Giving Up the Best—The Blessing of Reuben: Study of the 12 Tribes

Dr. Jerry A. Collins


Genesis 49 The Shaping of Destiny

It is a fundamental principle in God’s economy that the actions of individuals will affect the lives of their descendants. This pattern is clear in the patriarchal narratives, for the deeds and dispositions of the patriarchs were passed on in one way or another to their children.


Genesis 49 exemplifies this theme with the deathbed oracle of Jacob’s blessing then Jacob summoned his sons and said, "Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come (Genesis 49:1). Jacobs 12 sons, born over a period of approximately 23 years through four different mothers, gathered reverently around the aged patriarch.


The backdrop to this solemn gathering was their great-great grandfather Abraham, whom God had called from Ur of the Chaldees, and who had come into the land of Canaan without even knowing his exact destination. This began a journey of faith where Abraham would become a paradigm of faith—one God meant his posterity to adopt as they, too, sojourned with God to and in the land of promise.


·      Jacob had through deceit stolen his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing (Genesis 27).

·      To spare his life from Esau’s rage Jacob migrated east across the Jordan river for twenty years (Genesis 31:36-42).

·      There he secured his wives, Leah and Rachel, 11 of his children, and wealth while laboring for Laban, the father of his two wives.

·      Then he returned to the Land of Canaan with his entire entourage (Genesis 33).


Now sometime later famine brought the family to Egypt—all 12 of the brothers with their families and Jacob their father. They had been reunited with their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery in Egypt 20 years earlier. They now understood that the hand of God had overruled their evil deed, for Joseph had eventually risen to the position of vice-regent in Egypt and was caring for their needs while famine raged in the land of Canaan (Genesis 42:1-9).


So what would the future now hold for Jacob’s sons and their families? The moment now arrived when they would have that answer. Jacob requested the sons to gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; and listen to Israel your father (Genesis 49:2).


Some Preliminary Considerations

·      Jacob discerned enough of his son’s traits to make reasonable predictions, but in some cases his words went beyond his experience and were more like prophetic insights into the ancestry of the Jewish people who trace their history back to these 12 sons.

·      The blessing of Jacob’s sons is an example of fulfilled prophecy. As each of the prophecies are examined regarding the 12 sons, it is an amazing example of the prophetic literal accuracy of God’s word. So we can also conclude that prophecy not yet fulfilled will also be literally fulfilled.

·      The purpose of this prophetic oracle was for Jacob to reveal to his 12 sons what was to happen to each of them in the days to come or “in the last days” (v. 1). This most likely means an undetermined time in the future, early or late, from the near future to the eschatological kingdom of Messiah.

·      Most of these blessings were fulfilled during the period of the judges, several hundred years after Jacob’s death.

·      Jacob’s words serve to advance the record of God’s blessing from the original patriarchs who had received the promise in faith, to the subsequent generations of tribes who would experience the outcome of the promise as they also lived by faith.

PT—Tell it like it is—morality matters. When Jacob was about to die, he pronounced blessings, or more accurately, predictions, upon his 12 sons. In each case, he dealt with them accurately and without ‘niceing it over’. You might think at the time of his death he would want to be remembered fondly, so he would just overlook the boys’ past sins and destructive tendencies. But Jacob tells it like it is—or was—and uses that as a basis for his prayers and predictions for his boys. For example, there is his limited blessing on Reuben for his adultery with Bilhah (Genesis 35:22). There is also Jacob’s scattering prediction for Simeon and Levi because of their anger and vengeful wrath, killing the men and animals of Shechem (Genesis 34:25). And by contrast, there is his blessing on Joseph, for his resiliency under attack and fruitfulness while suffering.


An Application—Of course, we can’t make the predictions Jacob did. But we can call it like it is. We must talk with our children and grandchildren and our extended family and friends about the way things actually are. Don’t sugarcoat sin or tolerate godless actions. On the other hand, don’t overlook the righteous acts of godly people. Give both as living examples to your children and your disciples. Don’t gossip, just state the obvious actions everybody knows about in their true biblical light. Why? Morality matters, and “the flock among you” should be reminded of that.


