Biblical People

Biblical People: Reuben

Reuben is the oldest son of Jacob and Leah. We learn more about him through three stories from his life. Each one could stem from the fact that he is the eldest brother.

First, in an account that reveals his negative side, Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine Bilhah. His actions are even more distasteful—as if it were possible—when we consider that Bilhah is also the mother of two of his half-brothers and effectively his stepmom.

We earlier noted that Jacob treated Bilhah as property more than a person. Reuben’s attitude toward her mirrors his father’s perspective. As the firstborn son, he may have a sense of entitlement to what belongs to his parents.

This certainly doesn’t justify what he did, but it might explain his mindset. Though Jacob knows what his son did, he takes no action to correct Reuben or protect Bilhah.

Later, we witness another side of Reuben, when he attempts to do what is right and rescue his younger brother Joseph from the hands of their jealous brothers.

His brothers want to kill him, but Reuben talks them out of it. His plan is to later rescue Joseph and free him, but this doesn’t happen because the brothers sell Joseph to slave traders when Reuben isn’t around.

Years later, after Joseph’s brothers learn he is still alive, Reuben takes responsibility with his father to guarantee the safe return of his youngest brother Benjamin.

We don’t know if his motivation is to appease his guilt from failing to prevent his brothers from selling Joseph into slavery, or if he’s accepting responsibility as the oldest son to take the lead in resolving a tough situation. It could be a bit of both. 

But the important thing is, in these last two examples, Reuben strives to do what is right.

If our past haunts us, do we let it define us or does it motivate us to do better? Jesus forgives our sins, but have we made mistakes we refuse to forgive ourselves for?
[Read Reuben’s story in Genesis 29:32; 30:14–16; 35:22; 37:21–30; 42:18–37; and 49:3–4.]

Learn about more biblical characters in Old Testament Sinners and Saints, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover. Get your copy today.

A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 1,000-page website to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.

By Peter DeHaan

Peter writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and make a faith that matters. Learn more at