REUBEN (Heb. רְאוּבֵן), firstborn son of Jacob and Leah (Gen. 29:32; 46:8), and the eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Reuben. The biblical derivation of the name is not etymological, but was given by Leah because it suggested the verb raʾah, "to see" and the fact that yhwh had seen, i.e., taken note of, Leah's sorrow, and the noun ben, "son" (Gen. 9:32; in Ant. i: xix, 8 Josephus gives the name as Reubel). The attribution of primogeniture to Reuben may indicate that, originally Reuben headed the confederation of Israelite *tribes. He is mentioned first in the listing of the twelve (Gen. 46:8–23; Ex. 6:14–16; Num. 1:5–15, 20–42), and he enjoys a prominent position in the traditions of Israelite history prior to the conquest of Canaan in connection with the sale of Joseph (Gen. 37:21–22, 29–30; 42:22, 37) and rebellion against the leadership of Moses (Num. 16). The change that took place in the standing of the tribe is attributed to a sin of its ancestor; see Genesis 49:3–4;; and Genesis 35:21–22 for the incident to which they allude. In Genesis 49:3–4, Jacob rebukes Reuben for "mounting his (Jacob's) couch," by sleeping with Bilhah, Jacob's concubine, and curses him with the words paḥaz kamayim al totar, conventionally translated "unstable as water may you not be preeminent." This is interpreted by i Chronicles 5:1 to mean that Reuben lost his pre-eminent status as the first born. During the period of conquest and occupation, the tribe of Reuben lost the hegemony to the tribe of Joseph, which grew so that it split into the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, and it was Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim who led the conquest of the land; while in the period of the monarchy, it was the tribe of Judah that was of prime importance. At one time the tribe of Reuben must have been in danger of extinction, since Deuteronomy 33 has only one short verse on it, and that, a prayer for its survival (Deut. 33:6). A further indication of Reuben's troubles is provided by the more likely construal: paḥaz, ka-mayim al totar, to be translated, "wanton, like water nothing shall be left over of you" (for the thought, cf. ii Sam. 14:14). It is probably no accident that no judges came from the tribe of Reuben, and still less that it is not mentioned in the *Mesha inscription though Gad is. The tribe, like that of *Simeon, remained semi-nomadic, subsisting principally from sheep-raising (Num. 32:1). Deborah reprimanded Reuben for not taking part in the war against Jabin and Sisera, choosing rather to "tarry among the sheepfolds, to hear the piping for the flocks" (Judg. 5:15–16).
In the early monarchy period, Reubenites still ranged far and wide with their sheep, fighting desert tribes as they wandered through the border regions of Transjordan (i Chron. 5:9–10, 18–22). At the same time, however, the Reubenites established family ties with these very tribes. Enoch, the son of Reuben (Gen. 46:9; Num. 26:5), is also connected with the tribe of Midian (Gen. 25:4). Reuben's genealogies (Gen. 46:9; Num. 26:5–9; i Chron. 5:1–8) indicate that the tribe had family ties with other Israelite tribes.
According to biblical tradition, Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan during the first stages of the conquest, in the time of Moses (Num. 32). When the tribes of Gad and Reuben noted that "the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle" they asked Moses and the tribes of Israel for permission to settle there. Moses agreed to their request on condition that they constitute Israel's vanguard in capturing western Palestine (Num. 32: Josh. 1:12–18). Only after Gad and Reuben had kept their agreement and fought alongside Joshua west of the Jordan were they given permission to return east (Josh. 22). The tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh built an altar near the Jordan on that occasion as eternal proof that the tribes of the east bank were an integral part of Israel (verse 27). (See Map: Tribe of Reuben).
According to some scholars, the Reubenites at first settled in western Palestine in an area bordering on Benjamin in the north and Judah in the south, only at a later stage forcing their way to the east of the Jordan. Among the evidence for this is cited the "Stone of Bohan the son of Reuben" (Josh. 15:6; 18:17) which these scholars identify as a point on the boundary between Judah and Benjamin; Migdal-Eder, where Reuben is said to have slept with his father's concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:21–22), is located in the vicinity of Jerusalem (Micah 4:8); in Ezekiel 48:6–7, Reuben's frontier territory is described as lying north of Judah; the Song of Deborah does not state explicitly that Reuben dwells on the other side of the Jordan, but the mention of the "tribes" mishpetayim (Judg. 5:16) and the allusion to the tribe's pastoral habits point in that direction, and there is no decisive proof that Reuben's first settlement was originally west of the Jordan. It is conceivable that the tribe
first settled in the plain north of Moab, as biblical tradition has it, and then later, Reubenite families crossed the Jordan westward settling in the area between Benjamin and Judah.
