(Reuʹben) [See, a Son!].
1. The firstborn of Jacob’s 12 sons. His mother was Jacob’s less favored wife, Leah, who named her boy Reuben, “because,” to quote her, “Jehovah has looked upon my wretchedness, in that now my husband will begin to love me.” (Ge 29:30-32; 35:23; 46:8; Ex 1:1, 2; 1Ch 2:1) As a result of Jehovah’s continued favor on his mother, Reuben and his five full brothers (Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun) constituted half of the original tribal heads of Israel; the other six (Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher) were Reuben’s half brothers.—Ge 35:23-26.
Some of Reuben’s good qualities displayed themselves when he persuaded his nine brothers to throw Joseph into a dry well instead of killing him, Reuben intending to return secretly and deliver Joseph out of the well. (Ge 37:18-30) More than 20 years later when these same brothers reasoned that the spy charges against them down in Egypt were due to their mistreatment of Joseph, Reuben reminded the others that he had not shared in their plot on Joseph’s life. (Ge 42:9-14, 21, 22) Again, when Jacob refused to let Benjamin accompany his brothers on their second trip to Egypt, it was Reuben who offered his own two sons as surety, saying: “You may put [them] to death if I do not bring [Benjamin] back to you.”—Ge 42:37.
As the firstborn son of Jacob, Reuben naturally had the rights of the firstborn son of the family. As such, he was entitled to two portions in the estate that his father Jacob left behind. At the time just before Jacob’s death, when he blessed his sons, the question was, Would Reuben come into these rights of the firstborn? Also, the patriarch Jacob, as head of the family, had acted as Jehovah’s priest for the whole family and had offered up sacrifices at the family altar and had led in prayer and in giving religious instruction. As father, he had also acted as the governor of the whole family and of all its servants, its livestock, and its properties. Would these responsibilities devolve upon Reuben?
Jacob dealt with Reuben first, saying: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my vigor and the beginning of my generative power, the excellence of dignity and the excellence of strength. With reckless license like waters, do not you excel, because you have gone up to your father’s bed. At that time you profaned my lounge. He went up to it!”—Ge 49:3, 4.
Jacob recalled a disqualification for Reuben that affected his future privileges. Reuben had disgraced his father. He had committed incestuous immorality with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, the maidservant of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. This was shortly after Rachel died following her giving birth to Benjamin. The Bible record does not explain whether firstborn Reuben violated the maidservant Bilhah to prevent her from taking Rachel’s place in Jacob’s affection, thus becoming more favored than Reuben’s mother Leah, or whether Reuben acted out of sheer lust for Bilhah. It simply says: “And it came about while Israel was tabernacling in that land that once Reuben went and lay down with Bilhah his father’s concubine, and Israel got to hear of it.” (Ge 35:22) The Greek Septuagint adds: “And it appeared evil in his sight.”—Ge 35:21, LXX, Thomson.
Reuben was not disowned and cast out for this. It was years later, when he blessed his sons, that Jacob said to Reuben, by divine inspiration: “Do not you excel.” Thus Reuben was stripped of privileges that would otherwise have been his as a firstborn son. This was because he acted with “reckless license like waters.” He proved himself either unstable like waters or turbulent and headlong like waters bursting a dam or raging down a torrent valley. Reuben should have exercised self-control. He should have shown a son’s respect for his father’s dignity and for the honor of the two sons of Bilhah, his father’s concubine.
2. The name Reuben also stands for the tribe made up of Reuben’s descendants as well as for the land of their inheritance. Reuben’s tribe stemmed from his four sons, Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi, the family heads of the Reubenites.—Ge 46:8, 9; Ex 6:14; 1Ch 5:3.
A year after the Exodus from Egypt, Elizur, the son of Shedeur, was selected as chieftain to represent the entire tribe of Reuben. (Nu 1:1, 4, 5; 10:18) The tribe of Reuben was consistently one of the less numerous among the 12. A census taken in the second year of the wilderness experience enumerated 46,500 Reubenites fit for military service, 20 years old and upward. About 39 years later this force, now 43,730, was somewhat less.—Nu 1:2, 3, 20, 21; 26:5-7.
In the camp of Israel the Reubenites, flanked by the descendants of Simeon and Gad, were situated on the S side of the tabernacle. When on the march this three-tribe division headed by Reuben followed the three-tribe division of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. (Nu 2:10-16; 10:14-20) This was also the order in which the tribes made their presentation offerings on the day the tabernacle was inaugurated.—Nu 7:1, 2, 10-47.
