One Sin, Twelve Sons

These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram” (Gen. 35:26b).

- Genesis 35:22–26

Today’s passage describes a heinous act that occurred following Rachel’s death while Jacob lived in the land “beyond the tower of Eder” (Gen. 35:21). Reuben, his eldest son, laid with Bilhah (v.22), Rachel’s maidservant and concubine to her husband (30:1–8). In other words, Reuben committed incest with Israel’s surrogate wife.

Moses only reports that Jacob heard of this act (35:22) and offers no explicit moral judgment. This short account is meant to get us to pause and reflect on the horror of this deed. The law condemned such relationships (Lev. 18:8; 20:11) and incest is one of the main reasons God removed the Canaanites from the Promised Land (18:24–25). Moreover, the majority of pagan nations did not even support this practice. Hammurabi’s famous law code, reflecting the customs of Babylon in Jacob’s day, lists this kind of incest as a crime. Centuries later, the apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthians for tolerating a man who took his father’s wife as his own (1 Cor. 5).

Reuben’s transgression will not go unpunished; Jacob later blesses Judah with preeminence, instead of his eldest son (Gen. 49:1–12), who should have ordinarily received this blessing. Furthermore, the crossing of sexual boundaries does not exhaust the evil of this act. First, he is attempting to supplant his father, just as Absalom did when he lay with David’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:15–22). It is also important that Reuben was the son of Leah, the wife whom Jacob hated (Gen. 29:31–32). Reuben is hoping to defile his father’s concubine Bilhah so that the maid of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel will not become his new beloved spouse. He is trying to grab Jacob’s favor for Rachel’s sons — an inkling of the strife between the sons of Rachel and the sons of Leah that blossoms in the chapters to come. Joseph and Benjamin, favored because of Rachel, will suffer because of their brothers, most of whom were Leah’s sons (chap. 37–45). 

Still, as John Calvin comments, Reuben’s place in God’s redemptive plan “remained firm and efficacious.” His sin costs him the superior position, but God keeps him as one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Num. 1:20–21).

Coram Deo

Reuben’s jealousy of Rachel and her sons motivated him to commit the heinous act of incest so that he and his mother might be the beloved ones of Jacob. Such envy provokes evil in a multitude of ways. Adam and Eve brought ruin to the earth when they were jealous of God’s autonomy and wanted it for themselves. Envy of church leaders or job supervisors provokes outright rebellion or gossip that tears down authority. Are you guilty of this sin?

Passages for Further Study

Gen. 4:1–16
Prov. 14:30
Luke 3:18–20
3 John 9–10

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