What Do We Learn about Reuben in the Bible?

In the Bible, Reuben is one of Jacob's most famous sons, and not just because he rescues his brother from getting killed. He did something else that had shocking consequences for his family and children generations later.

Contributing Writer
Mar 23, 2023
What Do We Learn about Reuben in the Bible?

The Bible has many genealogies—long lists of offspring with names that are often hard to pronounce. While these genealogies may make readers pray for perseverance, they serve important purposes (for example, they detail all the people God used in Jesus’ ancestry). One of Genesis’s genealogies lists the sons of Jacob, whom God renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28). God told Jacob, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 28:14). The Bible later shows how Jacob’s son Reuben played a key role in that plan, fathering one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Where Do We First Hear about Reuben in the Bible?

We first meet Reuben in Genesis 29:32, which explains he was Jacob’s firstborn son. His mother was Leah, the daughter of Jacob’s uncle Laban.

The story of Jacob marrying Leah has great irony. Jacob was staying in Haran with Laban because his brother Esau wanted him dead. Jacob had tricked Esau into giving up his birthright (Hebrews 12:16) and later tricked their father Isaac into giving him a blessing reserved for Esau (Genesis 27:36-41). Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, sent him to Laban under the pretext of him finding a wife, and Isaac blessed Jacob before he left. Esau had angered his parents by marrying two Canaanite women (Genesis 26:34), so the trip made sense.

While in Haran, Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Laban’s second-born daughter. He promised Laban his service for seven years if he could marry Rachel. But Laban conspired to foist his firstborn, Leah, on Jacob. After the seven years, Laban gave a great feast, and Jacob was merry. Laban placed Leah in the marriage tent. Jacob went in and did not know it was Leah until the morning. As Jacob had tricked Esau, so Laban tricked Jacob.

Despite being angry at being tricked, Jacob couldn’t send Leah away. Over time, Leah bore six sons and one daughter to Jacob. Reuben was their first son, but he would have lots of competition. Jacob worked seven more years and then married Rachel, who bore two sons. Jacob also had several sons by other women, so Reuben had 11 brothers.

What Role Did Reuben Play in the Story of Joseph?

Joseph, Rachel’s oldest son, is the most famous of Jacob’s 12 sons. Joseph was his father Jacob’s favorite, and his brothers disliked his position (Genesis 37:4). Reuben must have found this particularly awkward since he was the firstborn, who traditionally gained the birthright (a promise to inherit the father’s possessions and authority). Jacob’s favoring Joseph (including giving him a coat of many colors) suggested that Joseph might get everything promised to Reuben.

In Genesis 37:2, we learn that Joseph “brought a bad report of his brothers to their father.” After Joseph shared two dreams with his brothers and his father, the brothers’ disdain for him grew (Genesis 37:5-11).

One day, Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers as they shepherded flocks near Dothan. When the brothers saw Joseph from a distance, they plotted his death (Genesis 37:12-18). “Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.”

Reuben served as Joseph’s savior that day. Apparently, he was not within earshot of the other brothers as they conspired against Joseph. “But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life’” (Genesis 37:20-21). Reuben suggested they throw him into a pit and leave him there, but he desired to restore Joseph to his father (Genesis 37:22).

When Joseph arrived, the brothers stripped him of his multi-colored robe and threw him into a dry pit. Upon the arrival of a band of Ishmaelites, Judah suggested they sell Joseph to them. And so, they did—for 20 shekels of silver (Genesis 37:28). When Reuben returned and saw Joseph gone from the pit, “he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, ‘The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?’” (Genesis 37:29-30).

Taking his robe, they tore it up, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood to give the impression a wild animal killed Joseph (Genesis 37:31-33). Meanwhile, in Egypt, a nobleman named Potiphar bought Joseph.

Years later, when famine struck Egypt and surrounding countries, Joseph was in a position to help people. God’s favor had him second-in-charge under Pharaoh. Knowing famine was coming, he collected enough grain to see the people through the scarcity. When Jacob heard about Egypt’s great storehouses, he sent his sons (minus Rachel’s second son, Benjamin) to buy grain (Genesis 42:2).

Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (Genesis 42:6-8). He treated them roughly, claiming they were spies, and said, “you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here” (Genesis 42:15). Imprisoned for three days, the brothers reflected that God must be punishing them for harming Joseph years ago:

“They said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.’ And Reuben answered them, ‘Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood’” (Genesis 42:21-22).

All the while, Joseph overheard their conversation. He did not return to his command to bring the youngest brother they mentioned to Egypt. He kept one of them, Simeon, in Egypt and returned the others to Jacob.

