The Jealousy of Reuben

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The Jealousy of Reuben

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Reuben was the eldest son of the biblical patriarch Jacob, born to him by Leah (Genesis 35:23). What the Bible tells us about him is interesting and thought-provoking.

When something is mentioned in the Bible, it is because God has a good reason for it to be included. God would not include mere trivia—past actions that were mere aberrations or anomalies—that had no significance or relevance for future understanding.

Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, had 12 sons who became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob ended up married to two women, Leah and Rachel, each of whom had a handmaiden, and Jacob fathered children by all four women. This polygamy was bound to cause major family troubles.

Jacob made no effort to hide the fact that he loved Rachel more than his other wife, Leah (Genesis 29:30). Although Leah had the honor of being the first to bear children for Jacob, Jacob continued to show his preference for Rachel. After all the children were born, family jealousies were intensified when Jacob gave preferential treatment to Rachel's two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.

Reuben's actions

Of Reuben's boyhood, only one incident is mentioned. Reuben "found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah" (Genesis 30:14). "Mandrakes are a special type of herb that the peoples of the Middle East regarded as an aid to conception. Their aroma was associated with lovemaking. See Song 7:13" (Nelson's Study Bible, note on Genesis 30:14).

A boy would be better off not having the knowledge of or the interest in a supposed love potion. The motivation for Reuben's gift? Apparently it was sympathy and jealousy on behalf of his mother who had been slighted all along by his father, and then, on top of that, Leah "stopped bearing" children (29:35). It seems Reuben wanted his mother to maintain fertility to gain increasing honor in comparison to Rachel. If this was the case, it seems he was overly concerned about the prestige of his immediate family even as a boy.

The boyhood incident perhaps relates to his next recorded action. Not long after Rachel's death, when Reuben apparently was a young man, he "went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Israel [his father] heard about it" (Genesis 35:22). This despicable act was similar to what the apostle Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 5:1 as "sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father's wife!"

What was Reuben's motivation? Bilhah had been Rachel's maid. Perhaps Reuben's act was spurred by his jealous resentment of Rachel because his father had loved her more than Leah, Reuben's mother. If that was the case, he was taking his anger out on Bilhah by humiliating her when Rachel was no longer around as a protector or witness. Of course Reuben's blatant disregard for morality is also significant.

"Israel heard about it," the Bible says. What emotions must Israel have felt? Israel was probably devastated with grief, anger and deep disappointment in his son. Reuben's father did not disown him as a son, but 1 Chronicles 5:1 tells us that Reuben "was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph." For the remainder of his life, Reuben bore the shame and regret of having lost the prestige and power of being the firstborn son. One can only imagine how greatly Reuben's jealousy toward his brother Joseph increased after the rights of the firstborn were passed to Joseph.

Joseph and his brothers

All of Joseph's older brothers had jealousy and resentment toward him—for more than one reason. His father made the mistake of showing more love for Joseph than for his older brothers (Genesis 37:3-4). Joseph had better character than his brothers, which made them look bad by comparison, and Joseph fueled the fire of resentment by reporting their bad conduct (verse 2). Then when God gave Joseph dreams that portrayed Joseph as ruling over his brothers, Joseph made the mistake, whether out of naiveté or vanity, of telling his brothers about the dreams (verses 5-11). Joseph obviously was intelligent, so it would seem he would have understood enough basic psychology to know that telling those dreams to his brothers would irritate them. It seems more logical that this very capable young man was somewhat cocky and didn't hesitate to humiliate his brothers. If that was the case, it is more clear as to why God allowed Joseph to be sold to slave traders and to suffer for many years. He needed to be humbled before God could use him in a mighty way. Since Joseph and Reuben were both self-willed, strong-willed and cocky, one would expect their descendants to be competitive with each other as well.

However, the next mention of Reuben shows him exercising leadership and apparently some compassion toward Joseph. Out of jealousy and hatred, the brothers decided to kill Joseph (verses 18-20). Thankfully, Reuben intervened. "But Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands, and said, 'Let us not kill him'" (Genesis 37:21).

