Rabbi Arthur Waskow
ELDER/YOUNGER SIBLING THEME IN TORAH
My understanding of the elder/younger sibling theme in Torah is this (see my book *Godwrestling -- Round 2* for more details):
In "normal" history, first-borns have an advantage: they are always older and for quite a while are stronger, bigger, more powerful, more knowledgeable. In Israelite law, they get a double portion inheritaance.
BUT -- God turns this power imbalance around, in a double dance. First the younger sib "wins," and then there is a reconciliation. Power-over must be undone if there is to be real peace -- a dominating figure can never make a real peace with a subordinate .--
AND simply reversing the power relationships is also not what God wants.
In these stories it is crucial that the elders back off. Ishmael never challenges Isaac. Esau agrees to several of Jacob's transformations, and even lets it all go when Jacob runs away -- Though he threatened to kill him, he shrugs & gets married instead. The older brothers, without knowing it, accept Joseph's suzerainty.
Why doesn't Cain & Abel work this way? Precisely because it doesn't work. It fails. It is God's first experiment with favoring the second-born -- BUT THE 1ST-BORN REFUSES TO BACK OFF. Cain won't even respond when God asks "Why are you angry?" And Cain won't talk with Abel either. He kills instead. That response is a dead end, for himself as well as Abel.
Lesson: If you are the dominant one in a relationship, be prepared to back off if you want ultimate peace.
This theme does not in fact end in Genesis. In Exodus, there is an even more powerful escalation of the story:
God calls Israel "My first-born" as compared with Egypt.
This is obviously not true, in normal history -- just as Isaac & Jacob & Joseph are not first-borns.
Egypt (and Babylon) are manifestly older, bigger, richer, more powerful, smarter than Israel.
BUT GOD MAKES ISRAEL FIRST-BORN -- by turning history upside down, as in the Genesis cases.
Pharaoh should have backed off. But he wouldn't. So he is shattered (and Israel wins only at the cost of shattering Mother Egypt in the very moment of our birth through the breaking waters of the Red Sea, which you might say has colored our sense of history ever since).
It is the Prophets who look toward the time (may it come speedily, in our own day) when even Egypt "gets it" and Assyria too. When that day comes, Israel can live ALONGSIDE Egypt & Assyria, all three expressions of God's love. (See Isaiah 19:24)
And for us? -- When we have more power (men over women, Israel over Palestinians, whites over blacks, elder sibs over younger sibs) learn to back off -- so that reconciliation becomes possible.
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.