The Battle of Brothers: The Old Testament and Sibling Rivalry

The topic of sibling rivalry is a very prevalent subject for most. According to the New World Encyclopedia, sibling rivalry is merely the competition that exists among brothers and sisters for attention. Sibling rivalry happens in most families, as nearly 80% of all families in the Western Hemisphere have at least two children. The subject of rivalries among siblings isn’t unique to the Western countries of the world though.  The main purpose of this paper is to investigate well known examples of sibling rivalry in the Old Testament, to compare those examples with each other, and to compare the dynamics of the Old Testament accounts with modern psychology.

The most well-known example of a sibling rivalry worldwide would probably be the story of Cain and Abel. In Genesis 2, Cain is shown as a “tiller of soil” while Abel becomes the keeper of sheep.  In the course of time, Cain brought an offering of “fruit of the soil” (most likely an offering of crops), and Abel brought the healthiest, choicest firstling of his flock of sheep as his offering. The story goes on to show that God is very pleased with Abel’s offering, but ultimately rejects Cain’s. Cain is disheartened and God explains to Cain that if he is upset he merely needs to “do right” to be uplifted. Cain became jealous of God’s approval of Abel, and instead of heading God’s words Cain directs his anger towards Abel. Cain then lures his brother away and kills him.

There are a number or theories when it comes to finding the root of sibling jealousy and endless combinations of possible factors. In some cases maybe your brother was the first born and it was always obvious that he received the most love from your parents. Maybe he wasn’t the first born, but was brilliant and extremely good-looking. Or maybe, you were the one the others were jealous of. But, researchers agree, no matter which side of the spectrum a person is on, those childhood feelings can manifest themselves into ugly resentment. God is referred to as “the Heavenly Father” constantly. I think it is clear that Cain envied Abel for his approval from God. In out of resentment and frustration, he was willing to kill his brother.

Being frustrated and even jealous with a sibling for “outshining” you is something a lot of people can relate to. Even people without siblings, but with cousins or even peers, there is a competition for attention from parents, teachers, etc. This phenomenon happens constantly, but less than often becomes violent. Why then was Cain driven to kill his brother? After a close look at the story of Cain and Able, and the dynamics happening in the story, it seems that ultimately Cain was not willing to sacrifice more for God. Instead of striving to “do right” like God told him, Cain took the “easier road” and tried to eliminate his competition.

This isn’t the only example of this course of action being taken in the Old Testament.  Another shining example of siblings trying to eliminate their competition out of jealousy and rage is in the story of Joseph.

Genesis chapter 37 through 50 depicts the life of a man named Joseph. As indicated in chapter 37, verses 3 and 4, Joseph’s father, Jacob, loved him more than the other sons. Jacob regularly displayed this affection and even made Joseph an ornamented tunic. This bestowment of affection onto Joseph by Jacob angered Joseph’s brothers. Joseph was one of twelve and was a dreamer. In Joseph’s first dream the families binding sheaves were all laying in a field when suddenly Joseph’s sheave stood upright and his brother’s sheaves all began to bow to his. Joseph’s second dream was very similar in that eleven stars, and even the sun and the moon, were bowing to him. Joseph’s brothers were infuriated by his dreams as shown in verse 11 of chapter 37, where it says his brothers were “wrought up at him.”

Later on, Joseph’s father sent him to meet his brothers who had been pasturing in a distant area. When Joseph approached his brothers saw him from a far and plotted to kill him. But one of the brothers, Reuben, protested the idea of bloodshed and suggested the idea of abandoning him in the wilds. So the brothers agreed to throw Joseph into a pit and leave him to die in the wilderness. But another brother, Judah, also seemed apprehensive about killing their brother as show in the following verses:

“And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren, what profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.” (Genesis 37: 25-28).

Joseph’s story is similar to the story of Cain and Able in that jealousy and envy was the driving source of the sibling rivalry. Where Cain was jealous of the favor from God, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of the favor from Jacob. Where the stories begin to differ is when Joseph has his dreams. Joseph has dreams of his brothers bowing to him, and this propels the brother’s envy and frustration into full out hatred for Joseph. The brother’s even plotted to kill Joseph, but some of the eleven did not wish to see him dead.  This could indicate the possibility of differing relationships among the brothers and Joseph. This seems reasonable because the relationship between two individuals is always unique. But in the end, all of the brothers desired for Joseph to be out of the picture, and accomplished this by selling him into slavery.

In the Christian Gospels, Jesus and his Apostles repeatedly tell their followers to “love one another as brothers.”  This repeated admonition may tend to give a certain impression that “brotherly love” is a natural condition that will come forth “by itself” whenever there are brothers or sisters within a family, and that parents don’t have to do anything but relax and watch the unfolding of this wonderful “natural” phenomenon.

This belief (in brotherly love as a natural condition) appears to overlook the fact that  Jesus and his Apostles were born into and raised within the Jewish culture, which at that time was already more than three thousand years old.  Now, one of the main objectives of Jewish traditions and culture has always been to promote the peaceful coexistence of peoples, beginning with peace and harmony within each family.  It seems likely that, after three thousand years of considering the problem of sibling rivalry (remember the story of Cain and Abel as an example of what happens when nothing is done) the Jewish people would have developed fairly effective procedures of dealing with it, so that by the time of Jesus Christ within the Jewish culture “brotherly love” was in fact synonymous with “pure and unselfish love.”

