Reuben [Reo̅o̅'ben]—behold a son or vision of the son. The first-born of Jacob by Leah and founder of a tribal family (Gen. 29:32; 30:14).
In Jacob’s dying blessing (Gen. 49:3, 4) are three circumstances concerning Reuben that seem to summarize his tragic story.
I. The privileges that should have been his. As the eldest son he was entitled to three portions above his brethren, namely, the priesthood, the birthright and the kingdom. But all three were forfeited and given to the others.
By right of birth, elevation to priestly eminence should have been Reuben’s, but he proved himself unworthy of this “excellence of dignity.” Impetuosity and instability totally unfitted him for the priesthood which went to Levi.
By right of birth, royal dignity should have been his as the first-born of his tribe, but Judah prevailed and the right of the scepter passed from Reuben to Judah.
By right of birth, Reuben should have been the head of the representative tribe. He was the beginning of his father’s strength (Deut. 21:17), and though the eldest son, forfeited a double inheritance in the land. This right of the firstborn became Joseph’s (Deut. 21:17). Reuben carried little importance in the history of Israel.
II. His irresolute and vacillating nature. Reuben revealed characteristics unbefitting one upon whom high responsibilities should have devolved. He lacked the tenacity and courage one expects to find in the eldest son of the family. He had none of his father’s transformed nature after he became Israel.
Jacob described his son as being “unstable as water” (Gen. 49:4). Water is a suggestive symbol of instability. Think of the waterfall, as it splashes against the ledges of a rock! The rock abides; the fickle stream moves on in never-ceasing restlessness. Jacob saw in his first-born son all the evidences of instability. Although a double excellency was within the reach of Reuben his father had to say of him, “Thou shalt not excel.” The reward of unreliability and instability is inferiority. “Thou shalt not excel.” The tribe of Reuben never rose to prominence and was among the first to be carried into captivity (1 Chron. 5:26). In the blessing of Moses, Reuben’s doom is sealed. Nothing but a depleted remnant would be his. “Let his men be very few” (Deut. 33:6). No judge, no prophet, no hero sprang from Reuben. By his sin Reuben had permanently impoverished his posterity.
III. His despicable crime. Reuben lost all the honors that should have been his because of his adulterous act with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Jacob, in his blessing, attributes Reuben’s forfeited privileges to this heinous sin—a sin which brought a curse upon him. This evil stream flowed on, for two Reubenites were ringleaders with Korah in assailing God’s established order, and perished because of their defiance of God. Deborah, in her patriotic song, Judges 5, rebuked the children of Reuben for characteristic selfishness. Again the innate fickleness appeared.
Can it be that in spite of all his sad failures, there is a ray of hope for Reuben in the prophetic benediction of Moses, “Let Reuben live and not die” (Deut. 33:6)? Is this an evidence of divine grace—life for a sinner whose sin merited death? There is a gate of Reuben in the Golden City, and a tribe of Reuben in the Israel of God (Rev. 7:5). Reuben’s name is not first, yet through grace it is there. “Let Reuben live and not die.” Heaven will be full of Reubens who should have died but who live forevermore to sing the praises of God’s redeeming grace.