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Reuben Reflections

In the final chapters of the book of Genesis, Judah and Joseph emerge as leaders among Israel's sons. Reuben, the oldest son, receives less attention in the narrative, but there is still much to glean from what we can know 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 fertility problems (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).

At the end of his life, Jacob describes his oldest son as "unstable as water" (Gen 49:4), implying that he considered Reuben unreliable.

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 be counted on to come to their sister Dinah's aid, a "mere" daughter of Leah?

In this tense family atmosphere, Reuben, as a young man, committed a grave sin, sleeping with his father's concubine Bilhah (Gen 35:22). His transgression later disqualified him from receiving the larger inheritance that would normally go to the eldest son (Gen 49:4; 1 Ch 5:1-2).

Eventually, the favoritism Jacob showed toward Joseph aroused the jealousy of his brothers. They talked seriously 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, unwilling to release Joseph, compromised by throwing him into a dry cistern. The text tells us 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. They sold Joseph into slavery, and we witness Reuben return to the cistern, only to realize he was 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, deliberating, and eventually selling Joseph to the traders? If Reuben had been present at the meal, certainly he would have countered Judah’s argument and opposed any attempt to sell his brother. Instead, he arrived after everything was over.

One answer proposed by ancient Jewish writers is Reuben skipped the meal because he had undertaken a fasting and prayer regimen 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 how Reuben’s absence from the meal undermined his good intentions to save Joseph.

We, like Reuben, desire to do the right thing but fall short in our own strength. And like him, we can often be characterized as well-intentioned but ineffective.

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 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 safeguarding Benjamin.

Jacob refused to listen to Reuben. It would take time and a continuation of the famine to get his father to accept the idea of a separation from his youngest son. Jacob also lacked trust in his eldest, remembering his transgression with Bilhah. He would later describe Reuben as “unstable as water” (Gen 49:4), implying that he considered Reuben unreliable.

Are we not all a little like Reuben? Growing up in flawed families — in a broken world — we commit sins (Rom 3:23). We, like Reuben, desire to do the right thing but fall short on our own. And like him, we can often be characterized as well-intentioned but ineffective. The Messiah even reminds us that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” For Reuben and all of us, the only solution is to surrender our lives daily to the Father, through Jesus, the reliable Son. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.


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