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Essay On Sibling Rivalry In The Bible

For other uses, see Sibling rivalry (disambiguation).

Sibling rivalry is a type of competition or animosity among siblings, whether blood related or not.

Siblings generally spend more time together during childhood than they do with parents. The sibling bond is often complicated and is influenced by factors such as parental treatment, birth order, personality, and people and experiences outside the family.[1] Sibling rivalry is particularly intense when children are very close in age and of the same gender and/or where one or both children are intellectually gifted.[2]

Throughout the lifespan[edit]

According to observational studies by Judy Dunn, children are sensitive from the age of one year to differences in parental treatment. From 18 months on siblings can understand family rules and know how to comfort and be kind to each other. By 3 years old, children have a sophisticated grasp of social rules, can evaluate themselves in relation to their siblings, and know how to adapt to circumstances within the family.[1]

Sibling rivalry often continues throughout childhood and can be very frustrating and stressful to parents.[3] Adolescents fight for the same reasons younger children fight, but they are better equipped to physically, intellectually, and emotionally hurt and be intellectually and emotionally hurt by each other. Physical and emotional changes cause pressures in the teenage years, as do changing relationships with parents and friends. Fighting with siblings as a way to get parental attention may increase in adolescence.[4] One study found that the age group 10 to 15 reported the highest level of competition between siblings[5]

Sibling rivalry can continue into adulthood, and sibling relationships can change dramatically over the years. Events such as a parent’s illness may bring siblings closer together, whereas marriage may drive them apart, particularly if the in-law relationship is strained. Approximately one-third of adults describe their relationship with siblings as rivalrous or distant. However, rivalry often lessens over time. At least 80 percent of siblings over age 60 enjoy close ties.[1]


According to Kyla Boyse from the University of Michigan, each child in a family competes to define who it is as an individual and wants to show that it is separate from its siblings. Children may feel they are getting unequal amounts of their parents’ attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Children fight most in families where there is neither any understanding that fighting is not an acceptable way to resolve conflicts nor any alternative way of handling such conflicts; in families in which physical fighting is forbidden but no method of non-physical conflict resolution (e.g., verbal argument) is permitted, the conversion and accumulation of everyday disputes into long-simmering hostilities can have an effect nearly as corrosive. Stress in the parents’ and children’s lives can create more conflict and increase sibling rivalry.[3]

Other psychological approaches[edit]

Alfred Adler saw siblings as "striving for significance" within the family and felt that birth order was an important aspect of personality development. In fact, psychologists and researchers today endorse the influence of birth order, as well as age and gender constellations, on sibling relationships. However, parents are seen as capable of having an important influence on whether they are competitive or not.[6]

David Levy introduced the term "sibling rivalry" in 1941, claiming that for an older sibling "the aggressive response to the new baby is so typical that it is safe to say it is a common feature of family life."[7] Researchers today generally endorse this view, noting that parents can ameliorate this response by being vigilant to favoritism and by taking appropriate preventative steps.[8] In fact, say researchers, the ideal time to lay the groundwork for a lifetime of supportive relationships between siblings is during the months prior to the new baby's arrival.[9]


Parents can reduce the opportunity for rivalry by refusing to compare or typecast their children,[10] planning fun family activities together, and making sure each child has enough time and space of their own.[3] They can also give each child individual attention, encourage teamwork, refuse to hold up one child as a role model for the others, and avoid favoritism.[11] Teaching the children positive ways to ask for attention from parents when they need it can also make it less likely that they will resort to aggressive attention-getting strategies. Eileen Kennedy-Moore notes that this remedy also requires that parents "catch children being good" by responding to children's kind, helpful, and creative bids for attention.[12] Additionally, by being proactive about teaching children emotional intelligence, problem solving skills, negotiation skills and encouraging them to look for win-win solutions, parents can help children resolve conflicts that arise as a normal part of growing up together in the same household. A concerted effort by parents to reduce competitiveness while nurturing bonding can further help alleviate sibling rivalry.

