As the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel, the lives and personalities of each of the sons of Jacob impacted on the history and behavior of the tribe members that descended from them.
As the descendants of the eldest son, the tribe of Reuben should have played a leading role in the history of the Jewish people. However, as Jacob foresaw, the impetuous nature of Reuben carried on in his descendants. During the 40 year trek of the People of Israel in the wilderness, the tribe of Reuben was involved in two situations that particularly highlighted this impetuosity:
When Korach, a Levite, led an (unsuccessful) rebellion against Moses, his primary support came from Dathan, Abiram, Ohn and 250 other members of the Tribe of Reuben. It was Korach’s contention that Moses and Aaron were usurping all the honors for their own family. He promoted the idea that the priesthood should be open to all Israelites, and not just the descendants of Aaron. Korach’s complaint spoke to the heart of the Reubanites, that they, the descendants of the firstborn of Jacob, should have received the exalted role assigned to the tribe of Levi. (Click here for more on Korach’s rebellion.)
The Reubenites’ involvement in Korach’s rebellion demonstrates the continued impetuous character trait of their forefather. Feeling negated, rather than seeking a positive way to elevate their tribal role, they struck out against Moses.
The second incident occurred when the Reubenites, along with the children of Gad, requested that Moses allow them to settle on the land east of the Jordan River, which they had won after a battle with the Midianites. This land, while ideal for grazing cattle, was not within the original parameters of the Promised Land. When Moses expressed dismay at their assumption that they could leave their brethren to conquer the Promised Land, the Reubenites and Gaddites hastily reconsidered and agreed to fight first, before returning to settle in the Eastern lands.
In the dialogue that ensued (Numbers 32:16-24), the Reubanites and the Gaddites spoke first and foremost of building “sheepfolds here for our cattle,” and only then of “cities for our little ones.” Moses agreed to let them settle on the eastern shore (along with half of the tribe of Menashe) but rebuked them for their improper priorities: “Build cities for your little ones, and [then] folds for your sheep.” (Click here for more on Reuben and Gad’s request.)
Before his death, just before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses blessed the entire nation and each of the tribes independently. His blessing to Reuben was: “Let Reuben live, and not die; and may his population be included in the count” (Deuteronomy 33:6). Moses’ blessing to the tribe of Reuben is that their impetuous nature should not lead to their destruction; that they should continue to live and thrive even though they have chosen to live outside of the borders of the Promised Land (Indeed, the tribe of Reuben was the first area conquered by the Assyrians, who exiled ten of the tribes in 722 B.C.E.).
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