Satan’s agenda with society values is to make biblical truth as painful as possible. So, diminished relationships or reputations or even threats or persecution comes toward the truth when taking the Bible at face value. Jacob knew about deception and now it is not worth it any longer. So, he opts to be truth teller and let the chips fall where they may.  


Jacob Blesses Reuben

"Reuben, you are my firstborn; My might and the beginning of my strength, Preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. "Uncontrolled 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).


Verse 3Reuben, you are my firstborn—Reuben was the first son of his first wife, Leah. The patriarch began with his firstborn son, who should have been heir of the promise. He was entitled to leadership and the double inheritance. According to Moses he shall acknowledge the firstborn… by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17).

PT—That meant that if a father had 12 sons, he divided his inheritance into 13 parts, and the firstborn received twice the amount received by each of the brothers.

·      My might and the beginning of my strength—Jacob began Reuben’s blessing by heaping praise on him acknowledging his firstborn position in the family.

·      Preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power—As the firstborn, Reuben would become the natural leader of his brothers and be preeminent in such dignity and honor. He was entitled to this leadership position and the double portion that went along with it.


Verse 4"Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence—However, because Reuben had the ungoverned impulse of boiling water, he would fail in leadership. Reuben’s character was as unstable and destructive as raging water and so he would not excel in his leadership.

·      Because you went up to your father's bedJacob now publicly revealed the sin which Reuben had committed recorded in Genesis 35:22 it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine, and Israel heard of it. So we know from at least Genesis 35 that Jacob was well aware of what his son had done. By sleeping with his father’s concubine he would be attempting to take over leadership of the clan—something Absalom foolishly attempted later on in Israel’s history with David, his father (2 Sam 16:21-22).

·      Then you defiled it-he went up to my couch. —This defiant act of not observing his father’s sacred right meant that Reuben and his family lost the birthright according to 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph). Essentially, Reuben destroyed his right to inherit. The switch to the third person he [Reuben] went up to my couch may be the moment Jacob revealed to the other brothers Reuben’s shameful deed, or let them know that he, Jacob, knew about it all along. 

PT—The family of Reuben would not have the character to lead and this failure of character was first seen in the ancestor’s sin. Sin is always a compromise that leads to failure.


A Review of the History of the Tribe of Reuben

The instability of the tribe of Reuben can be illustrated in some of the events of their subsequent history.


Numbers 16 in Review Korah’s Rebellion

·      The most prominent persons to appear in the tribe of Reuben were two individuals, Dathan and Abiram. They joined the rebellion of Korah the Levite in Numbers 16.


Verses 1-2Korah…Dathan and Abiram took action…and they rose before Moses—This took some planning and much discussion because Korah, a Levite, was joined by two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown (v. 2) to make their case before Moses. This seems to be a calculated coup attempt against Moses.


Verse 3They have four things to say:

(1) You have gone far enoughThat is, your sole leadership must come to an end. The meaning of it is something like “you have assumed far too much authority.” It simply means “much to you,” perhaps “you have gone to far,” or “you are overreaching yourself”. Korah is objecting to the exclusiveness of the system that Moses has been introducing.

·      (2) for all the congregation are holy, every one of them—Well, that is not the case. It sounds like they thought that meant they were a democracy. Though it was true that all the congregation was holy (cf. Ex. 19:6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation), these leaders failed to recognize that Moses and Aaron were God-appointed leaders.

·      (3) and the LORD is in their midstBut they ignored that the word of God came to them through and only through Moses. Rejecting Moses was not just rejecting God’s leader, it was also rejecting the only source of God’s revelation.

·      (4) So why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”—possibly referring here to Moses and Aaron. Usually people who complain, accuse their enemies of doing the very thing they are doing. Korah said to Moses you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD because that was what Korah was doing. [Like the old example of the lady who said, “This church is full of gossips.”] She just thinks accusing you of doing it exonerates her.


