The Genesis account of Jacob and his twelve sons is a masterpiece of narrative construction. There are so many ups and downs, twists and turns, highs and lows. In many ways, Jacob’s struggle begins in his mother’s womb. He struggles with his older twin brother Esau before their birth and throughout most of their formative years and into early adulthood. Jacob’s wrestlings in his life continue with an angel, with his uncle Laban, and then with his own sons. At this moment in time, my mind fixates upon Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn. He embodies much of his father’s instability.
Before Jacob dies, he gathers his twelve sons around him in order to bless them (Genesis 49:1-2, ESV). He begins with Reuben, his firstborn. In the ancient Hebrew culture, the firstborn son is the heir apparent to his father’s inheritance for administrating it and for dividing it up between the rest of the family. Reuben is in line to carry on in the place of Jacob. Let us hear the ancient patriach’s words to his firstborn son in the presence of his brothers:
“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch!” (Gen. 49:3-4, ESV).
No doubt these are shocking words for Reuben and his brothers to hear. Their father says to his oldest son, the heir apparent, “you shall not have preeminence.” Allow me a little room to embellish a few details. Everyone in the room knows exactly what Jacob refers to about Reuben. To really understand that point, it is important to rewind the clock back a bit in order to provide some context. Back in the thirty-fourth chapter of Genesis, Simeon and Levi destroyed the city of Shechem because its prince raped their younger sister, Dinah (Gen. 34:1-31, ESV).
Like Reuben, I am the oldest out of my siblings. When my brothers and I attended elementary and junior high school, I was very protective of them with respect to schoolyard bullies. In our adult years, there is still something in me that desires to keep them safe, to ensure their safety. Reuben could not protect his baby sister from Shechem’s prince. Even worse, he witnesses his two younger brothers do something about it. The Holy Spirit through the pen of Moses does not provide all the details to Reuben’s psychological state; however, it goes without saying that he had to be devastated over what happened to his baby sister. The guilt and shame must have been acute.
I do not really know what Reuben might have been thinking. In many ways, what I am putting forth is pure speculation. It seems to me that this event involving his three younger siblings had the potential to deal a fatal blow to Reuben’s self-confidence. Unfortunately, the very next chapter, Genesis 35, details another crisis in the family, which further destabilizes Reuben. Jacob’s wife, Rachel, dies while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Reuben observes his father’s deep grief over the loss of his wife, whom he loved and labored over for many years. What does Reuben do with all of this grief, pain, guilt and shame? He sleeps with his father’s wife, Bilhah (Gen. 35:22, ESV)
From my perspective, Gen. 35:22 is one of the saddest scripture verses in the bible. It is this event that Jacob brings up on his death bed as the reason to deny Reuben the rights of the firstborn (Gen. 49:4 & 1 Chron. 5:1-2, ESV). He will not follow in Jacob’s footsteps. My heart goes out to Reuben. How many times in my life have I reached out to false people and things for medicating my pain, shame, and guilt? In those past moments, my emotions surrounded me like Reuben, which lead to painful consequences. Some things cannot be undone. Some things follow me till the Lord calls me home. The account of Reuben is a reminder that sin has consequences, and sometimes those consequences are far-reaching.