The terms that the Torah's employs to describe the firstborn or the “bechor” are “peter rechem”, (“the opener of the womb”) and “reshit ono” (the “first of his strength”). The mere fact of being firstborn entails a number of privileges in terms of power and property in contradistinction to the other children.

As far as power is concerned, the father’s firstborn is considered to be closest to the father. When property is divided among heirs, the firstborn receives twice as much as each of the other children.

In light of the distinct status of the firstborn, the behavior of the firstborn described in the Book of Genesis and other books of the Torah is of particular interest.

1) Cain was the firstborn. His sin is described both in the Torah and commentaries. We will only mention that Cain had much more power than Abel and thought Abel to be inferior. That explains why Cain was so deeply humiliated and enraged when Abel’s sacrifice was appreciated by G‑d more than his offering. Instead of drawing the right conclusions, Cain killed Abel in sheer rage.

2) Enosh was also the firstborn. He was influential in initiating the worship of idols.

3) Noah, Ham, Canaan were all firstborns.

In Genesis 9:25 we read: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers”. In this essay we will focus why Canaan was cursed. The curse of Canaan and his descendants has been described as a kind of “legal rationale” of the fact that the Land of Canaan was given to Abraham and his descendants. According to Ramban, “The lands of the ten nations descending from the sons of Canaan were given to our forefather Abraham because all the descendants of Canaan were cursed to eternal slavery.”

Let us identify our characters.

The Torah lists the sons of Noah in the following sequence: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ramban is of the opinion that Ham is the youngest of them, based on the following quotation from the Torah: “When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him.” The Torah states: “Sons were born to Shem, he was the forefather of the sons of Eber and brother of Japheth, the older.” This, however, does not necessarily mean that Japheth was older than Ham. Ramban explains that Shem was named the first because of his righteousness and his merits. At the same time, Rashi believes that Ham was not the youngest son of Noah and the word ‘youngest’ should be understood as ‘mean’ or ‘vicious.’ Abraham ibn Ezra notes that a ‘son of the son,’ i.e. a grandson may also be named a youngest son.

It is evident that there is no consensus on this matter amongst the classical commentaries.

Let us try to analyze the matter logically. What are the facts we are aware of? First, the Torah lists the sons of Noah in the following sequence: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Second, Japheth was older than Shem. So, we have three options:

1) Japheth, Shem, Ham,

2) Japheth, Ham, Shem,

3) Ham, Japheth, Shem.

If we adopt Ramban’s position, Shem should take the first place because of his righteousness, so we have the following three options:

1) Shem, Japheth, Ham,

2) Shem, Japheth, Ham,

3) Shem, Ham, Japheth.

Thus, only option No. 3 is in line with the text of the Torah. So it seems reasonable to assume that Ham was the firstborn.

Canaan. The Torah says “Ham, the father of Canaan.” Yet at the same time the ancestral line of Ham says: “The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim and Put and Canaan.” Rashi asserts that Canaan was the fourth son of Ham. And, according to Ramban, Canaan was the eldest son, the firstborn, explaining this by the fact that the words “Ham, the father of Canaan” mean that by that time Ham had no other children and Canaan was listed the last due to his unrighteousness. Thus, if we share Ramban’s position, Canaan should be deemed to be firstborn.

What happened then? Let us refer to the Torah: “Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside… When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.’” A question arises: seemingly it was Ham who committed the sin and the curse fell upon Canaan and his descendants. Why? What was done to Noah and who did this?

Noah uncovered himself in his tent. However, Bereshit Rabbah says that Noah uncovered himself in the tent of his wife for the purposes of cohabitation. But would not Noach’s wife have covered his nakedness?

There are two other theories explaining what was done to Noah and who did this and such these are quoted by Rashi and in the Bereshit Rabbah. One theory says that Noah was castrated and the other says someone has entered into a prohibited sexual relationship with him. Let us dwell upon both these theories.

According to Ramban and one of the opinions expressed by Bereshit Rabbah, Canaan was cursed because Noah could not curse Ham who was blessed by the Lord, so Noah cursed the descendants of Ham. However, Abraham ibn Ezra disagrees. “Noah,” he writes, “cursed the wrongdoer; so if it was Ham who did this, why would Noah curse his son in this case?” Noah could not have cursed his innocent grandson and his descendants.

