Reuben was the eldest son of Leah and Jacob, born through an act of deception that was instigated by Leah’s father Laban. But that was not the first deception in the story in the genealogy for it all began one generation prior with Jacob and Esau. There is trickery at the heart of the story. A trick that repeats itself over the course of two generations.
Reuben, as the first born, should have received the honour befitting of a first born. But he does not. Leah’s womb is abundant, but Rachel’s womb is barren. It is a long time before Rachel is able to give Jacob a son. Joseph, one of Jacob’s two sons by Rachel, turns out to be the father’s favourite; much to his own detriment. He is ill-treated and later abandoned by his brothers.
Joseph is the odd one out in the family, not because he is a black sheep, but because he is metaphorically like the rainbow coat that he wears. He is a special child, not only because of the circumstances of his birth, but also due to his gift of prophesy, foresight and forbearance.
Reuben and Jacob both end up as leaders, one ‘failed’ and one ‘successful’. We, as readers, can see these characters and see what went wrong and what went right. They don’t have the mirror with which to see this. For Joseph, it is his good fortune that causes him misfortune; which later goes on to create his fortune. Where else for Reuben, all his efforts to reverse his apparent misfortune only seems to exacerbate it further.
Reuben takes action to remedy what he perceives to be an unjust situation, only to end up making it worse. He makes wrong decisions, not because they were ill-intentioned; but because he lacked the follow through, waited too long and was indecisive about his course of action.
Reuben could have killed Joseph. But he does not. He leaves him stranded there thinking that someone or something else is going to do the job for him. But by the time he has a change of heart, it is too late and Joseph has already been sold into slavery. He falsely thinks that his brother is dead, when in fact, despite difficult circumstances, Joseph eventually arrives at a place where he is even more powerful than he would have been had he stayed at home.
A large part of Joseph’s journey is highly circumstantial. It was like the tides kept coming for him and he was only responding to them. For me, Joseph’s leadership journey has a passivity to it. He becomes a leader by virtue of circumstance. It is foretold early on that this is what will happen.
The power of prophesy is a strong theme in the story. By trying to avoid the very thing that Joseph had prophesied, they had essentially set the story into motion. They thought that they could take control of their destiny by getting rid of Joseph, but they could not.
Reuben, despite his poor decision-making skills, is not a person without ethical sensibilities. In fact, he does have ethical sensibilities, even if they kick in after a poor decision has been made. While he had conscience, he lacked courage. He knew what was right, but lacked the resolve to do it boldly and decisively. In those moments of hesitation, more was lost than Joseph. So too was Reuben’s chance to become the leader he might and should have been.
Timing is of the essence when it comes to decision-making. We already know what the right decision is. A lot of the times it comes down to, “When is the right time to make this decision?” Sometimes, it’s immediately. Sometimes it’s six months down the line. Leaders intuitively know what the right decision is. But sometimes they hold off making it at the time. But when it’s time to act, leaders must act. They cannot postpone decisions indefinitely, for if they do, the moment would have passed and the wheel of fortune would have turned.
When you have known someone for a period of time and you are unable to make a decision and stand by it, to me, there is something seriously amiss. In Reuben’s case, he had known his half-brother his whole life. He either valued his brother or he wanted him dead. Fratricide is not uncommon in any historical text. By hesitating when it came time to make a decision and postponing it; or even expecting someone else to make the final cut; Reuben shows the cowardice that is becoming of someone who only does things halfway.
A few years ago, my TCM doctor told me of an old Chinese saying. A man with a foot in two different boats goes nowhere. I suppose that’s an apt way to describe what happened to Reuben. He had one foot in two different boats… and he ended up going nowhere.