We remember snapshots of our first day of school each year rather well. One memory I have—and this recurred most years—was the teacher taking attendance to learn everyone’s names (how to pronounce them, if there was a shortened or lengthened version of the name they preferred, that kind of thing). I also remember the teacher recognizing a last name of one of her new students. Oh, any relation to …? she’d quiz the newcomer about family connections. When the student would admit being the younger sibling, the teacher would often make a comment or present a facial expression as though she knew what to expect from this younger sibling.
This memory stuck with me for some reason. Then I had kids of my own. My first two children were boys, and watching them develop, they seemed like opposites in so many ways, causing me to come to the conclusion that there were two kinds of kids. Then I had a third child and—guess what—there was a third flavor! All of a sudden, a joke I’d heard from a father of five made sense: “I have five kids: one of each.”
I now realize that two people from the same set of parents and growing up in the same house are guaranteed to be different. As a teacher myself now, I try to remember that, if someone has the same surname as another, chances are they will be (apart from physical similarities afforded by genetics) unique compared with the first student I had with that family name.
Yet, if we have siblings, we probably make a lot of assumptions as my elementary school teachers did. We assume that people are making these judgments about us based on our siblings. We hear a compliment someone makes of our sister, and we take it as tacit disapproval of the way we are. Sometimes, people will even tell us: Why can’t you be more like ‘insert your sibling’s name here’?
These comparisons—whether real or imagined—can be powerful, sometimes painful, controlling or even crippling. Of course you can’t control whether or not someone jumps to a conclusion about you, but what can you do if you’re feeling burdened by comparisons with your siblings?
Who Knows What ‘Naphtali’ Means?
The Bible is the greatest book to help us understand human interactions. And it is a book full of sibling relationships: from notorious ones like Cain and Abel to almost unknown ones like Huz and Buz. Most are listed as part of the many genealogies recorded in Scripture. Some are highlighted for their stormy interactions; the first sibling relationship recorded in the Bible ended in murder. Many others are filled with envies, deceptions and unfavorable comparisons.
Several brother-sister relationships are recorded. These are relatively free of tension, except for Miriam’s and Aaron’s momentary criticism of their brother’s authority. The only other dramas surrounding sibling relationships of both sexes are brothers defending their sisters’ honor (in the case of Dinah, the sister of Jacob’s sons; or in the case of Tamar, Absalom’s sister). Even fewer sister-sister relationships are mentioned in the Bible. One highlighted in the New Testament is that of Mary and Martha, who had the honor of hosting Jesus Christ in their home on at least a couple of occasions. In those instances, you can see two very different personalities and one growing a little irritated with the other—probably rooted in a touch of envy (see Luke 10:38-42).
Arguably the most famous sister relationship is found in the Old Testament: Leah and Rachel—a rivalry exacerbated by the fact that they both married the same man! In fact, did you know that one of the sons of Jacob (hence, one of the tribes of Israel) is named after this sibling rivalry? In Genesis 30, we read how Rachel was unable to conceive for some time (a problem Leah wasn’t having). When Rachel’s handmaid bore Jacob a son (which, in that culture, was legally as though Rachel bore him), Rachel named him a word meaning “wrestling” or “strife,” for she said: “With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed: and she called his name Naphtali” (verse 8).
The Bible is filled with far more examples of male sibling relationships—and many of these are fraught with turmoil. Cain murdered Abel. Esau and Jacob fought in the womb; Jacob tricked Esau; Esau pledged to hunt and kill his brother. Jacob’s sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery. There wasn’t much love lost between Judah’s sons Er and Onan. The same can be said for Gideon’s many sons and the evil Abimelech. David was constantly looked down upon by his older brothers. David’s sons (many of them technically half-brothers) caused each other plenty of trouble. David’s ancestor Pharez and brother Zarah had a breach that wasn’t healed for centuries. The unnamed elder brother of the “prodigal son” was jealous for all the fuss over the reformed younger son’s return. There were brother relationships where the two worked together, but were up to no good: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, and Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas. Other brother relationships, as far as we can tell, were largely cordial: Ephraim and Manasseh, Moses and Aaron (for the most part), and—in the New Testament—Andrew and Simon, as well as the sons of Zebedee: James and John.
What these instances show is that, whatever your situation, you’re not alone. There’s a scenario in the Bible likely similar to what you’re facing.
Your Sibling Is Unique … and So Are You!
Let’s dwell on this biblical fact: Siblings can be very different. We’ve already mentioned Cain and Abel, as well as Esau and Jacob (who were fraternal twins!).
“Think about how hard it is to name professional athletes who are siblings and who excel in the same sport,” writes Kevin Leman in The Birth Order Book. He said he was a sports fan and could only think of the Williams sisters in tennis and the Manning brothers in American football. “Indeed, siblings tend to go in different directions.”
This underscores the fact that we are all unique. Scientifically, this stands to reason: The combination of cells that formed each one of us is entirely unique to us!
Siblings are notorious for not liking to share, and even when they share their parents, there is still a great deal of difference between them. At the moment of conception, the one out of 40 million to 2 billion sperm cells from your father that fertilized the egg of your mother created a dna combination that made you.
Though there are traits we all share to some greater or lesser degree, no one has the exact dna combination that you have—unless you are an identical twin, in which case, you will probably be able to regale anyone with an impressive list of ways you and your twin are different.
If that didn’t make us unique enough, the order in which you were born also made an indelible imprint on the kind of human being you would become—as Dr. Leman’s book title suggests.