But in the case of Joseph and his brothers, there was no “brotherly love.” There was, however, envy and hatred. It would seem the dynamics of the family have an extreme effect on the relationship of siblings. Anger and resentment were propelled by agitation (Joseph’s dreams), resulting in a horribly intense sibling rivalry. Another example of family dynamics in a sibling rivalry of the Old Testament is the story of Joseph’s father, Jacob.

My third case of sibling rivalry was vividly portrayed by Esau and Jacob in their tussle for their father’s blessing. Jacob tricked Esau into giving up his birth right one night while in the wilderness. When Esau heard that Jacob had deceitfully taken his blessing, he burst out bitterly. He held a grudge against Jacob and even planned to kill him. When did it all begin? It started when Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, overheard Isaac, Jacob’s father, decide to bless Esau. She then schemed to obtain the blessing for Jacob (Gen. 27:8-10,14-17). But we have to go further back to find the reason for the sibling rivalry.

Rebekah knew that God had chosen Jacob from the beginning (Gen. 25:23). She could have reminded Isaac, but she didn’t. And why did Isaac choose to bless Esau? It was improbable that Rebekah did not tell Isaac that the older Esau will serve the younger Jacob. It might well be that Isaac was present when God told Rebekah of His choice of the younger. How could we account for the separate actions of Rebekah and Isaac?

Rebekah and Isaac were united in marriage but separate in spirit. They were not communicating with one another. Even after the deception, Rebekah was not speaking the truth with Isaac. When Jacob had to flee from Esau’s anger, note the reason that Rebekah gave for Jacob’s departure was that she did not wish for Jacob to make the same mistake of marrying a Hittite or Canaanite woman (Genesis 26:34-35, 27:46-28:2). This dynamics that spurred this rivalry between Jacob and Esau are the actions and relationships of Rebekah and Isaac.

How parents “fight” or “don’t fight” in front of their children communicate lessons in life about how to treat others. Rebekah was underhanded with Esau and had Jacob trick her eldest son and husband. Jacob’s behavior is a consequence of his mother and father’s relationship.

It would seem Jacob inherited poor marital skills from his parents as seen in the next example of sibling rivalry in the Old Testament. This example is the story of two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and their strange situation. Probably no situation on earth could bring out the worst sibling rivalry between sisters than for them to be married to the same man. Both Rachel and Leah were Jacob’s wives and they constantly battled for his attention and affection.

Rachel originally captured Jacob’s heart. He labored seven years for her father Laban in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Jacob didn’t mind the wait because he was in love. The years “seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:20). But Laban turned out to be treacherous. On their wedding night, he substituted Leah for Rachel; and by the time Jacob woke up to the deception, it was too late. Laban completed his plan by offering to let Jacob still marry Rachel as long as he committed to another seven years of labor.

Although Rachel had Jacob’s heart, she was at first unable to have his children. But Leah gave Jacob four sons. Rachel became so upset that she insisted that Jacob have children with her servant, Bilhah. Monogamy certainly would have been a better option for this family, but it probably would not have kept Rachel and Leah from jealous battles. Jacob could have practiced greater wisdom and compassion with his wives, but his love for Rachel blinded him to many mistakes. Leah never got over being the second-place wife. Rachel allowed her insecurities and envy toward her sister to disrupt the special place she had with Jacob.

Envy and jealousy, the cause of this rivalry, grow as by-products of comparisons with others. Favorable comparisons tend to lead to pride and arrogance. Unfavorable ones lead to dejection and anger. Comparisons with others rarely promote goodness. God told Jacob and his wives to find their worth in Him. Instead, the two sisters fell into a feud of jealousy and resentment.

People are decision-making social beings whose main goal in life is to belong. Each of us strives continually to find and maintain a place of significance. Choosing how you belong is a powerful motivation.

Final comparisons and analysis of exaples.

God’s involvement.











Don Dinkmeyer and Gary C. McKay, STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting): The Parents Handbook (Minnesota: American Guidance Service, 1989).

Dunn, Judy and Carol Kendrick. 1982. Siblings: Love, Envy, and Understanding . Harvard University Press.

“Sibling Rivalry.” New World Encyclopedia. MediaWiki, April 2 2008. Web. March 7, 2011.

Berube, Jennifer. “Understanding Jealousy Among Adult Siblings.”, Dec 17, 2008. Web. March 7, 2011.

Ashlimin, D. L. “Cain and Able.” Scriptures and Folk tales. Web. March 7, 2011.

Reit, Seymour. 1988. Sibling Rivalry. Ballantine Books.

University of Michigan Health System, Sibling Rivalry. Web. March 09, 2011.

The Jewish Bible. Tanakh Translation. Jewiosh Publication Society. Oxford University P.

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2 Responses to The Battle of Brothers: The Old Testament and Sibling Rivalry

  1. bethanyschuler says:

    I think that you’re ideas and what you have so far is really good! I really liked the comparing and contrasting of the Joseph and Cain and Abel stories in the beginning. I also found it interesting how you related the sibling rivalry to the parents’ relationship. I never thought about that and after reading it, it makes a lot of sense. I think that you may have given a bit too many detailed examples, though. I would try and stick to two main stories and really develop them and then just name the other examples to draw a relationship between all the stories. I think it may be interesting to find some examples of sibling rivalry today or what the rivalries are like today and the impact on families. Just some thoughts. Again this is a great start.

  2. Some additional observations. In the first couple of paragraphs, be clear about what claims you are making. You say that you are bringing sibling rivalries to bear on modern psychology. To what end?

    Also, what do the Christian gospels have to do with your interpretation? The connection is unclear.

    As you develop your reading, strive to weave in your analysis with quotations from the text. Otherwise, this is a good start

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