Did Reuben Lie with Bilhah? Yes, No, We Don't Talk About It!
Reuben’s Sin and its Consequences in Genesis and Chronicles
Reuben and Bilhah: The Primary Account
Genesis 35:22 reads:
While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel heard. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.
This laconic verse is troubling. What are the consequences of Reuben’s transgression? The text in our parasha does not tell us. Rather, there is a “loud silence,” quite literally, a gap in the text. In printed versions, the Hebrew of this verse looks like this:
וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵֽ֑ל פ וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר׃
The letter peh in the middle of the verse indicates that in a liturgically kosher Torah scroll, a space appears between the words “And Israel heard” and the continuation of the verse concerning the twelve sons of Israel. Spaces in ancient scrolls served as punctuation, and this scribal practice is well-attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The particular scribal phenomenon seen here—a “pisqa be’emsa passuq” (a break in the middle of a verse) is unusual, and various explanations have been suggested for its occurrences.
A Cross-Reference to Chronicles?
The late Prof. Shemaryahu Talmon proposed that a mid-verse break may act as a sign directing the reader to a related text in the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Talmon saw the gap as a sort of “hyperlink” intended to point to the genealogical list in 1 Chron. 5:1:
וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן בְּכוֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי הוּא הַבְּכוֹר וּבְחַלְּלוֹ יְצוּעֵי אָבִיו נִתְּנָה בְּכֹרָתוֹ לִבְנֵי יוֹסֵף בֶּן יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא לְהִתְיַחֵשׂ לַבְּכֹרָה.
The sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel. (He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as first-born in the genealogy)
Whether or not this is the intent of the scribal break, it is clear that 1 Chronicles relates to the event mentioned in Gen 35. “Defiled his father’s bed” reflects “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.” This in itself shoes how biblical authors drew upon earlier biblical texts and traditions, offering us a brief glimpse into the process of the composition of biblical texts.
The Chronicler does not use the terminology of Gen 35, however. Rather, the author borrows an expression from Jacob’s farewell address to his sons in Gen 49:28.
Genesis 49 is known as “Jacob’s blessings,” but some of the pronouncements seem more like curses. Jacob tells Reuben (Gen 49:3-4):
.רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז. פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל תּוֹתַר כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה.
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!
The uncommon word יצוע is used for “couch”; the Chronicler uses this term, and in doing so, offers an interpretation of Jacob’s parting words to Reuben, which are in somewhat cryptic poetic form. What does “you shall excel no longer” mean? For the Chronicler, it means that Reuben has lost his privilege as first-born. By birth, he was entitled to a double portion of inheritance, but, explains the Chronicler, Jacob decreed that he will “excel no longer”—the double portion will go to Joseph instead.
This understanding of Jacob’s statement fills some of the gap in the narrative of Reuben and Bilhah. Earlier, we were told that Jacob heard of Reuben’s transgression, but not of any action. Now in Gen 49, as explained by the Chronicler, Jacob settles the old score by depriving Reuben of his due as first-born. In the Chronicler’s understanding, this loss does not simply apply to Reuben’s personal inheritance, but also to the status of his tribe.
Such is the case as well with Moses’ farewell address at the end of Deuteronomy. Moses’ statement to Reuben seems to relate to the same issue that we have seen in Chronicles, but the ambiguity of the poetic language has generated differing interpretations. The Hebrew text reads (Deut. 33:6):
יְחִ֥י רְאוּבֵ֖ן וְאַל־יָמֹ֑ת וִיהִ֥י מְתָ֖יו מִסְפָּֽר
It has been translated as a positive pronouncement: “May Reuben live and not die, and may his men be numerous” (cf. King James translation); or as a negative: “May Reuben live and not die, but may his numbers be few” (cf. English Standard Version); or the more neutral “May Reuben live and not die, though his numbers be few” (cf. New Revised Standard Version; New JPS).
Is Moses’s statement reinforcing Jacob’s negative “blessing” of Reuben, or mitigating it? The Hebrew word mispar, “number” may be understood as either “numerous” or “numbered.” Perhaps Moses is meant to be saying: Reuben deserved to die (i.e., to leave no posterity), but as part of the nation of Israel, he has been spared, and so may his sons multiply. Or perhaps, Moses is intended to be expressing an idea similar to that in Chronicles: Reuben deserved to die; although he has been permitted posterity, he has lost his first-born’s privilege, and his numbers will be meager.