Birth order has a somewhat predictable way of playing itself out—not simply because of the order you came in, but how you were treated by your parents because of their birth order (i.e. the way they were treated because of their birth order), and based on the variable of what sex you are. This doesn’t mean your personality or character is predetermined, but it can certainly explain some key differences between you and your siblings.
Dr. Leman compares parents to the trunk of a tree and children to the branches. “All of us sprout in our own unique direction and make our own unique contributions,” he writes. Just as tree branches don’t all go in the same direction, “One of the best predictions in life is that whatever the firstborn in a family is, the second born in the family will go in a different (and oftentimes opposite) direction.”
Leman is careful not to oversimplify his conclusions: “Birth order is never a final determinant of anything, only an indicator of problems and tensions that you may discover or create for yourselves,” he writes.
The three birth orders that impact sibling relationships are the firstborn, middle child and the last born (the “baby”). The “only child” is a fourth birth order and doesn’t factor into our discussion (and very few are mentioned in the Bible). Of course, an only child blended into a family with stepsiblings will have to become acquainted with what we’re discussing here. Even if not, that only child might have children someday, and this information can be useful then too.
Even with twins, every set of twins will tell you who came out first.
So there are firstborns, which come in different flavors themselves: Some are compliant, some strong-willed and assertive, some content to stay in the background but still prove themselves reliable. “The world cannot ignore the firstborns,” Leman writes. “If you aren’t one, you have to deal with them somewhere along the line.”
Everything they do growing up tends to be a big deal, simply because of the attention their actions tend to receive from their parents. But the goal-oriented, winning-is-everything firstborn can also be crippled by an out-of-balance sense of perfectionism.
Middle children are harder to classify (and harder to find in family photo albums). Sometimes a middle child is the “firstborn” of his or her sex: e.g. big sister is firstborn, but the second child is the firstborn male—which alters the dynamic. What these children have in common, though, is that they tend to size up the sibling who came before. This is where comparisons are born.
Leman states: “A number of middle borns have told me they did not feel that special growing up. ‘My older brothers got all the glory, and my little sister got all the attention, and then there was me’ is a very familiar assessment.”
Still middle children tend to excel at making friends and being peacemakers; they can be good confidants, hold more realistic views of life and think outside the box.
Last borns commonly are charming, entertaining and fun-loving, though they can clown around to a disruptive or even reckless degree. They can be courageous at taking risks but also good at blaming others when things go wrong—having grown up in older siblings’ shadows. They may even get away with a lot (especially if one of their parents was the “baby” of the family).
These classifications don’t always hold true. For example, a number of factors could cause a second born to become a functional firstborn. “In the typical American family, we don’t have role reversal occurring with the second born cheating the firstborn out of a birthright,” Leman writes, referring to the famous biblical account of Esau and Jacob. “Instead, the younger child can ‘take over’ from the older in areas such as achievement, prestige, assuming responsibility, and pleasing the parents.”
Spoons Don’t Cut Steaks
Have you ever tried to use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail? Or a hammer to tighten a screw? How about trying to eat soup with a fork? Or cutting your steak with a spoon?
Again, we each were born as unique individuals, even if we came from the same set of parents. Many of our personality traits are simply like different tools. Saying a hammer is better than a screwdriver or that a knife is better than a spoon is ridiculous. Often, the comparisons we make with others are just as unreasonable.
The Apostle Paul warned against comparing ourselves among ourselves, which he said is “not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). We do compare ourselves to the “rule [measuring device] which God hath distributed to us” (verse 13). If anyone (sibling or otherwise) is setting a godly example, that’s a worthwhile comparison—not comparing yourself to them, but to the extent that they are emulating Jesus. (By the way, Jesus grew up in a house with multiple brothers and sisters—Mark 6:3.)
Comparing ourselves with others—siblings especially—can be problematic. For example, we can use those to excuse a number of wrong reactions. One reaction might be to give up in areas before we even try. “If you have kids in higher positions in the family who do very well, that next-in-line child might think, Hey, what’s the use of even trying? I can’t measure up to what they’ve accomplished” (ibid.)
This often manifests itself in the form of “assigning” strengths to each sibling: My brother is the mathematical one can translate into a mental block about math. My sister is the popular one can be used to justify a selfish withdrawal from social contact.
Another reaction might be to use the comparison to inflate our vanity—to give us a dangerous and unrealistic sense of superiority—as some in 2 Corinthians 10:12 were prone to do. More commonly though, these comparisons seem to feed a nagging inferiority complex being thrust on us by the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).
How Far Have YOU Come?
We cannot control comparisons other people make about us and our siblings. But we can control how we react. Don’t take a compliment given to your sister as disapproval for how you’ve fallen short. Instead, be happy for her: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice …” (Romans 12:15). Nor should you feel some great accomplishment when things go wrong for your brother (the same verse says “weep with them that weep”).
In that same chapter, Paul uses the love of brothers to illustrate how people should behave in the Church: “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love …” (verse 10; see also Hebrew 13:1). In fact, the Greek word for brotherly love is in the name of God’s end-time true Church: the Philadelphia Church of God.
God didn’t intend for sibling relationships to be plagued by tensions or jealousies, wrestlings or strifes. He didn’t intend for these to be the source of either a superiority or inferiority complex. Instead, iron can sharpen iron (Proverbs 27:17). We can look up to those older than us if they are being a good example. We can see our younger siblings making godly choices and allow their efforts to ignite us to greater achievement.
As Paul said when talking about comparisons: God evaluates us based on where we came from and how far we’ve come (2 Corinthians 10:14-16).
He summed up this discussion in verses 17-18 (New King James Version): “But ‘he who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’ For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends.” That is the commendation all of us should seek.