By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jacob, Men in the Old Testament

  • Reuben is the eldest son of Jacob and his first wife, Leah.
  • The name, Reuben, has several possible meanings. ra’a ben means, “behold, a son.” The name might derive from raa beonyi, meaning, “God has seen my misery.” This refers to the misery felt by Leah for not being Jacob’s favorite wife. Or the name might derive from yeehabani, which could reflect Leah’s hope that things would be different with Jacob – because it means “he will love me.” If the last consonant were an “l” and not an “n” (following Josephus), then the name would derive from Ra’abil, which means “wolves.” Most biblical translations prefer the first reading.
  • Only one thing is known about Reuben’s childhood.
  • While a boy, he brings mandrakes from the field to his mother. (A mandrake was called the “love apple,” and it was believed to be useful in helping women to become pregnant. It also was used as an aphrodisiac.)
  • Though his motivation for doing this is unknown, it might suggest that he knew Jacob prefers Rachel to his mother.
  • Bringing mandrakes to his mother could have enhanced her relationship with Jacob and brought greater honor to his family.
  • In Genesis 35:22, Reuben “went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel (his father) heard about it.”
  • In recalling the incident, 1 Chronicles 5:1 states, that Reuben “was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph.”
  • Presumably, Reuben is included in Geneses 37:3-4, which records all the brothers feeling jealousy and resentment toward Joseph.
  • Yet, when the brothers decide to kill Joseph, Reuben suggests that they throw him in a pit (see Genesis 37:21).
  • Perhaps he hopes to curry favor with Jacob by saving Joseph’s life. But when he returns to retrieve Joseph from the pit, he is not there. The other brothers have already sold him into slavery.
  • Confronted by Joseph in Egypt, Reuben ruefully says to his brothers, “You should have listened to me (see Genesis 42:22).
  • Yet, when Joseph demands that Benjamin be brought to him before any more negotiations for food can take place, Reuben convinces Jacob to let him go. “You may kill my two sons if I do not return Benjamin to you.” (see Genesis 42:37).
  • When Jacob is on his deathbed, he gives each son a blessing. To Reuben he states, “…you are my firstborn, my might, the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. Unstable as water, you shall no long excel, because you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.” (see Genesis 49:3-4).
  • The first part seems to suggest that Reuben, indeed, has all the rights of the firstborn.
  • The second part suggests that the act he committed with Bilhah (40 years earlier) strips him of those same rights.
  • Jacob seems to recognize Reuben’s good qualities, but acknowledges his erratic behavior.
  • Though Reuben is the leader of the Tribe of Reuben, no major leader or figure ever emerges from the tribe.
  • According to Genesis 46:9, Reuben has four sons: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi.
  • Though the name of his wife is not listed in Genesis, the Book of Jasher (a midrashic book) states she was called Eliuran, and is the daughter of Avi the Canaanite.
  • Reuben goes with Jacob and his family to Egypt.
  • His descendants are among those who leave with Moses in search of the Promised Land.
  • However, in Numbers 16:1-3, the Reubenites are part of Korah’s revolt against Moses.
  • The tribe drops from 46,500 (see Numb 1:21) to 43,730 (see Num 26:7) during the time of the wilderness.
  • When the lands are allocated, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh opt to stay east of the Jordan River.
  • One possible reason is that they have very large flocks and herds, and the land east of the Jordan is well suited for livestock.
  • Moses is opposed to the idea until they promise to help the remaining tribes in battle to claim the lands assigned to them.
  • Then, Moses acquiesces to the idea.
  • Ultimately that decision extends God’s blessings beyond the land of promise. • However, the physical barrier of the river Jordan will eventually lead to isolation and separation from the other tribes.
  • Eventually, they build an altar east of the Jordan, just like the Israelites have in the Promised Land.
  • Some of the Israelites are concerned that they might start worshiping foreign deities. They send a party to investigate.
  • The Reubenites convince them it is an indication of their solidarity with Israel. This explanation is accepted.
  • However, the Song of Deborah suggests that they are reluctant to fight (1100 BCE).
  • A few Reubenites are still around in the 9th century BCE, as noted in II Kings.
  • These three tribes are also the first to be conquered by the Assryians.
  • Rabbinic literature states that Reuben dies at the age of 125.

Bible Characters