Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Reuben's Terrible Sin

Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it” (Genesis 49:4).

Before he died, Jacob called his sons to him and passed on to them the blessings—and the judgments—of the covenant God had instituted with Abraham and passed on to him. It was customary in the old covenant, and in fact made formally legal in the Sinaitic law, for the firstborn son to receive a double portion of the inheritance, and to be the captain of his brethren (Deuteronomy 21:15–17). Jacob calls attention to this as he speaks to his firstborn, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3).

What a statement this is. Reuben as firstborn excels in everything imaginable. How horrible it is, then, for this excellent son to fall into monstrous sin and pervert these great gifts. Yet this is what happens almost every time in Genesis: the firstborn is set aside because of his sin, and a later son inherits because of his faithfulness. Ishmael is set aside in favor of Isaac. Esau is set aside in favor of Jacob. Cain was set aside in favor of Abel, and then of Seth. Adam, the most excellent of all men, possessing in his genes every strength of the human race, was set aside in favor of the Second Adam.

What was Reuben’s great sin? It is recounted briefly in Genesis 35:22. It was the sin of incest. Before Sinai, 'brother-sister' incest was not forbidden, and Abraham, in fact, married his sister (as did Adam’s sons). According to Genesis 2:24, however, cross-generational incest was forbidden from the beginning (compare Genesis 19:30–38). Thus, under the Sinaitic covenant, cross-generational incest carried the death penalty, while brother-sister incest did not (Leviticus 20).

Reuben’s sin of incest was also a sin of seizing his father’s robe. In the ancient world, sleeping with your predecessor’s concubines, or at least taking over responsibility for them, was a sign that you had taken over his kingdom (see 2 Samuel 3:7–8; 16:22; 1 Kings 2:21–22). To do this while the father still lived was an attack on his authority (Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20). Had Reuben been patient, he would have inherited Jacob’s realm, but because he was impatient and tried to seize it prematurely, he lost it altogether.

The story of Reuben illustrates how easy it is for one sin to lead to another. At the root was Reuben’s coveting of his father’s authority and his concubines. Pray that the Spirit of God would give you an abiding sense of contentment that you would not be led into one sin followed by another.