Genesis 49:3
Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(3) The beginning of my strength.—In Genesis 35:18, the word oni means “my sorrow,” and it is so translated here by the Vulg., Aquila, and Symmachus. But in this verse Jacob magnifies the prerogatives of the firstborn, and our version is undoubtedly right in deriving oni from a different and not uncommon word signifying strength. It occurs in Deuteronomy 21:17; Job 40:16; Psalm 78:51; Psalm 105:36, &c.

The excellency . . . —We must here supply, “And therefore to thee as the firstborn belonged,” first, the excellency of dignity, that is, the priesthood; and secondly, the excellency of power, that is, the kingly office. As a matter of history no king, judge, or prophet is recorded as having sprung from the tribe of Reuben.

Genesis 49:3-4. Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might — Begotten in the prime and vigour of my days; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power — Such were the prerogatives of the birthright, which he would have enjoyed had he not forfeited and fallen from them by his sin; dignity above his brethren, and considerable power over them. Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel — As water is prone to flow, and still tends downward to an inferior situation, so Reuben should fall from the pre-eminence he had by birth. In the Chaldee paraphrase it is, “Thou wast to have had three parts, the birthright, the priesthood, and the kingdom; but thou hast followed thy own will; as water spilled, thou shalt not prosper.” Two shares of the inheritance, which are supposed to have belonged to the birthright, were given to Joseph, the priesthood to Levi, and the kingdom to Judah. And nothing great or excellent is recorded of the tribe of Reuben throughout the Scriptures. From it arose no judge, prophet, prince, nor any person of renown, only Dathan and Abiram, who were noted for their impious rebellion. This tribe, not aiming to excel, chose a settlement on the other side Jordan. Jacob here charges him with the sin for which he was disgraced. It was forty years ago that he had been guilty of this sin; yet now it is remembered against him. It left an indelible mark of infamy upon his family; a wound not to be healed without a scar.49:3-7 Reuben was the first-born; but by gross sin, he forfeited the birthright. The character of Reuben is, that he was unstable as water. Men do not thrive, because they do not fix. Reuben's sin left a lasting infamy upon his family. Let us never do evil, then we need not fear being told of it. Simeon and Levi were passionate and revengeful. The murder of the Shechemites is a proof of this. Jacob protested against that barbarous act. Our soul is our honour; by its powers we are distinguished from, and raised above, the beasts that perish. We ought, from our hearts, to abhor all bloody and mischievous men. Cursed be their anger. Jacob does not curse their persons, but their lusts. I will divide them. The sentence as it respects Levi was turned into a blessing. This tribe performed an acceptable service in their zeal against the worshippers of the golden calf, Ex 32. Being set apart to God as priests, they were in that character scattered through the nation of Israel.Reuben, as the first-born by nature, has the first place in the benedictory address. My might. In times and places in which a man's right depends on his might, a large family of sons is the source of strength and safety. "The excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power" - the rank and authority which belong to the first-born. "Boiling over as water." That which boils over perishes at the same time that it is pernicious. This is here transferred in a figure to the passionate nature of Reuben. "Thou shalt not excel." There is here an allusion to the excellency of dignity and power. By the boiling over of his unhallowed passions Reuben lost all the excellence that primogeniture confers. By the dispensation of Providence the double portion went to Joseph, the first-born of Rachel; the chieftainship to Judah; and the priesthood to Levi. The cause of this forfeiture is then assigned. In the last sentence the patriarch in a spirit of indignant sorrow passes from the direct address to the indirect narrative. "To my couch he went up." The doom here pronounced upon Reuben is still a blessing, as he is not excluded from a tribe's share in the promised land. But, as in the case of the others, this blessing is abated and modified by his past conduct. His tribe has its seat on the east of the Jordan, and never comes to any eminence in the commonwealth of Israel.Ge 49:3, 4. Reuben forfeited by his crime the rights and honors of primogeniture. His posterity never made any figure; no judge, prophet, nor ruler, sprang from this tribe. The beginning of my strength; the first instance or evidence of my might or strength, or of that masculine rigour whereby God enabled me to beget a child. Compare Deu 21:17 Psalm 105:36. Or the first of my children, which are the strength, the stays, and supports of a father, and of his family; thence called his arrows, as Psalm 127:4, and by other authors, the pillars of the house.

The excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. As first-born thou hadst the right of precedency before all thy brethren in point of dignity and power or privilege; the double portion, the priesthood, the dominion over thy brethren were thine. Reuben, thou art my firstborn,.... Jacob addressed himself to Reuben first, in the presence of his brethren, owned him as his firstborn, as he was, Genesis 29:31 did not cashier him from his family, nor disinherit him, though he had greatly disobliged him, for which the birthright, and the privileges of it, were taken from him, 1 Chronicles 5:1.

my might, and the beginning of my strength; begotten by him when in his full strength (z), as well as the first of his family, in which his strength and glory lay; so the Septuagint, "the beginning of my children"; and because he was so, of right the double portion belonged to him, had he not forfeited it, Deuteronomy 21:17. Some versions render the words, "the beginning of my grief", or "sorrow" (a), the word "Oni" sometimes so signifying, as Rachel called her youngest son "Benoni", the son of my sorrow; but this is not true of Reuben, he was not the beginning of Jacob's sorrow, for the ravishing of Dinah, and the slaughter and spoil of the Shechemites, by his sons, which gave him great sorrow and grief, were before the affair of Reuben's lying with Bilhah:

the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power; that is, to him of right belonged excellent dignity, power, and authority in the family, a preeminence over his brethren, a double portion of goods, succession in government, and, as is commonly understood, the exercise of the priesthood; and so the Targums interpret it, that he should, had he not sinned, took three parts or portions above his brethren, the birthright, priesthood, and kingdom. Jacob observes this to him, that he might know what he had lost by sinning, and from what excellency and dignity, grandeur and power, he was fallen.

(z) "Nate. meae vires. --------" Virgil. (a) , Aquila; , Symmachus apud Drusium; "principium doloris mei", V. L. Tigurine version.

Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my {b} might, and the beginning of my strength, {c} the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:

(b) Begotten in my youth.

(c) If you have not left your birthright by your offence.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
3. Reuben] Reuben’s early pre-eminence is forfeited. The tribe’s loss of power is here ascribed to the curse of Jacob for an act of incest (see Genesis 35:22; 1 Chronicles 5:1). The territory of the tribe of Reuben lay on the east side of the Dead Sea. In Biblical history, the Reubenites are practically unknown, except for one successful campaign against the Hagarenes (1 Chronicles 5:8-10). In the Song of Deborah (Jdg 5:16), Reuben is denounced for apathy.

beginning] Better, as R.V. marg., firstfruits. The firstborn was expected to inherit the full strength of the parent. Cf. Deuteronomy 21:17; Psalm 78:51; Psalm 105:36. The versions follow a different text. LXX ἀρχὴ τέκνων μου; Lat. principium doloris mei; Aquila κεφάλαιον λύπης μου; Symmachus ἀρχὴ ὀδύνης.

The excellency] This word in Early English had the meaning of “superiority,” owing to its derivation from “excel.” But this has now been lost sight of.

Vulg. major in donis, major in imperio; Targ. Onk. paraphrases “for thee it was provided to receive three portions, the right of firstborn, the priesthood, and the kingdom.”

LXX must here follow a different text, σκληρὸς φέρεσθαι καὶ σκληρὸς αὐθάδης.Verses 3, 4. - Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: - Jacob's patriarchal benediction takes the form of an elevated poem, or sublime religious hymn, exhibiting the well-known classes of parallelism, the synthetic the antithetic, and the synonymous, not alone in its separate clauses, but sometimes also in its stanzas or verses. As was perhaps to be expected, it begins with Reuben, who is characterized by a threefold designation, viz.,

(1) by his position in the family, as Jacob's firstborn;

(2) by his relation to Jacob, as the patriarch's "might," כּחַ, or robur virile, and "the beginning" of his "strength," not "of his sorrow" (Vulgate, Aquila, Symmachus), though און might be so translated (cf. Genesis 35:18), and the sense would sufficiently accord with the allusion of ver. 4, but, as required by the parallelism, "of his vigor," און being here equivalent to כּחַ (Rosenmuller, Kalisch, Keil, 'Speaker's Commentary,' et alii); and

