Primogeniture and Patriarchy
I was chatting with a young man yesterday and during our conversation he stated that he believes the Bible teaches “a soft patriarchy while we’re on earth.” One reason he believes in this “soft patriarchy” is because he regards primogeniture as being part of God’s pattern for society, with Adam being created before Eve as a key example of this pattern.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “primogeniture” can have two meanings. It can simply mean (1) “the state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents” with differing implications, or it can mean (2) “an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.” With the first definition in mind, Adam and Eve might be understood as being children of the same parent, God, with Adam being the firstborn (Luke 3:38; cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).
Genesis 2 and 1 Timothy 2:13 (which is a summary statement of Genesis 2) tell us that Adam (or ha’adam) was created first and Eve was created second. But do these scriptures indicate that this order is significant and part of God’s design for relationships? Do they indicate that there is a continuing pattern of primogeniture or priority of man first and woman second? Do these scriptures somehow mandate an exclusively male authority or a soft patriarchy? Do they indicate “an exclusive right of inheritance” for Adam that excluded Eve?
5 Reasons why the Primogeniture Argument Doesn’t Work
To link patriarchy among Christians to primogeniture in Genesis is fraught with problems. Here are five reasons why it doesn’t work.
1. After the operation recorded in Genesis 2:21-22, the first (hu)man was different from when he had first been created by God. A part, or side, of him had been taken out. A part of him was now missing and had become an integral part of the woman. This transference of a significant body part from Adam (or ha’adam) to Eve makes the idea of man first, woman second, less clear-cut and decisive.
2. Primogeniture is about birth order, but neither Adam or Eve were born; they were both made by God. There is no Bible verse that actually states that Adam was “firstborn.”
3. The custom of primogeniture was part of many ancient societies, including Israelite society, but it only involved sons, not daughters, not women.
4. The custom was not followed by many prominent biblical families.
Cynthia Westfall writes about this fourth point.
Throughout the Genesis narrative, it is clear from the beginning that someone who was born or came first did not necessarily have authority. Primogeniture among brothers was continually subverted, so Genesis cannot be used to provide an argument for male authority based on Adam being formed first. Cain was born first, but Abel received God’s favor. Esau was born first, but God chose Jacob. Reuben was born first, but the line of Christ came through Judah, and Joseph saved the family and assumed authority over them. Manasseh was Joseph’s firstborn, but Jacob placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head to say that he would become greater.
Other books of the Old Testament also show that God endowed younger brothers with a greater authority than that of their older siblings. For example, Moses had more authority than his older brother Aaron; David was the youngest son of Jesse but was chosen by God to be king of Israel; Solomon became David’s successor despite not being David’s firstborn son.
The custom of primogeniture was not closely or universally followed by the Israelites. More importantly, God disregarded the custom in some key instances. And in Exodus 4:22, he speaks metaphorically of the whole nation of Israel (not just the males) as being his firstborn son.
5. Importantly, the concept of primogeniture has no place among Jesus’ followers in the New Creation. Rather, Jesus taught that in his kingdom “the last are first and the first are last” (Matt. 20:16). He also taught other similarly counter-cultural and equalizing principles. (More about Matthew 20:16 and the parable of the vineyard workers here.)
Primogeniture and Jesus
In God’s kingdom, of which we are a part, the only person who can claim the right of primogeniture is Jesus himself. Westfall points out that “Jesus is the firstborn of all of us” who are in Christ (Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18), and that this truth “relativizes relationships among his followers.” In other words, there is equality among Jesus’ followers as we, without respect to gender, are being conformed into the image of our older brother.
Primogeniture is not a dynamic that God instituted in society or that Jesus condoned. Furthermore, Paul debunked the idea that men have some special position or privilege simply because Adam was created first. In 1 Corinthians 11:12, Paul taught that even though the first woman came from the first man, every other man has been born from a woman. He further stated, “But everything comes from God.” Both men and woman ultimately have God as their source. There is no gender distinction here, but mutual interdependence between the sexes.
In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 CSB
Men do not have a greater level of authority nor do they have a better inheritance than their sisters. Rather, we will all share in an amazing inheritance (Eph. 1:21-22). Christian men and women are co-heirs with not the slightest sense of primogeniture. We are even co-heirs with our older brother Jesus (Rom. 8:16-17)!
The amazing theological truths of the New Covenant and our new creation in Christ have a direct bearing on our present relationships within the community of Jesus followers. In this community, the church, there should be no place for a gender hierarchy or a patriarchy of any description.
 The Hebrew word tsela, which is traditionally translated as “rib” in Genesis 2, typically means “side.” (See here.) John H. Walton explains that by looking at how the word tsela is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, “we would have to conclude that God took one of Adam’s sides—likely meaning that he cut Adam in half and from one side built the woman.” Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 78.
 Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 78.
Westfall quotes Richard Hess in a footnote: “The norm among the patriarchs is not primogeniture but God’s blessing on the second or third born.” Hess, “Equality with and without Innocence: Genesis 1-3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004), 84.
 Westfall, Paul and Gender, 78.
 Jesus never mentions anything like a created order of man first, woman second. In the Gospels, he quotes from Genesis 1 where the narrative indicates that men and women were created at the same time. For instance, in Matthew 19:4, Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Haven’t you read that the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female?” Jesus also quotes from Genesis 2: “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Jesus taught about unity (i.e. oneness) in marriage; he did not teach that there is, or should be, male authority or a gender hierarchy in marriage (Matt. 19:5-6).
 Question and answer 34 of The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that, through adoption, we “have a right to all the privileges of the Sons of God.” There is no gender distinction here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2017
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Postscript: April 12, 2022
B.T. Roberts makes this comment about the woman being made last, after the man.
It is urged [by some] that the Bible represents the woman as inferior to the man, and subject to him; therefore she should not be permitted to occupy a position equal to his, either in church or in state. As proof of this, the fact that she was created last is presented. But, if this proves anything, it proves her superiority. For the work of creation proceeded in regular gradation from the lower to the higher.
B.T. Roberts, Ordaining Women (1891)
“Firstborn” in Jewish Virtual Library
The Status of Christian Women, in a Nutshell
The Significance of the Created Order, in a Nutshell
Is a gender hierarchy implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 2:4-25?
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
All my articles on Genesis 1-3 are here.
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:13 are here.