In the final chapters of the book of Genesis, Judah and Joseph emerge as leaders among the sons of Israel. Reuben, the oldest son, receives less attention in the narrative, but there is still much to learn from what we are told about him.
grew up in a family marred by the rivalry between his father's wives. His
mother Leah, whom Jacob had not intended to marry, hoped that her ability to
bear children would soften Jacob's heart toward her. His aunt Rachel had
Jacob's love but was frustrated by problems with fertility (Gen 29:31-30:1).
illustrates the competition for Jacob's affections with a scene from Reuben's
childhood. One day the boy noticed some plants with pretty purple flowers.
Perhaps hoping to cheer up his mother, he brought the plants to her. They were
mandrakes, plants believed to promote fertility.1
At Rachel's insistence, Leah traded the mandrakes to her in exchange for a
night with Jacob (Gen 30:14-16).
preference for Rachel and the rivalry between his wives led to further jealousy
and competition among their children. For example, when Simeon and Levi
instigated the massacre at Shechem (Gen 34), they may well have been motivated,
in part, by distrust for their father. Could Jacob really be counted on to come
to the aid of their sister Dinah, a "mere" daughter of Leah?
was in this tense family atmosphere that Reuben as a young man committed a
serious sin, sleeping with his father's concubine Bilhah (Gen 35:22). His sin
later disqualified him from receiving the larger inheritance that would
normally go to an oldest son (Gen 49:4; 1 Ch 5:1-2).
to Rescue Joseph
Eventually the favoritism Jacob showed toward Joseph aroused the jealousy of Joseph's brothers. In fact, they seriously talked about killing Joseph when Jacob sent him to check on them (Gen 37:1-20). Reuben, exhibiting more maturity by this point, opposed them, protesting, "Let us not take his life" (v 21). The brothers apparently were not willing to just release Joseph, and they settled on a compromise where Joseph was thrown into a dry cistern. Reuben intended to come back later and rescue him (v 22).
plan was unsuccessful, however. After imprisoning Joseph, the brothers sat down
to share a meal. From a high vantage point they saw a caravan of traders
approaching in the distance, and Judah persuaded the brothers that selling
Joseph to the traders would be the optimal course of action. Joseph then was
sold into slavery, and Reuben returned to the cistern too late to save his
brother (vv 25-30).
narrative is silent about an obvious question: Where was Reuben while his
brothers were eating a meal and selling Joseph to the traders? If Reuben had
been present at the meal, he would have countered Judah's argument and opposed
any attempt to sell Joseph. Instead, he arrived after everything was over.
answer proposed by ancient readers is that Reuben skipped the meal because he
had undertaken a regimen of prayer and fasting to atone for his sin with
Bilhah.2 He went to a quiet place by himself
while his brothers were eating. This imaginative proposal aims to explain both
Reuben's absence from the meal and his good intentions in hoping to save
happened, Reuben's absence at a crucial time constituted a major failure. If he
was serious about saving Joseph, he should have followed through and done so.
He compounded his failure by joining his brothers in deceiving their father
about Joseph's fate (vv 31-35).
the next twenty years Reuben carried guilt for what he had done and what he had
failed to do. A day of reckoning came when he and nine brothers traveled to
Egypt to obtain grain in a time of famine. Unbeknownst to them, the Egyptian
official supervising grain distribution was actually Joseph. Testing his
brothers, Joseph accused them of espionage and imprisoned Simeon pending their
return with their youngest brother Benjamin (Gen 42).
adamantly opposed having Benjamin accompany his brothers on a return trip to
Egypt (Gen 42:36). Hoping to change his father's mind, Reuben vowed to be
personally responsible for Benjamin's safe return, emphasizing that he valued
Benjamin as much as two of his own sons (v 37). Still smarting from his failure
to protect Joseph, he was determined to succeed in protecting Benjamin.
refused to listen to Reuben. It would take time and a continuation of the
famine to get Jacob to accept the idea of a separation from Benjamin. Jacob
also lacked trust in his oldest son, remembering Reuben's sin with Bilhah. He
would later describe Reuben as "unstable as water" (Gen 49:4),
implying that he considered Reuben to be unreliable.
Are All Reuben
I believe that in a sense we are all like Reuben. Growing up in flawed families in a broken world, we commit sins (Rom 3:23). We mean to succeed, but on our own we fall short, and like Reuben can be characterized as well-intentioned but ineffective. As Jesus said in Matt 26:41, "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." The only solution, for Reuben and all of us, is to surrender our lives to God through Jesus the Messiah. He alone is faithful and reliable.
1The Hebrew word for
mandrakes is dudaim, which is cognate with dod, the word for lover.
for example chapter 1 of The Testament of Reuben, part of The
Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 18 Jan 2021, 14:07.