December 03, 2006

Genesis 35-37: Supporting Cast - Reuben

Today's reading is Genesis 35-37 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the travels of Jacob and his family to Bethel, a second version of the renaming of Jacob to Israel, Rachel's death in childbirth, several more genealogical tables (of Esau and of the kings of Canaan before the Israelites), Joseph's first two dreams, and the sale of Joseph to Midianite traders by his brothers.

Featuring prominently in today's passage is Reuben, Jacob's firstborn son. Though each episode is short, together they form a cohesive picture of a man who learns and changes with circumstances. To demonstrate this, I will stray a little further afield from our limited readings, to point out some incidents before and after these three chapters.

Reuben was Leah's son, likely born within the first seven years of her marriage to Jacob. His name comes from the Hebrew, "He has seen my misery." (Gen. 29:32) The next time he is mentioned by name, he is a pawn in the power struggles between Rachel and Leah, discussed in the last essay. It is Reuben's mandrakes that Rachel and Leah bargain over. (Gen. 30:14) Since Reuben likely gave the roots directly to his mother, we can assume that he was still a boy during this episode. If he were older, he would probably have kept them for himself.

The next time we hear of Reuben is within the passages we read today. In Gen. 35:22, we find out "Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it." (KJV) Here we find Reuben, likely a teenager or a young man, involved in an act of great rebellion, sleeping with his father's concubine. We know that he was caught, but not his punishment. In fact, we don't know of any consequences for this act until fourteen chapters later, which we will discuss in due time. However, it seems as though there must have been some punishment, because the next time we read about Reuben, he has mended his rebellious ways and has taken on a position of much more responsibility.

In Gen. 37, we learn there is great enmity between Joseph and his brothers, including his brother Reuben. Joseph has already had his first dreams, in which his brothers and even his parents bow down to him. (Gen. 37:6-11) Joseph was Jacob's favourite son, which also caused problems with his brothers.

One day, Joseph's brothers conspire to kill him. They've had enough of him and his dreams, and are ready to commit murder and lie about it to their father. But here Reuben steps in and saves Joseph's life. He tells his brothers not to kill him but instead to throw him into a pit (KJV) or cistern (NIV) in the desert. The text tells us that he intended to return Joseph to Jacob. (Gen. 37:21-22)

Indeed, things initially go according to Reuben's plan. The brothers strip off Joseph's many-coloured coat and toss him in the pit. But at some point, Reuben leaves, and the other brothers get greedy. Instead of merely keeping Joseph in the pit, they decide to sell him to Midianite merchants for 20 pieces (KJV) or shekels (NIV) of silver.

Shortly thereafter, Reuben returns and realizes Joseph is not in the pit where he left him. He immediately goes into deep mourning, tearing his clothes and bewailing his fate: "Where can I turn now?" he cries. (Gen. 37:29, NIV) In a hasty plan, he and his brothers kill a young goat, dip Joseph's coat in the blood, and show it to Jacob, who also goes into deep mourning, never knowing that Joseph has been sold a slave in Egypt.

Let's pause for a moment and consider this change in Reuben. This seems far from the man who slept with his father's mistress. Before, he was selfish and rebellious. Here, he is responsible. What happened in the intervening time?

Perhaps Jacob gave him particular responsibility over Joseph. This would explain why Reuben took such pains to save the boy's life, and why he was so distraught when Joseph had gone missing. Perhaps Jacob had not given him that responsibility, but Reuben was smart enough to know that if anything happened to his father's favourite son, heads would roll. Jacob, we know, was not a particularly bold man, but he may have been harsh with his own sons.

By the time we hear again from Reuben, many years later, he is an even more responsible man, whose past actions return to haunt him. In Gen. 42:22, Reuben and his brothers are in Egypt, speaking (though they don't know it) to Joseph. Reuben chides his brothers, saying that the ill treatment they receive at the hands of the Egyptians is just punishment for their crimes against Joseph.

Later in the same chapter, Reuben must bring Benjamin, his youngest brother and his father's new favourite, to Egypt to appease Joseph. Though Jacob is against the idea, Reuben finally convinces him by saying that if he does not bring Benjamin back, Jacob may execute his (Reuben's) two sons. (Gen. 42:37) Surely, this is a man who has learnt his lesson and takes responsibility for his actions. He has certainly come a long way from the carousing, rebellious teenager we encountered many chapters before.

And yet, when Jacob is near death and parcels out blessings to all his sons, what do we find? We read:
"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." (Gen. 49:3-4, NIV)

That's right, Jacob apparently held a grudge all those years. Reuben certainly developed as a person, gained responsibility, and raised a family (in Gen. 46:9, we learn he had four sons). He saved Joseph from death at the hands of his brothers, led his siblings to Egypt and back again, and generally proved himself to be a decent person. Yet Jacob remembers the slight Reuben gave him as a youth, when he slept with Jacob's concubine.

I suppose all this shows is that while some people change, others never do.

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