Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sunday Musings: Reuben and the Lost Birthright

The scriptures are filled with imperfect people. Even the prophets had family problems. Anytime a parent is feeling like a failure because of the things their children do, all they need do is look at the scriptures and see that even God's chosen has had problems. Few have had the problems that Jacob has faced. Most horrific is the story of his sons Simeon and Levi who went into a city that they had made a covenent with and murdered the men, stole the women and children and spoiled the city. There may have even been rape involved although the scriptures aren't clear. It's a small footnote and it's not dwelt on much nor do we see much of the outcome. It's hard to think that that these two could ever gain celestial kingdom status after such a horrendous and uncalled for massacre.

There is also a small note about Reuben, Jacob's eldest son.

And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Genesis 35:22

Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but, forasmuch as he defiled
his father's bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel : I Chronicles 5:1

So it seems pretty straightforward. Reuben slept with one of his father's wives and the consequences were that he lost his birthright. We are shocked that Reuben would do such a thing. You simply don't sleep with your father's wife. It's adultery. Within the church we tend to focus on homosexuality and paint it as the worst sexual sin, but it seems to me there are far worse sexual sins - rape, pedophelia and yes adultery come to my mind. Adultery is a devestating thing for the spouse who has been cheated on.

But is it really that simple?

It is not clear if Bilhah consented. Was she a part of it or was she raped? There is nothing in the scriptures that says that she was, so for the sake of argument, lets say that Bilhah agreed to sleep with Reuben therefore making her as guilty as he.

Before we condemn her though, lets look at her history.
1 AND when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

2 And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

3 And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees that I may also have children by her.

4 And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.

5 And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.

6 And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan.

7 And Bilhah Rachel's maid conceived again, and bare Jacob a second son.

8 And Rachel said, With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed: and she called his name Naphtali. Genesis 30:1-8

Bilhah was a slave. Rachel owned her and Rachel also owned any children she had. Based on what we have from the scriptures it appears that Bilhah had no say in the joining to Jacob. There was no opportunity for Bilhah to find her own husband, and she was denied the rights of motherhood to the children she bore. Nowhere in the scriptures does it say that Jacob loved her. Jacob loved Rachel. Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah (a pretty suspicous set-up if you ask me), and Jacob agreed to marry the handmaids because his primary wives wanted it. There seems to be levels of marriage here. Bilhah was married to Jacob who already had other wives, and it seems clear that this was not a decision that she made, but it was forced upon her.

Is it possible that Bilhah and Reuben fell in love with each other? If that is the case, is their sin that horrendous then? If she is tied to Jacob through no fault of her own and not free to marry Reuben is it any wonder that they might commit adultery?

Some will say it doesn't matter. It's still adultery.

But she wasn't married in the true sense of the word. Eve was given to Adam as a helpmeet. Not as a slave. Marriage is about equal power. Bilhah was not equal to Jacob.

Can someone be held to a covenant that they did not willingly make? As LDS people we try and assure non-members who are upset about our baptizing the dead that the dead have the choice to accept the covenant. We know that if we grabbed someone dunked them against their will and even had the priesthood say all the right things, it doesn't count because they didn't choose to take upon them the covenents.

So is Bilhah accountable for covenents that she did not willingly make? Even if she said the words does it count since it appears she had no other options. She was owned by Rachel and given to Jacob by Rachel and had her children claimed by Rachel.

And is Reuben wrong for falling in love with a woman who from all appearences is not loved by her husband in the way a woman should be? Even if Jacob did love Bilhah he wasn't devoted exclusively to her (can you tell how I hate the double standard of polygamy).

Is it not tragic that Bilhah should be denied the love that all women yearn for and not even be allowed to hope for? Yes, it was a different time, but are we not all the same down at the core, no matter what time we live in or what station in life we are assigned.

Perhaps Reuben and Bilhah did not do such a horrible thing. Maybe, possibly, it was a grasp at some kind of happiness.



Anonymous said...

I have some thoughts on this- they are three fold:

1. I'm unconvinced about the validity of this comment: "Within the church we tend to focus on homosexuality and paint it as the worst sexual sin, but it seems to me there are far worse sexual sins - rape, pedophelia and yes adultery come to my mind." Never have I heard the church focus on homosexuality as the worst sexual sin- and in fact, I would believe you would be hard pressed to find that in any general authority address. I've always understood the worst sexual sins to be the ones you listed.

2. Regardless if you believe Bilhah was happily and legitimately married or not, your argument should not end with
"Perhaps Reuben and Bilhah did not do such a horrible thing. Maybe, possibly, it was a grasp at some kind of happiness" because at the very least we would classify their indiscretion as fornication, which is contrary to the law of chastity. And in the gospel we understand the law of chastity to lead to happiness and anyway you wish to define their activity or intentions, the outcome lays outside the boundaries of chastity. In Alma 41:10 we learn that "wickedness never was happiness"- and thus, regardless if there were loving feelings between Reuben and Bilhah, the way they chose to act on those feelings in this instance would still have to be classified as wicked. So yes, what they did was horrible- it was contrary to God's commandments, and that is always horrible. That is why the Atonement was provided.

3. We can nitpick over all the minute details of the gospel that we find unappealing or don't understand, including polygamy and covenants from the Old Testament, but it won't lead anywhere good. We do not have a perfect understanding of these things or these situations, so only one question is needed in these situations. Do we believe in the fundamentals of the gospel? Do we believe that God is perfect and just and merciful and good? Do we believe Jesus atoned for all of our sins and can understand all of our pain and the intentions behind our actions, good and bad? If the answer is yes, then we can be at peace because everything we feel uncomfortable about or don't understand at this time will be revealed eventually and we can be assured that whatever is sanctioned by God is good and right.


Mary and Eden Z said...

I agree with Anonymous' three points. Also I take issue with the idea that we are all the same at the core regardless of what era we lived in. I'm not so sure about that. Different era, different culture, differing expectations. I think these things combined mean that we can be very different and that trying to impose our own cultural ideals on a character who lived so long ago is perhaps folly on our part. But interesting thoughts and it does make you realize just how scant on details the Bible can be. Assumptions are long as we are VERY aware they are just assumptions. :) Gotta love speculation!!

Anna Maria Junus said...

Hi Shannon,

I had thought of the fornication aspect, but then I was led back to Bilhah being in an impossible situation. I have heard that in some countries where divorce is illegal, the church has been understanding of couples who live together because it's not possible to be married.

In Reuben and Bilhahs case, there wasn't any chance of making the union legitamate. So in that situation, what would you suggest?

Nitpicking was not what I intended to do. I happen to love speculation and throughout my argument I was basing things on supposition. We don't have enough information to make absolutes. However I think it's important to ask ourselves questions about where we stand on things.

I did not say that Reuben and Bilhah were happy. I said they may have been trying to grasp at happiness. That's a different thing from achieving happiness.

The question I have still remains. Can we be held accountable for covenents that we did not choose to make? If Bilhah did not choose to be married to Jacob, then how can she be held accountable for adultery. Isn't that like saying that you can be forced into baptism?


Are you suggesting that Bilhah would not have feelings of love for a man or feel motherly to her children because she lived at a different time? Hasn't love existed since the beginning?

Anna Maria Junus said...

Another thought.

Regarding wickedeness. It seems to me that the greater wickedness was what was done to Bilhah. She was forced to marry a man. Forced to have sex with him. And then forced to give up her children.

I know that the argument might be that no matter what was done to her does not justify her own sins, but it might allow us to be more understanding.

I recognize that in the end only God knows what really happened and He is the only judge. I used Reuben and Bilhah as an example. Perhaps not everything is black and white.