When Korah the Levite rebelled against Moses, three Reubenites—On, the son of Peleth, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab—joined in the revolt, charging Moses with trying “to play the prince” over them and with failing to bring them into “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Nemuel, the brother of Dathan and Abiram, apparently took no part in the revolt. (Nu 16:1, 12-14; 26:8, 9) Jehovah showed that the revolt was actually disrespect against him; he caused the earth to open up and swallow the rebels and their families alive, together with all their belongings.—Nu 16:23-33; De 11:6; see ABIRAM No. 1.
Territory Assignments. Shortly before Israel entered the Promised Land the tribes of Reuben and Gad requested that they be given territory E of the Jordan. The land had been acquired through the victory over the two kings Sihon and Og. They reasoned that it was ideal for them because they had large flocks and herds. Moses granted this request to them (and half the tribe of Manasseh) on one condition, that the fighting forces of these tribes also cross over the Jordan and assist the other tribes in the conquest of Canaan, a condition that the two and a half tribes willingly met.—Nu 32:1-38; Jos 1:12-18; 4:12, 13; 12:6; 13:8-10.
Reuben’s territorial inheritance was thus settled even before the Israelites crossed the Jordan, Moses himself giving the southern portion of Sihon’s conquered kingdom to this tribe. It extended from the torrent valley of Arnon, a natural boundary that separated this territory from Moab on the S, to just N of the Dead Sea; the land N of Reuben was given to the Gadites. (Nu 34:13-15; De 3:12, 16; 29:8; Jos 13:15-23; 18:7) The territory of the Ammonites formed the E boundary, with the Dead Sea and Jordan River on the west. (Jos 15:1, 6; 18:11, 17) One of the six cities of refuge, Bezer, lay in Reuben’s territory. This and other Reubenite cities were set aside for the use of the Levites.—De 4:41-43; Jos 20:8; 21:7, 36; 1Ch 6:63, 78, 79.
Moses directed that, once the Israelites reached the heart of Canaan, the tribe of Reuben, together with Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali, was to be represented on Mount Ebal for the reading of the maledictions and curses, with the rest of the tribes represented on Mount Gerizim for the pronouncing of blessings. (De 27:11-13) After Moses made these arrangements he blessed Reuben along with the rest of the tribes. To the Reubenites, Moses said: “Let Reuben live and not die off, and let his men not become few.”—De 33:1, 6.
At the end of Joshua’s campaign in Canaan he called together the armed forces of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh and, after commending them on keeping their promises to Moses, sent them home with his blessing. (Jos 22:1-8) When they reached the Jordan, they erected a huge altar on the western bank, which action, being at first misinterpreted by the other tribes, nearly resulted in a rupture of relations, even civil war. But when it was explained that the altar was not for sacrifices, but was for a witness of faithfulness between the tribes on both sides of the Jordan, the altar was given a name, likely “Witness,” for, as they said, “It is a witness between us that Jehovah is the true God.”—Jos 22:9-34.
Later History. Many years later, when Barak and Deborah sang a great victory song, they recalled that the Reubenites had failed to join them in the battle against Sisera. As a result, “among the divisions of Reuben great were the searchings of the heart.” (Jg 5:15, 16) In the days of Saul, the Reubenites joined forces with their neighbors and gained a great victory over the Hagrites and their allies, “for it was to God that they called for aid in the war, and he let himself be entreated in their favor because they trusted in him.” (1Ch 5:10, 18-22) The Reubenites then shared in the occupation of Hagrite territory apparently down to the Assyrian subjugation of Israel in the eighth century B.C.E., when the Reubenites were among the first taken into exile. (1Ch 5:6, 22b, 26) Individual Reubenites, and the tribe as a whole, are mentioned in connection with David’s history, both before and after he became king.—1Ch 11:26, 42; 12:37, 38; 26:32; 27:16.
In Prophecy. In the symbolic books of Ezekiel and Revelation, Reuben is mentioned in significant order along with the other tribes. For example, in vision Ezekiel saw in the middle of the tribes “the holy contribution” of land containing Jehovah’s temple, the city called Jehovah-Shammah, meaning “Jehovah Himself Is There,” and territory belonging to the priests, Levites, and the chieftain. Immediately adjacent to this holy strip on the north was Judah, with Reuben bordering next to Judah on the north. (Eze 48:6-22, 35) Also, the gate named Reuben on the N side of the holy city, Jehovah-Shammah, was next to that named Judah. (Eze 48:31) Similarly, in John’s vision of the sealing of the 12 tribes of spiritual Israel, Reuben is named second, after the tribe of Judah.—Re 7:4, 5.