Reuben's motivation may have been at least partly self-serving, as he may have been hoping to regain favor with his father by saving Joseph's life. Over 20 years later, when Joseph, now second in command of all Egypt, detained and threatened his brothers, their consciences started to hurt (Genesis 42:21). Reuben's reply sounds perhaps a little self-righteous as he more or less told his brothers, "You should have listened to me" (verse 22). But verse 37 indicates that Reuben had grown significantly in character. He showed leadership, commitment and a willingness to sacrifice as he pledged to protect Benjamin.

Jacob's prophecy of Reuben

Just before Jacob died, he "called his sons and said, 'Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you [your descendants] in the last days'" (Genesis 49:1). When Jacob speaks of Reuben in verses 3 and 4, he seems to have strong and mixed feelings—feelings of admiration for good qualities, as well as feelings of shame for Reuben's failings that disgraced his father. Translations of verse 3 vary. In the last phrase of verse 3, the NKJV says, "the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power." The NIV says, "excelling in honor, excelling in power." The RSV says, "pre-eminent in pride and pre-eminent in power." The TEV says, "the proudest and strongest of all my sons."

But the first part of verse 4 says, "Unstable as water, you shall not excel." Note that the Bible mentions no Reubenite excelling—no judge, prophet or ruler is listed from tribe of Reuben.

Reubenites' grab for power After the Exodus from Egypt, the pride and presumptuousness of two Reubenites brought death to themselves and their families. The story of these two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, following Korah, a Levite, in challenging the authority of Moses is recorded in Numbers 16. In spite of Jacob's demotion of Reuben, the Reubenites may have been motivated by a jealous feeling that they should have more authority because Reuben had been the firstborn son of Jacob.

Moses, just before his death, pronounced blessings on each of the tribes of Israel. He had relatively little to say about Reuben. "Let Reuben live, and not die, nor let his men be few" (Deuteronomy 33:6). Most translations give this sense—that Reuben's descendants would be many. However, the new Jewish Publication Society translation says, "May Reuben live and not die, though few be his numbers." The New Berkeley Version similarly indicates declining descendants.

When the Israelites were taking over the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh requested land on the east side of the Jordan River. This may have reflected attitudes of "me first" and "I'd rather be off by myself." Staying on the other side of the Jordan River was always a psychological as well as physical divide between them and their brother tribes.

After the time of King David, the once powerful tribe of Reuben sank into comparative insignificance. The three tribes on the east side of the Jordan were the first to be taken into captivity by Assyria (1 Chronicles 5:26). The Bible and history indicate that those taken captive by Assyria eventually gained their freedom and migrated mostly to the continent of Europe. Jealousy and pride are powerful forces. "For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge" (Proverbs 6:34, RSV). "Jealousy [is] as cruel as the grave" (Song of Solomon 8:6). Pride ruined Reuben. "A man's pride will bring him low, but the humble in spirit will retain honor" (Proverbs 29:23). And often attitudes are passed down from generation to generation even after the reason for the attitudes has been forgotten.

No doubt the Reubenites continued to dream of the power and glory that could have been theirs—if only Reuben had not lost the rights of the firstborn son. Reuben and his immediate descendants had leadership abilities, creativity, strength, compassion and perhaps other strong character traits, but those traits were often undermined by Reuben's instability, willful self-seeking, pride and jealousy.


  • Reflector
    I am not surprised people have not commented here. It is not top of the list in Gospel circles. However at this point in time, it is important to myself and further reflection indicates that one of the gates to God's city in Revelations belongs to Reuben. And maybe one day I shall go in by that gate. No gate has been assigned to my family unfortunately, and despite the human downfall which is apparent in us all and myself included, The Lord God of the Universe still has him in his sights and in his future eternal strategy. So I reckon Reuben didn't do too badly after all despite the negative and depressive spin on his life. A beneficial shadow for all of us to follow maybe? And as this particular patriarch is not dead but very much alive in God's kingdom in the spiritual world of the Lord, I would be hard pressed to say anything bad about this guy or his descendants.
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