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1 Chronicles 5:1-6 From Reuben to Assyria

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, October 19, 2023

5:1 The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel. He was the firstborn, but since he defiled his father’s bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Israel’s son Joseph, yet not as though Joseph should be recorded as the firstborn in the genealogical record. 2 For Judah was mighty among his brothers and the ruler came from him, but the birthright was Joseph’s.

The matter of the birthright was important in all ancient near-eastern cultures. The right of the firstborn son could not be removed except in rare circumstances of a serious offense against one’s mother or father. Whatever the private, personal emotions or circumstances (none are ever recorded), the fact was that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah when they were camped near Migdal Eder (in the southern part of what would one day be the land of Judah). Jacob passed the double-portion to Joseph, but the title of firstborn could not be removed from Reuben. So the rights of the firstborn went to Joseph, and the supremacy would pass to Judah, as was shown by the blessings God gave to the tribe of Judah and by raising up the princes and ruler, David, and of course Christ Jesus our Lord.

The event of Reuben sleeping with Bilhah suggests a marker in the chronology of Jacob’s lifetime. We can reasonably say that Abraham died about 1991 BC, and that Isaac died about 1886 BC. These years are impacted by the accepted date of 1446 BC for the Exodus.

Jacob and Esau were born when Isaac was 60 (Genesis 25:26), in 2006 BC. Most Bible students are surprised to learn that Jacob was not a young man when he fled to Haran and fell in love with Rachel. He was actually 77, when his father Isaac was about 137 years old.

Therefore, with Joseph was born in Haran in about 1915 BC, and sold into slavery (at 17, Genesis 37:2) in 1898, this places the entry of Jacob into Canaan in about 1908 (after his fourteen years of work for his wives and his six additional years of working for Laban, Genesis 31:41). Reuben would have been about 13 when the family entered Canaan, If he slept with Bilhah when he was perhaps 17 (and Bilhah was about 27), then this would have taken place in about 1904 BC, five or six years before Joseph was sold into slavery to Egypt.

3 The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron and Carmi. 4 The descendants of Joel were Shemaiah his son, Gog his son, Shimei his son, 5 Micah his son, Reaiah his son, Baal his son, 6 and Be’erah his son, whom Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria carried away into exile. Be’erah was a prince of the Reubenites.

Having established the “first one born but no longer firstborn” status of Reuben, our author resumes where he left off. The four well-known sons of Reuben are listed, and then the ancestor of the tribes current at the time of the divided kingdom are mentioned. They came through Joel, but which son Joel came from is not listed, nor is it given anywhere else in Scripture. Evidently it was well-established enough that no one contested this descent from Reuben through Joel.

The “Gog” here is not the Gog of the apocalypse (Ezekiel 38:2-3,16,18, 39:1,11,15; Revelation 20:8), but the Hebrew names are identical. A “gog” in Hebrew is a roof (1 Samuel 9:25; Proverbs 21:9) or the top plank, plate or slab of an altar (Exodus 30:3, 37:26). Perhaps the name Gog in this case had something to do with being “on top.”

We are correct to be startled and concerned that a descendant was named Baal. On the surface, “baal” just means husband (Genesis 20:3) or “master” (Genesis 37:19, “here comes that master of dreams”). But of course, Baal was the name of a whole string of Canaanite false gods, and using it for a child’s name is not far away from someone today naming their baby “Satan” or “Demon.” Notice that the genealogy is carried down to the time of the Assyrian captivity (that is, during the time of Isaiah), not the Babylonian captivity. The people of Reuben were deported by Tiglath-Pileser in the days of Pekah, King of Israel (752-732 BC, 2 Kings 15:29), probably during the Assyrian campaign against Philistia in 734-733 BC. At that time, Gilead (including the land of Reuben in the south)  began to be called Gal’azu, the “land beyond the Jordan” by the Assyrians. Recall that Isaiah calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles, along the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan” (Isaiah 9:1). “Galil” means “region or district.”

One or two men from Reuben might be familiar to us. The first was Dathan, the one who rebelled against Moses and who was swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16). The other was (maybe) the judge Jephthah, who was an Israelite from Gilead and only possibly from Reuben. In fact, since Jephthah hid in the land of Tob (near Ramoth-Gilead in the north), it’s more likely that he was from the eastern half-tribe of Manasseh, and that of all the tribes, only Reuben did not supply any of the Judges.

So far, in this study of the people of Reuben, there has not been much in the way of faith or good deeds in God’s service. This will change in the very next verses, where some of the victories and fruits of faith of the Reubenites will be shown to us at last.

It is good to remember that even when there is a rascal and an infamous sinner in our family background, the stain of that rascal’s sin does not need to affect our lives. We should focus on our Savior, not on past sins, and grasp tightly to Christ’s righteousness, the robe given to us as a gift, and wear that righteousness with thanks and joy (Matthew 22:11). In our Confession, we proclaim: “The promise of grace is the heart of the New Testament. When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly believe that God really forgives us for Christ’s sake” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession). When we are frightened by the law and God’s holy wrath, we admit our guilt with humility and shame, but we also know that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Whether I am a rascally sinner or my grandfather was, or (as is most likely) both, the grace of God covers my sin, and I trust in Jesus for that forgiveness. And “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:16).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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