Tribe of Reuben: History, Symbol & Descendants

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Have you ever wondered why Reuben, the eldest of Jacob's sons, did not inherit the leadership of Israel and eventually seemed to disappear? Get some answers to these and other questions in this lesson.

Origins of the Tribe of Reuben

In most ancient, and even some modern, civilizations, the firstborn male child inherited money, rank, and authority from his father. However, Reuben, though the oldest of the twelve sons of Jacob, does not inherit this from his father as the important role of ruler is given to his younger brother Judah. So why did Reuben lose this inheritance?

In most of the stories we read of Reuben in the Hebrew Bible, he is kind and thoughtful, collecting flowers for his mother and saving his brother Joseph from being killed. However, Genesis briefly mentions that Reuben lay with Bilhah, one of his father's concubines and the mother of his brothers Dan and Naphtali. Lying with your father's wife was a serious offense, according to Leviticus, and this act cost Reuben the inheritance he would have received from Jacob.

Reubenite Descendants

There is no clear evidence of what happened to the tribe of Reuben and where its descendants are today, though some groups theorize the Reubenites settled in France. This tribe is part of a larger collection referred to as the Lost Tribes of Israel. This name is given to the tribes of northern Israel, a separate kingdom from southern Judah where Jerusalem was. When the united kingdom of Israel was split after Solomon's reign, only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed in what became southern Judah while the rest founded northern Israel. However, when the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BCE, they caused a diaspora, or dispersion of people from their homeland, for the Israelites. While many Jews fled and some forsook their culture and stayed, no records indicate who went where, so the tribe of Reuben and the other nine tribes were ''lost.''

Symbols of the Reubenites

As you might know, symbology is quite important to Jewish tradition and plays a large role in the tribes of Israel. Each of the 12 tribes has been associated with a symbol that indicates something about the history or significance of the tribe. We need not look far for the symbol of the tribe of Reuben. Remember Reuben picking and bringing flowers to his mother? Those flowers were from the mandrake, a plant that produces lavender colored flowers and was thought to help with fertility. This became the symbol for the tribe of Reuben probably because of the story with Reuben's mother, Leah. While Leah had no trouble conceiving and bearing children to Jacob, her sister and one of Jacob's other wives, Rachel, was barren. When Reuben brought his mother the mandrake flowers, Leah gave the flowers that symbolized fertility to Rachel, who eventually gave birth to two sons.

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