As we get into the first of the twelve pronouncements Jacob made over his sons, keep in mind he is not talking about the destiny of each person individually but is speaking to their many descendants and what will transpire in their tribal history.
The tribal unit was the typical social structure in those days and you might be surprised to know that the majority of the world population today is still tribal.
It is alive and well and our misunderstanding of tribalism is the source of the political tension we experience when dealing with the Middle East.
Also, Jacob’s prophecies, more than predicting the specific actions of what any one person or tribe would do, deal with what the tribes of Israel would become in terms of their characteristics and attributes.
As we move through the Torah, we will see the personality nuances of each tribe become increasingly more pronounced.
So let’s get started by taking a look at the first utterance concerning Reuben.
“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my strength, the first fruits of my manhood.
Though superior in vigor and power
you are unstable as water, so your superiority will end,
because you climbed into your father’s bed
and defiled it — he climbed onto my concubine’s couch!”
Those are pretty harsh words.
Given that these were his father’s final parting words to him, Reuben must have felt crushed.
His father had basically told him, you don’t have what it takes to lead my family Israel, so I am forced to pass on the responsibilities to another one of your brothers.
This event is actually also related for us in 1 Chronicles.
Let’s cross-reference by taking a look at 1 Chronicles 5:1-2:
The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel
— he was the firstborn,
but because he defiled his father’s bed,
his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Isra’el,
though not in such a way as for him to be regarded
in the genealogy as the firstborn.
For Judah became greater than his brothers,
inasmuch as the ruler came from him;
nevertheless, the birthright went to Joseph.
We learn two things.
First, it is clear that Reuben lost his inheritance because he slept with his father’s concubine.
However, what also occurred was that the blessings that normally went to only the firstborn got split between Joseph and Judah.
Look at how the writer of Chronicles attempted to describe this occurrence: “his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, though not in such a way as for him to be regarded in the genealogy as the firstborn.”
Jacob’s blessing was so outside the norm, it appears that the writer of Chronicles was a bit baffled and didn’t know what to make of it when he put pen to paper.
Again, remember the firstborn blessing consists of the “double portion”, which means the firstborn receives at least two shares of the tribe’s wealth and the “birthright”, which is the authority to rule over the whole tribe.
If things had gone as normal, Reuben would have been leader over all of Israel and received twice as much wealth than any of his brothers.
But due to his sexual infidelity, he ended up getting nothing.
Boy, that must have stung.
Instead it was Joseph who got the double portion through his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh.
And Judah received the birthright or the right to rule Israel.
I don’t think I can find the words to express how strange Jacob’s splitting the first born blessing was.
It was automatically assumed that the firstborn got the birthright and double portion, no questions asked.
What Jacob did was unprecedented.
There isn’t one other instance anywhere in Scripture where this occurred again.
Bible translators who don’t know any better will use the terms “birthright” and “firstborn blessing” (meaning double-portion) interchangeably.
However, if we’re going to understand how and why certain events unfold in Scripture, believe me, it is important to understand and make a distinction between the two.
The following important element the writer of Chronicles mentioned is a perfect case in point:
For Judah became greater than his brothers, in as much as the ruler came from him.
So genealogically speaking, in terms of deciding the legitimacy of Israel’s first king and later the messiah, it would be Judah’s bloodlines that would be used.
Let’s get back to Reuben.
Due to his infidelity, the following is what will happen with his descendants.
-No Israelite from the tribe of Reuben will accomplish anything of significance. Reuben will not produce a single military hero, king, prophet or judge.
-The population of Reuben will decline to the point where Moses became so concerned he prayed to God “Let Reuben live, and not die; and let not his men be few.” (Deuteronomy 33:6)
-Reuben was one of the three tribes that made a decision to NOT enter the promised land and instead decided to settle in the territory on the east side of the Jordan River, OUTSIDE of the promised land.
The spiritual takeaway is obvious.
While we may be forgiven for our sins, neither we nor our families can escape the consequences.
Remember God is not mocked.