However, according to Sylvia Rimm, although sibling rivalry can be reduced it is unlikely to be entirely eliminated. In moderate doses, rivalry may be a healthy indication that each child is assertive enough to express his or her differences with other siblings.[2]

Weihe[13] suggests that four criteria should be used to determine if questioned and/or questionable behavior is rivalry or sibling abuse. First, given that children use different conflict-resolution tactics during various developmental stages, one must rule out the possibility that the questioned behavior is in fact age-appropriate for the child exhibiting it. Second, one must determine whether the behavior is an isolated incident or instead part of an enduring pattern: abuse is, by definition, a long-term pattern rather than occasional disagreements. Third, one must determine if there is an "aspect of victimization" to the behavior: rivalry tends to be incident-specific, reciprocal, and obvious to others, while abuse is characterized by secrecy and an imbalance of power. Fourth, one must determine the goal of the questioned and/or questionable behavior: while rivalry is motivated entirely or primarily by aspects of a child's self-interest in which the interests of others, including the child's rival, do not play a role, in scenarios featuring abuse the perpetrator's ultimate interests tend to include domination, humiliation, or at least embarrassment of the victim.


Main article: Sibling rivalry (animals)

Sibling rivalry is common among various animal species, in the form of competition for food and parental attention. An extreme type of sibling rivalry occurs when young animals kill their siblings. For example, a black eagle mother lays two eggs, and the first-hatched chick pecks the younger one to death within the first few days. In the blue-footed booby, there is always the emergence of a brood hierarchy. The dominant chick will attack the subordinate one in times of food scarcity, often pecking it repeatedly or driving it from the nest.[14] Among spotted hyenas, sibling competition begins as soon as the second pup is born, and 25% of pups are killed by their siblings.[15] (see: Siblicide)

Sibling relationships in animals are not always competitive. For example, among wolves, older siblings help to feed and guard the young.[16]

Famous instances[edit]

In religion[edit]

The Book of Genesis in the Bible contains several examples of sibling rivalry: the story of Cain and Abel tells of one brother's jealousy after God appears to favour his sibling, and the jealousy ultimately leads to murder. Esau was jealous of his brother Jacob's inheritance and blessing; sisters Leah and Rachel compete for the love of Jacob; Joseph's brothers are so jealous that they effectively sell him into slavery. The following are also present in the Qur'an and the Torah.

In literature[edit]

A number of Shakespeare's plays display the incidences of sibling rivalry. King Lear provokes rivalry among his three daughters by asking them to describe their love for him; in the same play, Edmund contrives to force his half-brother Edgar into exile. In The Taming of the Shrew, sisters Kate and Bianca are shown fighting bitterly. In Richard III, the title character is at least partially motivated by rivalry with his brother, King Edward. In As You Like It, there is obvious sibling rivalry and antagonism between Orlando and Oliver, and also between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior.

Most adaptations of Sherlock Holmes depicts sibling rivalry with his brother, Mycroft Holmes.

In John Steinbeck's East of Eden, the brothers Cal and Aron Trask are counterparts to Cain and Abel of the Bible story.

A Song of Ice and Fire contains numerous examples, such as that between Stannis Baratheon and Renly Baratheon. After their eldest brother Robert Baratheon's death they contend for the Iron Throne, Stannis finally killing Renly through dark magic, though it is left unclear whether he is aware of his role in their death. The history of Westeros also contains "The Dance of the Dragons", in which Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and her half-brother Aegon II Targaryen fought over the Iron Throne after their father Viserys I Targaryen's death, Aegon eventually killing Rhaenyra, but being poisoned shortly after, leading to Rhaenyra's son Aegon III becoming King.

In film and television[edit]

Sibling rivalry is a common theme in media that features child characters, reflecting the importance of this issue in early life. These issues can include jealousy on the birth of a new baby, different sibling roles, frequent arguments, competitiveness for mother's affection, and tensions between step-siblings.

Adult siblings can also be portrayed with a rivalrous relationship, often a continuation of childhood conflicts. Situation comedies exploit this to comic effect. Sibling relationships may be shown as alternately loving and argumentative. Brothers or sisters in a similar line of work may display professional rivalry. In serious drama, conflict between siblings can be fatal, as shown in crime dramas involving such rivalries.

