Jonathan Frankel

The Failures of Reuven and the Dilemma of the Firstborn

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh. Benjamin West. 1766 - 1768. Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM), Oberlin, OH, US

Why does the text devote so much time to the denigration of Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehuda without an obvious purpose, but celebrates Yosef?

The denigration of Reuven is consistent with a subtle theme throughout the majority of the latter stage of Yaacov’s life. His eldest sons consistently embarrass and endanger Yaacov and his family without a clear textual rationale for the necessity of such detail. Reuven is persistently incompetent, Shimon and Levi destroy Shechem and Yehuda is shamed by Tamar and leads his brothers to sell Yosef. These four brothers also share a commonality. They are the eldest sons of Leah. The only other children with stories in the text are Yosef and Binyamin. Binyamin is peculiarly passive with no active role in the events of his life; practically a non-entity. While Yosef is detailed extensively by the text as a maturing star. The infamous escapades of these 4 eldest sons of Leah weave an intriguing picture into the complicated world of inheritance and familial power in the ancient world. 

The overarching theme of Bereshit is the struggle of the bechor, the firstborn. In summary, the question of the rights of the bechor permeate nearly every great story in Breishit. Kayin is insulted by the ascension of his younger brother, ultimately resorting to murder. Yitzchak acquired the bechor after the questionably moral exclusion and expulsion of Yishmael. Yaacov extracted the bechor from Esav through manipulation and deception. In fact, the observant reader will take note that practically every explicit bechor in all of Scripture is superseded by their younger sibling. The family of Yaacov is no exception. At this point in the story, the protagonists and reader alike await what will happen to the next bechor in the family’s lineage. However, ignorant of this contextual theme, Reuven had every reason to believe that he was next in line to receive the blessing and rights due to the next bechor of the seed of Avraham. 

The rights of the bechor manifest biblically in three general categories: inheritance, leadership and priesthood. Generally, a bechor takes on the role as head of the family as well as the primary inheritor of property. In the biblical narrative, the bechor becomes the arbiter for the family’s decisions and is the master of the estate, blessings and property included. As is seen with Yitzchak, Avraham grants him his entire estate and casts away all the other children, and God confirms the persistence of the blessings of Avraham through Yitzchak. Yaacov acquires the blessings of Avraham and the estate of Yitzchak through his deceptions and God again confirms that he is the successor of Avraham’s blessings. However, since Yaacov represents the final step in the titration of the nation, the inheritance of the blessings, i.e. the land of Israel, will be inherited by all of his descendants, albeit a double portion for the bechor, a.k.a pi’shnaim (Devarim 21:17). The leadership component of the bechor persists and must be determined as ultimately the nation will realize that without centralized leadership, the nation is in danger if “everyone did as he pleased” (Shoftim 21:25). The priesthood would remain a generational right to all firstborns until transferred to the Leviim after the sin of the Golden Calf. The responsibility of priesthood fell upon the firstborn as a consequence of their salvation during the tenth plague, not inherently due to birth order (Bamidbar 8:16). 

By the natural right of the bechor, Reuven would have expected to receive both, the double portion and leadership, as he was the paternal bechor. Yet we find that the double portion is given by Yaacov to Yosef (Bereshit 48:5) and leadership, monarchy, goes to Yehuda. In lieu of this fact, one can understand that the denigrating stories of the 4 eldest sons of Leah, the veneration of Yosef and ultimate redemption of Yehuda will serve to explain this transition of the bechor from its expected ownership.  

The first of the stories is the innocuous gift of dudaim brought by Reuven for his mother, Leah (30:14-16). The text implies that they are a fertility tool, as Rachel eagerly acquires them in lieu of consorting with Yaacov. Reuven likely thought his gesture was both considerate and practical, but he lacked the sophistication to comprehend that Leah’s issue was not infertility as much as adequate intimate time with their shared husband. The text ultimately validates her reasoning as Leah subsequently bears another son as a result of her exchange, absent the intervention of her son. The Torah did not need to inform us that Reuven was the deliverer of the dudaim but includes his role to communicate his lack of sophistication and comprehension of family dynamics. An innocent but foreshadowing mistake. 

This foible is further displayed as Reuven commits the egregious act of taking Bilha (35:22-23), which, regardless of what actually occurred, was understood as a dramatic protest against the mistreatment of his mother Leah after the death of Rachel. The text seems to confirm, by the unremarkable response to the act, that Reuven did not suffer any permanent or temporary repercussions for his actions just as the textual silence suggests he did not effect any change in his father or household dynamics after his protest. Again demonstrating a conspicuous lack of sophistication into the mechanics of his family dynamics, and in this case accomplishing harm against his step-mother without even the excuse of ultimate Machiavellian justification. 

