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The word firstborn or the only begotten apart from having a literal meaning it has spiritual significance as well.

We know Abraham had two sons—Ishmael the firstborn from Hagar, and then many years later Isaac was born to him from Sarah. But the Bible calls Isaac as the only begotten son of Abraham.

Hebrews 11:17 “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son”.

The only begotten, spiritually speaking, is the promised one.

God chose the nation Israel as his peculiar people through which He would bless the world. When He brought them out of the land of Egypt God told them,

 Exodus 19:5, 6 “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”

In this context God told Pharaoh that nation Israel was his firstborn as they were the people of promise. The scripture says,

Exodus 4:22 “And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israelis my son, even my firstborn”

Israel had 12 sons whose descendents were the 12 tribes of Israel. The firstborn was Rueben but he did not receive the promises as he proved unfaithful. Joseph and Judah received special blessings of the promises. The scriptures says,

1 Chronicles 5:1, 2 “Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright. For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the chief ruler; but the birthright was Joseph’s:)”

Yes, the “birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel”. And we know the story how Joseph brought his two sons for blessings. Manasseh was the firstborn of Joseph but Ephraim the second son gets the promised blessing. Joseph tried to correct his father “error”, but Jacob was guided by God to do that.

Genesis 48:13-15 “And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him. And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the firstborn. And he blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day”.

Notice what Joseph says while blessing them.

Genesis 48:16 “The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

 “Let my name be named on them”. The name of Israel would also be their name. Ephraim who received that coveted blessing from Israel was later called by the name Israel many times. The kingdom of Israel was called Ephraim as well. We see this clearly in the book of Hosea where God rebukes the nation Israel using the name Ephraim, the one who received Jacob’s blessing and name. We see God interchangeably using the name of Ephraim and Israel in many places.

 Hosea 11:8 “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel?”

Hosea 11:12 “Ephraim compasseth me about with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit”

In the book of Jeremiah the prophet calls Ephraim as the firstborn of God because another name of Israel was Ephraim and another name of Ephraim was Israel. The Lord said,

Jeremiah 31:9 “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

So who is God’s firstborn—Israel or Ephraim? Both the answers are correct!