Genesis 49:4
Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.
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(4) Unstable.—This translation is shown to be right by the use of the word in Judges 9:4; Zephaniah 3:4, in both which places it is translated light. Out of this sense of lightness and frivolity naturally arose the meaning which the word has in Syriac of wantonness. In Arabic it means boastful, another side of feebleness. With this sense the comparison with water well agrees; for it is its nature to seek a dull level, and while yielding to every impression to retain none. The other meaning given to it by many able critics is “boiling over like water,” a description of the unrestrained violence of Reuben’s passions.

Thou shalt not excel.—That is, thou shalt not have that excellency which was thine by right of birth.

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. Unstable as water: this may concern either,

1. Something past, or Reuben’s fault; and so he is said to have been

unstable, or light, and vain, as the word is used, Judges 9:4 Zephaniah 3:4; like water, moved with every little wind of temptation, and unbounded in thy lust; as water of itself hath no bounds, but will scatter itself every way, if it be not kept within banks, or in a vessel: or, hasty, violent, impetuous in thy lust, like water, which either overflows or breaks its banks. Or,

2. Something to come, or Reuben’s punishment; and so the meaning is, Thou, i.e. thy posterity, shall be

unstable, or unsettled, flitting and vanishing, coming to nothing, or poured forth like water, useless, contemptible, and weak. Such indeed was the state of that tribe, of which we read nothing eminent in Scripture. See Judges 5:15,16. This I prefer before the former,

1. Because it is not probable that his fault should be described here in such general and ambiguous and dark terms, which is described so plainly and particularly in the following words.

2. Because this makes the coherence most plain. Here is a description,

(1.) Of Reuben’s excellent state to which he was born, Genesis 49:3.

(2.) Of his fall from that state, in these words, and the immediately following, thou shalt not excel.

(3.) Of the reason of this fall, his great sin.

3. Because the similitude of water applied to men in this manner, notes rather their impotency and calamity than their sin, as Joshua 7:5 Psalm 22:14.

Thou shalt not excel, or, be the most eminent amongst thy brethren; thou hast lost thy pre-eminency due to thee by birthright, both for thyself and for thy posterity, and it shall be given to others; the priesthood to Levi, the dominion to Judah, and the double portion to Joseph.

Then defiledst thou it, by committing incest with Bilhah. He repeats the same thing, and that in an emphatical manner, turning his speech and face from Reuben to his brethren, in a posture of indignation and detestation; which you must not impute to Jacob’s passion, he being now a dying man, and this being forty years after the crime committed, but to the Spirit of God guiding his tongue to utter this, not only nor chiefly for the punishment of Reuben, who, as many think, had repented of his sin; but for terror, instruction, and caution to all others, and to assure them that sin, though it may be long dissembled and borne with, yet it will one time or other be sorely punished. But these and the next foregoing words may be thus rendered, Then defiledst thou my bed: he went up to it, or rather, he is gone up, i.e. he is vanished, or perished, or lost; for so this word is oft used, as Job 5:26 Isaiah 5:24 Jeremiah 48:15. And so here is an elegant figure, called antanaclasis, whereby the same word is repeated in the same verse in a different sense, as Psalm 18:26 Matthew 8:22. So here,

He went up wickedly to his father’s bed to commit a great sin; therefore now he is gone up penally, to receive condign punishment; his excellency is gone up like smoke, which ascendeth and is dispersed in the air. And this may seem to be the truest translation and interpretation, because it keeps close to the Hebrew words and their order; whereas, in our translation, there is both a transplacing of the Hebrew words, and a supplement added unnecessarily.

Unstable as water,.... Which is not to be understood of the levity of his mind, and his disposition to hurt, and the impetuous force of that breaking forth like water, and carrying him into the commission of it; but rather of his fall from his excellency and dignity, like the fall of water from an high place; and of his being vile, mean, and contemptible, useless and unprofitable, like water spilled on the ground; and of his weak and strengthless condition and circumstances, being deprived of the prerogatives and privileges of his birthright, and having lost all his honour and grandeur, power and authority. The word in the Arabic language signifies (b) to be proud and haughty, to lift up one's self, to swell and rise like the turgent and swelling waters: but though he did thus lift himself, yet it follows:

thou shall not excel; not have the excellency of dignity and power which belonged to him as the firstborn; the birthright and the double portion were given to Joseph, who had two tribes descending from him, when Reuben had but one; the kingdom was given to Judah, and the priesthood to Levi, as both the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem observe: as he did not excel his brethren in honour and dignity, so neither in wealth and riches, nor in numbers; see Deuteronomy 33:6 where the word "not" is wrongly supplied; nor in his share in the land of Canaan, his posterity being seated on the other side of Jordan, at their request; nor did any persons of note and eminence spring from his tribe: because thou wentest up to thy father's bed, then defiledst thou it; referring to his incest with Bilhah, his father's concubine wife, Genesis 35:22 which, though done forty years ago, was now remembered, and left an indelible spot on Reuben's character, and his posterity:

he went up to my couch: turning himself to his other sons, to take notice of the crime, as very abominable and detestable; affirming the truth of it, and speaking of it with some vehemency, his affections being moved; and it may be could not bear to look at Reuben, but turned himself to his brethren; though he had forgiven the sin, and very probably Reuben had repented of it, and had forgiveness of God, which he might have, though in some sense vengeance was taken on this sinful invention of his, Psalm 99:8. There are various senses given of this phrase; some, as Aben Ezra, "my bed departed from me"; that is, he departed from his bed; or, as Kimchi (c), "it ceased to be my bed"; he left it, he abstained from the bed of Bilhah upon its being defiled by Reuben: and others separate these words, and read singly, "it went up" (d); either the excellency of Reuben went up, vanished and disappeared like smoke; or, as Ben Melech connects it with the beginning of the verse, "unstable as water", giving the sense, "it", the inundation of water, "ascended" and prevailed over thee; as waters ascend, meaning his lust ascended, and got the prevalence over him; but the accents will not admit of such a separation of the words; it is best to understand them in the first sense. As to the manner of the expression, of going up to a bed, it may be observed, that not only their beds in those times might be raised higher than ours, but that they were placed in an higher part of the room, and so there was an ascent to them: and Dr. Shaw (e) says this is the custom of the eastern people to this day,"at one end of each chamber there is a little gallery, raised three, four, or five feet above the floor, with a balustrade in the front of it, with a few steps likewise leading up to it, here they place their beds.''

(b) "superbivit, semet extulit gloria fastuque", Golius, col. 1767. so Castel. col. 2980. (c) Sepher Shorash. rad. (d) "ascendit", i.e. "abiit" "et evanuit", Vatablus. (e) Travels, p. 209. Ed. 2.

Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.
4. Unstable] The metaphor from water, bubbling over, is intended to express wanton or reckless vehemence. Reuben is as water without restraint pouring down in a foaming torrent. This is the thought of the renderings of LXX ἐξύβρισας; Lat. effusus es.

thou shalt not have] Read as R.V. marg. the imperative of denunciation, have not thou. Observe the recurrence of the note of “excelling.” LXX μὴ ἐκζέσῃς.

he went up] Notice the change from the second to the third person, as if the speaker had turned away in loathing (LXX, however, ἀνέβης) from Reuben. In the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:6) the denunciation of Reuben is brief and stern, but unexplained; “let Reuben live, and not die; yet let his men be few.”

It is a possible conjecture that the legend (cf. Genesis 35:22) concerning Reuben embodied a cause of ancient Israelite prejudice against the Reubenites. Conceivably some marriage custom, like that of the heir receiving the concubines of his deceased father, may have been abandoned by the rest of Israel and been maintained by Reuben. (See Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage, p. 109, n. 2).

Another conjecture is that Reuben, in some treacherous way, encroached upon the rights of the Bilhah clans, and in an isolated position wasted his strength in fierce and futile conflict with the neighbouring nomads.

Genesis 49:4Reuben, my first-born thou, my might and first-fruit of my strength; pre-eminence in dignity and pre-eminence in power. - As the first-born, the first sprout of the full virile power of Jacob, Reuben, according to natural right, was entitled to the first rank among his brethren, the leadership of the tribes, and a double share of the inheritance (Genesis 27:29; Deuteronomy 21:17). (שׂאת: elevation, the dignity of the chieftainship; עז, the earlier mode of pronouncing עז, the authority of the first-born.) But Reuben had forfeited this prerogative. "Effervescence like water - thou shalt have no preference; for thou didst ascend thy father's marriage-bed: then hast thou desecrated; my couch has he ascended." פּחז: lit., the boiling over of water, figuratively, the excitement of lust; hence the verb is used in Judges 9:4; Zephaniah 3:4, for frivolity and insolent pride. With this predicate Jacob describes the moral character of Reuben; and the noun is stronger than the verb פחזת of the Samaritan, and אתרעת or ארתעת efferbuisti, aestuasti of the Sam. Vers., ἐξύβρισας of the lxx, and ὑπερζέσας of Symm. תּותר is to be explained by יתר: have no pre-eminence. His crime was, lying with Bilhah, his father's concubine (Genesis 35:22). חלּלתּ is used absolutely: desecrated hast thou, sc., what should have been sacred to thee (cf. Leviticus 18:8). From this wickedness the injured father turns away with indignation, and passes to the third person as he repeats the words, "my couch he has ascended." By the withdrawal of the rank belonging to the first-born, Reuben lost the leadership in Israel; so that his tribe attained to no position of influence in the nation (compare the blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33:6). The leadership was transferred to Judah, the double portion to Joseph (1 Chronicles 5:1-2), by which, so far as the inheritance was concerned, the first-born of the beloved Rachel took the place of the first-born of the slighted Leah; not, however, according to the subjective will of the father, which is condemned in Deuteronomy 21:15., but according to the leading of God, by which Joseph had been raised above his brethren, but without the chieftainship being accorded to him.
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