Reuben, Unstable as Water, Genesis 49:1-4, then Genesis 37:18-34


Now Jacob was seven score and seven years old, a life time of 147 years and the time drew near for him to die.


God had used Jacob to further his promise to his grandfather Abraham in making of him a great nation that no man could number.


Jacob was prepared to end his days in Egypt, finally re-united with his beloved son Joseph who had been sold by his brothers into slavery years before and who for all those years thought him dead.


God had given him 17 good years in the land of Goshen in Egypt where his possessions grew and multiplied exceedingly.


Jehovah God had given Jacob, the supplanter, the deceiver, a new name to fit the new man, that name Israel, which means a prince with God.


All of us who know God have a new name written down in glory!


So at this time, near death Jacob gathered his sons to tell them that which should befall them in the last days.


He, being of very old age, had seen many of his sons also reach their elder years and had seen the results of their early years come to fruition.


Jacob knew the characteristics of each boy and he knew where those character traits had led them.


But he also knew by divine revelation what God had planned for each son and their generations.


This morning let us look at one of these sons and learn what we can about his life and attempt to apply the lessons to our own. 


The Bible gives us the wisdom of the ages in that it allows us to see the results of traits of character, generations after the individual had passed on.


It allows us to know, not by painful experiences, but by faith where certain characteristics will lead us if we allow them in our lives.


Christian, contrary to what the world says, experience is not the best teacher.


God is the best teacher and He has chosen His word to be our textbook of life.


Do you accept that or must you live out all the lessons God has for you by experiencing all the painful events which God must take you through if you are to be conformed to the image of His Son?


Let us look at Jacob’s dying blessing upon his firstborn son, a son named Reuben.


Please turn to Genesis 49:1-4, And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father. Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.

Imagine this event in your mind’s eye.

The patriarch, the great man of faith, the man who wrestled with God, the man whom God gave a new name, the man who had power with the Pharaohs, has called for his sons to gather to his deathbed to hear his pronouncements of that which should befall them in their last days.

You can feel the tension, the excitement, the wonder, perhaps even the dread of the event.

Perhaps each son recalled his life and his relationship with his father.

Perhaps each son tried to remember the good times and blessing he had been to His father.

But Reuben remembered his sin and his infidelity to his father and his brother Joseph. 

It must have been a difficult day for Reuben when he heard these words from dying Jacob.

Let us this morning recall the story!

Jacob had two wives, sisters Leah and Rachel.

Each sister had a handmaid that was used by the wives to increase their stature with Jacob.

Both handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah were Jacob’s concubines and produced sons for their mistresses.

Leah produced six sons for Jacob, her handmaid produced two sons and Rachel produced two sons while her handmaid Bilhah produced two sons.

Twelve sons in all.

Jacob had two wives courting his favor and trying to provide him sons to gain power with their husband.

This is the setting in which Reuben was reared.

A setting of competition between families of the same father vying for his attention and power.

Reuben’s very name speaks volumes of this competition.

Leah proclaimed her superiority over Rachel by naming the first born Reuben which means “see, a son!”

The name is a mother’s enduring boast. I am first to give a son!

Upon the birth of Reuben, Leah said, “now therefore my husband will love me.”

At Simeon’s birth, her second born she said, “God had heard that she was hated, and therefore God had given a son.” 

Upon the birth of her third son she exclaimed that, “Now this time my husband will be joined unto me.”

Chapter 30 of Genesis gives us further evidence of this competition between the wives of Jacob.

Recall the story of the mandrakes that Reuben, their small boy, found in the field during wheat harvest.

A mandrake plant has narcotic characteristics which was thought to improve one’s ability to bear children.

Rachel who was barren wanted some of these plants so in essence she sold Jacob’s favors to Leah for the plant, so desperate she was to bear children for Jacob.

We see then the setting in which Reuben grew.

Reuben was the firstborn, where tradition calls him to a position of leadership and responsibility, being raised by a mother who feels unloved and who must purchase her husband’s affections.

It is a setting where deceit and vying for the attention of the father is very much in play.

Small wonder is that we see a boy who, when also an aged man, hears his father pronounce, not his passing on the cloak of leadership, but a pronouncement that Reuben is unstable as water, and shalt not excel.

In essence Jacob told him you’ll never amount to anything. How would you like to hear that but it was the truth?

This morning I would like to look at one incident in the life of Reuben which I believe brings into sharp focus the truth of Jacob’s statement that his firstborn was unstable as water.

We know from James 1:8 that A double minded man in unstable in all his ways.

I believe we can reverse that and still remain truthful.

An unstable man is double minded.

If this is so, perhaps we can look into the life of Reuben and find an example of this instability and double mindedness in his life and perhaps learn some lessons and apply them to our own lives.

Please turn to Genesis 37.

This passage we are about to read takes place in Dothan where Reuben and his brothers had taken the flocks of their father to graze.

The brothers hated the younger brother Joseph who, scripture tells us was loved by his father more than all of his children, because he was the child of his old age.

Jacob’s communion with God had been restored and this was the first child of Rachel, his beloved wife who had died at Bethlehem.