(3) by the natural prominence which as Jacob's eldest son belonged to him, "the excellency of dignity" or "elevation," i.e. the dignity of the chieftainship, and "the excellency of power," or authority, which the first born claimed and received as his prerogative. Yet the natural advantages enjoyed by Reuben as Jacob's firstborn were to be taken from him, as the patriarch proceeded to announce - Unstable as water, - literally, boiling over like water, the import of which is not effusus es sicut aqua (Vulgate), but either ἐξύβρισας ὡς ὑδωρ (LXX.), or lasciviousness (sc. was to thee) as the boiling of water (Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Keil, Kalisch, &c.), the same root in Arabic conveying the notion of pride, and in Syriac that of wantonness - thou shalt not excel; - literally, thou shalt not have the ישׂנךללךשׂצך רו יֶרֶת (ver. 3), i.e. the pre-eminence belonging to the firstborn, a sense which the versions have more or less successfully expressed: μὴ περισσεύσης (Aquila), οὐκ ἔση περισσότερος (Symmachus), μὴ ἐκζέσης (LXX.), non crescas (Vulgate) - because thou wentest up to thy father's bed (vide Genesis 35:22; 1 Chronicles 5:1); then defiledst thou it: - the verb is used absolutely, as meaning that Reuben had desecrated what ought to have been regarded by him as sacred (cf. Deuteronomy 27:20) - he went up to my couch - literally, my couch he ascends; the order of the words and the change from the second to the third person helping to give expression to the horror and indignation with which, even at that distance of time, the venerable patriarch contemplated the shameful deed. When Joseph observed his father placing his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, the younger son, he laid hold of it to put it upon Manasseh's head, telling his father at the same time that he was the first-born; but Jacob replied, "I know, my son, I:know: he also (Manasseh) will become a nation, and will become great, yet (ואוּלם as in Genesis 28:19) his younger brother will become greater than he, and his seed will become the fulness of nations." This blessing began to be fulfilled from the time of the Judges, when the tribe of Ephraim so increased in extent and power, that it took the lead of the northern tribes and became the head of the ten tribes, and its name acquired equal importance with the name Israel, whereas under Moses, Manasseh had numbered 20,000 more than Ephraim (Numbers 26:34 and Numbers 26:37). As a result of the promises received from God, the blessing was not merely a pious wish, but the actual bestowal of a blessing of prophetic significance and force. - In Genesis 48:20 the writer sums up the entire act of blessing in the words of the patriarch: "In thee (i.e., Joseph) will Israel (as a nation) bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and Manasseh" (i.e., Joseph shall be so blessed in his two sons, that their blessing will become a standing form of benediction in Israel); "and thus he placed Ephraim before Manasseh," viz., in the position of his hands and the terms of the blessing. Lastly, (Genesis 48:21) Israel expressed to Joseph his firm faith in the promise, that God would bring back his descendants after his death into the land of their fathers (Canaan), and assigned to him a double portion in the promised land, the conquest of which passed before his prophetic glance as already accomplished, in order to insure for the future the inheritance of the adopted sons of Joseph. "I give thee one ridge of land above thy brethren" (i.e., above what thy brethren receive, each as a single tribe), "which I take from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and bow" (i.e., by force of arms). As the perfect is used prophetically, transposing the future to the present as being already accomplished, so the words לקחתּי אשׁר must also be understood prophetically, as denoting that Jacob would wrest the land from the Amorites, not in his own person, but in that of his posterity.

(Note: There is no force in Kurtz's objection, that this gift did not apply to Joseph as the father of Ephraim and Manasseh, but to Joseph personally; for it rests upon the erroneous assumption, that Jacob separated Joseph from his sons by their adoption. But there is not a word to that effect in Genesis 48:6, and the very opposite in Genesis 48:15, viz., that Jacob blessed Joseph in Ephraim and Manasseh. Heim's conjecture, which Kurtz approves, that by the land given to Joseph we are to understand the high land of Gilead, which Jacob had conquered from the Amorites, needs no refutation, for it is purely imaginary.)

The words cannot refer to the purchase of the piece of ground at Shechem (Genesis 33:19), for a purchase could not possibly be called a conquest by sword and bow; and still less to the crime committed by the sons of Jacob against the inhabitants of Shechem, when they plundered the town (Genesis 34:25.), for Jacob could not possibly have attributed to himself a deed for which he had pronounced a curse upon Simeon and Levi (Genesis 49:6-7), not to mention the fact, that the plundering of Shechem was not followed in this instance by the possession of the city, but by the removal of Jacob from the neighbourhood. "Moreover, any conquest of territory would have been entirely at variance with the character of the patriarchal history, which consisted in the renunciation of all reliance upon human power, and a believing, devoted trust in the God of the promises" (Delitzsch). The land, which the patriarchs desired to obtain in Canaan, they procured not by force of arms, but by legal purchase (cf. Genesis 24 and Genesis 33:19). It was to be very different in the future, when the iniquity of the Amorites was full (Genesis 15:16). But Jacob called the inheritance, which Joseph was to have in excess of his brethren, שׁכם (lit., shoulder, or more properly nape, neck; here figuratively a ridge, or tract of land), as a play upon the word Shechem, because he regarded the piece of land purchased at Shechem as a pledge of the future possession of the whole land. In the piece purchased there, the bones of Joseph were buried, after the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 24:32); and this was understood in future times, as though Jacob had presented the piece of ground to Joseph (vid., John 4:5).

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