Jacob's Prophecy: Reuben. Genesis 49:1-4

 

As we go through chapter 49 it is almost like having a survey of Old Testament history, or a survey of Israel’s history, because in this one-chapter prophecy Jacob is going to give us such an outline of the future of Israel. Its purpose was to encourage his sons with their future, but in the blessing he clearly reveals certain negative traits, negative characteristic, things that will happen that were not of the most complimentary kind. But it does give an accurate portrayal of the future for the nation of Israel.

 

Last time we saw Jacob’s final will and testimony as he was bestowing the blessing on the firstborn, which is the double portion, and which in this case went to the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. They would replace Reuben who was indeed the firstborn in terms of chronology and should have been the firstborn in terms of priority in inheritance, but because of his failure he lost that position. It was given instead to the younger, fulfilling the principle that God was using during the patriarchal period that the elder would serve the younger, demonstrating that God’s ways are different from our ways. He is not going to follow the typical human procedure of the eldest son being the one who received the honor and glory through the principle of primogeniture but He would follow a different principle and the younger would be the one who would receive the blessing.

 

In chapter 48 we saw Israel (Jacob) bestowing this final blessing, the double portion of the inheritance to the firstborn on Joseph’s two sons. He adopts them as his own, and it would be through them and their descendants that there would be two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, thus you don’t find a tribe of Joseph when you go to the tribal allotments.

 

Genesis 49:1 NASB “Then Jacob summoned his sons and said, ‘Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come.’” We see that after the meeting with Joseph and his two sons Jacob then has a subsequent meeting where he gathers all of the sons together. This includes Joseph, it doesn’t indicate that Ephraim and Manasseh were there, it includes all of his sons though from Reuben the firstborn to Benjamin who was the last one to be born. [2] “Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; And listen to Israel your father.” This is a repetition and reinforcement of the first verse. In this initial verse there is one significant phrase: “last days.” Whenever most people in our culture that have come out of any kind of background where they have been exposed to Bible prophecy or dispensationalism hear this “last days’ there is this knee-jerk reaction that last days refers to something related to unfulfilled prophecy, something that is still future to us, still out there in front of us. But it is not always used that way. There are a couple of uses of the phrase “last days” in the Old Testament that are a little bit different. In Numbers 24:14 where Balaam is speaking, “And now, behold, I am going to my people [Jews]; come, {and} I will advise you what this people will do to your people [Moabites] in the days to come [latter days].” This isn’t talking about the latter days of Israel. Always remember when you come to the phrase “latter days” prophetically, then you have two different references. There is a latter days to the church which describes the entire church age, which is in “the last days.” Cf. Hebrews 1:2. But when it is talking about Israel the term “latter days” frequently refers to Daniel’s 70th week, the time of Jacob’s trouble, that final period related to Israel in terms of prophecy. But that is not what it is referring to in Numbers 24:14 where it is an idiom for a time distant in the future, not necessarily end times but a time that is yet distant to us. In Hosea 3:5 we have the phrase again, “Afterward [after their divine discipline] the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days.” That has not been fulfilled historically, it is a yet future reference. So in this particular verse it refers to the latter days in the time frame for Israel. So there is definitely a technical use of “latter days” referring to the end times of God’s plan for Israel, but the phrase is also used as it is in Daniel 2:28 in a prophetic passage where it simply refers to a future time, something in the distant future. Daniel 2:28 NASB “However, there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will take place in the latter days.”

 

At the conclusion of our section in Genesis 49:28 there is a summary statement: “All these [the 12 sons] are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them. He blessed them, every one with the blessing appropriate to him.” Three times in that verse is the use of the Hebrew word barak, the word from which “blessing” comes from. It is used 75 times in the book of Genesis because the book of Genesis is the book that describes the magnificent blessing of God in human history at the beginning. Another word that is frequently used with it is “cursing” because there is this dual theme in Genesis of the blessing of God, His provision for life and happiness and stability, and yet man’s disobedience and the consequent judgment of God on that particular sin. The word “blessing” is used seven times in chapters 48 & 49. When we hear that word in Genesis 12:1-3 it ties back to the Abrahamic covenant that Abraham and his descendants were to be a blessing, and they were to be a blessing to all the nations because God blessed them. He gave them that which was profitable for life.  