Then the Lord has something to say…

Verses 23-24… the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and AbiramTheir refusal to acknowledge Moses’ leadership was defying God who had called Moses. Then God gave Moses the rapture principle, separation of the righteous from the wicked, as God did at the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Rahab’s family and deported Jews to Babylon.


An ApplicationProximity to sinners and their sin can jeopardize your own well-being. Stay away from sinful willful sinners. Which is also why we practice ‘spiritual distancing’ with sinning believers. Its not so that we just don’t sin, but that we are not associated with or in proximity of those who do. The New Testament says it this way a little leaven leavens the whole lump. But also specifically applicable to life today, separate yourself from those who want to be leaders over the people of God. Notice the difference between Moses and Korah. Moses wanted to follow God but did not want to lead the people. Korah wanted to lead the people but did not want to follow God.


Verses 26-27Touch nothing…lest you be swept away in their sinThe touching would include not identifying in a personal way with these rebellious ones by agreeing with or supporting them.

·      Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the doorway with family along with their wives and their sons and their little ones is a defiant stance, for the word is often used in the sense of taking a stand for or against something. There they stand isolated, but self assured.


Verses 28-30For this is not my doingis Moses saying that the things he has been doing as leader have not come “from the will of man” so to speak – and certainly not from some secret desire on his part to seize power. The accusations against him and their innuendos are lies. It was all Gods doing. So, Moses proposes an ultimatum.  

·      If they suffer the fate of all men and die a natural death, then the Lord has not sent me (Moses). But if the Lord brings an entirely new thing like the ground opens up and swallows them it will be so different everyone will know it is of God. The figures are personifications, but they vividly describe the catastrophe to follow – which was very much like a mouth swallowing them.


Verses 31-35—That’s exactly what happened the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up…they went down alive to sheol…the earth closed over them and they perished—Sheol is the grave, the realm of the departed or death in general. Since they will go down there alive, it is likely that they will sense the deprivation and the separation from the land above on the way down as if being swallowed. 

·      The people fled at their outcry…and fire also came forth from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense. So God killed them separately. Ironically, this group questioned the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and God’s judgment upon them was swift and sure—the earth swallowed them and their families perished in the rebellion of Korah (Jude 11).


An Application—Do not rebel against those to whom God has given His written word (the patriarchs, prophets, or apostles of the Bible). Rebelling against the Word of God is the worst kind of sin because

there is no remedy. Today, everything is an attack on the Bible. Sometimes those attacks are engineered from the inside. It’s the word of God, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My Word (Isaiah 66:2).



Observations from the Tribe of Reuben

·      Reuben never excelled in his tribal development. In the census of the tribes at the end of the wilderness journey, Reuben’s population had already begun to decrease. In the first census their numbered men of the tribe of Reuben were 46,500 (Numbers 1:21). At the end of the wilderness wandering a second census was taken and those who were numbered of them were 43,730 (Numbers 26:7).

·      By the time Moses blessed the tribes before he died, Reuben may have been in danger of extinction, since Moses prayed May Reuben live and not die, nor his men be few (Deuteronomy 33:6).

·      Reuben produced not one single prophet, military leader, judge, or significant person in the history of Israel. Reuben had indeed lost both his birthright and leadership position due to being uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence, an example of which was that he went up to your father's bed; Then you defiled it-he went up to my couch (Genesis 49:4). Reuben’s inability to make proper discretionary decisions doomed himself and his descendants to a future of obscurity.

·      Reuben had to live with the results of his sin no matter how he had tried to make up for it by attempting to protect Joseph from his brother’s murderous plot (Genesis 37:20-30). James said a double-minded man [is] unstable in all his ways.


So What?

·      Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit and an essential aspect of spiritual maturity

·      Impulsiveness produces long-range tragic effects that result from the fleeting act of sin

·      If you rebel against, His will, His word, you have set yourself up for defeat