59. Genesis 35:22, 37:18-35, 42:21-22, 42:35-38, 46:9, and 49:3-4

III.  continued

D.  Joseph and His Brothers

1.  Reuben (Genesis 35:22, 37:18-35, 42:21-22, 42:35-38, 46:9, and 49:3-4)

With Jacob’s children, the Covenant quit narrowing. The Covenant continued to each one of Jacob’s sons, which is the normal way a covenant works. Covenants were handed down from generation to generation. The core of the Covenant of Revelation was God’s promise to be God to Abraham’s descendants, and this means the renewing of the Covenant with each generation. God promised to be their God period, no conditions, forever; and He has never failed to come through on a promise. No explanation is required when the Covenant passes on to the next generation, however unworthy they may be. Only the opposite requires comment: how can the Covenant have failed to be passed on to these children?

I have argued that there were discernible reasons God first excluded Ishmael and then excluded Esau from the Covenant: Ishmael in order to show that human effort could not accomplish God’s will, and Esau in order to show that God’s favor does not depend on how good we are. In other words, they were “excluded” from the Covenant of Revelation because they were included. It sounds paradoxical, and that is all right. Their lives were revelation itself. When they departed from the Covenant of Revelation they performed their part of the revelation that was being handed down in the Covenant of Revelation. If this sounds like a sort of spiritual catch 22, it is to some extent because we equate “being in the Covenant” with “being saved”. I see salvation as a rather different issue than the Covenant.

Then what does it mean today if the children of Christian parents walk away from the Christian faith? My response is: “I don’t know, exactly”. But there is a little that I do believe I know. The Covenant relationship the Christian lives in is the same as the Covenant Abraham stood in and its central promise is the same: God will be the God of our children. And that is true whether they reject him or not. It depends on His promise, not on child evangelism, not on the faithfulness of the parents, not on the choices of the children. Our children are holy because He is holy. It is a matter for faith, as sometimes the next generation in our families may well resemble the succeeding generations of Israel. We are not so different from Abraham or Israel. It is enough if we are like Abraham or Israel. It is the most familiar of stories: a dysfunctional family that produces a new generation of dysfunctional people. But where dysfunction abounds, grace abounds all the more.

The Scripture now turns its attention to giving us some idea of the character of these men, especially of Joseph and the four eldest sons. The timing of events is tricky. The details that are given are just precise enough to fit together, and this is the chronology as best I can determine it. Jacob must have stayed at Shechem for eight or nine years after his arrival. Then he would have spent a little time in Bethel, leaving some of his flocks at Shechem and perhaps some flocks still at Succoth. Joseph had taken the duty of courier, taking messages to his brothers at Shechem or Succoth. This was the year that Joseph was seventeen, 1889 b.c. Israel and most of the family were at Bethel and about to move on to Bethlehem when Joseph began giving bad reports about his brothers and having some strange dreams. Rachel was pregnant and Joseph’s dreams included her and her baby not yet born. Shortly before the twelfth son was born, Israel moved his camp to Bethlehem and on the way there Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (Rachel was in her mid or late forties by this time). In his grief, Israel was all the more inclined to favor Joseph and Benjamin and the family tension grew even worse. It was at this point that Joseph was sold into slavery. Joseph would have remembered his brother Benjamin only as a baby. Shortly after Joseph was sold, Israel moved on to Hebron and at last reunited with his father Isaac.

Reuben was the oldest so we will consider him first. He was about thirteen years old when Jacob arrived in the land of Canaan and around twenty-one when the family left Shechem. In order to be sure of adequate pasture for their many animals, Israel left some of the flocks at Shechem, probably under the care of Simeon and Levi, for reasons we will consider in the next section.  As the eldest, Reuben was beginning to assume the duties of head of the family and was probably largely in charge of the larger flock when they split up. He would be entitled to two out of thirteen parts of the total inheritance when it was divided, once Rachel’s second son was born. We are only given four brief glimpses of Reuben, for though he was the eldest and was acting head of the family, he did not play a central role in the events that were to follow. He was doubtless a good manager of their property, but younger brothers dominated the spiritual history of the family, for better and for worse.

Episode one occurred when Reuben was a young man, shortly after Rachel’s death. It is not clear if this is before or after Joseph was sold, but my feeling is that it is before Joseph was sold, in 1889 or 1888 b.c. In a very terse passage we find him seducing or raping his father’s wife, Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel (35:22). Doubtless their camp was not one conducive to privacy, and so his liaison with Bilhah became known to Israel, and probably to the rest of the family as well. Family politics is strongly suggested here. Bilhah was the maidservant of Rachel, the rival wife to Reuben’s mother Leah, and it is striking that the sin with Bilhah occurred immediately after Rachel’s death. How much bitterness there was between Leah’s children and Rachel’s, especially Joseph, is evident in the ensuing history. It is not far fetched to think that Reuben intended to insult Joseph by going in to Bilhah, though there is no way to know. Perhaps instead Bilhah was stunningly beautiful and tempted or even seduced the youthful Reuben. It is not clear whether she was a willing participant in the adultery or not, but her willingness is doubtful. In that culture, she would have been risking death to have an affair with her step-son. Reuben’s later behavior does suggest that he carried the weight of guilt.

