This morning we are embarking on a new series of sermons titled “The 12 Tribes of Israel”. During these messages we’ll consider the origin of each tribe, learn some interesting facts about each tribe, and personally apply the spiritual truths we encounter from our study of each tribe. The 12 Tribes of Israel play a prominent role in Jewish history, as well as in future events foretold in the book of Revelation. It is important for Christians to have a general knowledge of these tribes in order to more fully understand Scripture.
The 12 tribes of Israel are the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob. In the book of Genesis (chapters 29, 30, and 35) we read that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and the son of Isaac, had 12 sons. These boys were birthed by 4 different women - Leah had 6 sons, Bilhah had 2 sons, Zilpah had 2 sons, and Rachel had 2 sons. We also read that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel and declared that the promise He’d originally made to Abraham would be carried out through Jacob’s family. The descendants of Jacob were God’s chosen people and would become a great nation who would dwell in a land given to them directly by God himself.
The 12 sons of Jacob, listed from oldest to youngest, were named Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. For varying reasons all 12 of these men and their families, along with their aging father Jacob, moved from Canaan to Egypt. They settled in a region named Goshen and collectively became known as the Hebrews. Over time they were enslaved by the Egyptians. For 400 years they were held in captivity and severely oppressed. Still God blessed this family abundantly, and from one generation to the next their numbers grew dramatically. In this manner, the 12 sons of Jacob evolved into the 12 tribes of Israel.
We will begin today with a brief study of Jacob’s first-born son Reuben and the tribe that emerged from his posterity.
I. REUBEN - THE SON OF JACOB
Reuben was the first-born son of Jacob. His mother was Leah. His name means “Behold, a son!” which speaks to Leah’s hopefulness that Jacob would love her more deeply after she’d born him this child (Genesis 29:32). There are only a few passages in the Bible that actually mention Reuben and the things that he did and said. When he was a young boy, his mother sent him out to gather mandrakes (Genesis 30:14). This plant was believed in ancient times to possess properties that increased fertility, something that both Leah and Rachel desired.
Sometime later Reuben committed a terrible sin. He became attracted to Bilhah, who was one of his father Jacob’s concubine. She was actually the mother of 2 of Reuben’s brothers - Dan and Naphtali. Nevertheless, Reuben was infatuated with Bilhah. The Bible does not give any details about the nature of their relationship, but it clearly states that they slept together and Jacob subsequently found out about it (Genesis 35:22). As a result, Reuben lost his preferred status as the first-born son and Jacob never fully forgave him for this act of treachery.
On the other hand, Reuben also acted to protect his younger brother Joseph when all of the other brothers wanted to kill him (Genesis 37:18-36). All of Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, because their father Jacob loved him the most, and they conspired together to murder him. Though Reuben also resented Joseph, he urged the brothers not to harm him but rather to throw him into a pit. Reuben had a selfish motivation for his actions, but nevertheless his intervention may have saved Joseph’s life.
On another notable occasion which occurred many years later, Reuben expressed an intention to protect his youngest brother Benjamin during their second journey to Egypt (Genesis 42:37). On their first visit, the brothers were accused of being spies and were requested to return with Benjamin as proof of their truthfulness. Jacob did not want Benjamin to go back with them for fear something might happen to him, but Reuben pledged to personally look out for him. Again, Reuben showed a willingness to defend his family.
II. REUBEN - THE TRIBE OF ISRAEL
The descendants of Reuben were considered to be one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Toward the beginning of the Exodus, Moses took a census of the Children of Israel while they were camped at Mt. Sinai. At that time, the population of the fighting men from the tribe of Reuben was numbered at 46,500 (Numbers 1:21). Some 40 years later, near the end of the exodus, Moses recounted the Children of Israel while they dwelt on the plains of Moab. By then the population had decreased slightly to 43,370 (Numbers 26:7).
The tribes camped in a particular arrangement around the tabernacle and marched in a prescribed order. The tribe of Reuben was one of three stationed on the south side of the tabernacle, along with Simeon and Gad. The Reubenites were the designated leaders of this camp which was the second in the order of Israel’s marching procession (Number’s 2:10-16).
The High Priest wore a breastplate that displayed 12 stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The exact correlation between the tribes and stones is uncertain, but some have suggested that the stones appear on the breastplate in the same order that the tribes camped around the tabernacle. If so, the gem representing the tribe of Reuben might be the turquoise (or emerald). Thus, the color associated with this tribe could be greenish-blue.
Between Moses and Joshua, the Promised Land and surrounding area was divided into several allotments and dispersed among the 12 tribes. The sons of Reuben chose not to accept land within the borders of Israel, but instead took possession of an area of rich farmland to the east which they deemed more suitable for their large herds and flocks (Numbers 32:1). This region spanned from the central to the northernmost shoreline of the Dead Sea and included the prominent site of Mt. Nebo. Their geographic location separated them from the other tribes of Israel, and increasingly the Reubenites became more disconnected and less influential. None of the judges, kings, prophets or other major characters named in the Bible came from this tribe.
The tribe of Reuben assisted the other tribes in the conquest of Israel, but afterward returned to the land east of the Jordan River (Joshua 1:12-18). Years later, during the period of the Judges, the tribe of Reuben apparently choose not to aide their brethren during a battle led by Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:15-16). Their historical allegiance to the nation of Israel was often undependable. Some other the Reubenites participated in Korah’s Rebellion during the Exodus (Numbers 16:1). The tribe of Reuben was taken into exile by the Assyrians around 730 BC.
III. THE LESSON FROM REUBEN
There were moments when Reuben, the son of Jacob, stood up for his family and other occasions when he betrayed them. Likewise, there were situations in which the tribe of Reuben fought alongside their brethren and others when they sit idly by and did nothing to help. Their behavior showed a wavering inconsistency and instability.
The symbol for the tribe of Reuben is a wave or torrent of water. Before his death, Jacob blessed his 12 sons. He described Reuben as “uncontrolled water”. Though he had the tremendous power and potential to do good, at times he acted without any discipline or restraint. Just as water can be used in many ways that are greatly beneficial, if it floods from its banks it can cause tremendous damage.
The lesson of Reuben is that instability, particularly as it relates to our moral virtues and devotion to Jesus, can lead to loss and obscurity. God doesn’t call us to a life of occasional or sporadic obedience and service, but rather to consistent allegiance to His will and commands. We shouldn’t be for Him one day and against Him the next. Stability is imperative in order to become the people that God desires us to be. And when we do sin, invariably it depletes our influence and damages our credibility.
As will be the case with each of the tribes we study during this series, there are many more things we could say about Reuben. However, our goal today was simply to provide an overview of the man and the tribe that he fathered. Most importantly, I urge us to remember from the legacy of Reuben that consistency, dependability, and restraint all matter when it comes to serving Christ, his Church, and one another.