Reuben was the eldest son of the patriarch Jacob, born to him by Leah (Genesis 35:23). Jacob married sisters, 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 he loved Rachel more than Leah (Genesis 29:30), and family jealousies were intensified when Jacob gave preferential treatment to Rachel's two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.
While Reuben was a boy he "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 Of Solomon 7:13” (Nelson's Study Bible, note on Genesis 30:14).
Reuben may have been motivated to do this by sympathy for his mother, Leah, who had been slighted by his father, and then had "stopped bearing" children (Genesis 29:35). He might have wanted to assist his mother to boost her fertility to gain standing with Jacob. Reuben’s prestige and acceptance in the family was also likely affected by Leah’s status.
After Rachel's death Reuben "went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and his father Israel (Jacob) heard about it" (Genesis 35:22). As a consequence we are told because Reuben "... defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph" (1 Chronicles 5:1) increasing Reuben's jealousy toward Joseph.
However, the next time Reuben is mentioned he is exercising leadership and showing some compassion toward Joseph. Out of jealousy and hatred, the brothers decided to kill Joseph (verses 18-20), but Reuben intervened (verse 21). Also, over 20 years later, when Joseph, now second in command of all Egypt detained his brothers, Reuben showed leadership and a willingness to sacrifice when he pledged to protect Benjamin (Genesis 42:37).
Before Jacob died, he delivered prophecies about the future of his sons (Genesis 49:1). Jacob speaks of Reuben in verses 3 and 4. 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 honour, excelling in power." But the first part of verse 4 says, "Unstable as water, you shall not excel," and interestingly no judge, prophet or ruler is listed from the tribe of Reuben in the Bible.
Just before his death Moses pronounced blessings on the tribes of Israel, but did not have much to say about Reuben. "Let Reuben live, and not die, nor let his men be few" (Deuteronomy 33:6). Most translations give the sense Reuben's descendants would be numerous. 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" or "I'd rather be off by myself." The location 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, and 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 these tribes later gained their freedom and migrated mostly to the continent of Europe.
Reuben had leadership abilities, creativity, strength, compassion and other strong character traits, but those traits were often undermined by his instability and wilful pride and jealousy.
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