The birth of Benjamin was a great joy in Jacob’s life. But that joy was accompanied by great sorrow as well. While Benjamin enters the world, three more heartaches enter Jacob’s life.
Isn’t life an intense mixture of ups and downs? Love won and lost. Births and deaths. Successes and failures. Unions and breakups. Gains and setbacks. Celebrations and sorrows. Dreams come true and dreams dashed.
Maybe we, and Jacob, like Job, feel in those dark valleys of life what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 4,
“And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (v2-3)
That’s why we can feel the humanness of the people in the Bible. They feel less “other” than us when we see how much we have in common with them in life’s ups and downs.
Jacob has had great “ups” and “downs.” How blessed to receive God’s promises and protection, greatly expanded wealth, reconciliation with his brother Esau, and more. Yet, how heartbreaking being hunted by his brother, cheated by his father in law, the rape of his daughter and the blood of Shechem on his conscience.
Yet Jacob would shed more tears – tears of both joy and sorrow. Surrounding the birth of Benjamin three more tragedies would enter Jacob’s life: the death of his beloved wife Rachel, the death of his father Isaac, and the dishonor dealt to him by his firstborn son, Reuben. Let’s look at each of these four events as our sermon points today and close with some thoughts.
BENJAMIN’S BIRTH (16-18)
Benjamin is the last of Jacob’s twelve sons, the second son his beloved wife Rachel bore him. In her last breath she gave Jacob his last son. I can’t imagine how for Jacob, Benjamin would always be a source of both his most fond memories and his most painful. Benjamin and his older brother Joseph would be constant reminders to him of their mother: Benjamin had Rachel’s eyes, Joseph had her smile; Benjamin laughed like her, Joseph had her temper…. You know how it goes. How comforting. How painful. You know how it goes.
Benjamin is a fascinating study. As we will see in the coming chapters, he was at the center of the great Egyptian drama with his brother Joseph (42-45). He was blessed by Jacob and called “a ravenous wolf.” (49:27) The tribe of Benjamin received a profound blessing from Moses before entering the Promised Land (Dt 33:12). Later the Benjamites would terribly disgrace themselves by acting exactly like the Sodomites in Genesis, leading to a brutal civil war in Israel (Jdg 19-21). Despite this, Revelation says that in the Tribulation 12,000 Benjamites will be sealed by God (7:8), and the Apostle Paul even boasted he was a Benjamite, indicating it was an honored distinction for an Israelite (Php 3:5).
RACHEL’s DEATH (19-20)
Rachel’s death…read 19 and 20……
I cannot imagine the fear and the pain Jacob felt watching his wife die in childbirth. The helplessness. The guilt. The pleading with God.
Jacob didn’t just bury Rachel in Bethlehem, he buried his heart. Remember this was the woman all those years ago that he fell in love with from the moment he first laid eyes on her. This is the woman he worked 14 years to have. He really didn’t care about the other 3 wives he had. And to be honest, if he never had any kids and he only had Rachel he would have had a happy life. He loved that woman. There was no replacing her.
Which, the other three wives knew. And the obvious favor she had all those years didn’t disappear with her death. Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah would still go on living in the shadow of her memory. When they looked at Jacob, they knew all he saw was Rachel. Leah probably gave up trying to win Jacob’s love years ago and accepted her loveless marriage. She may have had the thought that with Rachel’s passing now there would be room in Jacob’s heart for her. But I think that thought would only have lasted a moment. She wasn’t Rachel. And Jacob loved Rachel.
He loved her and it says he set up a pillar in her honor. It was a memorial. I learned so much from Pastor Ray’s class on grief during the holidays. And I appreciate how much he brought out how we are to make our loved ones live on, so to speak. Don’t let their memory fade into the past. Whether that’s keeping pictures out or visiting those places that remind you of the person.
Jacob wasn’t going to let Rachel fade after her death. Love does that: it doesn’t let fading happen.
APPLICATION: How do you make the memory of your loved ones live on?
APPLICATION: How are you building memories with your loved ones who are alive? Will the life you had with them
REUBEN’s DISGRACE (21-26)
Next we see Reuben’s Disgrace, read 21-22. We are reminded of King David’s son Absolom acting in this same disgraceful manner. And a disgrace is what it was too. Scripture describes Reuben’s act as “Defile” (Gen 49:4; 1 Chron 5:1), a word that means to pollute or desecrate or wound or profane something. All of those words describe what Reuben did. The same Hebrew word is used when God says “Don’t defile the Sabbath” (Ex 31:14) and also when God said that sacrificing their children to Molech would “profane” the name of the LORD (Lev 18:21). No one would ever want their behavior to be described as “defiling.” But that is what Reuben’s act is described as. Someone in the Corinthian Church committed the same sin as Reuben and Paul was all over the church for it when he said that it was a “sexual immorality that even the pagans do not tolerate.” The shame in those words should have stung deep.
And Reuben should have been stung with shame too. Maybe he was. Which might explain why later he tried to save Joseph from his brothers, knowing Joseph was loved most by Jacob (37:21-22).
