I recently came across this rather uncomplimentary moniker – deputy mother – given to firstborn daughters for the unwelcome role they naturally assign themselves. That of keeping their siblings in line. I had no problem seeing how apt the title is as I regularly witness the high handedness with which my girl#1 treats her younger sibling.
I mentioned this name to my siblings and they had a ball: retrieving incidents, from their dusty mental archives, of yours truly bossing them around in our childhood. You forced us to trim our nails, lined us up to sing the new songs you learnt in boarding school, apportioned household chores allocating yourself the lighter duties, demanded we dress up and tag along with you to church… and so the list went on. They claimed that crossing me was more fearsome than annoying our (real) mother. All that to say I took my place in the birth order quite seriously.
These many years later I realise that I cannot convince those siblings of mine that whatever I did was for their own good and that I did not apportion the house work unfairly. I can live with their teasing but I have a problem when God himself seems to have issues with first borns.
Take for instance Manasseh and Ephraim. Joseph their papa brought them to Jacob his aging father, for a blessing, before the old man crossed over to the other shore. Manasseh, being older was placed at the right side of grandpa, so he could receive his appropriate blessing. This was commonly associated with preference, power and strength.
The blind patriarch however crosses his arms so that the right hand rested on Ephraim the second born. Aghast, Joseph hastens to straighten Jacob’s arms to correct the situation. Could the oversight have been due to his failing eyesight? But the old man insists on crossing them again; making his point clearly – I know what I am doing!
This incident –reversal of the expected preference of the firstborn – is only one of many. A study of the book of Genesis reveals there were more. Jacob for instance was also a second born who had been preferred over his older brother Esau. To say it gave me some indigestion is an understatement. It gave me a few days’ worth of food for thought. It’s not that I am looking for a way to get an upper hand over my siblings in any property my parents may want to hand over to us – but this apparent unfairness baffles me! Why would God hold my birth position against me? Even more – why the unfairness? And if he is unfair in this matter – who knows in how many other areas he is unfair?
From our earliest days the sense of fairness is deeply ingrained in us. It’s not unusual to hear a child in the playground shout, it’s unfair, to a playmate who might be hogging a toy or not waiting for their turn. We want to get what we believe we deserve. It’s only fair that we reap the fruits of our hard work – right?
Reading the passing over of first born brought to the surface my hidden fear that God is not just. The favouring of Jacob over his brother rather than being a lesson in injustice – is a lesson in grace. That God’s choosing has nothing to do with what either had done – it was undeserved. If you come from my entitled first born mentality – that’s the last thing you want to hear. You have worked hard, you deserve results. If it’s all grace – what then will happen to all my hard work and goodness? You wonder, thinking that grace will short charge you … give you less than you deserve.
As the child who always painted inside the line, worked extra hard and kept to the straight and narrow – I harbour this fear that God will pass me over, discard me and ignore all my dutiful deputy mother good works. But God up-ends my notions and in this confounding story shows me – I am actually the second, third or whatever-born who is getting more than they deserve.
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