The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

By James L. Kugel | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
REUBEN'S SIN WITH BILHAH

The book of Genesis contains a passing reference to a sin committed by Jacob's firstborn son, Reuben: “When Israel dwelt in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine; and Israel [= Jacob] heard of it” (Gen. 35:22). If this verse was originally part of some longer narrative, the words cited are, in any case, all that remains; the text then immediately turns to a genealogy of Jacob's descendants. This fact is surprising in and of itself. For surely one would expect some further details and, in particular, an account of what happened after Jacob “heard of it.” After all, the crime of a son having relations with his father's wife (or concubine) is condemned no fewer than four times in the Pentateuch, suggesting that this offense was considered among the most serious of all (Lev. 18:7, 21:10; Deut. 22:30, 27:20). It was also subject to severe punishment: both the son and the woman were to be put to death (Lev. 21:10).

Despite this, the Genesis narrative says nothing of Reuben's punishment. He certainly was not killed; he goes on to play a principal role in the later story of Joseph's enslavement and all that follows. Nor is there any mention of Bilhah being punished. It is true, of course, that this infraction took place before the revelation of divine law at Sinai. Still, one would expect some mention of what happened as a result of this sin—all the more so because similar, indeed lesser, offenses recounted in Genesis are sometimes accompanied by vivid accounts of the consequences suffered by the offenders.1

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