Though Israel heard of the sin, there is no evidence that he took any disciplinary action against Reuben at the time. Nor did he take any action against Bilhah. In part this can be explained by his being still in a time of intense grief over Rachel. Israel does not seem to have done well with confrontations and, unless he had suspected Bilhah of being a willing participant in the deed, he would have been inclined to do nothing. Many years later he would express his verdict, but at the time he left it alone. And so also did God.

It is clear, however, that Reuben’s offense was severe by the moral standards of that time and place. In Mesopotamia, or among the Amorites, it would have been scandalous for a man to sleep with his father’s wife. Later, under the Law of Moses, Reuben would have been put to death (see Leviticus 18:8 and 20:11), making him the third of the patriarchs to be condemned by the future legal code of Israel. Even the later and nearly unshockable Romans would have been shocked by this. Reuben committed the same sin as the man who was put out of the church of Corinth, the one that Paul discusses in I Corinthians 5. In short, I believe Reuben essentially assaulted Bilhah as a calculated insult to Joseph, and that immediately afterwards, perhaps especially because his father did not punish him, his guilty conscience was devastating.

It was not long after the episode with Bilhah that the other sons of Leah conspired against Joseph. Reuben apparently was not present when the brothers decided to kill Joseph, but he arrived just in time to divert their plans from murder to mayhem. On the one hand, Reuben’s quick thinking certainly saved Joseph’s life. He planned to return to the pit later and rescue Joseph, and so he might have prevented the entire crime. He may have hated Joseph still, but I think it was his wounded conscience that made him unwilling to participate with his brothers.

That Reuben felt he had to save Joseph by stealth rather than by exerting his authority probably shows both the weakness of Reuben’s will and the dangerous character of his brothers. Though Simeon, Levi, and Judah were Reuben’s full brothers, was their hatred for Joseph so great that they would have hurt even their own older brother? Simeon and Levi had already proved their capacity for ruthless murder, which we will discuss shortly; Judah was more practical, more calculating, ultimately more ruthless. On the whole it seems doubtful that Reuben would have been in real danger, but it also seems that Reuben did not have the guts to stand up to his brothers. It may be that his guilt concerning Bilhah had ruined his self-confidence as well. He hadn’t been punished, but he was certainly suffering the consequences.

The third episode involving Reuben happened in Egypt during the famine on their first trip to buy grain, when Joseph had their money secretly returned to them. This would have been about twenty years later, Reuben would have been in his mid-forties. But the guilt for what they had done to Joseph still plagued the thoughts of the brothers, especially Reuben’s. Reuben and his brothers all assumed that their difficulties were due to some kind of divine punishment for their sin against Joseph, and Reuben was saying, “I told you so”. The interesting thing is that they were wrong. God was not punishing them.

True, their plight was a consequence of their sin; Joseph was taking some revenge and they were in his power though they didn’t know it, but it was not God’s doing. God does not search for really clever ways of punishing people for their sins. He does not devise intricate schemes over decades to pay people back. If you want schemes, you must go to the devil who is well-known as a schemer. God does not need to plan pay back for evil. The merely natural consequences of our actions, that only a fool thinks he can escape, are quite torture enough. If you do evil to someone and that person has an opportunity to get even with you, then he probably will. God is mercy itself and counting on Him for mercy is the necessity of our lives; but your brother can’t be counted upon for mercy and you are foolish to do so. You will naturally be paid back for the evil you do, and that is true even in an atheistic universe and even to an intellectual who doubts there are standards for good or even.

The last episode involving Reuben finds him back at home and talking over the trip with his father. As the oldest, whatever had happened on the trip was Reuben’s responsibility and so whatever blame there was for Simeon’s imprisonment was his. By this time Reuben had two sons of his own, probably Hanoch and Pallu (we are never told whom Reuben married). Reuben offered his own two sons as surety for Benjamin’s safety if they were to go back to Egypt again, but Israel summarily refused him. Reuben had no credibility left with Israel, and when the second trip into Egypt finally had to be made it was Judah who took the initiative. After the disastrous first trip to Egypt, Reuben never again took the lead in family affairs. Reading between the lines, it seems that Reuben’s heart was not in it; he was a broken man.

Near Israel’s death, when he was pronouncing his final blessings on his children, he removed Reuben from the privilege of the firstborn as punishment for his affair with Bilhah. Israel gave the rights of the firstborn to Joseph by adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own, thus ensuring that Joseph’s descendants would get the double share of the inheritance. In a sense, Israel was just ratifying what God had already announced through Joseph’s dreams, making Joseph the head of the family. Israel may have been remembering Joseph’s dreams when he made the decision, deliberately carrying out what he knew God had predicted. After all, he and his own brother had fulfilled such a prediction and his own father had tried to prevent it with complete futility. Maybe he was learning from Isaac’s mistake. Israel’s last words seem to be aimed at Reuben individually but are also prophetic of Reuben’s descendants, that they would also be removed from leadership among the clans of Israel as Reuben himself had been removed from leadership. Were all the descendants of Reuben excluded from prominence in Israel because of Reuben’s sin? It would seem so. The descendants of Reuben play little role in Israel’s history. On the personal level, Reuben seems to have never fully recovered from what he did to Bilhah. He was a broken man, yes, but it wasn’t God who had broken him, nor Israel. He did it to himself.

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