Whatever Did Reuben Do?

Or: “Jacob’s Last Words to his Sons (Genesis 49)” In chapel today, we heard about Jacob and his hard life (and Murphy’s Law). The principal preached, contrasting Jacob’s words to Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9:

.        “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are one hundred and thirty years; few and painful have been the days of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage”

with his blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh in 48:15:

.        “God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has fed me all my life long to this day…”

My attention drifted, and I found myself reading from Chapter 49, where he calls his sons together and talks at them. It’s a bit of an amusing chapter, actually.

Reuben’s ‘words’ are mixed:

.        (3) “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.”

Three isn’t so bad. Three is quite good. But four becomes a little insulting:

.        (4) “Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it – He went up to my couch.”

Trying not to look like I wasn’t paying attention, I went, “What?! What have I missed?” Thankfully, I didn’t have to wonder for long, because my Bible provides a helpful cross-reference to Chapter 35 verse 22:

.        “And it happened, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah is father’s concubine; and Israel heard about it.”

Okay. This is something that wasn’t mention in the sermon, during the bit where we were hearing about Jacob’s dysfunctional family and all the things his unruly sons had done. But, then, what did Simeon and Levi do, to get such a horrible message from their father?

.        “(5) Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty [violence] are in their dwelling place. (6) Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honour be united to their assembly; for in their anger the slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung [lamed] an ox. (7) Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”

Although I do have a helpful cross-reference for the “slaying a man” part (the Dinah incident in Chapter 34), one has to wonder about the “hamstringing an ox” incident.

Judah’s message is good. It seems Jacob liked Judah. I’d even go so far as to say that Judah was Jacob’s favourite son after Joseph. Judah gets five verses (8-12), mostly extolling him and promising him all manner of good things.

Zebulun’s message is mostly good, but short and succinct: he’s going to become a sea-port. I’m not sure what Issachar did to deserve his indictment, and my Bible doesn’t give me any helpful cross-references, either:

.        “(14) Isaachar is a strong donkey, lying down between two burdens; (15) he saw that rest was good, and that the land was pleasant; he bowed his shoulder to bear a burden, and became a band of slaves.

I can only assume this has something to do with all the years in Egypt, but surely this, then, should apply to all of the sons?

Dan’s message is good at the beginning, as Jacob tells him he’ll become one of the tribes of Israel, but verse 17 isn’t very good, either:

.        “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider shall fall backward.”

Gad, also, has a short message, in verse 19:

.        “Gad, a troop shall tramp upon him, but he shall triumph at last.”

My Bible not-so-helpfully directs me to Deuteronomy 33:24, where Moses is blessing all the tribes. This seems to be the “triumphing” bit, but begs the question as to what happened to Gad in the meantime.

Asher, I think, was probably Jacob’s third-favourite son; or, at least, like Zebulun, he didn’t stir up too much trouble. Asher gets “rich bread” and “royal dainties”. (Whatever “royal dainties” are).

Naphtali’s words are a little confusing:

.        (21) “Naphtali is a deer let loose; he uses beautiful words.”

I have no useful cross-reference at all here, but I’m not sure this is a blessing. “He uses beautiful words” sounds a little too much like some of the Proverbs about Satan’s enticement to me.

Then there’s Joseph. Jacob loved Joseph, of course. Joseph gets five verses, like Judah, but his are much nicer. Every blessing you can imagine is given to Joseph.

Benjamin finishes the list, and his is another mixed blessing:

.       (27) “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” It seems that Benjamin gets a bit of wealth for himself or something, but it’s not a very nice comparison.

I’m not sure what the point to this post was. I’m certainly not going to call it a “study”, because my Bible Study Methods lecturer would have a fit. I suppose it’s just a series of observations on Jacob’s last words to his sons, which I found slightly amusing. (Quotes taken from the New King James Version)

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2 thoughts on “Whatever Did Reuben Do?

  1. Genesis is always playing on the first-born theme. Second-borns keep taking power from first-borns. Based on the tendency of Genesis, Reuben was doomed. And he proved the tendency by messing with his father’s concubine.

  2. Rachel says:

    Reuben (both him and his tribe) don’t get mentioned much, to be honest. What I find particularly amusing, however, is all the references to Judah. It’s amazing some of the political slants in the Bible (we’re only up to Kings in Old Testament Survey, so that’s where my in-depth knowledge ends right now). For example, Judah keeps popping up everywhere. You’re reading all about Joseph and his triumph in Egypt, and suddenly you’re interrupted for a little comment on what Judah’s doing. In Joshua and Judges, Judah is constantly made out to be great – for example, the little anecdote right at the beginning of Judges about how none of the other tribes could best the people living in the land, and Judah manages it quite easily. It’s stepped up a notch here, too: not only is Judah the best, but Benjamin is the worst. Repeatedly.

    And the reason? Judges was written in the early days of David’s rule. The whole book is written to prove two points: (1) “When we didn’t have a king, it was chaos and no-ne had any morals” [I’m paraphrasing], and (2) “Judah is better than Benjamin.” (Saul was a Benjamite).

    With regards to the first-born thing, this is something I hated as a child! I’m a first-born myself, and of course in Sunday School, I was told that if I’d been living at the time of the plagues, I would have died. My younger sister would steal my inheritance. I’d be a general failure. (Okay, so that last, I wasn’t actually told, but it doesn’t take much thinking about, as you said, from the stories in Genesis). It’s only recently I realised that the twelfth plague was the first-born *son*, so therefore I’d have been fine.

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