Joseph had dreamed dreams of leadership and had expressed those dreams to his brothers and they hated him the more.

Was not Reuben the eldest to rightfully lead the family?

This hatred of Joseph came to fruition when Joseph is sent to see to the welfare of his brethren at Shechem.

Certainly no good deed goes unpunished!

Finding no brothers at Shechem he journeys further to Dothan and before he arrives at his brother’s camp an evil plot awaits him.

Let us read from God’s Holy Scripture in:

Genesis 37:18-34, 18 And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. 19 And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams. 21 And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. 22 And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; 24 And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. 25 And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. 28 Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt. 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? 31 And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; 32 And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no. 33 And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces. 34 And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

We see in this passage of scripture a clear indication of the instability and double mindedness of the eldest son of Jacob.

We see here a perfect example of a person who will do right in certain instances when the cost is not too great but who will cave in when the price becomes too high.

I believe we can deduce from scripture that Joseph had been a continuous topic of conversation between the brothers while they rested from their shepherd’s duties in the fields near Shechem and Dothan.

The brothers had recalled Joseph’s dreams and discussed their father’s favoritism of Joseph and their hatred intensified with every passing day.

So the scene was set for Joseph when he was afar off.

Reuben was part of the problem.

He should had put a stop to the evil talk as the eldest but he undoubtedly encouraged it and joined in with it.

Verse 21 shows an attempt by Reuben to do right when he delivered Joseph out of their hands but you can see Reuben’s complicity with the brothers by his statement “Let us not kill him.”

Reuben was in a position of authority where he could have squelched all talk of conspiracy or evil.

But Reuben unfortunately was a weak man and was not about to offend his brothers.

Instead of taking a proper stand he invents a scheme to appease his brothers so that he might later deliver Joseph to his father again.

At this point Reuben figured that he could afford the price of doing right.

He was not forthright and honest but contrived a scheme to save Joseph while not directly confronting his brothers.

He went along because it was easy.

An example of double mindedness.

We are not to concoct schemes or invent cover up stories so as not to offend.

Reuben abdicated his responsibilities by becoming one of the boys instead of taking the leadership as the eldest son.

Note how quick Reuben changes when the price of doing right is increased.

When Reuben returns he finds that his wicked brothers have sold Joseph to the Midianites.

Now the price of doing right is direct confrontation with his brothers, telling the father of their misdeeds.

But this of course would implicate Reuben himself so he chooses to be fully in league with his brothers and join in with the lie they prepare for the ears of their father Jacob.

A lie that was intended to last a lifetime.

This example in the life of Reuben shows clearly a man who had not purposed in his heart to Do Right but would do right as long as he could bear the cost.

God expects his children, to purpose in their hearts to Do Right until the stars fall and then to continue to Do Right. 

If we have character that puts a price on doing right I can assure you that God will bring to our lives an event whereby the price will be too high to do right.

Being conformed to the image of His Son includes a purposeful decision to do right regardless of the cost.

Christians, I’m afraid we all have some of Reuben in us.

We all tend toward watering down or diluting our attempts to Do Right.

Sometimes a teacher overlooks a discipline problem because of fear in facing a difficult parent.

Or she or he may want to hold on to an image as a teacher who has control when in fact help may be needed.

Some Christians who have ought against another, voice that offense to others instead of facing the offender head on.

Even Pastors face this problem when they keep themselves from speaking on certain subjects thereby avoiding offending certain members of the church.

Perhaps you’re a parent who desires comfort more than seeing to the needs of your children. 

What about the supervisor who looks the other way and pretends not to see instead of meeting the problem while it is small.

It is so common for Christians not to witness their faith for fear of being thought of as a fanatic or for fear of losing friendships.

We also can be a people who try to smooth over problems or ignore problems or convince themselves that problems don’ exist.

These are some examples of the instability we find in our own selves.

The same double mindedness that we have seen in this example of Reuben’s life can be found in us.

We have seen where Reuben grew up in an environment of deceit and that the training he received, that heritage of deceit crept into his character so that when crisis came his reaction automatically required of him a conspiracy, a cover up, a lie.

This is something that can be ingrained in us from our youth. 

Quick reactions to situations will reveal to us our character in this area.

When confronted by a problem which perhaps criticizes your actions is your first reaction that of shifting the blame to others?

Do you cover up your weakness by shifting your problem to the weakness of another? 

These are indicators that you need to purpose to do right regardless of the personal cost and along with that purpose the daily seeking of the Lord’s help in carrying out that purpose.

Doing Right may cost you in the flesh, but Doing Right is an eternal gain in the Spirit. 

What are we after? Pleasing God or Pleasing Men?

I hope that we can learn a lesson from Reuben and apply his experience to our lives so we need not suffer the pain he felt by his double mindedness and instability.

God in his Word has given us the wisdom of the ages so that living by this wisdom, instead of living by experience, will give us a most productive life to be lived for the Lord.

We do not have to live the life of Reuben if we open our ears to God’s word and Do Right, for doing right is eternal.