 

The summary is that this is a blessing. It is also referred to by many as a prophecy because it foretells the future. Although the word “prophecy” per se is not used here he foretells the future. In the New Testament in Hebrews 11:21 we have another reference to this event, NASB “By faith [doctrine] Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, {leaning} on the top of his staff.” The idea of worship is the idea of PROSKUNEO [proskunew], the idea of literally prostrating one’s self before someone in authority. It is related to the idea of recognizing our submission, our subordination, our recognition of God’s authority in our life, and as a result of that, honouring and glorifying God because He is the creator of all things and the one who is the source of life and happiness. So Jacob worships God here and in the context of Genesis it is related to the idea that we saw in chapters 23 & 24 when Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac and the servant bows his head in worship. It was the idea of giving thanks to God. So worship includes a wide range of activities. Worship is a complex idea which involves a number of aspects, from private prayer to public expressions of thanks, and the singing of hymns by which we reflect on God, His character, His person, His works in history, His works in our lives; and it also involves bringing sacrifices and gifts to God as well as personal Christian service. Worship can be individual or corporate. Worship involves prayer, praise, obedience, service, thanksgiving, the study of God’s Word; it is a very broad concept that has been so minimized and watered down in our culture by using it as a synonym for singing. We need to resist that as much as possible.

 

The focus of the blessing that Jacob is giving his sons is related to the faithfulness of God. What he is doing is passing on that which has been handed down to him from his grandfather Abraham, through his father Isaac, restated to himself, and now he is passing it on. There is this flow that God promised to Abraham—land, seed and blessing—that God encapsulated in a formal covenant signing ceremony. He reaffirmed it many times to Abraham, then to Isaac and Jacob. AS the brothers gather together around Jacob, Jacob is telling them that God’s promise to the seed, that there would be a future, that God’s promise to Abraham that there would be a great nation from his descended, has not been abrogated. It is still in effect and God is going to make a great nation of them. So the prophecy is designed to encourage them. That is another point to remember: prophecy wasn’t given to satisfy people’s curiosity about the future, it was given to encourage people with the fact that God has a plan and a purpose, and even in our darkest days when the whole civilization around may be crumbling, as it was at the time of Daniel and at other times in Jewish history, God controls history. And in prophecy God was showing that He had a future plan, that certain things would take place, that there would be times of catastrophe and calamity, but that didn’t mean that God was out of control. So that if we live in a nation that comes under divine discipline, if we live in a nation that comes under attack from terrorism, or any number other horrible threats that seem to loom on the horizon, there is one thing we can count on and that is that God has a plan, and we are to relax in God’s plan and fulfil our mission and objective as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. So the prophecy is designed to encourage the sons, their sons, and their descendants after them that God would not forget them in the land of Egypt, that God had a future for them, and this revelation would sustain them in the time of their future enslavement. It would also be confirmation of the truthfulness of God’s revelation as both the good and the bad in these prophecies would work their way out in the lives of the tribes. These are not necessarily good prophecies, there are some things that are said about what is going to happen to some of them that we wouldn’t want to be said about us; they are not very complimentary. They expose their failures and flaws as well as some of their strengths and their positive things.

The first prophecy is related to Reuben. Reuben is a name that initially meant “Behold a son.” This is the name that Lah gave him because as she had this son she saw that God had blessed her. So Jacob says, Genesis 49:3 NASB “Reuben, you are my firstborn; My might and the beginning of my strength, Preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. [4] Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence, Because you went up to your father’s bed; Then you defiled {it}—he went up to my couch.” He was the one that the hopes and dreams of the culture would be on. The culture always focused on the firstborn so he would be the might and the beginning of Jacob’s strength. Reuben was the focal point for everything being the firstborn, but nevertheless he failed. He is as unstable as water, he doesn’t live up to the expectation or the potential. Not only is he unstable but he would go to mediocrity and failure. He went up to his father’s bed. In other words, he defiled it, he seduced Bilhah who was the concubine of Rachel, and as a result he brought shame and embarrassment upon the household. Reuben was the firstborn to Jacob and Leah, according to Genesis 29:31, 32 NASB “Now the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.”

As the firstborn son Reuben would be the double portion. In the ancient world the firstborn got the double portion, according to Deuteronomy 21:17 NASB “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.” So with twelve sons what would normally happen is that Jacob would divide up everything thirteen ways, and two of them would go to the firstborn. What happened in this case was that the double portion went to Joseph and to his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Reuben forfeited the double portion by his carnality. There is an application there to believers in the church age, that we can forfeit our inheritance rights as firstborn sons through our carnality. This is what happens at the judgment seat of Christ when we have wood, hay and straw, and it is burned up and there is no rewards that are given. Rather than exercising our rights as royal family of God and pursuing spiritual maturity, where there is divine good and gold, silver and precious stones produced (that which is rewardable), there is failure. What makes the difference between that which is rewardable and that which is not, is that we are in fellowship so that it is the Holy Spirit is the one who is empowering us rather than our own sin nature. So this is the analogy, that as believers we can do the same thing Esau did. We can sell our birthright for a mess of pottage, for carnality, for human viewpoint, for making sure that we have all the pleasures of this day and age instead of focusing on eternality or having a personal sense of our eternal destiny.