Real life[edit]

Occasionally real life instances of sibling rivalry are publicized in the mass media. Siblings who play the same sport will often be compared with each other; for example, American football players Peyton and Eli Manning, or tennis players Venus and Serena Williams. Musicians Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis are portrayed as having a turbulent relationship, similar to that of Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks. Politicians Ed and David Miliband are likewise portrayed as having a strained relationship.[17]

Actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine had an uneasy relationship from childhood and in 1975 the sisters stopped speaking to each other completely.[18] The incredibly popular singing Andrews Sisters maintained professional harmony in show business for more than 30 years, but clashed famously in their personal lives (after LaVerne's death in 1967, Patty and Maxene stopped speaking in 1975 and never looked back).[19] The rivalry between singers Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle is often talked about in the Indian media, in spite of their insistence that these are just tales.[20] Twin sisters and advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren had a relationship that was alternately very close and publicly antagonistic.[21] Journalists Christopher and Peter Hitchens had many public disagreements and at least one protracted falling-out due to their differing political and religious views.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abcAdult Sibling RivalryArchived 2012-12-11 at Jane Mersky Leder, Psychology Today, Publication Date: Jan/Feb 93, Last Reviewed: 30 Aug 2004
  2. ^ abThe Effects of Sibling CompetitionArchived 2007-07-01 at the Wayback Machine. Syliva B. Rimm, Educational Assessment Service, 2002.
  3. ^ abcSibling Rivalry University of Michigan Health System, June 2009
  4. ^Living With Your Teenager: Dealing With Sibling RivalryArchived 2011-07-25 at the Wayback Machine. Donna Rae Jacobson, North Dakota State University, July 1995
  5. ^Sibling Rivalry in Degree and Dimensions Across the Lifespan Annie McNerney and Joy Usner, 30 April 2001.
  6. ^The Hostile Act David M. Levy (1941) First published in Psychological Review, 48, 356-361.
  7. ^Interview with Laurie Kramer G. Stepp (2011).
  8. ^Adolescence and parental favoritism Carl Pickhardt (2011).
  9. ^Helping Your Older Child Adjust to a New Baby Sibling University of Michigan Health System (2011).
  10. ^Parenting Issues: Playing Favorites Stepp, G. (2011)
  11. ^Center for Effective Parenting Arkansas State Parent Information & Resource Center
  12. ^Kennedy-Moore, E. & Katayama, M. (2005). What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press.
  13. ^Wiehe, V. R. (1997) Sibling abuse: Hidden physical, emotional, and sexual trauma, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  14. ^Drummond, Hugh; Chavelas, Cecilia Garcia (1989). "Food Shortage Influences Sibling Aggression in the Blue-footed Booby". Animal Behaviour. 37: 806–819. doi:10.1016/0003-3472(89)90065-1. 
  15. ^Birth Order, Sibling Competition, and Human Behavior Frank J Sulloway
  16. ^Mothers and Others Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Natural History Magazine, May 2001.
  17. ^"Leaders' TV event: Ed Miliband admits relationship with brother still not fully healed". The Courier. D. C. Thomson & Co. 27 March 2015. Retrieved 1 May 2015. 
  18. ^Higham, Charles. Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Coward McCann, May 1984, 257 pages.
  19. ^Sforza, John. "Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story". University Press of Kentucky, 2000, 289 pages.
  20. ^Jitesh Pillaai (July 31, 2005). "Notes to Myself (An interview with Asha Bhosle)". Times Life, The Times of India, Mumbai. The Times Group. p. 43. Archived from the original on February 16, 2008. Retrieved 2007-09-08. 
  21. ^Ann Landers (1918-2002) by Robin Judd, Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed online June 21, 2007.
  22. ^James Macintyre, The Hitchens brothers: Anatomy of a rowArchived 2008-08-29 at the Wayback Machine., The Independent, 2007-06-11, accessed 2007-06-11

External links[edit]

From a young age, children are sensitive to differences in parental treatment.
Cain leads Abel to Death, by James Tissot.

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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