Why did Reuben do what he did? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
In Genesis 35, we have the deaths of Rachel and Isaac. Rachel dies giving birth to the second son she bore for Jacob. Isaac dies simply because he’s an old man and it’s his time. During this event, something strange happens also. Just after these deaths, we are told that Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob, goes in and sleeps with Rachel’s concubine, Bilhah, and Jacob hears about it.
This is the first time we have a case of the son sleeping with someone that his father has slept with as well recorded in Scripture. The other case that I can think of now is when Absalom pitched a tent on the roof of David’s palace and went in and slept with his father’s concubines. Now it could be that many young men reading might think that Reuben is just wanting to get his game on and have sex and Bilhah is available. Possible, but not really likely.
In both cases, both persons are asserting a show of dominance. When Absalom sleeps with the concubines of David, he is trying to show superiority and having this be done before all of Israel is a very public statement. It’s not about sex per se. It’s about power.
In Jacob’s family, his wife has died and his Dad has died. Could Reuben then be trying to assert control? What if the vacuum keeps going and Jacob himself is removed? Reuben himself wants to be the one to lead the family then.
The text right after this seems to single out Reuben anyway. We are told a list of the descendants of Jacob. Through Leah, we are told that Reuben was born and that Reuben was the firstborn. Then, the other sons are mentioned without comment, as if they were incidental to all of this.
It’s as if the text is saying “Yes. Reuben is born. Remember him? He’s the firstborn. Then there were all these other sons that were born as well.” It’s wanting to stress that this is the position Reuben would naturally have over his family.
And sadly for him, he would have had it. Had things run their course, it could be that Reuben could have naturally been the head of the family, although that is not certain since Jacob did favor Joseph as the firstborn of Rachel, but when Jacob blesses his descendants and tells their future, he says that Reuben will no longer excel.
What is the reason? He went up on his father’s bed and defiled it. This is the only time in the text when Jacob explicitly speaks of this event. Reuben is praised greatly just before that pronouncement as the firstborn of Jacob. He was the first sign of Jacob’s strength and excelling in honor and power, but because he tried to grab it on his own, he will not have it.
Whenever and wherever sex takes place and who it is with, it is always a big deal. Proverbs warns us that adultery arouses a husband’s jealousy and he will not take any bribe when he gets his revenge in. We live in a society that may try to treat sex as if it was just something recreational, but many of us know that this is not so. When we are cheated on, we know immediately that something deeper is happening and as a man who has been divorced facing this reality, it definitely hits home every day.
Sadly, while sex can be a great power for good uniting husband and wife and bringing a new life into the world, used improperly, it can just as much cause devastation. It did for Reuben. It does for many people today.
Treat it carefully.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)