Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayigash 5763/ Decembeer 14, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Vayehi 5763/ December 21, 2002

Why Reuben Was Not King

Prof. Emeritus Gad Ben-Ami Sarfatti
Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages

At the end of his days, Jacob addressed parting words to his sons, strongly rebuking Reuben (Gen. 49:3-4):

Reuben, you are my first-born,
My might and first fruit of my vigor,
Exceeding in rank
And exceeding in honor.
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;
For when you mounted your father's bed,
You brought disgrace-my couch he mounted!

Commentators interpret Jacob's words as indicating that Reuben, being the first-born, ought to have been elevated over his brothers, given higher rank and leadership, but since he followed his desires, he would not have any superiority over them. This, too, is how Scriptures' remarks in Chronicles are understood (I Chron. 5:1-2):

The sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel. (He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as first-born in the genealogy; though Judah became more powerful than his brothers and a leader came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph.)

This is clearly an allusion to Reuben's actions with Bilhah, recounted in Genesis (35:22): "While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel found out."

Because of his rash act the birthright was taken from him and given to Joseph, who was awarded a double inheritance in the land (through his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh), but the birthright was not given him in its entirety, since the kingship was given to Judah.

All the same, we may ask whether this was the only reason for transferring leadership from Reuben to Judah. Several contrasts between these two brothers are presented in the Torah, and in them Judah shows outstanding powers of leadership (what in modern terms we might call charisma) in contrast to Reuben's weakness.

The first contrast occurs in the sale of Joseph. To the tribes that wished to be rid of Joseph, Reuben said: "Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves" (Gen. 37:22). This was only a half-way measure towards saving Joseph, for what would happen after he was thrown into the pit? Indeed, this advice was of no avail, since the tribes listened to Judah's words (Gen. 37:26):

"What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh." His brothers agreed.

How ridiculous Reuben looked in his despair upon returning to the pit to rescue his brother and discovering that he was not there! "When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, 'The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?'" (Gen. 37:29-30).

That was the best that the eldest of the brothers could muster-the son who was supposed to be the leader, saving Joseph.

The second contrast is to be noted when the brothers tried to persuade Jacob to let Benjamin be taken down to Egypt and presented before the Viceroy: What did Reuben propose? "Then Reuben said to his father, 'You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my care, and I will return him to you'" (Gen. 42:37). Jacob's reaction, according to Rashi's interpretation, was to think, "What a stupid first-born this is! He suggests killing his sons, but are not his sons also my descendants?"

Jacob was not persuaded by Reuben's offer, and indeed his answer, "My son must not go down with you" (v. 38), became a Hebrew idiom to indicate an inane remark, as iilustrated in Genesis Rabbah, 91.38 (Theodor-Albeck ed., p. 1133):

When a constructive remark was made before Rabbi Tarfon, he used to say "calyx and petals,"(kaftor va-ferah) and when a pointless remark was made, he used to say, "My son must not go down with you."

Judah, in contrast, spoke forcefully and cogently (Gen. 43:4-5, 9):

If you will let our brother go with us, we will go down and procure food for you; but if you will not let him go, we will not go down, for the man said to us, "Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you." ...I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible; if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you; I shall stand guilty before you forever.

These words convinced the elderly father: "Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be so, do this: ... Take your brother too; and go back at once to the man" (vv. 11-14).

In the third instance we do not have a contrast between the brothers, for Judah acts alone and Reuben does not say a word. When the brothers faced the Viceroy (Joseph), who was about to take Benjamin and enslave him as the suspect who stole his goblet, Reuben the eldest remained speechless; it was Judah who spoke out audaciously and forcefully. His lengthy oratory contained elements of logical argument as well as pleas for mercy, concluding with an offer to remain as a slave in place of his younger brother (Gen. 44:18-34):

Then Judah went up to him and said, "Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord. ... We told my lord, 'We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest; his full brother is dead, so that he alone is left of his mother, and his father dotes on him.' ... Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us-since his own life is so bound up with his-when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. ... Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers."
In the face of such words Joseph could hold out no longer (Gen. 45:1):

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

Judah's courage, wisdom and forcefulness saved Benjamin and brought Joseph to confess. His figure, that of a true leader, stands in sharp contrast to Reuben's lack of character. Reuben's unsuitability to be the leader emerged in its full gravity in the first encounter between Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was pretending to suspect them of being spies and took Simeon hostage until they bring him Benjamin (Gen. 42:15-24), Reuben said to his brothers, "Did I not tell you, 'Do no wrong to the boy'? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (Gen. 42:22).

This is the most pathetic statement Reuben could have made: a commander may never blame his men for disobeying him and then hold them responsible for the results of their actions. Rather, he ought to exert his authority in the first place to ensure that they obey him.

Therein lay Saul's shortcoming, as well. When Samuel accused him of not wiping out Amalek and all their belongings, in accordance with the Lord's command, Saul answered him, "They were brought from the Amalekites, for the troops spared the choicest of the sheep and oxen for sacrificing to the Lord your G-d. And we proscribed the rest" (I Sam. 15:15).

Samuel's answer to Saul was, "You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel. The Lord anointed you king over Israel" (I Sam. 15:17). Humility is a fine trait, but a king is commanded to maintain and exert his authority. Responsibility lies on the king, not the people. Saul's self-justification was to say, "I did wrong to transgress the Lord's command and your instructions; but I was afraid of the troops and I yielded to them" (v. 24), to which Samuel responded, "You have rejected the Lord's command, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel" (v. 26).

Strangely, the Sages compared David's sin in the affair of Bathsheba to Saul's sin concerning Agag (Yoma 22b). David's sin seems far worse than Saul's; moreover, David did not lose his throne as a result, but Saul did. Judah Kiel (Da'at Miqra, Samuel, p. 430), remarked on this quite rightly:

Saul's act and David's act differed in two respects. For one thing, Saul's failing in the matter of Agag concerned a commandment that he was obliged to perform as part of the law that applies to kings. Indeed, he himself admitted that he had not kept the commandment because of his fear of the people. In so doing he was confessing that he was not worthy of being king, for one cannot have a king who is in fear of other human beings. In the affair at hand [David and Bathsheba], however, David failed in a matter that all of Israel are commanded and uphold. The second difference lies in the ways Saul and David responded to being rebuked. Both confessed that they had sinned, but Saul sought to justify himself with various excuses, trying to pass the blame on to the people.

The same can be said to apply to Reuben. By trying to pass off the responsibility for selling Joseph onto his younger brothers, Reuben lost his birthright as well as the right to be king.