Being the eldest in a family has quite a lot of advantages – I’ve talked about this before in Who’s in your way? But it also has responsibilities; if the parents are not able to care for the younger ones themselves, the older ones often take on that role. Reuben did the ‘big brother’ stuff in trying to look out for Joseph when he got into trouble with the other brothers, later in the story, in Genesis 37; but here in 35:21-22 he got it horribly wrong.
Rachel, the favourite wife of Jacob had just died. Her slave woman Bilhah had also been given to Jacob as a concubine, and given him two sons, Dan and Naphtali. Now that Rachel had died, perhaps Bilhah seemed like a free woman. Certainly Reuben saw it that way, and went and slept with her. What was he doing? It would seem he was positioning himself to become head of the family, by beginning to take ownership of his father’s harem. He saw himself as the eldest, and therefore the one who would naturally succeed to that position.
But that wasn’t God’s plan. Unlike the previous generations where only one of the sons was chosen, all twelve of Israel’s sons were to head up tribes which together would form the nation they were to become. They all got a piece of the action! But maybe Reuben wanted more, and was grabbing for more – after all he was the eldest. All for nothing – ironically, it cost him. When Jacob blessed his sons on his deathbed, he honoured Reuben as ‘my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honour, excelling in power…’ But then went on to say that this taking of Bilhah marked the end of his excelling (49:3-4).
God has plans for all of us. Grabbing for power, even (and perhaps especially) in a Christian ministry context, can be the very thing that disqualifies. Of course we need to push into things that God has put on our heart to do, and sometimes we need to push against obstacles. But only ever within God’s rules. If it means hurting someone else to get where you think you ought to be going, then you’ve probably got it wrong. Loving God, and loving one another takes priority over any amount of achievement.