Some people say that every birth is a miracle. To a certain extent, I suppose that is true. There would be no babies, or flowers, or ears of corn, if not for the God who made everything in the beginning and who still provides for his creation every day. But when everything is a miracle, then nothing is miraculous. When a baby enters the world in the usual way, we thank God for the new life. When a baby enters the world in a special way, we marvel at the miracle.
God told Abraham that his family would become a mighty nation, but Abraham and Sarah had no children. When God first spoke his promise, Abraham was seventy-five years old, and Sarah was sixty-five. As the years passed, neither of them was getting any younger. Twice Abraham tried to help God keep God’s promise. First, Abraham proposed to adopt Eliezer, his chief servant, as his heir. Later, at Sarah’s suggestion, he used her servant Hagar as a surrogate mother. Both times, God said no to Abraham. The promised heir would be born from Sarah, in a manner that would be undoubtedly a miracle.
Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. Only God could cause such a thing to happen. To underline the point, God repeated this miracle every few generations. Manoah’s wife could have no children until Jesus appeared to her and promised a son, who was Samson, the mighty man of Israel. Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, could have no children until she prayed to the Lord for a son, who was Samuel, the last judge of Israel. Elisabeth, the wife of the priest Zechariah, was too old to have children, but Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and promised him a son, who was John the Baptist.
All these miracles happened to prepare God’s people for a different kind of miracle. Isaiah told King Ahaz about the coming miracle: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). While it is true that the word translated “virgin” could simply mean “young woman” in Hebrew, it is also true that the word always designated an unmarried woman. Other words were appropriate for unmarried women who were not virgins. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5). Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).
Because Abraham did not trust God to keep God’s promise without Abraham’s help, Ishmael was born before Isaac. In Deuteronomy, it is written: “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Clearly this was written long after Ishmael and Isaac were born, but many ancient civilizations had similar rules. A man’s firstborn son was always to be his primary heir, receiving at least twice as much as any other son.
In Abraham’s family, this rule is repeatedly broken. God favors Isaac over Ishmael, even when Abraham pleads for Ishmael, the firstborn son. God favors Jacob over Esau, even though Esau was born first. Jacob favors Joseph, the son of his favorite wife, over all of Joseph’s brothers, most of whom were older than Joseph. Joseph even receives a double portion in his inheritance; instead one tribe of Joseph, there are two: the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Meanwhile, the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is passed down to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob. When Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, he gives priority to Ephraim, even though Manasseh was Joseph’s firstborn son.
How is Christ pictured by this anomaly? Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God the Father; the rights of the firstborn belong to him. Yet he entered the world to provide for our adoption as sons. Jesus trades places with us, taking on himself the guilt of our sins and paying our penalty, while granting to us the rewards he deserves. This is why we are all adopted as sons (not “children,” or, “sons and daughters”). God looks at each of us and sees the righteousness of his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the One I love. With you I am well pleased.” The ancestors of Jesus acted out this adoption as, again and again, the firstborn was set aside so a brother could receive the blessing, not by law or because of law, but because of grace.