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Should We Be More or Less like Reuben in the Bible?

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If a Sunday School teacher gave you a question sheet that started with “who was Reuben in the Bible?” you might feel stuck. If you were a big fan of the story of Joseph and his brothers, you’ll know that he’s one of those brothers and had a big part in Joseph’s fate. However, you probably didn’t hear about some of his actions before Joseph was sold into slavery, or what Reuben’s father said to him on his deathbed.

Who Was Reuben in the Bible?

Jacob had 12 sons, mostly from his two wives Leah and Rachel, but some by other women. Reuben was Jacob’s oldest son, born to his first wife Leah. Leah later had five other sons (Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun). After Jacob’s second wife Rachel died, he moved his family to a new location, beyond Migdal-eder (Genesis 35:21). Sometime after the family moved, Reuben slept with Bilhal, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). Bilhal was also the mother of Reuben’s brothers Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 35:25), which must have made the situation even more awkward.

Years later, Reuben’s younger brother Joseph got a multicolored coat from his father. The Bible records that Joseph’s brothers hated him because Jacob made it clear he loved Joseph the most (Genesis 37:2-4), and the coat certainly didn’t help matters. Since formal coats couldn’t be worn for outdoor work, this gift may have meant that Joseph was exempt from doing chores with his brothers. We see evidence of that in Genesis 37:12, where Joseph stays home, and his brothers go out to work. However, as Middle Eastern culture experts, E. Randolph Richards and Richard James explain, Joseph’s coat had an even bigger significance which presented a problem for Reuben. Jacob was the patriarch of a large family, with a position and resources that would mostly go to an heir when he died. A princely robe was a way for the patriarch to indicate who would be his heir. Joseph’s coat was a sign of succession. Reuben might be the firstborn, but Jacob was going to pass over him and make Joseph the heir.

One day Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers, possibly because in the past some of them had been lazy (Genesis 37:2). When the brothers saw Joseph coming, they plotted to kill him, but Reuben stopped them. Instead, he suggested they leave Joseph in an empty well—planning all the time to get Joseph out of it later (Genesis 37:21-22). After throwing Joseph into the well, a caravan came by, and Reuben’s brother Judah had an economic idea: sell their brother as a slave. Reuben was apparently not present for this, because later he returned to the well and was shocked that Joseph was gone (Genesis 37:29). He and his brothers then took Joseph’s coat and covered it in goat’s blood, presenting it to Jacob as evidence that a wild animal had killed Joseph (Genesis 37:31-32).

After this sad story, there’s nothing about Reuben in the Bible for four chapters. During that time, Joseph took a strange path to Egypt and becoming that county’s second most important man, and during a famine, his brothers came to buy food. Joseph (hiding his identity) played various tricks on his brothers and kept Simeon as a hostage, sending the rest home with instructions to bring their youngest brother Benjamin and prove they weren’t spies. When Jacob refused to follow this plan, Reuben promised to be responsible for Benjamin, which didn’t sway Jacob’s position (Genesis 42:36-38). Eventually, Jacob gave in, and when the brothers returned to Egypt, Joseph finally revealed who he was (Genesis 44-45). Having reconciled with his brothers, Joseph had them bring their families to Egypt so they can make it through the famine. Jacob came with everyone else to Egypt and died there, giving final words to all his sons before he passed.

However, Reuben’s affair with Bilhal came up again when it’s time for his father to speak to his 12 sons. Each son got a specific word that summed up their character and prophesied their future. Zebulun was told his family would settle at the seashore (Genesis 49:13), Issachar that he would be a good laborer (Genesis 49:14-15). Simeon and Levi, who had murdered men for harming their sister Dinah (Genesis 34), were told that they were violent men whose descendants would wander (Genesis 49:5-7). When it came to Reuben, Jacob said that he was unruly and would not be first any longer, because “you defiled my marriage couch” (Genesis 49:3-4). So, in the end, Reuben’s actions had big consequences, even though his family was blessed to become a tribe of Israel.

What Was the Tribe of Reuben Known For?

Some of the tribes of Israel had very particular roles. For example, the tribe of Levi became the Levites, who performed religious duties (Numbers 18). The tribe of Reuben didn’t get any particular role, and references to the Reubenites after Genesis are a bit scattered. We get bits and pieces of information about them, but nothing really exemplary. Joshua 13 establishes that the tribe of Reuben received property on the eastern side of the Jordan, along with the tribe of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 13:8-23). The Reubenites are mentioned several times in Deborah’s song condemning various tribes for not fighting with Barak against invaders (Judges 5). 30 members of David’s mighty warrior force were Reubenites and helped him take Jerusalem from the Jebusites (Chronicles 11). After Solomon died and the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms, the tribe of Reuben was part of the 10 tribes who didn’t accept Solomon’s son as king and formed their own kingdom (1 Kings 11-12).

Some have suggested that ultimately Reuben not being blessed by Jacob meant that his share of blessing went to other tribes, such as the ones created by Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. This is hard to say, but it might explain why we don’t see particular blessings for Reuben’s tribe later.

What Was the Good in Reuben's Life?

Given the fact that Reuben had the most reason to feel threatened by Joseph, it’s noble that he kept his brothers from killing Joseph. His desire to keep his father from being hurt, even though Joseph staying alive meant that Reuben would lose his inheritance, was very selfless. After he and his brothers arrived in Egypt and began to suffer, Reuben was honest enough to admit they were dealing with consequences for their past crimes (Genesis 42:22). He also tried to help make things right by offering to be responsible for Benjamin, taking the lead to deal with a strange situation.

What Was the Bad in Reuben's Life?

It’s interesting to note that Leah’s sons appear to be the big troublemakers in Jacob’s family. Simeon and Levi murdered a whole town of men in a revenge killing. Judah suggested selling Joseph into slavery (and as Genesis 38 notes, had other problems). Reuben’s affair with Bilhal leads to him losing a blessing from his father.

Of these troublemakers, Reuben seems the most passive. He didn’t kill anyone—in fact, he prevented his brothers from killing Joseph. However, his choice to try and compromise with his brothers rather than rebuking them as the oldest brother arguably was a passive choice that made Reuben complicit. Reuben became even further complicit when he helped hide the crime, convincing Jacob that Joseph was dead. Ultimately, Joseph forgave Reuben and his other brothers, saying that what they meant for harm, God meant for good (Genesis 45:1-15). Joseph affirms his forgiveness after Jacob’s death (Genesis 50:14-21), assuring them that there would be no vengeance now that the patriarch was gone. However, the fact that God used the situation doesn’t change the fact sin was committed, which was fortunately forgiven and redeemed.

Reuben’s affair with Bilhal had more long-lasting effects. We don’t have any record of Jacob forgiving him, which may indicate Reuben never repented or simply that it was the kind of messy sin that a family patriarch had to disown since it tainted his honor. Regardless, it’s a good reminder that infidelity and hurting family members has nasty effects down the line.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/wernerimages

Connor SalterG. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.


This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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