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Bible literacy
How often do you read the Bible?



Michael Gowen

Reuben – Forgotten sin

The Bible is not like our Western society. It does not glorify sex. But it certainly does not avoid it.

mountains Photo: Nathan Anderson (Unsplash, CC)

If you have been following my articles about characters from the book of Genesis, when you read this you might ask, “Surely not another one about sex? Are you obsessed with it?” I hope not.

A study from 2014 found that men thought about sex on average 34 times a day – that’s around twice every waking hour. Based on that (if indeed it is true!), I think I am probably below the average. No, it’s just that in Genesis, and in the Bible as a whole, there is quite a lot about sex. Even after the history of Reuben and his father’s concubine in chapter 35, there are still at least two more histories where sex pays a big part: Judah and Tamar (a whole chapter), and Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Egypt.

I remember the pastor of the first church where my wife and I worshipped after being married, 40 years ago. He was a gracious, conservative man in his 60s working with a very conservative eldership. I remember him preaching a series on the book of Leviticus and coming to the part on sexual prohibitions in chapter 18. He stood in the pulpit and gently said, “You may ask me, ‘How open will you be in referring to sexual matters?’ I will reply, ‘I will be as open as the Bible.’” And then, almost with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “And that will be too open for some of you.”

In our Western world we are bombarded by sexual images, yet many of our churches steadfastly refuse to talk openly about sex – and if they do, it tends to be negatively, about what you must not do. There seems to be relatively little work being done on developing a theology of the human body or of healthy human sexuality.

The Bible is not at all like this. It does not glorify sex. But it certainly does not avoid it. In fact, it celebrates healthy human sex: the Song of Songs – which is a Hebrew way of saying ‘the most amazing song ever written’ - is a celebration of human sexual love – which we can understand literally or we can allegorise, just as we choose. At the same time, the Bible does not hesitate to warn sternly against illicit sexual activity and its consequences. Which brings us to Reuben.

Reuben was the first-born son of Jacob, which gave him a special place in the culture of the day. He ranked next to his father, higher than all his brothers and sisters, and he would inherit twice as much as them. However, it seems that this privilege may have gone to his head, for we read in Genesis 35:22: While Israel (that is, Jacob) was living in that region, Reuben went in and lay with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.

No sensationalism, no unnecessary details, just the bare facts. We don't know whether Reuben had lusted after her for a long time and finally had an opportunity to indulge himself, whether he made an impulsive decision on the spur of the moment, or whether Bilhah had been coming on to him, like Potiphar’s wife did to Joseph. What we do know is that Reuben had sex with a woman who was considered as the wife of his father. And that was a serious insult both to God and to his father.

One can imagine that relations between Jacob and Reuben were rather cool for a time after this. No doubt Reuben thought that it would all blow over in due course; and apparently it did. There were no particular consequences – that is, until decades later, when the family was in Egypt and Jacob was about to die. He gathered his 12 sons round him to give them all a blessing, and it was only then that the awful truth dawned on Reuben: his sexual sin had not been forgotten, neither by his father nor by God.

For Jacob, speaking under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, says, “Reuben, you’re my firstborn, my strength, first proof of my manhood, at the top in honour and at the top in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will be at the top no more, because you climbed into your father's marriage bed, mounting that couch, and you defiled it” (Genesis 49:3-4). All those years the guilt had been hanging over Reuben, and he did not know it. Now the sentence falls: he loses his privilege as the firstborn, his descendants become one of the minor tribes of Israel, and they are one of the first to be deported to Assyria (1 Chronicles 5:26).

Be sure that your sin will find you out, the Bible warns (Numbers 32:23). In a recent article I spoke about Colin Howell, the Northern Irish Christian leader who murdered his wife and his lover’s husband and kept the secret for almost 20 years. But finally guilt forced him into a confession, and he was duly punished by the law. If you find that you are carrying guilt, it is probably nowhere near as dramatic as his; but it is still very damaging.

King David knew a lot about guilt and he tells us, When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up (Psalm 32:3-4).

But here is the good news: David knew what to do about it: Then I let it all out; I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.” Suddenly the pressure was gone – my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared (Psalm 32:5). If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all wrongdoing (1 John 1:9). How wonderful that purity is!




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