Sibling rivalry runs deep in the human soul – but the tale of the prodigal son has something to teach us all

Justine Toh writes for The Guardian on the relationship that keeps on giving: sibling rivalry.

Prince William and Prince Harry. Kim and Kourtney Kardashian. Liam and Noel Gallagher. Cain and Abel. Same womb, lifelong rivals. When siblings clash, worlds hang in the balance. Who is in the right and who is in the wrong? (A very elder sibling question to pose, it turns out). More importantly, who is the favourite?

Both questions miss the point, I’ve learned, and from a surprising source: the Bible.

Parenting expert Michael Grose sums up his birth order thesis in the title of his bestselling classic: Why First-borns Rule the World and Later-borns Want to Change It. The gist: if you’re the elder sibling, you’re on a fast track to the establishment. Responsibility and duty beckons. Youngest in your family? Rebellion and risk-taking is more your thing.

There are always exceptions, even in the original sibling rivalry story: the biblical account of Cain and Abel. Cain Side A is elder, brawny, the expected heir. Cain Side B, however, knows the crushing weight of family expectation. In killing Abel, he rebels and flouts responsibility simultaneously. We’re told that God had “looked with favour” on Abel and his offerings. The natural order of things had flipped, the younger had unseated the elder. Resentment, envy and competition prove a toxic mix: the first ever big brother commits the first ever murder.

Philosopher Leon R Kass, the author of The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, reads Cain and Abel’s story as paradigmatic – as a story “show[ing] us not so much what happened as what always happens”. Expect the eternal return of the dynamic, in other words.

In Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah, a decade old this year, the murder of Abel is treated as a prototype of all strife and war to follow, with swords and guns superimposed over Cain’s silhouette as he strikes the killing blow. The scene nails the primal jealousy of the sibling relationship – as understood by any parent who’s had to shield a baby from the murderous instincts of their elder sibling. To a kid facing stiff competition in the cuteness stakes, the abounding love of a parent (the ultimate in acceptance and approval) feels a measly thing when forced to be shared.

We’ve been around the sibling rivalry merry-go-round since forever. Aron and Cal of John Steinbeck’s American classic East of Eden powerfully retells the story of Cain and Abel, complete with the unfavoured Cal’s gut-wrenching attempts to win the love of a distant father. Succession is a thinly veiled take on, among other things, Lachlan and James Murdoch’s bitter contest over the Murdoch media empire.

Then there’s the tension between Mufasa and Scar, Boromir and Faramir, Thor and Loki, Gamora and Nebula. There’s a reason we keep returning to stories where insecurity abounds, the anger is bitter, the shame an enveloping storm: sibling rivalry apparently runs deep in the human soul.

The warring parties in question don’t have to be blood relatives, either. Plenty of other “siblings” squabble over worthiness. Arts graduates v MBAs. Religious types who disapprove the fuzzy commitments of the Spiritual But Not Religious. Or a government, say, concerned to prove itself the “better economic manager”, which sounds like an angsty younger sibling move. Meanwhile, the term “welfare bludger” might be older-brother-speak for “I’ve had to earn everything in life. So should you.” Ouch.

We get glimmers of a resolution to this elemental rivalry in a famous story Jesus told, the parable of the prodigal, or wasteful, son. The younger of two brothers requests his inheritance in advance and spends it abroad in “wild living” before returning home to ask for forgiveness. The father is thrilled, welcoming him back without question.

The older brother is judgy and sour because – cue the sibling refrain – it’s not fair. He has behaved responsibly (“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders,” he complains) but the brattish brother is still in dad’s good graces.

Contrary to what the eldest believed was the way of the world, input doesn’t always equal output. Apparently, you can get something for nothing: a picture of the world where older sibling types have more to lose than anyone else. They might be good at keeping the rules, but here the rules get broken for love.

The welcoming dad is meant to be God, who has mercy on sinners. Sure, but the twist is that the “sinners” are not only those we expect. We assume it’s the “prodigals”, but Jesus’s story makes the outrageous claim that older brother types are as equally in need of divine favour as their more obviously wayward siblings. Rebellion, it seems, comes in many forms: for some, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll; for others frosty filial piety (“slaving for you”). You can run away without ever leaving home.

The tale doesn’t exactly resolve the age-old conflict between brothers, but it makes the claim that God, the ultimate parent, couldn’t care less about worthiness, but has love to spare for all.

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Australia.