Reuben sacrificed his position because of his own carnality. His sin led to a loss of that firstborn status as described in 1 Chronicles 5:1, 2 NASB “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).” As a result the prophecy says that he will go on and instability will characterise his descendants, his tribe. Those who come forth from him would never make their mark in the history of Israel. We look in vain for any heroes, any leaders, any prophets, any military leaders, great teachers. There are none of any significance from the tribe of Reuben, in fact he almost disappears from history as we will see.

In the New Testament in Jude 11 there is a statement: “Woe to them! [those who are apostate, unbelievers] For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah.” The rebellion of Korah is when  we first really see a negative related to the descendants of Reuben. This takes place in Numbers 16. Korah was a Levite, a priest, and he is leading a conspiracy against the divinely established leadership of Moses and Levi. He has two co-conspirators, Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben. [1] “Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took {action,}.” So they are descendants of Reuben and they lead this revolt against God.

Next time we see a mention of the tribe of Reuben it is in Numbers 22 where we see the allotment of the land. At the end of Numbers we have a shift of generations. Numbers is called Numbers because there are two census’s taken in the book. The first is to number all the men 20 years and over as they come out from Sinai and prepare to go to the promised land. There are about 650,000 males identified. But that generation failed at Kadesh-barnea and so God said that none of them, with the exception of the two obedient spies, would be able to enter into the land. They forfeited their inheritance rights by son. So when the second generation grew up they had to have another census, another accounting of males over the age of twenty. In Numbers 32 they are near the end of this period as they are about to come to the border to go into the promised land and we see the allotment for the Reubenites. The area north of the Dead Sea was allotted to Reuben, and that is the smallest tribe. It is an area on the east side of the Jordan, just north of where Petra lies. Eventually this area becomes absorbed by Arab tribes and Reuben’s inheritance is lost. He just about disappears from history.

They are mentioned again in Judges 5, the song of Deborah. It is her victory song after she and Barak have defeated the armies under Sisera. She references the fact that all the tribes came together. Verse 2 NASB “Judg 5:2 “That the leaders led in Israel, That the people volunteered, Bless the LORD!” The nation came together to defeat the king of Canaan and Sisera his general, except for Reuben. [16] “Why did you sit among the sheepfolds, To hear the piping for the flocks? Among the divisions of Reuben {There were} great searchings of heart.” They were as unstable as water, they can’t make up their minds. They were double-minded. We see just prior to this in Numbers that there is a shift in their population. In Numbers 1:20 their population was 46,500 according to the first census, but at the end of the wilderness wanderings their population had decreased to 43,730. So it appears that something is going on and they are diminishing in size, such that in Deuteronomy 33:6 Moses prayed to God, “Let Reuben live and not die, nor let his men be few.” So there is this trend that is working out in history related to the tribe of Reuben.

Eventually the tribe fell into apostasy and was taken into captivity in approximately 722 BC by Tiglath-Pileser, the Assyrian, and this is described in 1 Chronicles 5:25, 26. There, referring to the northern kingdom, we are told, “But they acted treacherously against the God of their fathers and played the harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them. So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul, king of Assyria, even the spirit of Tilgath-pilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away into exile, namely the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara and to the river of Gozan, to this day.” About 100 years before that, in 830, we discovered in archaeology a stone called the Moabite stone, and the tribe of Gad was mentioned in its inscriptions but not the tribe of Reuben. Their significance was just waning, they had no contribution to the ancient kingdom.

However, God’s grace has not forgotten them. There is a future plan for the tribe of Reuben, mention in Ezekiel 48:7, 31. There is an allotment in the future Millennial kingdom of Israel for the tribe of Reuben. Furthermore, they are also numbered among the 144,000 in Revelation 7:5 NASB “from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand {were} sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand.” So even though there is discipline, even though there is failure on the part of Reuben, there is God’s grace that has a plan for them in the future. Just because we fail doesn’t mean we lose the grace of God. We never sin so much that we can’t come back to God’s grace and God’s provision.

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