Sacred history is full of surprises. Turns in the plot can turn our thoughts. When lesser patterns don't work out, we may notice the greater, enduring ones.
Having created in us a hunger for stories, our Father doesn't just tell them. He brings them to pass. The quest for salvation — whether for all mankind or for a family or for one soul — is always a drama. Behind the drama is him we acknowledge as "the author." The God of history, who never stops teaching his children, is the master blacksmith of irony, you might say.
One notable irony is the failure of some firstborn sons to receive their expected "birthright."
At first glance, "primogeniture" seems logical enough. The eldest starts having experience before the others. Life bestows on each passing year a multiplying effect, like compound interest. In wisdom and resource of every kind, the older stays ahead of the younger. The first has known the parents longest and best. He can represent them more fully. It befalls him to preside among the children.
In the absence of the father, who will have the right and the rightness to rescue those who fall on hard times? The senior member, it seems. No wonder ancient tradition entitled the birthright son to a double inheritance, in order to fund his crucial role.
But in story after story, scripture makes primogeniture a lesser pattern. Of the many who were called by being born first, few were chosen.
True, God's own Firstborn does preside. He is the pattern for all big brothers. He has the greater experience and wisdom. He represents the Parent perfectly. His office calls for special resources. Upon him has been bestowed ultimate power. He is the one in whom the siblings may trust when they fall on hard times. But what has always set this son apart is not primogeniture, but genuine goodness and supreme generosity.
We learn the essence of birthright when the Father refers to his Firstborn as "my Righteous Servant." In the very same statement is then described his service to the other children: "He shall bear their iniquities."
The Righteous Servant is righteous — he lives worthily. But moreover, the Righteous Servant serves — he pleases the Parent because he helps the younger ones through their hard times.
Really, this privilege is open to every family member. Nobility is always in reach of the younger, for the Firstborn declared that greatness consists in being the servant of all.
And the older can always honor the towering nobility of a "little" brother or sister.
In the large family of Jacob, birthright fit best upon the head and heart of a junior member. And yet, like Laman's perception of Nephi, Cain's jealousy against Abel, or Lucifer's view of Jehovah, creative malice persuaded Joseph's brothers to construe evil where there was none.
Joseph did not seek the birthright job. He learned of it early on, through unsolicited revelation, that he might begin learning his lessons. He was polished for it by hard tutorials. It came to him because he was good to the core.
He was a righteous servant to peevish and crusty men. With their eyes at last open in old age, they plead, "Forgive … the trespass of thy brethren."
Joseph wept in compassion while they "fell down before his face."
"Am I in the place of God?" he asked. And then "he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them."
In Joseph we notice a greater pattern, like the one Son who really is in the place of God.
(References: 1 Corinthians 14:33; Hebrews 5:9; Isaiah 53:11; Mark 10:44; Genesis 50:15-21)
Wayne E. Brickey, who lives in Gallatin, Mo., is a retired Church Educational System teacher and curriculum writer and has been a tour guide to Holy Land and Mormon history sites. His novel "Before His Manger: The Long Wait for Christ's First Coming" can be found in serialized segments on MormonTimes.com.