Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Things Hidden in Darkness

Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn. He was named by his mother in hope that his existence in the world would be a turning point in her relationship with her husband, who had eyes only for her more-attractive sister. But now that Leah had given Jacob a son, perhaps finally she would be loved.

As one might anticipate, that optimistic gesture turned out to be futile. Leah’s hopes were dashed.

Did young Reuben resent the way his father treated his mother? Come on, a firstborn son? We feel responsible for everything that happens to everybody. That’s just the dynamics of birth order. It would have been impossible for him to grow up unaware of the ever-present tension between his mother and her sister, or of the lack of interest his father displayed in Leah. No, Reuben was right in the middle of all the family intrigue.

At thirteen, Reuben brought his mother a gift of mandrakes, a plant with a reputation as a fertility aid, which Leah traded to her sister for a night with her own husband. I’m speculating here, but it would not be outrageous to suggest the young man was firmly on his mother’s side of this bitter competition. That would have been the most natural thing in the world.

Up to the Couch

So then, the writer of Genesis records that as a man, Reuben took the opportunity to lie with his father’s concubine just after Jacob had buried his beloved Rachel. It’s hard to think of a sin so egregious as anything but a defining statement about a man’s character.

And it was egregious. Yes, this was long before God’s law was given to Moses, but there’s plenty of evidence what Reuben did was considered grossly unacceptable, not least Jacob’s final rebuke to his eldest:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it — he went up to my couch!”

The word “defiled” is ālal, meaning profaned or polluted. When Absalom slept with his father’s concubines, it was a deliberate provocation. Intentionally or otherwise, he was making himself a stench to his father, as Ahithophel would later put it.

The Rest of the Story

Here’s the interesting thing about Reuben. After committing the offense that defined him, it turns out there was a whole lot more to him than we might think. In Genesis 37 he persuades his jealous brothers not to kill Joseph. The Holy Spirit plainly tells us he was planning to restore Joseph to his father. He recognizes the wickedness of the act and counsels against it repeatedly. When events later turn against the brothers, he alone among his siblings declares they are under the judgment of God, experiencing a rightful “reckoning” for Joseph’s blood.

I draw two conclusions from the incident and its aftermath: (1) Reuben was generally God-fearing, and (2) Reuben loved his father deeply and cared about his emotions in a way that none of his brothers other than Joseph did.

Does this sound like a man looking for revenge, or a man who would sleep with his father’s concubine just for the sake of flipping him the bird? It sounds much more to me like a moment way out of character. That, or a moment that in which Reuben was severely misunderstood.

Regardless, Jacob never forgave, and as a result Reuben forfeited the double portion of his father’s estate to which he was entitled by birthright.

Another Set of Possibilities

But maybe the loss was worth it to Reuben. It wasn’t any old concubine Reuben chose to couple with; it was the late Rachel’s servant. I’m thinking that was no coincidence. Bilhah had already borne two sons to Reuben’s father, which provoked the bane of his mother’s existence to declare victory over her. “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.”

A class act, that Rachel. Nothing like kicking a woman when she’s down.

At any rate, her victory was short-lived — as was Rachel, comparatively speaking. It is unlikely she was older than thirty-nine when she died giving birth to Benjamin. In the end, Leah outlasted her, but it turned out she couldn’t even compete with her sister’s memory. And who would be more likely for Jacob to console himself with after Rachel’s death than the woman who had been almost literally pushed into his arms by his beloved wife?

Reuben’s mother had spent most of her adult years being humiliated by her sister. Was she now to be further degraded by her sister’s servant?

Taking Out the Competition

So then, when Reuben lay with Bilhah, it’s quite possible it was less about a young man’s passion for an older woman and more about taking his mother’s remaining competition for her husband’s affections out of the game permanently. After all, it takes two to tango; you can pretty much guarantee Jacob never slept with Bilhah again after hearing about her little escapade with his eldest.

Other motives have been conjectured. One writer thinks the act was a power grab, like Absalom’s rebellion. But nothing of that sort followed. There’s not even a hint in the rest of the Genesis narrative that Reuben was looking to usurp his father’s role or wanted him out of the picture. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. It has also been suggested Reuben was protecting the dilution of his own inheritance by ensuring Jacob would not father any more children, or that he was jumping at the chance to claim Bilhah as his own. Both seem unlikely. He had no need. The birthright was already his. Messing with his father’s concubine was more likely to endanger his inheritance than any other strategy. It has even been suggested that Reuben’s sexual options were limited. This seems the least likely explanation of all. Again, as the firstborn he carried the birthright. He was the alpha’s alpha within the Israelite community.

No, there was something else going on with Reuben that day. Jacob put his son’s offense down to instability, but Reuben’s motives may have been less chaotic than Jacob imagined.

Dime Store Psychoanalysis

Now, I will admit people are complicated. Jacob diagnosed Reuben as “unstable” because he couldn’t reconcile these weird inconsistencies in his son’s behavior. Jacob was a father, and perhaps he knew his own son all too well. Maybe Reuben was just a passionate guy, with no logic to his actions. I’ve known people who can do terrible things one day and wonderful things the next. It’s not impossible Jacob was right about him.

On the other hand, Jacob was the father of a very large family, and undiscerning enough to provoke the vast majority of his sons to such intense jealousy that they flirted with committing murder and sold their own brother into slavery. It is not inconceivable such a man may have misread Reuben’s motives entirely. Deceivers are easily deceived because they tend to project. So then, depending on how we read the text, Reuben may have been a more decent human being than he initially appears.

Which is it? I don’t know, and neither did Jacob. Maybe even Reuben wasn’t sure. The dime store psychoanalysts could go at this stuff all day and never arrive at a firm conclusion.

The Purposes of the Heart

My own father was a discerning man, a wonderful human being and a great servant of God ... and I am thrilled that when I come before the judgment seat of Christ, Dad will not be my judge. He’s not equipped. None of us are. Only the Lord himself is really able to bring to light the things hidden in darkness and disclose the purposes of the heart.

We are wise not to pronounce our own judgments before then. I have my doubts we would be either balanced or fair with people like Reuben.

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