Remember Jacob had 4 wives: Leah and Rachel were sisters – and rivals. Rachel had Jacob’s love but struggled to get pregnant. Leah on the other hand gave Jacob the most sons, but Jacob didn’t give her any love. In their rivalry to have the honor of children, both wives gave their servants to Jacob to be his concubines. The thought, again, was that any children those servants had would be credited to the wives. Leah gave her servant Zilpah and Rachel gave her servant Bilhah. All twelve of Jacob’s sons were born to these four women.
Now here’s the details: Reuben was Leah’s son. It was not with Leah’s servant that he acted immorally, but with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah – the servant of his mother’s rival. I cannot imagine the damage within the family that happened here. What was Reuben’s relationship with his father like from then on? What was it like with Bilhah? What did Leah think about this? Did she pull Zilpah aside and warn her not to fall into the same stupidity? What happened to Reuben’s relationship with his other brothers? Especially Dan and Naphtali, since it was their mom he sinned with?
APPLICATION: Sin may be a moment but its damage can last a lifetime. Live not by lust.
Notice Jacob’s response…or the absence of his response. Verse 22 just says he “heard of it.” His response seems just as passive as his response to Dinah’s assault (34:5). There is no mention of Israel doing anything. Which, again, as we mentioned before, may have been a mature and wise Jacob not acting out of anger. Who knows.
But we shouldn’t think that Reuben just “got away” with it. Not at all. As a matter of fact, I think there is great significance to the fact that immediately after this verse the twelve sons of Jacob are listed. Which leads me to Reuben’s consequences.
Aside from a permanent rift in his relationship with his father, and certainly with his brothers Dan and Naphtali (Bilhah’s sons), Reuben would end up being significantly penalized. He would no longer excel, he would lose his firstborn rights, and I believe this event lost him the Messianic line. The damage to his relationship with his family needs no explanation, but let me explain the other three.
First, he would no longer excel. Turn to Genesis 49 with me. Whatever prosperity he would otherwise have had he lost. I think it meant both during his lifetime and also his legacy and his descendents. “Your star was rising Reuben and so much was yours but not anymore.” Like Esau, I don’t think this meant Reuben would live destitute and beg long the streets, and have no children and he would be plagued with diseases all his life, or that his descendents would be wiped out from history. Esau did not have good things “prophecied” about him by his father, but he prospered greatly nonetheless. Same for Reuben. But there is true loss spoken here by Jacob. Reuben had blessings coming his way but now he would never receive them.
Second, he lost the rights of the firstborn. Turn to 1 Chronicles 5:1 with me. Just like Esau traded his birthright for a single meal (25:33), here we have Reuben forfeiting his birthright for a single moment. Both men displayed exceeding foolishness by giving in to their “appetites.” And both men lost their birth rights because of it.
According to this verse part of what was lost for Reuben was the right to be listed in the genealogical record. But losing the birthright also meant that he lost the double portion of his father’s inheritance that was his as the firstborn (Dt 21:17). It was apparently something that could be traded away like Esau did (25:33). But te rights of the firstborn could also be taken away by the father and given to another son (48:14; 1 Chron 5:1; 26:10). Which is what happened to Reuben: his rights were given instead to Joseph, the firstborn son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved dead wife.
Third, the Messiah would not be his descendent. Turn to Genesis 49 with me. Jacob is blessing his sons, speaking prophecies over them. The first four sons born to him came from his first wife, Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. They are the first four sons addressed by Jacob. You’ll notice that the Messianic promise is given to Judah, the fourth son in verse 10 [READ].
Why the fourth son? Why not the first or second or third born sons? I believe its because of the despicable behavior of the first three sons that the Messianic blessing fell to Judah. Each of those first three sons did some horrific acts in their lifetime: Reuben defiled his father’s marriage bed, and Levi and Simeon, you’ll remember, slaughtered the whole city of Shechem. Each of these offenses are mentioned by Jacob in this chapter and clearly they are connected to the fact that these sons do not receive positive words from their father. So who is up next in the birth order? Judah. That’s why Jesus is not the Lion of the tribe of Reuben, or Simeon or Levi. He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5).
APPLICATION: There are consequences for our actions. Who you are doesn’t matter. God is just. And justice to be justice means that you pay for what you do when you do wrong.
ISAAC’S DEATH (27-29)
Jacob has buried his mother’s servant Deborah, his wife and now his father, Isaac. Read 27-29…..
Isaac was 180 years old, which means Jacob and Esau were 120 years old (25:26). Isaac lived 5 years longer than his father Abraham, who lived to 175 (25:7). If Isaac’s wife Rebekah was still alive that means they were married for 140 years (25:40)!
I’ve noticed that Abraham and Jacob get a lot of coverage in Genesis, but not Isaac. Yet, he is honored. He lives long, which is God’s blessing. He is greatly blessed materially – God’s blessing. In his final breaths he has his sons around him to close his eyes.
Remember that it was probably about 30 years since Isaac had seen Jacob. So you can imagine how he felt seeing him after all those years and how much God had blessed him..