Reuben, Jacob’s Firstborn

Bible References: Genesis 30: 14, 35:22-26, 37:21-30, 42:37, 46:9; Numbers 16:1-3, Joshua 15:6.

Heart of the Story: Although Reuben should have been Jacob’s heir; however, Judah became the leader of the 12 tribes of Israel (Jacob). Reuben’s sins were the reason he was passed over.

Back Story: Reuben was the first-born son of the Bible patriarch, Jacob. His mother that Leah.  He was the founder of the tribe of Reuben. When the Bible lists the names of Jacob’s 12 sons, Reuben’s is listed first. Although Reuben was the firstborn, the kingdom was given to Judah and the priesthood to Levi, leaving Reuben’s tribe to be small and non-influential.

Story: Reuben and his offspring demonstrated more than Jacob’s 11 other sons inconsistency in behavior, which can be an object lesson for Christians in the 21st century.

One of the first stories associated with Reuben in the Bible is his bringing mandrake roots from the wheat fields to give to his mother Leah (Genesis 30:14). In the time that Reuben lived, people believed that mandrakes promoted fertility. Reuben was aware that Leah was distressed because she stopped conceiving. He wanted her to have a possible help to conceiving more children.

Reuben lost the privileges that traditionally were given to first-born sons because he slept with Bilhah, who was Jacob’s concubine, Rachel’s servant, and mother of two of Jacob’s sons: Dan and Naphtali.

Reuben’s descendants took part in Korah’s revolt against Moses (Numbers 16:1-3). Loss of life from the rebellion, possibly explains the drop of numbers between the two Israelite censuses. Number 1:21 showed the tribe of Reuben included 46,500 individuals while Numbers 26:7 showed a census of 43,730.

Despite these seeming negative behaviors, Reuben also acted in positive ways: He followed his father, Jacob, as the family traveled from Padan Aram to Canaan, and then later to Egypt.  It was Reuben who intervenes with his brothers to spare Joseph’s life (Genesis 37:21-30).  Further, Reuben offered his own sons as surety for Benjamin’s safety in Genesis 42:37.

In Revelation 7:1-8, the tribe of Reuben is listed among the tribes who are promised the Seal of God for 12,000 of their members.

The photograph is supposedly Reuben’s tomb.

Pondering Behavior and Relationships: Jacob prophesied, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it” (Genesis 49:3-4). Jacob’s prophecy of the tribe of Reuben has lessons for Christian’s in the 21st century.

On his death bed, Jacob demoted his first born (Reuben) and told Reuben why. Although Reuben having sex with Bilhah happened 40 years earlier, Reuben’s action was an indication of his characters and that of his posterity. Reuben’s action was a reproach upon his tribe and the family, to whom he ought to have been an example and a blessing. Noteworthy, Jacob did not disown or disinherit Reuben; Reuben retained the privileges of a son, but not of the firstborn.

Reuben’s character was “unstable (turbulent) as water.” Jacob’s description of Reuben’s characters is a lesson for all Christians. Reuben’s was unstable; he did not have control of himself and his own appetites. The charge of instability could refer to his being sometimes very regular and orderly, while at other times wild and undisciplined. As Christians, we are to be in control of our flesh and its appetites and desires at all times. Most importantly, we are to be steadfast in our faith and not “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

Jacob told Reuben that he would no longer excel. Prior to this time, Reuben did excel, possibly because he had the rights of a first born. Jacob’s prophecy for Reuben came true. No judge, prophet, ruler, or prince came from that tribe, nor any person of renown.

Reuben’s tribe chose a settlement on the east side of the Jordan River. This decision showed further reduction in influence on the other tribes of Judah which his birthright entitled him.

Reflection: From Reuben we see that those who dabble in sin must not expect to save their reputation or maintain a positive influence upon others. Reuben’s sin left an indelible mark upon him and his family. As Christians, we must understand that dishonor is a wound that cannot be healed without a scar.

Copyright November 5, 2017. Carolyn A. Roth

Visit my website at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s