Reuben’s Sin and its Consequences in the Pseudepigrapha and Rabbinic Literature
Subsequent Jewish tradition is similarly ambivalent about Reuben’s status and punishment. Jubilees and the Testament of Reuben are two works of the Pseudepigrapha, which expand upon the story in Genesis; both of them seek to simultaneously condemn and excuse Reuben, as they “fill in gaps” in the biblical text.
Testament of Reuben
The Testament of Reuben is written in the form of a farewell address, like Jacob’s blessings in Gen 49, and Moses’ blessings in Deut 33, and also David’s parting words in this week’s haftarah. It follows the common structure of the genre as it developed in the Second Temple era: Reuben gathers his sons before he dies, and he then proceeds to speak to them in first person, reviewing episodes from his personal history, with the intent to impress upon his children to learn from his example. He offers further words of ethical exhortation, and concludes with a reference to future redemption. The relevant section of the text is as follows:
Give ear to Reuben your father in the commands which I give unto you. And behold I call to witness against you this day the God of heaven, that ye walk not in the sins of youth and fornication, wherein I was poured out, and defiled the bed of my father Jacob. And I tell you that he smote me with a sore plague in my loins for seven months; and had not my father Jacob prayed for me to the Lord, the Lord would have destroyed me. …after this I repented with set purpose of my soul for seven years before the Lord. And wine and strong drink I drank not, and flesh entered not into my mouth, and I ate no pleasant food; but I mourned over my sin, for it was great, such as had not been in Israel. Pay no heed to the face of a woman, nor associate with another man’s wife, nor meddle with affairs of womankind. For had I not seen Bilhah bathing in a covered place, I had not fallen into this great iniquity. For my mind taking in the thought of the woman’s nakedness, suffered me not to sleep until I had wrought the abominable thing. For while Jacob our father had gone to Isaac his father, when we were in Eder, near to Ephrath in Bethlehem, Bilhah became drunk and was asleep uncovered in her chamber. Having therefore gone in and beheld nakedness, I wrought the impiety without her perceiving it, and leaving her sleeping I departed. And forthwith an angel of God revealed to my father concerning my impiety, and he came and mourned over me, and touched her no more… For until my father’s death I had not boldness to look in his face, or to speak to any of my brethren, because of the reproach. Even until now my conscience causeth me anguish on account of my impiety. And yet my father comforted me much and prayed for me unto the Lord, that the anger of the Lord might pass from me, even as the Lord showed. And thenceforth until now I have been on my guard and sinned not.
Scholars have examined the interpretive techniques found in the text, its theological and social agendas, and the author’s attitudes towards women and virtue, to name a few of the angles pursued in current research. Keeping to the theme of my earlier comments, I would like to highlight how the text grapples with the problems raised by Genesis 35:22.
The biblical text leaves many open questions. Was Reuben culpable for his awful sin? How did his father react to hearing about this? How, for that matter, did Jacob hear about this sin, which had been committed in secrecy? How was Reuben punished for the sin, and why was his punishment relatively lenient?
The answers offered in the Testament of Reuben are complicated—there were mitigating circumstances; Bilhah is assigned some blame because of her immodest drunken behavior (!) and yet, in the end, she was raped and was not even aware of what occurred, much like Lot with his daughters. Reuben was punished personally by an affliction of the loins, but he was spared greater retribution because of his sincere atonement and his father’s prayers. The Testament of Reuben grapples with the the exegetical, moral, and theological issues raised by the text and offers creative solutions.
The Book of Jubilees offers an even more complex portrait of the characters. This composition re-tells the narratives in the book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, within a chronological framework according to “jubilee” periods of 49 years, to emphasize that history is unfolding according to a pre-determined divine plan. One hallmark of this book is that it portrays the Patriarchs as fulfilling Torah laws, even though they lived well before the revelation at Sinai. Reuben’s sin, therefore, posed a particular challenge for Jubilees, especially since neither he nor Bilhah were punished in the biblical account, and certainly were not put to death.
