Jacob’s final address to his sons is recorded in Genesis chapter 49 verses 3 and 4, ‘Reuben, thou art my firstborn, 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’.
Being the first child in a family has its pros and cons. You are, after all, the first-born and, as such, hold a special place in the family. This was the case in biblical times, for reasons rooted in Middle-Eastern culture. We alluded to some of these in the series introduction. For one thing, privileges of birthright belonged to the firstborn. However, if and when you are joined by siblings there are inescapable pressures put on you to lead and set an example.
Those of us who are parents understand that we must not make these pressures too intense, but rather use them as a positive motivation for drawing out maturity. In reality, that is easier said than done. From Jacob’s words to his first-born, his expectations were high. Reuben knew these expectations and spoke up in two critical moments in the accounts recorded for us of the family’s affairs.
In Genesis chapter 37, he has the wisdom to defuse his brothers’ murderous scheme. As the oldest son, perhaps the moral implications of the scheme lay heavy on his shoulders. It cannot be stated too strongly that this was very brave. His brothers were mad and playing the ‘good-guy’ could have enraged them more. In chapter 42, with Simeon bound in Egypt, Reuben returns home to a father who is two sons down, and a third one in jeopardy. Feeling the pressure again, Reuben has the courage to speak up – he assures Jacob of Benjamin’s safety when they inevitably return to Egypt. Both these interventions look promising on the surface. And we cannot demand much more of Reuben without being hypocritical. When faced with similar crises, how brave and courageous are we?
Scripture, on the other hand, has every right to tell things how they are, so we do well to note that Reuben’s bravery was not enough, and that his courage was a little rash. Had Reuben been truly brave, he would have ‘come clean’ with his father about the real cause of Joseph’s absence. Had Reuben been truly courageous, he would have offered himself as surety for Benjamin when in fact what he says is, ‘Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee’, Gen. 42. 37. This is the same rash, impetuous Reuben that fell to sexual temptation, 35. 22.
How disappointing all this is. Reuben was the firstborn – recall Jacob’s words again, ‘my might … the firstfruits … preeminent’.
Great expectations lay upon him. But, remember, God prevails despite man’s failure. What do these adjectives call to mind? Which Son had equal expectations laid upon Him? Why, our Lord and Saviour, of course. And precisely because He met those expectations which were laid upon Him, He appears in Colossians chapter 1 as the firstborn of creation and of the dead, the firstfruits, and, praise God, preeminent – in all things! In this connection, it is worth noting that the name Reuben literally means ‘behold, a son’. The thoughts this evokes of the Lord Jesus are obvious, though again, only the Lord Jesus is worthy of our gaze.
Jacob’s words concerning Reuben as being ‘unstable’ are, therefore fair, and it is upsetting to see that they remain the principal characteristic of the tribe.
Men of Reuben joined prominent Levites in a rebellion against Moses – another moment of rash behaviour, Num. 16. 1, 2. Then, when the nation entered the Promised Land, the Reubenites dismissed the opportunity to take their inheritance west of Jordan, choosing to graze their herds east of Jordan instead. This seems to be allowed for by Moses on condition of military support west of Jordan. But, the fact is that they were at a distance from the rest of God’s people physically and exposed to all the enemies bordering their territory. The best we can say is that this wasn’t ideal in the long term, cp. 2 Kgs. 10. 32, 33.
How many of us may relate to Reuben’s story all too well? Indeed, we may point to past failures and simply accept our current spiritual mediocrity as inevitable. Yet, if we reflect but for a moment on God’s grace, we see that nothing need be further from the truth. We shall see this particularly with Levi, but, even with Reuben, the fact that he even remains in the twelve despite his crime is a testament to God’s grace. When the high priest’s breastplate was made, was it not grace that allowed a place for a stone for Reuben? At least some men in the tribe must have thought so. The Chronicler records that the Reubenites enjoyed victory over the Hagrites, not because they sent valiant men – though they were that – but because they trusted in God, 1 Chr. 5. 20. May we know God’s grace in a similar way. Have we not known it in salvation? Do we not know it daily as Christ intercedes for us? Then let us trust in Him.