Disqualified for Leadership

Reuben for Lack of Self Control[1] – Genesis 49:3-4

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.

Reuben was the biological firstborn, and as such should have been Jacob’s spiritual heir. According to natural right, he was entitled to the first rank among his brothers, to the leadership of the tribes, and to a double share of the inheritance. Reuben has forfeited, and has lost these privileges.

Reuben’s right to a double portion of the inheritance is based on Deuteronomy 21:17

“But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.”

Because the firstborn was the initial child of the father’s youth, he was entitled to one additional share of the father’s estate. For example, if there were five sons in the family, then the inheritance would be divided into six shares. Two shares would be given to the firstborn and the remaining four shares to the remaining four younger sons. However, it was not Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob’s wife Leah, who received the double portion of the inheritance. The double portion was given to Joseph, the firstborn of Jacob’s wife Rachel in Genesis 48:21-22.

Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your fathers. I give you one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.”

The question naturally arises, “What caused this loss, this forfeiture?”

Jacob answers that question in verse 4 by describing Reuben’s moral character. He compares Reuben to an uncontrolled, destructive flood pounding through a dry wadi in the Holy Land. Like a churning, gushing torrent of waters, he possessed no moral self control. That lack of self-discipline overflowed its banks one time too many in an incident of moral indiscretion that humiliated his father. The explanation is brief and to the point, “for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.” Jacob’s comment is a reference to Genesis 35:22 where Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. Reuben violated the honor of his father and so lost the leadership in Israel. As a result, his tribe attained no position of influence in the nation. Reuben had birth, dignity, and opportunity, but he had no strength of character.

To quote Rabbi Hertz from the Hertz Pentateuch:

Here Scripture stresses the idea that moral character is a more important factor than hereditary right.[2]

This transfer of privilege and the reason that prompted it are confirmed in I Chronicles 5:1-2.

Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph)

Our personal character growth will determine our rewards in this world. If we are immoral, like Reuben, we will suffer the consequences of immorality as well. Jacob’s remarks to Judah are complete.

Jacob now moves on to the next two sons in seniority, Simeon and Levi in verses 5-7.

Simeon and Levi for Cruelty [3] – Genesis 49:5-7

Simeon and Levi are brothers – their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and the fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.

Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn, Simeon was his second-born, and Levi his third-born. Jacob explains to Simeon and Levi that the dignities which Reuben had forfeited should have been theirs as the next in line. However, they too were unworthy of them because of their cruelty.

Simeon and Levi are grouped together because they were the instigators of the bloodshed against the city of Shechem in Genesis 34:25. They were not simply biological brothers. They were also brothers in thought and in action, in counsel and deed, in violence and in cruelty. Jacob protested vehemently against the two sons and their attack on the defenseless city. Here, he gives his final verdict on their action. The two tribes would loose their portion of territory in the land. Simeon eventually became the weakest of all the tribes. Simeon received no separate assignment of territory as an inheritance; he merely received a number of cities within the territory of Judah. Simeon was eventually absorbed into Judah.

Likewise, Levi received no separate inheritance in the land; he received merely a number of cities to dwell in, scattered throughout the possessions of his brothers. However, the scattering of Levi was changed into a blessing because they received the privilege of the priesthood. In Exodus 32:29, the Levites stood committed to the LORD when the rest o the nation worshipped the golden calf. Because of that commitment, they were set apart by the LORD for special use. Eventually, they became the priestly tribe. Scattered as priests throughout the country, they were responsible to teach the nation the Holy Scriptures.

Before we leave this section, please notice a principle that the Jewish commentator Rashi brings out. Rashi observes Jacob’s curse in verse 7. He states, “He did not curse them, but their anger.”[4] We often make this statement: “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” As Rashi notes, this is an example of that principle in operation.

The Talmud, Berachos 10A states it this way:

The righteous pray for the destruction of sin, but not of sinners. Let the sinners repent so that they will survive while their sins will no longer exist.

Using a variety of figures of speech, the Bible affirms this lesson over and over again.

  • Micah 7:19
  • He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.

  • Psalm 103:12
  • As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed out transgressions from us.

  • Isaiah 38:17
  • Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; it is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, for You have cast all my sins behind Your back.

  • Isaiah 43:25
  • I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

That is exactly what we want, isn’t it? That is exactly why we proclaim the Gospel. We want sinners to repent, have their sins forgiven, and be saved from the wrath of God.

Simeon and Levi suffered discipline for their failings, but they were not excluded from the nation of Israel. God loved them, but not their sin. They were merely put into the background because of their sins, but they did not loose out of their part in the Abrahamic Covenant.

The same is true for us. No genuine believer will ever lose the gift of eternal life that God has given him through trusting Yeshua (Jesus). However, we may be put into the background because of our sins. Our service will be handicapped and our rewards will be diminished. Our personal character growth will determine our rewards in this world. If we are cruel and violent, like Simeon and Levi, we will reap the consequences of cruelty and violence as well.

We now move on to Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, in verses 8-9.

  1. ^ The Artscroll Tanach Series, Bereishis Vol. 6, pp. 2134-2138; Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 389-390; Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, p.275; Soncino Books of the Bible, “Chumash,” pp. 302-303; Pentateuch and Haftorahs, pp. 183-184

  2. ^ Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 184

  3. ^ The Artscroll Tanach Series, Vol. 6, pp. 2138-2142; Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 390-392; Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, pp. 275-276; Soncino Books of the Bible, p. 303; Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 184

  4. ^ Silbermann, Rabbi A.M., Chumash With Rashi, Bereshit (Jerusalem, Israel: Feldheim Publishers Ltd., 1994), p. 244