But what is it that was done to Noah? The Torah says that the children of Shem, Ham, and Japheth were born after the Flood. “Now these are the records of the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah; and sons were born to them after the Flood.” If we consider the situation in question, Canaan is one of the characters here and he is described as an adult, which means that at least 15 years passed after they left the Ark. So if Noah and his wife still had their childbearing potential they could quite possibly have children through these years. However, this was not the case. So we may conclude that Noah and his wife by that time could not have any children so there was no reason to castrate Noah with the view to prevent him from having any other sons. [Though Rashi quotes one opinion that puts the following words into Noah’s mouth: “This is through your fault that I am not going to become the father of my fourth son,” cried Noah, “who would have taken care of me. So let your fourth son [Canaan] be cursed.” However the fact that Noah had not had any children during the last 15 years poses a difficulty on this opinion].

So, the remaining explanation is a prohibited sexual relationship. So the question is: who did this? Another explanation offered by Rashi and also quoted by the Bereshit Rabbah says that Canaan saw Noah naked and told his father about this. However, the Torah says: “Ham saw.” The explanation that resonates with me is that of Abraham ibn Ezra: “The Holy Scripture does not reveal to us what was done, but it may be assumed that this was done by Canaan. Ham saw his father naked and did not cover him as his brothers did this later, but Ham told of what he saw and Canaan heard this and did something which remains unknown to us.” However, considering the above we may assume that this was a prohibited sexual relationship.

Let us reiterate that it seems like both Ham and Canaan were the firstborn.

4) The fate of the firstborn and the patriarchs is of particular interest.

Ishmael was deprived of his status as firstborn by his father. Esau, the firstborn son of Jacob, sold his birthright. Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob was also deprived of his birthright by his father. Before dying, Jacob blessed first not Menashe, the firstborn son of Joseph, but Ephraim.

Let us dwell upon the details of the story about Esau and Jacob. Whereas Ishmael and Reuben were deprived of their birthright by their fathers, Esau gave it away of his own free will. But why?

One possible explanation is alluded to in the way the Torah describes how Esau and Jacob were born: “Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau's heel, so his name was called Jacob.

Rashi and Bereshit Rabbah comment this as follows: “Jacob was right to grasp him to hold and prevent him from leaving the womb first because in fact Jacob was conceived first and Esau was conceived second.” Whilst in full agreement with the first part of this assertion, we will offer another explanation. Consider that Jacob and Esau were hetero-ovular twins. Modern gynecological research shows that the time span between the conceptions of hetero-ovular twins may vary from several minutes to seven days and it is not possible to identify who was actually conceived first. At the same time, the time span between deliveries of hetero-ovular twins may vary from fifteen minutes to one hour.

To my mind, Esau gave his birthright of his own free will because as a matter of fact this right was not his.

Another interesting thing is that Tamar also gave birth to twins in a miraculous way. Additionally, we should mention that Moses, too, was not the firstborn son and that after the golden calf sin, the Lord replaced firstborn with the Levites. Absalom was the firstborn son of King David but he rebelled against his father.

So what are the interim conclusions?

First, not all of the firstborn are sinners. We have the examples of Enoch, Methuselah, and the most eminent of the firstborn sons Abraham.

Second, almost all of the sinners described by the Torah were firstborn.

To better understand the Torah, let us get back to Adam, the first of the firstborn. The sin of Adam is described in detail. There is one aspect I would like to emphasize. The Lord entrusted Adam with great power over the universe. Having committed his sin, Adam abused his power and brought to the world the sin of the abuse of power.

If we think deeper, the source of all the problems (wars, conflicts, sufferings) that humanity has faced throughout its history is the abuse of power. Power corrupts. God Himself, whose power is absolute, offers us an example of how to use power in a right way. In the way God treats the universe, He always balances the remedy of justice with the remedy of mercy and He never abuses His power.

The fates of firstborn described by the Torah show that people having privileges in terms of power or in any other terms are more exposed to an evil inclination (yetzer hara) that makes them abuse their power; so to resist this evil inclination people entrusted with power and privileges must develop with themselves high moral qualities like responsibility, fairness, philanthropy, and mercy. Avraham was the most vivid example of such kind of a man.

In his Likkutei Sichot the last Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote: “Whenever a person is empowered to a larger extent than his or her neighbors, then the yetzer hara of such person is stronger than that of his or her neighbors. Since the more a person is gifted, the more importance is attached to the commandments to which he or she adheres. That is why the yetzer hara presents such person a considerable challenge. As humankind has the liberty of choice, the power of sacredness should be balanced by the power of opposite forces. So the person who is gifted more has more power in the reality of sacredness. And in a similar way, his or her yetzer hara also has more power.

The Torah shows that the Lord does not give privileges once and forever and the person abusing these privileges shall come to a sad end.

The first may become the last (such as with the example of Shaul who was firstborn). And the last may become the first (such as in the case of David).