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In Deut. 33:6 Moses begins his blessing with Reuben, saying,
6 May Reuben live and not die, nor his men be few.
No reason is given to explain why the tribe of Reuben might be in danger of dying out. Reuben was the oldest son of Jacob. His mother was Leah. We read in Gen. 29:32,
32 And Leah conceived and bore him a son and named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.”
Recall that Jacob’s uncle Laban had tricked him into marrying Leah, who was Rachel’s older sister. Jacob loved Rachel, not Leah, so this internal family problem carried over into their lives and formed part of the prophetic picture as well.
Because of the emphasis on inheritance and children to carry on the family name, Leah thought that the birth of Reuben would change Jacob’s heart and cause him to love her. This apparently did not happen, although it is obvious that Jacob was faithful to give her the conjugal rights that a wife was due (Exodus 21:10).
Reu-ben means “Behold, a son.” It was assumed that Reuben, being the oldest son, would become the inheritor of the birthright. Indeed, the law demanded this, as shown in Deut. 21:15-17. Jacob did not have the right to disinherit the son of a “hated” wife without lawful grounds to do so. Yet Reuben did prove to be unworthy, as we read in Gen. 35:22,
22 And it came about while Israel was dwelling in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.
Bilhah was Rachel’s handmaid (Gen. 29:29). On account of Reuben’s sin (in violation of Lev. 18:8), when Jacob was ready to die, he blessed his sons in Genesis 49, but passed over Reuben for the birthright. He said of Reuben in verses 3 and 4,
3 Reuben, you are my first-born; my might and the beginning of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. 4 Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch.
Scripture comments on this later in the genealogy in 1 Chron. 5:1, 2, saying,
1 Now the sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel (for he was the first-born, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. 2 Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader [or scepter], yet the birthright belonged to Joseph).
It is stated clearly here that the scepter was given to Judah, from whom the kings of Israel were to come, but the birthright itself was given to Joseph. When we observe Jacob’s blessing upon Joseph in Gen. 49:22, we see that it focused upon sonship and the material blessings. We will discuss this further at a later time. For now it is sufficient to note that the birthright was divided, Judah being given the scepter portion. We also note that the priesthood was given to Levi. The rest was given to Joseph.
With Jacob’s blessing, the birthright was divided; with Christ the birthright began to come back together. In His first coming, the scepter and the priesthood was claimed by Jesus Christ; and the birthright is returned to Him at His second appearance.
We see then that Reuben (“Behold, a son”) lost the sonship to Joseph, of whom Jacob said in Gen. 49:22, “Joseph is a fruitful bough (ben, “son, or builder of the family tree”).” To understand the prophetic significance of this, we must see the contrast between Reuben and Joseph. Whereas Reuben defiled his father’s bed, Joseph resisted the advances of his master’s wife (Gen. 39:7, 8). Whereas Reuben was “uncontrolled as water,” Joseph had self-discipline and the stability of a tree (bough).
When Moses says of Reuben, “nor his men be few,” it could be seen as a blessing to limit his loss of the sonship portion of the birthright. He lost the sonship, but yet he would not be deprived of posterity, or “sons.” What does this mean prophetically? We find the answer in another story of Reuben in Gen. 30:14-18,
14 Now in the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also?” So Rachel said, “Therefore he may lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God gave heed to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar.
This strange story is highly prophetic. First, it occurred “in the days of wheat harvest.” This dates it at the time of Pentecost, that is, the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:22). Reuben found mandrakes, which is called in Hebrew dudim, “love apples.” It seems to have been considered the Viagra of the time. John B. Davis says, “The forked root bears a slight resemblance to the human body” (A Dictionary of the Bible, p. 472). In other words, the dual root looks like two legs. Smith’s Bible Dictionary adds, “The fruit was ripe at the time of wheat harvest” (p. 191).
Reuben found some ripe mandrakes at the time of wheat harvest and brought them home to his mother, Leah. She traded them for a night with Jacob. Rachel got the mandrakes, which produced no son; Leah became pregnant after that night with Jacob, later giving birth to Issachar, whose name means “there is hire (wages).”
To understand the prophetic picture being presented to us here, we must first see that Leah and Rachel represent the two covenants, even as Hagar and Sarah who earlier were the wives of Abraham. Gen. 29:17 says, “Leah’s eyes were weak.” This suggests a problem with partial blindness, which connects her with fleshly Israel in Rom. 11:25.
Rachel was the mother of Joseph, the birthright holder, but Leah was the mother of the most children. At first there are more fleshly children, but in the end the spiritual children will outnumber those of the flesh (Isaiah 54:1). So Leah’s children in this way represent the fleshly Israelites who function under the Old Covenant, whereas Rachel’s children represent the spiritual children of the New Covenant. So we see that the mandrake approach to sonship does not work when Rachel tries it. Secondly, Leah obtains another son by works and receives her “wage,” Issachar.
Perhaps there is also a lesson in this for the church today. The church cannot buy the love of God by having more fleshly children (church members). God is more interested in quality than in quantity. Fleshly attractions can result in many sons, but only love will produce true sons of God. Leah had a lawful marriage relationship with Jacob; Rachel did as well, but it had the added ingredient of love.
This entire scenario was brought about because Reuben found mandrakes at the time of Pentecost. It shows that Pentecost is insufficient to bring forth the sons of God, even though Rachel makes the attempt. Pentecost gives the Holy Spirit to us, but as history has proven, the flesh is still present alongside of the Spirit. This mixture realm is depicted in Rachel’s failed attempt to bring forth a son by fleshly means.
The Old Covenant, like Reuben, was given the first opportunity of sonship. But because of carnality, it was not possible to bring forth the sons of God through them. Reuben thus lost the birthright, and the Old Covenant vow was found to be likewise insufficient.
Nonetheless, Moses blesses Reuben with children, though the blessing appears to be half-hearted. It is plain that fleshly children were alright, but they were not the goal. Fleshly children would have to be transformed into spiritual children in order to become the sons of God.