As a Biblical Hebrew teacher I get a lot of questions from students about the Hebrew Bible. The last question that I received revolves around the firstborn of Jacob, Reuben. Jimmy from the Netherlands asked me "What did Reuben with the mistress of his father?"
When you learn Hebrew you must understand that the name in the Bible has an important significance about the character. Let us see the birth of Reuben, as written in Genesis 29:31-32-
"וַיַּרְא ה' כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה: וַתַּהַר לֵאָה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ רְאוּבֵן כִּי אָמְרָה כִּי רָאָה ה' בְּעָנְיִי כִּי עַתָּה יֶאֱהָבַנִי אִישִׁי:"
"When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, “It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”
Reuben was an instrument by his mother to gain the love of his father. Now after she gave birth to him, Jacob will love her, he will be my man. However, the name of Rueben shows the misery of Leah and the answer from G-d to her suffering. After we will read the beginning of Reuben, we will look at the end of the Torah, when Moses blessed the people of Israel. He said:
"יְחִי רְאוּבֵן וְאַל יָמֹת וִיהִי מְתָיו מִסְפָּר:"
"Let Reuben live and not die, nor his people be few.” (Deuteronomy 33:6)
Why did Moses bless Reuben or his tribe by living? Should this tribe or it's father be dead? Is this the reason why this tribe preferred to settle with another tribe and half on the east side of the Jordan River?As you can see there are many questions about Reuben. Now let us come back to genesis and see what happened there, as written in Genesis 35:19-23-
"וַתָּמָת, רָחֵל; וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה, הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם. וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה, עַל-קְבֻרָתָהּ--הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת-רָחֵל, עַד-הַיּוֹם. וַיִּסַּע, יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה, מֵהָלְאָה לְמִגְדַּל-עֵדֶר. וַיְהִי, בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו, וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר. בְּנֵי לֵאָה, בְּכוֹר יַעֲקֹב רְאוּבֵן; וְשִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי וִיהוּדָה, וְיִשָּׂשכָר וּזְבֻלוּן."
"So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it. Jacob had twelve sons: The sons of Leah: Reuben the firstborn of Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun."
After Rachel's death, while his father was far from his home, Reuben slept with Bilhah. Israel heard about this, but there was no reaction by him that which is described here in the text, only that Reuben is still his firstborn , even though he slept with Bilhah.
In the Masoratic Text (MT) In the same verse we can read about the sleeping with Bilhah. And there it is written in the Septuagint in Genesis 35:21-
"And it came to pass when Israel dwelt in that land, that Ruben went and lay with Balla, the concubine of his father Jacob; And Israel heard, and the thing appeared grievous before him."
The addition of Jacob's reaction doesn’t fill the gap about the story of Reuben and Bilhah that probably occurred. However from the blessing of Jacob of his sons we might learn more, as we can read in Genesis 49:1-4-
"וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶל בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים: הִקָּבְצוּ וְשִׁמְעוּ בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב וְשִׁמְעוּ אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲבִיכֶם: רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז: פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה:"
"Then Jacob summoned his sons and said, “Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come. “Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; And listen to Israel your father. “Reuben, you are my first-born; My might and the beginning of my strength, Preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power."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."
According to Jacob's words sleeping with Bilhah wasn't sexual relations; Reuben just spent the night in his father's bed. The same approach appears in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2-
"וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן בְּכוֹר-יִשְׂרָאֵל, כִּי הוּא הַבְּכוֹר--וּבְחַלְּלוֹ יְצוּעֵי אָבִיו, נִתְּנָה בְּכֹרָתוֹ לִבְנֵי יוֹסֵף בֶּן-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא לְהִתְיַחֵשׂ, לַבְּכֹרָה. כִּי יְהוּדָה גָּבַר בְּאֶחָיו, וּלְנָגִיד מִמֶּנּוּ; וְהַבְּכֹרָה, לְיוֹסֵף"
"The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s marriage bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel; so he could not be listed in the genealogical record in accordance with his birthright, and though Judah was the strongest of his brothers and a ruler came from him, the rights of the firstborn belonged to Joseph"
Well, dear friends, this is the answer of the Bible to Reuben's act. If Reuben just spent the night on his father's bed- why is it written in the Mishnah that once people read the Torah the act of Reuben shouldn’t be translated to Aramaic?
For this you will have to wait until the first webinar of March, see you all there, Eli.