According to Numbers 32, Reuben's settlement extended south of Gilead, in the tableland, and was interspersed with Gadite settlements. Reuben's cities, Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, Nebo, and Baal-meon, were surrounded by the territory of Gad which ran from Aroer near Arnon in the south, to Jogbehah near the border with Ammon in the north (Num. 32:34–38). According to Joshua 13, Reuben's settlement covered the entire tableland, from Aroer near the Arnon Valley to the wadi of Heshbon in the north, to the southern edge of the Gilead, while the tribe of Gad settled from the wadi of Heshbon northward (cf. i Chron. 5:8–9). The following are listed among those levitical cities situated in Reuben's area: Mephaath, Bezer, Jahaz, and Kedemoth (i Chron. 6:63–64, 78–79). These four cities are located at the eastern end of the plain, bordering on the desert. The southernmost of them, Kedemoth, is situated north of the uppermost tributary of the Arnon. The northernmost, Mephaath, is close to the border with Ammon. Since the area of Reuben's settlement given in Numbers 32 is smaller than that given in Joshua 13, it is possible that the information in Numbers 32 reflects a later stage in the history of the tribe when it became weak and was gradually absorbed by the tribe of Gad. It would seem, however, that it nevertheless retained its tribal identity until Transjordan was annexed by Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria in 733–732 b.c.e. to be sure the description of Transjordan in ii Kings 10:33, in connection with events in the ninth century b.c.e., and in i Chronicles 5:26, in connection with events in the eighth century, as "the land of the Gadites, the Reubenites, and the Manassites" may be formulaic, but the notice in i Chronicles 5:6 about the identity of the chieftain of the tribe at the time of Tiglath-Pileser's conquest of Transjordan and the exiling of its inhabitants seems authentic. In 733–732 b.c.e., thus, Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria exiled Beera, a Reubenite prince, along with his tribe, and Gad and half of Manasseh, to Mesopotamia (i Chron. 5:6, 26).
In the Aggadah
Reuben is contrasted with Esau in order to demonstrate his virtue. Whereas Esau looted and plundered the property of others, Reuben demonstrated that he would only touch that which was ownerless when he went to pick mandrakes (Gen. 30:14; Gen. R. 98:4). In fact Leah indicated this distinction when she called him Reuben, i.e., "reʾu bein" (lit. "mark [the difference] between") Esau, who sold his birthright and hated his brother (Gen. 27:41), and Reuben who lost his birthright to Joseph, but nevertheless saved him from death (ibid., 37:21; Ber. 7b). The sin of "going up to his father's bed" (Gen. 49:4 and i Chron. 5:1) is minimized as much as possible and he is specifically exonerated from any charge of incest (Shab. 55b). After the death of Rachel, Jacob had allotted the now vacant place of honor in his private quarters to the bed of Rachel's handmaid, Bilhah, and the verse is explained to mean that Reuben saw this as a slight upon the honor of his mother (Leah), and his sin consisted in removing Bilhah's bed (Gen. R. 98:4). Moreover, the extent of his subsequent repentance is commended, and was rewarded by the fact that one of his descendants, Hosea, was the first prophet to exhort Israel to "return unto the Lord thy God" (Hos. 14:2; Gen. R. 84:19). The sincerity of his repentance also earned him a place in the world to come (Sot. 7b), and by the fact that he is nevertheless specifically referred to in both Genesis 49:3 and i Chronicles 5:1 as the "firstborn" (Gen. R. 82:11). It was his prolonged acts of penance which explains his absence at the time of the sale of Joseph (Pal. Targ. Gen. 37:29). According to another source, he was ministering to his father at the time (Gen. R. 84:4). His attempt to save Joseph found divine recognition in the fact that the first of the cities of refuge mentioned in Deuteronomy 4:43, was situated in the territory of his descendants (Gen. R. 84:15). He was, in fact, appointed the head of the children of Israel in Egypt, after Jacob's death (Num. R. 13:8). He died at the age of 125 (Yalk. Ex. 162).
E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme (1906), 531ff.; N. Glueck, in: A asor, 18–19 (1939), 246, n. 669; 14 (1934), 4; Y. Kaufmann, Sefer Yehoshu'a (1963), 167; Z. Kallai, Nahalot Shivtei Yisrael (1967), 219–20. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index; I. Hasida, Ishei ha-Tanakh (1964), 381–3. add. bibliography: S. Japhet, i & ii Chronicles (1993), 128–36; S. Ahituv, Joshua (1995), 218–22, 244; J. Tigay, The jps Torah Commentary Deuteronomy (1996), 322–23; B. Levine, Numbers 21–36 (ab; 2000), 499–502.
From the early 19th century in North America, the name Reuben has been used to suggest the conventionally conceived figure of a farmer or rustic, a country bumpkin (there is no evident link with the biblical figure).