Formations 07.03.2022: Remembering Reuben

Genesis 35:22; 49:1-4; 1 Chronicles 5:1

Is anyone in your family remembered for something in particular? What would you like to be known for?

Most of us hope to leave a legacy of goodness—love, kindness, generosity, service, strength, devotion. We certainly make mistakes as we live our daily lives, but our goal is to recognize our failures, make amends, and do better next time.

Imagine being Reuben. When we meet him in the Bible, he’s the newborn son of Jacob and Leah. Leah wasn’t Jacob’s choice wife—her sister Rachel was. So already Reuben has a lot to live up to. Instead of working to gain his father’s favor, he sleeps with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. In a moment when he might make choices to redeem himself, he refuses to kill Rachel’s beloved son Joseph. But, instead of helping this half-brother make his way safely home, he helps his other brothers throw him in a pit (see Genesis 37). His actions come back to haunt him when he returns to the pit and finds that Joseph is gone (37:29). Later, when Joseph has risen to become a leader in Egypt, Reuben again tries to redeem himself, promising his father Jacob that he will keep Benjamin, Rachel’s second beloved son, safe. He even swears to kill his own two sons if Benjamin is harmed (see Genesis 42). But his father no longer trusts him.

We have to admit that there are not many admirable people in the Bible—at least by modern standards. These days, the idea of a man keeping concubines reeks of oppression and sexism. Jacob, however, participated in the standard customs of his day, and his son Reuben betrayed him. Because of his actions, Jacob called Reuben “unstable as water” (Gen 49:4), and the Chronicler described him like this: “He was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright” (1 Chr 5:1).

The mistake Reuben made in taking his father’s concubine to bed followed him the rest of this days, and the Bible records his failure for all time. Even his attempts at redemption seemed half-hearted and could not restore his honor.

We hope that our mistakes are redeemable, that with time and work we can recover from them and find healing for ourselves and the people we may have hurt. Let us remember Reuben and strive to be people of honor so that our legacies will be different from his.


• Is anyone in your family remembered for something in particular? Is it good or bad, honorable or regrettable? How do people view this person?
• Why do you think Reuben was unable to rebuild his reputation and honor, even though he tried?
• Are there people in our time who made mistakes that continue to haunt them? What could they do to find redemption?
• What would you like to be known for? How can you make that happen?

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her teenage daughters, Samantha and Natalie, her husband John, and the family’s two dachshund mix pups, Luke and Leia. She likes supporting community theater productions and is often found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who. And she writes middle grade and young adult fiction for the pure joy of it.


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