The account in chapter 33 of Jubilees shares some elements with the Testament of Reuben but the presentation differs in important ways. For example, in this work, Bilhah is not blamed at all; and more emphasis is placed on exonerating her. As elaborated by Michael Segal, the text explicitly states that she was bathing in a private place, and that she was asleep throughout the entire act of intercourse, and that when she woke up and realized what had happened, she cried out.Jubilees gives an additional explanation for Bilhah’s lack of culpability as well as for Reuben’s:
And let them not say: to Reuben was granted life and forgiveness after he had lain with his father’s concubine, and to her also though she had a husband, and her husband Jacob, his father, was still alive. For until that time there had not been revealed the ordinance and judgment and law in its completeness for all, but in thy days (it has been revealed) as a law of seasons and of days, and an everlasting law for the everlasting generations (Jub33:15-16)
This heaping of excuses one on top of the other is likely a result of the author’s having drawn upon multiple traditions. James Kugel terms this exuberance “overkill”.  It certainly indicates a very engaged attitude towards the biblical text.
A different approach is taken by some later Jewish sources, who attempt to ignore the story, or to deny the sin, even if this means subversively revising the biblical text. The Mishnah (m. Megillah 4:10) lists “Reuben’s deed” as one of four verses that are read (in Hebrew), but are not translated with Targum. The rabbinic practice of simultaneous translation of the Torah reading in synagogues into Aramaic was intended to make the Torah accessible to the public. The Mishnah states that this particular verse is read as part of the Torah portion, but it is better if the uneducated simply do not hear it.
The Talmud (b. Shabbat 55b) discusses the nature of Reuben’s sin. One opinion notes:
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר ראובן חטא – אינו אלא טועה, שנאמר ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר מלמד שכולן שקולים כאחת. אלא מה אני מקיים וישכב את בלהה פילגש אביו – מלמד שבלבל מצעו של אביו, ומעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו שכב עמה. תניא, רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר: מוצל אותו צדיק מאותו עון, ולא בא מעשה זה לידו.
R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan’s name: “Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, ‘Now the sons of Jacob were twelve,’ teaching that they were all equal.” Then how do I interpret, and he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine? This teaches that he transposed his father’s couch, and the Writ imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her. It was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: “That righteous man was saved from that sin and that deed did not come to his hand.”
While the biblical text informs us quite clearly that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, R. Samuel b. Nahman and R. Jonathan assert that he did not. The Talmud proceeds to discuss this opinion, which wreaks havoc with the obvious meaning of the text. There is an attempt to harmonize views of different sages, some of whom described Reuben as having sinned and atoned, for example, while others maintained that he was spared from sin.
This attempt at harmonization is a more extreme mix of inconsistencies than the “overkill” that Kugel sees in Jubilees. The view that “Reuben atoned” but that “In any case, he did not sin” is reminiscent of the classic joke, famously cited by Freud, in which somebody responds to an accusation that he had broken a borrowed kettle asserting that (1) in the first place, he had returned the kettle undamaged and (2) in the second place, the kettle was already damaged when he borrowed it and (3) in the third place, he had never borrowed the kettle in the first place. What emerges in the course of this attempt to align disparate, and even contradictory, views, is a sense of the great value that the various sages attributed to such ideals as atonement, parental respect, and divine providence and intervention.
So, did Reuben commit a grave sin, or was he spared from doing so at the last minute? Did Jacob, or God, punish him and if so, in a limited way, or for eternity? Did Moses mitigate the punishment or reiterate it? How should we retell this story to our children, if we can’t determine “what really happened”?
Some might read the Talmud as suggesting that pious Jews ought to tell a single simplistic story of Reuben’s (non-)deed, and to consider this story to be what “really” happened in the Bible—even though it is far from the biblical account itself. It is clear from the Talmudic discussion, however, that the various Sages who are quoted were not simply repeating a prescribed formula, but were responding to the problems of the biblical text.
To me, this seems to be a primary purpose of biblical narratives—to transmit a common lore of tradition to serve as a basis for discussions about what really matters. What “really happened” is less important for a religious reader than the lessons to be learned, and the conversations about these lessons. In such “trigger” texts, gaps are an important part of the story, generating valuable theological and moral discussion. The literal gap in the Reuben and Bilhah story–the pisqa be’emsa passuq– serves to remind us that our role as readers and transmitters is to fully engage the text and its possibilities, to pay attention to what is there, and what is not, and to consider together how we might fill in what is missing.
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November 13, 2013
January 19, 2020
Dr. Shani Tzoref is currently a Fellow at the Qumran Institute of the University of Göttingen. She was formerly the coordinator of the Biblical Studies program at the University of Sydney. Tzoref holds an M.A. in Jewish History from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. in Ancient Jewish Literature from New York University. She is the author of The Pesher Nahum Scroll from Qumran: An Exegetical Study of 4Q169.
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