's bewilderment at the fact that his offering was not accepted, whereas his brother Abel's was; and he's not very convinced by the rather bumbling answer he gets from God, which has probably gone through several editorial expurgations in any case. So the state of mind which leads him to murder Abel is at any rate intelligible. But the Biblical focus on such scenes is ironic rather than tragic. It is only if you are willing to stop and look between the lines for a moment that you can see certain tragic patterns potentially taking form.
Similarly with Ishmael driven out of the desert to starve with his mother, and Abraham's feeling of —regret is too mild a word—but he says to God, 'O, that Ishmael might live for thee'. It is a terrible blow to him to lose a son at a time of culture when the preserving of the line of succession meant infinitely more than it does now.
Even one of the purposes of the story of Isaac, apart from his connection with the Passover and the redeeming of the eldest human child by a lamb, is to indicate that Isaac is being adopted into the line of succession by being at least potentially a sacrificial victim of his father. The story of Abraham and Isaac is the theme of some of the most powerful and eloquent of the medieval mystery plays, and it owes its pathos and its eloquence partly to the audience's realization that this story of Abraham and Isaac is being set in a larger framework in which the God who commands the sacrifice actually has later to sacrifice his own son and to carry it through without any reprieve.
Similarly with the cry of Esau when he finds how callously he's been treated and thrust out of the inheritance, and that the blessing has gone to the younger brother: 'Bless me, even me also, my father: he becomes at that moment, as I say, a potentially tragic figure.
In the story of Saul, who is another person first chosen and then rejected, you have what comes nearest, I suppose, to being the one great tragedy of the Bible. Because Saul, in the first place, is a man of heroic stature and proportions—he is said to be head and shoulders over every other man in Israel, he is an able king, and seems to be a decent and humane one. But he is under some kind of curse according to which he could do nothing right. We can see that his inability to do anything right has a good deal to do with the jealousy of Samuel, but then, Samuel seems to have a remarkably unpleasant God on his side. When King Agag is taken as a prisoner in warfare, Saul spares Agag out of ordinary human decency: he is bound and helpless and a prisoner. Samuel says that this is a mortal offence to the God who demanded Agag as a sacrificial victim; and therefore Samuel hews Agag in pieces before the altar of God. He says that God can never forgive Saul for this, because God is not a man, that he should change his mind. It's the only time in the Bible where God is spoken of as unforgiving. And so the narrator at this point, by sheer consistency and blundering, has added the one element to the story of Saul that makes it a genuine tragedy: that is, the suggestion of malice inherent in the divine nature. Normally, there is no room for that in the Bible. In Greek culture, where you have a polytheistic religion, you can have any number of vicious and bad-tempered gods. They are drawn from nature, and they reflect the irrational and amoral qualities of nature. But you very seldom get it in the Bible: it is perhaps only in this one passage that one does.
Absalom has again the rudimentary makings of a tragic hero. His beauty is stressed in the narrative, and certainly David's mourning over Absalom is in the general tonality of tragedy; but there again, the moral slant, the moral emphasis in the narrative is so strong that the sense of the fall of a semi-divine hero, like the crash of a great oak tree, which you get in the great tragedies of Ajax or Prometheus, is rather muffled and muted. It's one of the inevitable ironies of royal succession that Absalom finally represents. But he is certainly an example of the passing over of one for another.
You may find this a bit of a digression, but it's rather curious how at the time of the romantic movement in the 19th century, all these exiled figures come back again as tragic heroes. Byron writes a tragedy on Cain, and Moby Dick begins with the sentence, 'Call me Ishmael', and Saul and Esau and others are Romantic favorites. It has something to do, I think, with the nostalgia for a passing aristocracy, the sense of the rightful heir who has been driven into the desert.
You can carry back the pattern of the two brothers rather further than the Bible itself warrants if, for example, you think of Satan as the original firstborn son of God who is set aside for the younger son, Christ; and in fact, if you look at the fifth book of Paradise Lost, you can see exactly that scene: the jealousy of the older brother at being supplanted by this upstart of a younger brother, who, for reasons totally mysterious to him, has been preferred. Byron, who wrote a poem on the tragedy of Cain, also wrote a poem called The Vision of Judgment, in which Lucifer comes back to look at the Heaven constructed by the younger Son; and we're not surprised to find that Lucifer in Byron's poem is an icily polite aristocrat, and that, while his Messianic younger brother does not appear directly, he is clearly running a much more bourgeois establishment, where people like King George III can feel at home.
The emphasis in the Judas story is an ironic rather than a strictly tragic one. He hangs himself, and comes to the same kind of end as a tragic hero, but the emphasis is so strongly on the feeling that he got what was coming to him that there isn't so much of the sense of the fall of the hero. The tragic combines the heroic and the ironic, and in the Judas story I think you have only the ironic.
The expulsion of Adam from Paradise is again another example of God's passing over the elder son—that is a point that Paul again seizes on. The first Adam is the rejected Adam, and the second Adam in Christ is the deliverer; but of course in this case, the first Adam and the second Adam are the same person, because of the Incarnation. Consequently, the tragedy of Adam's expulsion from Paradise is an example of the Bible's passing through a tragic episode on its way to a comic conclusion. Similarly with the crucifixion of Christ, which is certainly a tragedy, but is followed immediately by resurrection.
The annulling of a line of succession by a new choice and a new action is again one of the elements that gives to the Biblical narrative that curious revolutionary quality which is part of our own cultural inheritance.