Our forefather Jacob’s departing words to his firstborn son were: “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetuosity -- you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed ...” (Genesis 49:3-4).
Reuben's history is marked by his impetuosity.
Reuben was the son of Jacob and Leah. Rachel, Jacob's other wife and Leah's sister, died when Reuben was 14. Without permission, he moved his father’s bed into Leah’s tent to assert his mother’s primary position (Genesis 35: 19, 22). This was considered to be a great insult, for which Reuben would never be fully forgiven.
Eight years later, it was Reuben who suggested that Joseph be thrown into a pit rather than killed, intending to rescue him later. But, Joseph was sold without Reuben’s knowledge. Reuben later found an empty pit, “tore his garments,” and cried out to his brothers: “The boy is gone! And I - where can I go?!” (Genesis 37:21,22-29,30).
Reuben strove to do right, but somehow missed the mark: The brothers’ first journey to Egypt to buy food during the famine resulted in Joseph’s demand that Benjamin be brought to Egypt. Trying to convince Jacob to send Benjamin with them, Reuben, said: “You may slay my two sons if I fail to bring him back to you. Put him in my care and I will return him to you” (Genesis 42:35-37).
Reuben showed a desire to do the right thing, but took the wrong approach to achieve this end. Because Reuben was not qualified to lead, Jacob divided the rights of the firstborn (leadership - Judah, priesthood - Levi, and monetary rights - Joseph). However, by blessing him first and calling him “my firstborn,” Jacob stressed Reuben’s permanent right to be honored as the firstborn.