The Younger Brother

There is a sort of image in the OT that repeats itself in different stories. It is the image of a younger brother being favored over an older sibling. Abel found God’s favor over Cain, Isaac was favored over Ishmael, Jacob gained the birthright over Esau, Joseph became the Egyptian chief steward over his brothers. For Christians, this theme is prophetic, pointing to the younger New Covenant succeeding its older brother, the Old Covenant of Israel. As noted in another essay, God swore a covenant with His people several times in OT history: with Adam & Eve, with Noah, with Abraham, then Moses, then David. Finally, the covenant was sworn with the Church, which is the New Covenant, continuing until the end of time.

Today, there are still people who follow elements of the Old Covenant: Jewish people. They still obey the requirements of the Sabbath and circumcision. I have nothing clever to say about the continuing existence of Judaism, even during this time of the Church. Much has been written and speculated on this subject. I have nothing negative to say about my older brothers & sisters of the Old Covenant. But, like all Christians, I recognize a New Covenant that has succeeded the old and my Faith is in the New.

Let’s look at these OT stories of “reverse succession.” The first is Cain & Abel. Cain was the older and Abel the younger sibling. They both offered sacrifice to the Lord, according to their own capacities (see another essay for more on their conflict). The Lord favored Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. This basic idea points to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the NT, which the Lord favors over the animal sacrifices of the OT.

Next we’ll look at the two sons of Abraham. Abraham’s wife was Sarah and for many years they had no children, so Sarah told Abraham to take her concubine, the Egyptian slave Hagar, and have a child through her. Hagar gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. After that, Sarah gave birth to a son, Isaac. Perhaps of interest to us is how God refers to Isaac as Abraham’s only son.

2 He [God] said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Gn 22:2)

What’s become of Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael? He was the son of an Egyptian slave and he was circumcised at age 13, as was the custom of Egypt (cf Gn 17:26). Isaac was, however, the son of a free woman and was circumcised at the age of eight days, as God had commanded (cf Gn 21:4). That is, Ismael represented the non-covenantal way of paganism, which was superseded by the covenantal way of God’s law. So was the Old Covenant superseded by the New. So was Ismael superseded by Isaac. Importantly, circumcision was common in the ancient world, but as a rite of passage to adolescence, around the age of puberty; the novelty of the Abrahamic covenant was applying it on the eighth day of a child’s life. As noted elsewhere, this reference of the eighth day is a singular type of the New Covenant, with its “eighth day sabbath.”

Now we’ll look at Jacob and Esau. In Gn 25:29-34, Esau sold his birthright as first-born son to Jacob, for a bowl of porridge, out of hunger. Later, Jacob tricked his blind father, Isaac, into thinking he was Esau and received the father’s blessing of the first-born; he did so by serving his father stew. Again, we see the younger superseding the older. This story emphasizes the father’s blessing on his first-born son, which reminds us of God’s declaration:

22 And you [Moses] shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son. (Ex 4:22)

The birthright of Israel, and the Father’s blessing, has transferred to the younger son: the Church.

One more similar story, this time not involving brothers. Instead, we will look at two successive leaders of Israel: Moses and Joshua. Moses was not allowed to lead Israel into the Promised Land, as he had defied a commandment of the Lord at the waters of Meribah (cf Nm 20:1-13). Instead, Joshua lead Israel into the Promised Land. Of interest is the name of Joshua. “Joshua” is a direct transliteration of the Hebrew name Yehoshua into English. There is another form of this Hebrew name in English, by transliterating the Hebrew into Greek (Iesous), then the Greek into English: Jesus. Christians have often seen the succession of Joshua over Moses as leader of Israel as a type of Jesus as head of a new Israel, succeeding the Mosaic covenant.

This is a basic doctrine of Christianity: We are the people of the New Covenant, which succeeded the Old. We are not better than the Jewish people, so much as we are better off. We enjoy the fulfillment of God’s covenant, one of mercy and grace, given to us by God as a great gift in this final age of the world.