By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jacob, Men in the Bible, Old Testament


It appears that Reuben lost his birthright because he slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. Was he just that impulsive, or is there a larger story here?


Genesis 35:22 reads: “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel (Jacob) heard of it.” Nothing more is said about this until Genesis 49, where Jacob is on his deathbed and giving his final blessings to his sons. To Reuben he states, “You are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it—you went up onto my couch!”

The only other mention of this occurs in 1 Chronicles 5:1, where the Chronicler begins, “The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel,” but then adds: “(He was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, son of Israel, so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright;”

It would seem from these three entries that Reuben’s act with Bilhah was never a secret, but some 40 years would pass before Jacob mentioned anything about it. On his deathbed, Jacob took away Reuben’s birthright of firstborn and gave it to Joseph, the firstborn son of Rachel, his second wife. Of course, none of this hints at any motivation for the event itself.

Scholars have put forth various interpretations on the subject. An early medieval scholar, Nachmanides, suggested that Reuben defiled her so Jacob wouldn’t have any relations with her. In this way, Reuben was protecting his inheritance. However, as eldest son, Reuben was already entitled to half his father’s inheritance, and his remaining brothers would share the other half. His inheritance would be the least affected by more sons. And even if this were the case, Jacob still had Leah or her concubine, Zilpah, to go to.

The Talmud has a different take entirely. Since this event followed the death of Rachel, it assumes that Jacob was taking solace in the arms of Bilhah. Rather than sleeping with Bilhah, Reuben moved his father’s bed from her tent to his mother’s tent. In so doing, Reuben was trying to honor his mother and encourage his father to be with her. This provides a nice parallel for those who see the mandrake incident as Reuben’s attempt to make his mother more attractive to Jacob. From the outset, Reuben may have shouldered the burden of knowing his mother was not Jacob’s favorite.

Other scholars have looked for an explanation from the larger story of Reuben as depicted in Genesis. There is really nothing to indicate that Jacob ever accorded him the status of firstborn son. Though Jacob professes his undying love for Rachel, he is silent about his feelings for his children – until Joseph is born. Genesis 37:3 tells us that Jacob loved him more than any of his other children and had made him a long robe with sleeves. Scholars don’t know how many years separated Joseph and Reuben. There are two camps. One thinks it was a mere six years; others argue that it was 26. When the brothers express their hatred for Joseph and plan to kill him, Reuben convinces them not to murder him. Reuben suggests that they put him in a pit with the intention of rescuing him later – possibly to curry favor with his father. Unbeknownst to him, however, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery.

Years later, ten of the brothers go to Egypt during the famine. Joseph is now second only to Pharaoh in Egypt and demands to see Benjamin (his brother). When Jacob balks at this, Reuben offers the lives of his two sons if he does not return Benjamin safely. Jacob promptly rejects his offer. Later on, when circumstances are more dire, Judah is the one that offers himself as surety for the life of Benjamin. Reuben is silent and apparently robbed of his leadership opportunity.

Two books found in later Jewish tradition discuss the incident with Bilhah. In the Testament of Reuben, he gathers his sons upon his deathbed to impart his final wisdom. This version states that he was overcome with lust for Bilhah and raped her while she was asleep. He was punished with an affliction in his loins for seven months, but was genuinely repentant and healed through Jacob’s prayers for him. He tells this to his sons so they won’t make the same mistakes. The book of Jubilees essentially repeats this story minus the punishment. The book exonerates both of them because the Law of Moses hadn’t been instituted yet. Other rabbinic sources simply avoid the verses.

So, perhaps this is a case of misguided lust, or love, as some scholars suggest. But other scholars point out that in antiquity cohabitating with the consort of a leader is a way of making claim upon his authority. David’s son, Absalom, will do the same thing later in his bid for the throne. If this is the case, then we should be mindful that things might have changed since Jacob wrestled with the angel. He is not the man he once was. Though this attempted coup seems not to have been successful, Jacob says nothing about it, even though he knows about it. Only upon his deathbed does he speak to the issue. And for trying to usurp Jacob’s authority by asserting his birthright, Reuben loses it.

As is often the case, life is way more complicated than the one or two verses that tell of an event. Reuben might have committed a transgression with Bilhah for personal or political reasons. Or not. We do know that no major leader or figure ever emerges from among his descendants.

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