Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob and his wife Leah. As one of Jacob's twelve sons, he was a forefather of one of the tribes of Israel — the tribe of Reuben. Reuben started strong and had some moments of honor, but he made some unwise decisions that negatively impacted the ongoing trajectory of his tribe.
Reuben's own origin story was fraught with tension, starting with the wedding of his parents, Jacob and Leah. Jacob's uncle Laban had two unmarried daughters when Jacob came to Haran, Leah and Rachel. Jacob agreed to work for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel, the younger of the two. But on the wedding day, Laban switched the bride under the veil and tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. Laban agreed to give Jacob Rachel as a wife after he finished out the wedding week with Leah, provided Jacob remain to work an additional seven years (Genesis 29:1–30).
Leah was in an excruciating situation throughout her life, trying to win the love of her husband. God gave Leah the honor of having most of Jacob's children, including his firstborn son, Reuben. The commonly agreed upon meaning for the name Reuben is, "behold a son." Genesis 29:32 explains, "Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, 'Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.'" There was always tension between Leah and Rachel over their marriage to Jacob. Rachel was the one he loved, and Leah was the one who bore more children for him.
There is an unusual story that alludes to the competition for Jacob's affection between Leah and Rachel. This incident comes at a time when Rachel had borne no children, though she had given her handmaid to Jacob and she bore two sons on her behalf (Genesis 30:1–8). Leah had given birth to four sons (Genesis 29:31–35), and her handmaid had given birth to two on her behalf (Genesis 30:9–13). Reuben found some mandrake plants and brought them back for his mother, Leah. Mandrakes, a flowering plant with human-shaped roots, were thought to enhance fertility. Rachel asked Leah for some of the mandrakes, which Leah agreed to in exchange for a chance to sleep with Jacob. As a result, Leah became pregnant with her fifth son, Issachar (Genesis 30:14—18).
We next see Reuben after Rachel's death. Reuben slept with Rachel's handmaid Bilhah, whom Rachel had given to Jacob as a wife to bear children on her behalf. Even though Reuben was the firstborn son, Leah was his mother, and Jacob favored Rachel's sons. This act was possibly an attempt for Reuben to seek power and assert his own authority and position after Rachel's death. Because of this disrespectful act, Reuben was denied the firstborn birthright that should have been his: "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!" (Genesis 49:3–4).
It seems Reuben attempted to make up for this crime when he sought to save Joseph, the firstborn of Rachel and Jacob's favored son, from his brothers' plans to kill him. Not only was Joseph a favored child, he had been given dreams about ruling over his brothers in the future, which he shared with them. Genesis 37 describes his brothers as hating Joseph (Genesis 37:8) and being jealous of him (Genesis 37:11). One day when the others were tending their father's flock, Jacob sent Joseph to check on them. When the brothers saw him, they conspired to kill him. "But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, 'Let us not take his life'" (Genesis 35:21). Reuben told them to throw Joseph into a pit, planning to return later to rescue the boy and restore him to Jacob (Genesis 35:22). Apparently in Reuben's absence, Judah convinced the brothers to instead sell Joseph (Genesis 35:23–30).
Joseph ended up in slavery in Egypt, where he ultimately rose to power in a time of great famine. The brothers travelled to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph recognized them and tested them by accusing them of being spies (Genesis 42). Not knowing who Joseph was, the brothers contributed their current distress to their previous actions against him (Genesis 42:21). Reuben replied, "Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood" (Genesis 42:22). Joseph retained Simeon while he sent the others back to their homes with food. They were to return with Benjamin, the other son of Rachel. But when the men returned home, they found that the money with which they had purchased the grain was in their sacks. This frightened them. Jacob refused to let his sons return to Egypt with Benjamin, accusing them for the deaths of Joseph and now the presumed death of Simeon. Reuben put up his two sons as collateral, saying that Jacob could kill them if he did not return with Benjamin (Genesis 42:35–38). Jacob refused to let Benjamin go. But the famine persisted, so later the men did return, after Judah offered himself as a pledge for Benjamin's safety (Genesis 43:1–15). Ultimately the entire family, including Jacob, moved to Goshen (Genesis 43—50). This is where the Israelites would remain for the next 400 years, until the time of the Exodus.
When the Israelites began to enter the Promised Land, the tribe of Reuben, along with the tribe of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, requested to inherit the land east of the Jordan River. Moses objected at first, asking how they could take rest from war while the rest of the Israelites went on to conquer Canaan and saying they were discouraging the other Israelites from going in to take the land God had given. He compared the Reubenites and Gadites to their fathers before them who had not wanted to enter the Promised Land due to fear and thus were sentenced to wander for forty years in the desert (Numbers 23). However, the men of fighting age promised to help the other tribes conquer their land and thus were given the land east of the Jordan as their possession (Joshua 1:10–18; 13:8–13, 15–23). Following a similar trajectory to their namesake, the tribe of Reuben started off in a position of honor and strength, always listed first among the twelve tribes of Israel. But, just as Jacob prophesied, the tribe did not maintain an honored position as a consequence of Reuben's incestual relations with Bilhah. Moses had said of the tribe, "Let Reuben live, and not die, but let his men be few" (Deuteronomy 33:6). No prominent leader of any kind emerged from the tribe of Reuben, and aside from being referenced in a list including the other tribes in Revelation 7:5, the tribe is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament.
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