Reflections on Reuben


by Doug Ward

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.


Reuben 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).


Genesis 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).


Jacob's 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?


It 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).


Hoping 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).


Reuben's 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).


The 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.


One 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 Joseph.


Whatever 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).


For 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).


Jacob 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.


Jacob 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.


We 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.


2See for example chapter 1 of The Testament of Reuben, part of The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Issue 35


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 18 Jan 2021, 14:07.