Sermon from September 13: Reuben

Pentecost XV (O. T. 24)
Genesis 37:12-30

I’m calling this series Unexpected Heroes and I’m beginning with Reuben – the man, not the sandwich. Even though the sandwich was invented in Omaha, it’s the man I’m concerned with. And for the Bible history scholars among you, I’m also more concerned with the story of Reuben the man than with the tribe named for him.

Unexpected heroes are people who did something that moved the work of God forward, even though they were not particularly special themselves. They had warts and flaws, or they were fairly ordinary people, and yet something they did made a surprising difference in the story of God and God’s people. So who was Reuben?

I hope you know who I’m talking about if I say the name Jacob. Jacob was the great patriarch of the people of God, the one also named Israel. Jacob had two wives and two concubines – his wives were Leah and Rachel and his concubines were Bilhah and Zilpah – and by them he had twelve sons and a daughter. The favorite sons were Rachel’s two boys, Joseph (the one with the fancy coat) and Benjamin; Reuben was the eldest son and his mother was Leah.

In that culture, the eldest son is the heir, the one expected to be the new leader of the family, the one to assume the mantle of his father. That could have been, but Reuben blew it; I’ll come back to that. But since Rachel was the favorite of Jacob’s four women, her sons were his favorite sons. If you know the Book of Genesis or if you know the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat then you know that the ten sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah were jealous of Joseph. They were jealous because Daddy gave him nicer presents – such as the fancy coat – and because Joseph had these awful dreams in which they were bowing down to him, like subjects to a ruler.

You heard the story of what the brothers plotted to do to him and what Reuben tried to do to save him. In my book, this makes Reuben an unexpected hero. They had Joseph vulnerable in the wilderness, and resolved to kill him. Reuben argued that, rather than kill him, they should throw him in this pit. But his real purpose was to rescue Joseph. Of them all, Reuben was the only one thinking of their father. They all were consumed with jealousy and anger toward Joseph. Reuben should have felt it most of all, since he was the eldest and the one most likely to be displaced, but instead he was concerned about their father’s feelings. If something happened to Joseph, he feared, it might be the end of the old man.

Unfortunately, his plan to rescue Joseph was foiled, and he was overcome with anxiety. “I, where can I turn?” he cried. His brothers persuaded him to make it look as though Joseph had been killed by a wild animal; as he feared, it hurt old Jacob terribly, but their Father did not die of his sadness. He went on, and so did they.

Now you may know the story of how Joseph became Grand Vizier of Egypt and how the brothers met him again. There is a moment there in which Reuben once again shone. The ten  sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah came to Egypt to buy grain; Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. Before sending them home, he told them, “You must bring your youngest brother with you if you ever want to buy grain from me again.”

Well, after a while Jacob decided to send them to Egypt again, and they reminded him that The Man would not see them unless they took Benjamin with them. Jacob refused. So they said they couldn’t go. Jacob held his ground. They held their ground. Then Reuben said, “Look; here are my two sons. I offer them to you as hostages for Benjamin. Let me look after Benjamin, and I promise you that I’ll bring him back to you.” Jacob started to waver, so brother Judah added his own pressure, “I give you my pledge for him,” and Jacob finally gave in.

So twice Reuben stepped up in a way that showed his willingness to put himself and even his family on the line for someone else’s sake. And maybe you know the result: not only was the family reunited in Egypt, but Joseph’s service there made it possible to save the people of Egypt from famine, as well as his own family. If Reuben had not intervened early, and then stepped up once again, it would never have happened. Reuben is an unexpected hero of the story.

But he had his weaknesses; among them was his father’s concubine Bilhah. When second wife Rachel died, Jacob was overcome with grief. Bilhah was Rachel’s maid, so I imagine that she was too. And Reuben took advantage of her. Perhaps it started out with Reuben consoling her for Rachel’s death, but it went on from there and ended up in bed. There have been, of course, commentators who tried to blame Bilhah – just as there are still guys who like to protest that when a man sexually molests a woman it must be the woman’s fault – but they are the exception. Reuben did it; he was at fault. Jacob knew about it, but he didn’t say anything. Yet.

At the end of his life, Jacob was giving his final words to his sons. That was when he finally said something. He said, “Reuben, you are my first-born, and you’ve always been strong. But you defiled your father’s bed, so you will decline.” Whatever effect that may have had during his lifetime, the long-term effect was that the tribe of Reuben eventually declined and even died out.

So often a lifetime of service is marred by one terrible misdeed. You and I have seen it in our time. It happened to Reuben and to his descendants. But if it had not been for him, the story of Joseph saving the people from starvation and reuniting his family in Egypt would never have happened. Remember that he played a part in moving forward the story of God’s salvation. Remember this too: when the Prophet Ezekiel and the Seer John both had their visions of the Heavenly City, they noticed that the City had twelve gates. One of the gates on the north side of the Heavenly City is inscribed with the name “Reuben.”

You and I are always tempted to classify people as either good or bad, heroes or goats. Most if not all of us are a mixture, ordinary folks with the potential to turn the course of history by doing one right thing, unexpected heroes. Here is one; the next time you enjoy the sandwich, remember flawed, thoughtful Reuben.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska