Genesis 49:4

4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.

Genesis 49:4 Meaning and Commentary

Genesis 49:4

Unstable as water
Which is not to be understood of the levity of his mind, and his disposition to hurt, and the impetuous force of that breaking forth like water, and carrying him into the commission of it; but rather of his fall from his excellency and dignity, like the fall of water from an high place; and of his being vile, mean, and contemptible, useless and unprofitable, like water spilled on the ground; and of his weak and strengthless condition and circumstances, being deprived of the prerogatives and privileges of his birthright, and having lost all his honour and grandeur, power and authority. The word in the Arabic language signifies F2 to be proud and haughty, to lift up one's self, to swell and rise like the turgent and swelling waters: but though he did thus lift himself, yet it follows, thou shall not excel;
not have the excellency of dignity and power which belonged to him as the firstborn; the birthright and the double portion were given to Joseph, who had two tribes descending from him, when Reuben had but one; the kingdom was given to Judah, and the priesthood to Levi, as both the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem observe: as he did not excel his brethren in honour and dignity, so neither in wealth and riches, nor in numbers; see ( Deuteronomy 33:6 ) where the word "not" is wrongly supplied; nor in his share in the land of Canaan, his posterity being seated on the other side of Jordan, at their request; nor did any persons of note and eminence spring from his tribe: because thou wentest up to thy father's bed, then defiledst thou it; referring to his incest with Bilhah, his father's concubine wife, ( Genesis 35:22 ) which, though done forty years ago, was now remembered, and left an indelible spot on Reuben's character, and his posterity: he went up to my couch:
turning himself to his other sons, to take notice of the crime, as very abominable and detestable; affirming the truth of it, and speaking of it with some vehemency, his affections being moved; and it may be could not bear to look at Reuben, but turned himself to his brethren; though he had forgiven the sin, and very probably Reuben had repented of it, and had forgiveness of God, which he might have, though in some sense vengeance was taken on this sinful invention of his, ( Psalms 99:8 ) . There are various senses given of this phrase; some, as Aben Ezra, "my bed departed from me"; that is, he departed from his bed; or, as Kimchi F3, "it ceased to be my bed"; he left it, he abstained from the bed of Bilhah upon its being defiled by Reuben: and others separate these words, and read (hle) , singly, "it went up" F4; either the excellency of Reuben went up, vanished and disappeared like smoke; or, as Ben Melech connects it with the beginning of the verse, "unstable as water", giving the sense, "it", the inundation of water, "ascended" and prevailed over thee; as waters ascend, meaning his lust ascended, and got the prevalence over him; but the accents will not admit of such a separation of the words; it is best to understand them in the first sense. As to the manner of the expression, of going up to a bed, it may be observed, that not only their beds in those times might be raised higher than ours, but that they were placed in an higher part of the room, and so there was an ascent to them: and Dr. Shaw F5 says this is the custom of the eastern people to this day,

``at one end of each chamber there is a little gallery, raised three, four, or five feet above the floor, with a balustrade in the front of it, with a few steps likewise leading up to it, here they place their beds.''


F2 <arabic> "superbivit, semet extulit gloria fastuque", Golius, col. 1767. so Castel. col. 2980.
F3 Sepher Shorash. rad. (hle) .
F4 (hle) "ascendit", i.e. "abiit" "et evanuit", Vatablus.
F5 Travels, p. 209. Ed. 2.

Genesis 49:4 In-Context

2 Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.
3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:
4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.
5 Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.
6 O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.
The King James Version is in the public domain.