J. R. Charlesworth, Barnstaple
When Jacob called his sons around him, to give them his prophetic blessing, he naturally turned first to his oldest child.
The Words of Jacob. "Reuben, thou art my first-born", Gen. 49. 3. Leah surely felt a surge of pride and joy and hope when she had this child; pride in being the mother of a man-child, joy in feeling that God's blessing rested upon her, hope that now her husband might love her fully. To those about her, particularly Jacob and Rachel, and to succeeding generations, she cries: "Re-u-ben", that is, "See ye a son!". But as Reuben grew into manhood, what a failure he proved to be. In contrast, Israel's descendants can say: "unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder", Is. 9. 6.
"My might, and the beginning of my strength". Jacob must have been delighted at the child's arrival. Here was the commencement of his promised seed, the beginning of the family which was to increase in strength from generation to generation. God likewise dwells upon His Son, the One who is as the sun shining in its strength, in whom is all the Father's delight.
The Ancient Jerusalem Targum gives the following Chaldaic paraphrase of the statements we are considering here: "Reuben, my firstborn art thou, my strength, and the beginning of my sorrow". Jacob looked for strength of character and strength of numbers in the family of Reuben. He was disappointed. This was the firstfruit; there was more to follow! "A foolish son is the heaviness of his mother", Prov. 10. i.
"The excellency of dignity3 and the excellency of power". Being the eldest son, Reuben had every opportunity to draw the pre-eminence unto himself. A test came when Joseph, their half-brother, visited Reuben and his brethren as they looked after the sheep in Dothan. Reuben tried to maintain the dignity and power of his position, Gen. 37. 21, but he was "just not the man for the job". No wonder Jacob, at a later date, would not entrust Benjamin to Reuben's care, 42. 37-38. Reuben's position and his promises were ignored; it was, instead, to Judah's intreaties that the patriarch submitted.
"Unstable as water, thou shah not excel", 49. 4. In one decisive act, 35. 22, Reuben revealed his real character. Through the gratification of lust, he forfeited the blessing that was legally his by filial right. His father was very aware of the importance attached to the family birthright, having, in his own youth, himself stolen it from Esau, his elder twin. Now he passes the double-portion blessing on to Joseph, 48. 5; 1 Chron. 5. 2, where it became a permanent feature, Ephrairn and Manasseh each having equal status with their uncles. Having displaced Reuben, Jacob elevated Judah, his name being given prestige value as that of the leading tribe.
The Reubenites took no lead in the subsequent life of the nation. Their seniority counted for nothing, and they displayed no prominence. Tradition is strong in representing Reuben's standard as depicting the figure of a man or son, corresponding to the meaning of his name. The emerald, being seen green in colour, upon which it is probable that the name Reuben was inscribed on Aaron's breastplate, was also in keeping with the character of one whose instability was like the restless sea.
The Words of Moses. Moses has little to say about Reuben. By the time the blessing of Deuteronomy 33. 6 was made, this tribe had already become of minor account.
"Let Reuben live} and not die". The law made Reuben's sin worthy of capital punishment. Moses stands here as an intercessor, praying on behalf of a tribe upon whom he knows a curse must rest. He pleads for the prosperity of a family among whom were the ringleaders of a former rebellion against himself, Num. 16. 1-3. How this speaks of our great High Priest who ever lives to intercede for His own. Like Reuben, the whole nation of Israel has lost much by default. It is to-day a despised race. Yet every tribe will be restored, E2ek. 48, and the twelve gates of the heavenly Jerusalem will have written upon them the names of the tribes, including Reuben! Where sin abounded, grace superabounded. The Lord has recorded : "Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me", Is. 49. 16.
"And let not his men be few". This clause has been variously translated. Some have rendered it: "Though his men be few". Others see here a reference to the tribe's "small band of warriors". Certainly it is true that, down through the centuries, the Reubenites have never been numerically strong. During the wilderness journey, between the census of Numbers 1 and that of Numbers 26, they were one of the tribes to suffer a diminution of population; thus, early in their history, the die was cast.
When approaching the promised land, Reuben's family sought territory east of Jordan, short of full conquest. Before establishing themselves there, however, they fulfilled a promise to join forces with their fellows in the general advance against the Canaanites. Possibly some Reubenites settled in the region assigned to Judah on the west bank, but the majority made their home in the area which had caught their eye before they had ever set foot beyond Jordan. Being on the eastern periphery of the country conquered by Joshua and his successors, the Reubenites became the first tribe to be carried away into Assyrian captivity when Tiglath-pileser marched into Israel in the eighth century B.C.
According to i Chronicles 5. 18-22, the fighting men of Reuben, together with those of the other tribes on the eastern flank of Israel, were victorious over the Hagarites, for God "was intreated of them; because they put their trust in him". So the sad synopsis of the fortunes of Reuben can end on a happier note. The characteristic that prevailed among the Reubenite soldiers as they attacked the Hagarites will one day be the attitude of the whole nation, a people whose world supremacy in that day will enable them to beat their weapons into agricultural implements. Jehovah will be intreated of them because they will put their trust in Him.