1 Chronicles 5-6
“The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, so that he could not be enrolled as the oldest son; though Judah became strong among his brothers and a chief came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph), the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi” (1 Chronicles 5:1-3 ESV).
Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob (Gen. 29:32; 46:8). As the firstborn of twelve sons, Reuben had the inherent right to receive his father’s birthright. The bestowal of the birthright was a customary practice for the patriarchs and later was law for the children of Israel (Deut. 21:15-17). The heir of the birthright inherited the responsibility of family leadership and received a “double portion” of his father’s possessions (Deut. 21:15-17). You likely remember that Reuben’s father (Jacob) convinced his older brother (Esau) to sell him his birthright in exchange for a single meal. Thus, Esau despised his birthright (cf. Gen. 25:31-34; Heb. 12:16).
Reuben followed in the example of his uncle and lost his birthright. For Reuben, this was a shame because he exhibited so many great qualities. Reuben lovingly provided for his own mother, Leah (Gen. 30:14). When Reuben’s jealous brothers wanted to kill young Joseph, it was Reuben who made an effort to save Joseph’s life (Gen. 37:21-22). After Joseph was sold into slavery, Reuben felt sorrowful (Gen. 37:28-29). Years later, it was Reuben who reminded his brothers of their sins against Joseph (Gen. 42:22). So what happened? When and why did Reuben lose his birthright?
The reason Jacob’s birthright was given to another is because it is said that Reuben “defiled” his father’s couch. In his younger days, Reuben had an illicit relationship with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). It is unclear as to whether or not this affair was consensual or not. At minimum, Reuben was guilty of sexual sin — fornication, adultery, and incest. Jacob found out, and he never forgot the defilement that his son brought into his bed. On Jacob’s deathbed, he told Reuben what his lust would cost him, and that was the birthright. The double portion of the birthright was given to Joseph while the authority of the birthright was given to Judah (1 Chron. 5:1-3; cf. Josh. 16:1-17:18). We see God’s hand in this decision, especially in regards to the authority given to Judah (read Gen. 49:8-10; Heb. 7:14; Rev. 5:5).
In the end, Reuben lost his birthright due to a very poor decision. Today, God’s children are in line to receive something far greater than the birthright that Reuben was to inherit. In Christ, we have been given the gift of salvation (Rom. 6:23). We are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17)! Let us not despise our inheritance by making poor decisions to abide in sin (cf. Psa. 106:24; Matt. 13:45-46; Rom. 6:1-2). Instead, we must honor our Heavenly Father who graciously adopted us into His spiritual family (cf. Rom. 8:15). May we not despise our Father who loves us with an everlasting love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:19; Mt. 22:37-38). Let’s keep watch over ourselves so that we may not lose the prize which God has prepared for us (Heb. 3:12-19; 12:15-17; 2 Jn. 8; Rev. 3:11).