Third, Reuven seemingly attempts to save Yosef from the murderous intentions of his brothers. They planned to murder him and then abandon him in a pit (37:20) or simply injure him and leave him to die of exposure or dehydration in the pit (37:24). Reuven agreed to abandon him in the pit but recommended they not directly harm him, secretly planning to extricate him when he had a chance (37:21-22). He never expresses his disagreement with their plan to cause Yosef harm and only admonishes their active violence against Yosef. However, then Reuven leaves, subjecting Yosef to the whims of his brothers who have already expressed their intention to cause Yosef lethal harm. Ultimately, Reuven returns to find Yosef gone and is concerned over his own well being, not the threat to Yosef, and then seemingly concludes that the best course of action is to fake Yosef’s death (37:30-35). Later when the brothers are unknowingly before Yosef in Egypt they lament their unfortunate treatment by the viceroy as recompense for their treatment of Yosef, at which point Reuven chimes in to claim his innocence and say ‘I told you so’ (42:21-22). These scenes articulate a weak willed leader, unable to control his subordinates due to the courage and foresight to implement his plans. Resorting instead to turn a blind eye to their ill behavior while publicly displaying enough effort for plausible deniability. The progression of the text describes an increasingly incompetent personality who fails to improve his decision making despite increasingly harmful outcomes. Furthermore, we see that he is self centered, not motivated by a higher purpose or morality. 

The final scene of Reuven’s life displays his attempt to convince his father to entrust Binyamin to his supervision(42:37-38). Reuven reassures his father by offering the murder of his own sons as collateral if he fails to protect him. Yaakov is bewildered by Reuven’s offer, as if saying ‘how is that your solution, why would I agree to the additional murder of my grandchildren?’ This reaction is paradigmatic to the recurrent theme of Reuven. A man whose choices are either ineffective or counterproductive. Compelled by a selfish drive to effect change in a world he is too ignorant to control. 

These short expositions of Reuven’s involvement within the larger progression of the story are superfluous. In their absence or anonymity, the exile of the family of Israel to Egypt would have evolved without issue. Though innocuous to the continuity of the larger story, the detail devoted to Reuven’s failures serve specifically to explain why he is superseded for the responsibilities of the bechor. Just like Yishmael and Esav before him, the rights of the bechor for this auspicious family must be endowed upon the most eligible candidate. Although literally implying birth order, the true value of bechor status is the power and priority it endows and thereby impacts upon the nation. As previously demonstrated with the transition of the rights of the bechor to Yitzchak and Yaacov, the actual birth order is suggested, not the law. The individual must also be eligible to receive the rights. Excluding Reuven from eligibility passes the reins to the next eligible candidate, the next oldest son (as with the transition from Esav to Yaakov), or the next eligible bechor from a different mother (as the transition from Yishmael to Yitzchak).

The next two eldest sons are Shimon and Levi for whom the text details a harrowing fall from grace. While subjectively their destruction of Shechem is emotionally cathartic and  commendable for their defense of their sister, it reflects how their impulsivity could lead to catastrophic consequences should such characters wield the authority of a nation. They failed to consider the practical consequences of their actions and the threat it posed to the safety of the entire family, prioritizing immediate satisfaction of familial insult above all else (Bereshit 34:30-31). A leader cannot simply react to every slight. Leaders require poise, patience and stratagem. The text submits this event as evidence of Shimon and Levi’s disqualification from leadership.

Yehuda is the next eldest son with a remarkable character arc. First he seizes leadership when Yosef is in the pit and Reuven is absent, convincing his brothers to sell Yosef into slavery for a profit rather than kill him for no benefit (37:26). Yehuda is clearly charismatic but also cruel and lacking a mature moral compass. Next Yehuda is seemingly exiled and living away from his family and attempts to begin his own. He marries, has children and ultimately debases himself in a particularly cruel manner, condemning an innocent woman to a terrible death for his own crimes. However, his mistakes are displayed to him and instead of resisting them he owns them. He accepts the rebuke, admits his mistake and honors his responsibility despite his own discomfort. Later when Yaacov refuses to send Binyamin, Yehuda again demonstrates his charisma and reliability, as he convinces his father that he is to be trusted with Binyamin’s safety by offering himself as collateral. We see this self-sacrifice in action later when Yehuda argues for Binyamin’s freedom, casting himself into danger to uphold his promise and responsibility for those in his charge. Demonstrating the desirable traits of leadership; although not perfect, he can recognize and admit his faults and grow from them, prioritizing others before himself and reliable to uphold his word. Yaacov sees this leadership potential in him, entrusting  Yehuda with the responsibility to establish the family’s presence in their new home in Egypt. Ultimately, the Davidic Kingdom itself derives from the tribe of Yehuda.

Yehuda has earned the leadership rights of the bechor, however the rights of inheritance are still not secured. The next eldest sons, Yissachar and Zevulun and the sons of the maidservants, are absent from the text other than their silence and acquiescence during the conspiracy to harm Yosef and during the tribulations in Egypt. Their story is not one of active failure but of passive inadequacy.

Yosef’s life is presented in exquisite detail, most of which is laudable. His story effectively ends with the endowment of the double inheritance portion of the bechor by Yaacov as Ephraim and Menashe are considered each a tribe (48:5). In lieu of the previously documented failures of his older siblings, in reality once Reuven, the paternal bechor, is rejected Yosef is as much if not more of a legitimate candidate for the rights of the bechor as he is as the maternal bechor of his mother. 

Yaacov himself articulates the rejection of Reuven, Shimon and Levi when he rebukes them prior to his death and praises Yehuda (Bereshit 49:3-12) and Yosef (49:22-26). The infamy of the sons’ of Yaacov are documented for the reader to explain the justification for violating the expected transition rights of the bechor, just like the rest of the book of Bereshit. 

About the Author
Jonathan is a physician with interests in science, philosophy and religion, with special focus on skeptical thinking and critical analysis.
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