Reuben The Fallen

When Joseph needed help, Reuben took little regard for his plight. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to better himself, at the expense of his brothers.

"And Reuben said to them, 'Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand on him'–that he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father." (Genesis 37:23)

Reuben was looking to sure-up his future, as firstborn and Leader of the tribes of Israel. The plan was to deliver Joseph out of the pit, to restore him to his father, and thereby elevate himself as the genuine Deliverer and the only one fit to rule.

Reuben had successfully persuaded his brothers to place Joseph in a pit of his choosing rather than the one they had initially selected. Much later, when Jacob prophesied over his sons, he spoke of Reuben's persuasive and intimidating qualities. "Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and excellency of power." (Genesis 49:3) Reuben was the firstborn, and though he possessed qualities that imparted a dominant presence, yet, he lacked the discipline to restrain and develop those qualities, therefore, he excelled in none. "Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it–he went up to my couch." (Genesis 49:4)

Reuben would have succeeded in his plan, except that he was not present when Judah suggested that they sell Joseph to a company of traders who were passing by, on their way to Egypt. The brothers agreed. When Reuben returned and discovered that Joseph was not in the pit, he was shattered. "And he returned to his brothers and said, 'The lad is no more, and I, where shall I go?'" (Genesis 37:30)

While away from their father, the sons of Jacob were Reuben's responsibility and under his supervision. As the firstborn, Reuben was responsible for their safety and preservation. However, with Joseph gone, Reuben's credibility to fulfil his responsibilities as the firstborn was seriously questionable. He could lose the trust and support his father had invested in him as the firstborn. Joseph was no more, how would he comfort his father? What could he do to regain his father's trust?

When Reuben and his brothers told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast, and had presented the many, coloured coat torn and blood-soaked, Jacob tore his clothes, wrapped sackcloth round his waist, and mourned many days. "And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, and he said, 'For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.' Thus his father wept for him." (Genesis 37:35-36) No one, not even Reuben could comfort their father.

Years later, when the land of Canaan was struck by a severe famine, Reuben was sent with his brothers to Egypt to buy supplies. Arriving in Egypt, they encountered an inflexible and unfriendly Egyptian governor, who spoke roughly to them, who called them spies and then imprisoned them for three days. While they were returned home with supplies, they had to leave Simeon behind as surety for they went back to Egypt. How would Reuben comfort his father about Simeon being left behind? What reassurances could he offer to ensure Simeon's safe return home?

But worse was still to come. The Egyptian governor had demanded that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, with them on their return to Egypt, otherwise they would not see Simeon again, nor would they be able to buy supplies for their families. How would Reuben explain this to his father? What could he say since he had lost Joseph, and now Simeon while under his charge? And especially, since his father's life was so wrapped up in the life of the son of his old age, what words could he say that would reassure his aged father?

Then it happened. When each brother emptied his sack out fell the bag of money, which each of them had taken to Egypt to pay for the supplies. It looked as though they had stolen it, but of course, they did not. What a difficult turn of events! They were all afraid. "And Jacob their father said to them, 'You have bereaved me: Joseph is no more, Simeon is no more, and you want to take Benjamin. All these things are against me.'"

"Then Reuben spoke to his father, 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 42:36-37)

Reuben's offer was desperate and sad. It revealed the depth of his leadership abilities. This was the best he could suggest, the life of his two sons, should he not return with Benjamin.

It is sad that Reuben would think that his father would require two more deaths, and those of his own grandsons, were he to loose his beloved son, Benjamin. What comfort would Jacob receive in this scenario? And what loss of life would there be if Reuben were to go to Egypt to extricate Benjamin and Simeon from the grip of an adverse Egyptian? How much more grieving was Reuben willing to bring upon his father, Jacob, before he dies?

"But he said, 'My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is left alone. If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave.'" (Genesis 42:38)

Reuben remained the firstborn of Jacob, yet, he could no longer be relied upon to preserve the life of the sons of Jacob.