Reuben Unstable as Water
“Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel, your father” (Gen. 49:2). The twelve sons dutifully assembled. They arranged themselves in a semicircle around their aged father as he sat on the edge of his deathbed. No doubt they had arranged themselves in the order of their births, with the elder Reuben at one end and Benjamin, the youngest, at the other. They could not be condemned for greediness if each had a question running through his mind — What blessing is reserved for me and for my descendants? The old man paused to gather his thoughts, no doubt reflecting on the flood of memories associated with the boys. Then, being mysteriously guided In his words by the Spirit of God, he spoke directly to his oldest son: “Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel, because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch” (Gen. 49:3-4).
We are not told of the physical or emotional reactions of the sons when they heard their respective “blessings.” Reuben’s emotional state must have gone from an exhilarating high to a depressing low as he heard his father’s words. Jacob first reminded him of his privileged position as the firstborn of his sons: Reuben, thou art my first-born . , . .” This statement called to mind his birth, recorded in Genesis 29:31-32: “And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, Surely the Lord hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me.” The intrigues, jealousies, and maneuverings that existed among Jacob’s wives must have been legion. In spite of the fact that Rachel finally got her man, she seemed to be mocked by her inability to bear children. And, yet, Leah, her older sister, and definitely not Jacob’s first choice as wife, gave birth quickly to four sons — Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah (29:32-35). When she saw that her firstborn was a son, she cried out, “See, a son,” or “Reuben” in Hebrew.
There has always seemed to be something special, at least to a father, about a firstborn son. Although God has blessed this author with two beautiful girls who are a delight and joy, I will never forget the special feeling when my wife delivered our firstborn child. Helen’s first words were, “Honey, you have your son!” Jacob must have felt the same elation over his firstborn son. He called him “the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.” The firstborn son in families of ancient Israel was accorded a special privilege — a double portion of the father’s inheritance (Dt. 21:17). This meant that if a father had twelve sons, he would divide his inheritance into thirteen parts, and the firstborn would receive twice the amount that each of his brothers received. Such a double inheritance was Reuben’s by right of birth, but, alas, he did not receive that which would normally be his. Furthermore, the firstborn son was to be the natural “leader” of his brothers. Reuben, however, did not enjoy this privilege either.
First Chronicles 5:1-2 states it clearly: “Now the sons of Reuben, the first-born of Israel (for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright; For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the prince; but the birthright was Joseph’s).”. Reuben did not inherit either the double inheritance or the leadership role! Joseph and Judah were to receive these important blessings. But why? Genesis 49:4 reveals the jolting answer, “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel, because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.” The words must have hit Reuben like a lightning bolt! Jacob now revealed publicly the sin which Reuben had committed and which was recorded in Genesis 35:22, And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine: and Israel heard it…. Reuben’s unbridled passion had resulted in the sin of adultery — within his own father’s household! All that is recorded at that time of the results of the deed is the phrase, “… and Israel heard it.” Evidently Jacob had not confronted his firstborn about his deed at that time. Over twenty years had passed without even his own brothers knowing of the deed. This fact is revealed by how Jacob, in addressing Reuben, concluded his statement by shifting to the third person, “he [Reuben] went up to my couch.” At this point Jacob revealed to the rest of the brothers the shameful deed.
“Unstable as water.. ,” (49:4a). This is the trait that marked Reuben and that would continue to characterize his descendants. A study of the subsequent behavior of the tribe of Reuben reveals the amazing way in which this “instability” continued to stamp that tribe. The most prominent persons to appear in this tribe were two individuals named Dathan and Abiram. Their instability resulted in joining the rebellion of Korah the Levite in Numbers 16. This group questioned the leadership of Moses and Aaron in such a way that God’s judgment was swift and sure — the earth swallowed them and theirs and ended the “gainsaying of Korah” (Jude 11).
Later, when the tribes were about to cross into the Promised Land, conquer it, and receive their own portions, Reuben joined with Gad and half of Manasseh in requesting portions on the east side of the Jordan River (Num. 32). Although they gave the reason that the land there was suitable for their cattle, and even though their men did help to conquer the west side of Jordan along with their brothers, this request revealed their instability.” They were unwilling to wait to receive the land that God would eventually give, thus settling for “second best.” Furthermore, their action later resulted in misunderstanding and near civil war (cf. Josh. 22).
The clearest example of Reuben’s instability is recorded in the beautiful “Song of Deborah and Barak” in Judges 5. That chapter mentions the tribes who “willingly offered themselves” (5:2) in the battle against Sisera described in the previous chapter, Such tribes as Zebulun and Naphtali were praised for their willingness to risk their lives in battle (5:18). Reuben, however, was criticized for his instability, “Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart” (5:16). No doubt Reuben gave serious thought to sending troops but his concern to hear the “bleatings” of his own sheep overrode his patriotic commitment. What an illustration of so many of God’s people today who let personal concerns take precedence over their involvement in the cause of the Lord and His work.
Jacob’s prophecy foretold the insignificant future of Reuben, Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel . . .” (Gen. 49:4a). Reuben never excelled in his tribal development. In the census taken of the tribes at the end of the wilderness journey, Reuben’s population evidently had already begun to decrease (cf. Num. 1:20-46,500 with Num. 26:7-43,730).
By the time that Moses blessed the tribes before he died, Reuben may have been in danger of extinction. This is reflected by Moses’ prayer, “Let Reuben live, and not die; and let not his men be few” (Dt. 33:6), It is a point of interest that the most significant truth about Reuben is not what is said about him, but what is not said about him! Reuben produced not one single prophet, military leader, judge, or significant person in the history of Israel. As a matter of fact, the only important contribution that Reuben made in history was lending his name to a delicious corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich!
“Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel….” Reuben lost his birthright and his leadership position due to his instability. One is reminded of the New Testament statement, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1 :8). Instability due to an inability to make right choices doomed Reuben and his descendants to obscurity in the things that matter. Two lessons for life loom large from the example of Jacob’s firstborn. The first lesson is this: What long-range tragic effects can result from a fleeting act of sin. The few minutes that it took to vent Reuben’s unbridled passion with Bilhah were not worth the sorrow caused to Jacob and eventually to Reuben himself. A wise man once said, Don’t sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.” There are men in prison and girls in shame today who learned that lesson too late and are experiencing the permanent damage that often results from an immediate gratification of lust.
The second lesson follows: Our sins can be forgiven — the effects of our sins must still be felt. Jewish tradition states that Reuben repented of his sin with Bilhah. This may have been so since he later appeared to be a decent guy when he actually saved Joseph’s life from his jealous brothers’ plans (Gen. 37:21-30). This was not enough, however, to remove the scar of the earlier wound, even though that wound may have healed, “But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding; he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul. A wound and dishonor shall he get; and his reproach shall not be wiped away” (Prov. 6:32-33), The true story is told of a small boy who discovered his father’s hammer and can of nails, and proceeded to “practice” his carpentry with them. The only problem was that he practiced on a freshly painted barn door. When his father discovered the deed, he thought that in lieu of a spanking, the best discipline would be to make the boy remove each of the nails from the door. After a struggle of a few hours, the laborious remedy had been performed and the little boy’s wrist felt like butter! When the last nail was removed he stood back, looked at the door and, instead of emitting a sigh of relief, broke out in tears once again. He then cried to his father, “Daddy, I pulled out all the nails, but the holes are still there!”
Reuberi had to live with the results of his sin. May we be so on guard in these moments of weakness that we do not have to suffer the emotional and physical scarring that results from actions that may have been forgiven but not completely forgotten. God forgives and forgets — it is often much harder for us to do the same.