The sons returned to Jacob and explained they could not buy more grain or get Simeon back unless Benjamin returned with them. Jacob initially refused. Reuben tried to convince him, saying, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you” (Genesis 42:37-38). Later, his brother Judah persuaded Jacob, and they took Benjamin on their second trip to Egypt. The rest of the story—including Joseph finally revealing himself and reconciling with his brothers—becomes more about Judah (Benjamin’s protector) and Benjamin. You can read the full narrative in Genesis 42-43.

Why Did Reuben’s Father Curse Him?

Before Joseph got sold into slavery, Reuben did something that would have huge consequences. While the family lived near Bethlehem (since they shepherded flocks, they moved around a lot seeing new pastures), Reuben did the unthinkable: “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it” (Genesis 35:22).

Sleeping with one of Jacob’s concubines was terrible for many reasons. It was an act of adultery (something the Bible condemns in Exodus 20:14 and many other places). It was dishonorable to Jacob—Bilhah wasn’t Reuben’s mother or one of Jacob’s legitimate wives, but she was a wife to Reuben’s father in all but name. She was also the mother of two of Reuben’s brothers, Dan and Naphtali. It was a sin that crossed clear moral boundaries and disgraced multiple people.

What Happened to Reuben’s Children?

After reconciling with Joseph, Reuben and his siblings moved to Egypt. Genesis 46:8-9 indicates Reuben had four sons (Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi) by this time. These sons would presumably inherit whatever Reuben left, and be affected by whatever blessing their grandfather Jacob, the overall family patriarch, would give at the end of his life.

At the time of his impending death, Jacob called his sons to pronounce a blessing on each. His blessing would also include prophecy, “what shall happen to you in days to come” (Genesis 49:1-2).

Because Reuben held the firstborn position, Jacob addressed him first: “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!” (Genesis 49:3-4).

What did this mean?

Reuben probably felt proud as his father called him preeminent in dignity and power. It was as it should be—the oldest son having great authority. However, then Jacob lowers the boom on Reuben and tells him instead he is unstable as water and he won’t hold preeminence—not according to God’s standards. He wouldn’t be preeminent because while Reuben did some good things (like saving Joseph), he also violated his father’s bed. He may have had character, but not consistent character.

Reuben’s sons had children of their own, and these descendants eventually became the tribe of Rueben. While the tribe of Reuben would be blessed by being part of the nation of Israel, Jacob’s words held true. Reuben’s descendants did not produce a person of renown—no king, judge, or prophet came from his line. As we’ll see below, instability became the thing they were best known for.

What Happened to Reuben’s Line?

The rest of the Old Testament gives several facts about the tribe of Reuben.

The Reubenites:

- Had 43,730 men aged 20 or older when Moses took a census (Numbers 26).

- Lost their birthright to the sons of Joseph (1 Chronicles 5:1).

- Chose not to enter the Promised Land, instead settling on the Jordan’s east side with the Gadites and the east tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32:28-32).

- Helped fight the Canaanites but did not battle with Israel in the Judges’ time (Judges 5:16).

- Became widespread, semi-nomadic shepherds who regularly fought against the Hagrites (1 Chronicles 5:9-10).

- Were assigned Jazer as an overseer by King David “for everything pertaining to God and for the affairs of the king.” Jazer was deemed a man of “great ability” (1 Chronicles 26:31-32).

- Went into the Assyrian captivity at the hand of Tiglath-Pileser (740 B.C.).

After the exile, not much is known about the Reubenites. They are considered one of the 10 “lost tribes” of Israel who assimilated into their surrounding culture. The Bible’s final reference to them is the 12,000 Reubenites counted among the 144,000 sealed “from every tribe” in Revelation 5.

What Can We Learn From Reuben?

Reuben is a complex character. Do we overlook his adultery and focus on his saving Joseph? Do we highlight his sin, which set the stage for his descendants being inconsistent with their loyalties?

Reuben exhibited pride—a characteristic we all possess in some measure. Yet he also displayed a fierce loyalty to his brother.

One advantage we have as Christians, studying Scripture on this side of the cross (generations after Reuben, looking at the biblical story as Christ’s co-heirs), is that we can recognize his sin and empathize with him. We can see Reuben as a brother, forgiving his failings as we learn from them. God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7), and His justice is perfect. Reuben discovered that truth when his father told him what was to come. God did not forsake His promise to Israel that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, yet Reuben’s line did not enjoy the blessing of stable generations.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/BibleArtLibrary

Lisa Baker 1200x1200

Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis. 

This article is part of our People of Christianity catalog that features the stories, meaning, and significance of well-known people from the Bible and history. Here are some of the most popular articles for knowing important figures in Christianity:

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