Summary: The firstborn son had certain privileges in Hebrew families. Reuben, Jacob's oldest, gave in to sin and as a result, he lost his blessing and birthright. Don't make Reuben mistakes!
Introduction: Back in the early 1980’s, Pastor Dale Burden, then living in the Tidewater area of Virginia (the cities near Norfolk and Virginia Beach) preached a message, or a series (IIRC) about Reuben, calling him “mister might have been”. After all these years, I still remember bits and pieces of his messages on Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son. Let’s hope and pray none of us commit the same kinds of errors Reuben did.
The title is a tribute to Brother Burden, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, but none of this message here is knowingly taken from his classic message of yesteryear. I have not made any searches to find his message in any form. The topic of Reuben, and missing out on the best, is again something that should speak to all of us.
1 Reuben’s first appearances in Scripture
Text, Genesis 29:32, KJV: 31 And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me.
Genesis 30:14, KJV: 14 And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them unto his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son's mandrakes.
Thoughts: Leah was the older sister of Rachel, the one whom Jacob really loved. The LORD saw that Leah was not loved so He enabled her to have four children in a row, it seemed. Reuben was the first born and even though there is nothing recorded, Jacob surely must have looked to him with pride—as only a father could. Don’t you wish we had some glimpses of how Reuben might have played and interacted with Simeon, Levi, and Judah as they grew up together?
But from indirect evidence, Reuben seemed to love his mother and did what he was asked. The second verse cited tells how Reuben found “mandrakes”—a plant that supposedly was an aphrodisiac. Leah had borne Jacob four sons by this time, plus two more children by her own handmaid (servant girl) but she was still unloved.
As the family size grew, Reuben still had his place as the oldest son, and as such, may have one day realized he would receive the blessings and benefits. With this in mind, the days from Reuben finding mandrakes until the next time he is mentioned specifically in Scripture followed one after another.
2 Reuben’s second appearance in Scripture:
Text, Genesis 35:22, KJV: 22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it.
This is the deal breaker. This incident is what cost Reuben everything. In the context, Rachel (technically his stepmother but also his aunt) had died while giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s children. Reuben was probably a teen or even in his early 20’s by this time (the estimates vary according to several commentators); surely he was old enough to “know” or have relations with a woman.
And he had relations with Bilhah, who was Rachel’s handmaid or servant girl! We are never told if Reuben even knew Rachel had died when he “met” with Bilhah, or much of anything else. By indirect evidence, Bilhah was at least a few years older than Reuben as she was serving Rachel before Reuben was even born. All in all, this was a sordid mess of a situation, with Jacob’s firstborn wildly overstepping every boundary of decency, and at the time when his father’s heart was broken very badly.
Worse, if Reuben though he got by with it, he was so wrong. The text records “Israel heard”, from or by whatever source, and that stayed with Jacob until the last of his days.
3 The final meeting between Jacob and Reuben
Reuben did show some leadership and some protection when the other nine wanted to kill Joseph at Dothan (Gen. 37:21-30). He suggested they put Joseph in a pit but then send him back (perhaps an ancient form of therapy?) to Jacob. But while Reuben was away the others sold Joseph to traders for 20 pieces of silver (2 pieces each). Needless to say, Reuben was upset when he came back and found Joseph gone but he went along with the false story that an animal had killed Joseph.
Again, many years went by, and the brothers made their living, raising their families, hiding, no doubt, the guilt they had to feel by selling an innocent man into slavery. But God has a way of bringing things together for His own purpose, and His purpose here was to save Israel as a nation from destruction. Joseph spent years in prison in Egypt but eventually was promoted to the second most powerful man in Egypt—even one of the most powerful men in that part of the world at the time.