What Has Reuben Done?
Then Jacob traveled on and camped beyond Migdal-eder. While he was living there, Reuben had intercourse with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Jacob soon heard about it.
Genesis 35:21-22 (NLT)
The death of a dear wife is at least a normal human experience with no guilt attached, but what Reuben did was abnormal and stained with guilt and shame.
Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn and therefore the oldest of his sons (Gen 29:31-32); he was most likely in his twenties. The childhood episode with the mandrakes may or may not indicate anything about his nature (Gen 30:14-15). Bilhah was Rachel’s maid and had borne Jacob two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Perhaps the recent death of Rachel left Bilhah desiring to be back with Jacob again, and this was Reuben’s opportunity to act. Since the text doesn’t indicate that Reuben raped his father’s wife, we assume she cooperated in the deed.
But Reuben’s sin involved much more than the satisfying of a lustful appetite. For a son to take a father’s wife in this manner was a declaration that he was now the head of the family.
It would appear, then, that Reuben’s purpose was to take over the leadership of the family, which made his deed only that much more vile. Like the younger son in our Lord’s parable, Reuben couldn’t wait to get his inheritance (Luke 15:11-24). He had to have it now.
Jacob did nothing immediately, but surely his heart was broken by what his son had done. Reuben showed some character in protecting Joseph from death, but he wasn’t able to save him from slavery (Gen. 37:20-30). Though Reuben was the firstborn, his brothers didn’t seem to respect his leadership. In his old age, Jacob exposed Reuben’s sin and deprived him of the rights of the firstborn, giving them to Joseph (48:1-14; 49:3-4; 1 Chron. 5:1-2).
Those who teach that our dedication to the Lord automatically protects us from troubles and tears need to read this chapter carefully. Certainly God had forgiven Jacob, and certainly Jacob was walking with the Lord in faith and obedience. Nevertheless, he still had his share of trials. If we obey the Lord only for what we get out of it, and not because He is worthy of our love and obedience, then our hearts and motives are wrong. We become the kind of people Satan accused Job of being (Job 1:6-2:10).