[b-hebrew] The Name "Reuben"

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Dec 5 10:28:24 EST 2007

The puns on the names of Jacob’s 12 sons give us a good insight into the 
types of puns used by the author of the Patriarchal narratives.  Jacob’s firstborn 
son is Reuben.  Genesis 29: 32 gives us at least one, and probably two, 
explicit puns on the name “Reuben”, yet the most obvious pun on the name “Reuben” 
is implied (rather than being explicit).  Here is the JPS1917 translation of 
Genesis 29: 32:  “And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name 
Reuben;  for she said:  'Because the LORD [YHWH] hath looked upon my 
affliction;  for now my husband will love me.'”
As we will see, all three puns on the name “Reuben” are based exclusively on 
the three true consonant sounds in “Reuben”, R-B-N, in that exact order.  
For that reason, I will type those three true consonant sounds in all capital 
letters, so that we can see these three puns more easily.  “Reuben” is 
RESH-aleph-vav-BET-NUN.  [R)WBN]
Implied Pun (not explicitly stated)
“Look, a son!”  “Look” is RESH-aleph-heh.  “Son” is BET-NUN.
The only difference in the Hebrew letters here is that the vav in the name 
Reuben is changed to heh.  RESH-aleph-vav-BET-NUN is a natural pun on 
RESH-aleph-heh BET-NUN.
Yet that obvious pun is not stated in the text.  Here is Gerhard von Rad’s 
comment on this at p. 294 of “Genesis”:  "The interpretation of the name of her 
[Leah's] first-born [son Reuben] is particularly hair-raising….  The narrator 
strangely bypasses the obvious explanation (r-u-ben, 'Behold a son!') and 
speaks of looking upon affliction ('ni'), in which one can find a distant 
suggestion of the consonants in the name Reuben." 
2.  Explicit Pun #1
“(YHWH) looks upon my affliction”.  RESH-aleph-heh BET ayin-NUN-yod-yod
“Look” is RESH-aleph-heh.  “Upon” is BET.  “My affliction” is 
This explicit pun is based exclusively on R-B-N, while ignoring entirely the 
many vowel-type sounds.
3.  Explicit Pun #2
The end of this same sentence at Genesis 29: 32 appears to be a second 
explicit pun, namely:  “Look, …he [husband Jacob] loves me.”
“Look” is RESH-aleph-heh.  “He loves me” is yod-aleph-heh-BET-NUN-yod.
Once again, the explicit pun is based exclusively on R-B-N, while ignoring 
entirely the many vowel-type sounds.  Although the heh in “he loves me” 
functions as a consonant, that heh is nevertheless ignored in making this second 
explicit pun based on R-B-N.
Clever Hebrew Wordplay
Note how the two explicit puns on the name “Reuben” beautifully foreshadow 
Reuben’s life story, unlike the obvious, implied pun.  Focusing on the word “
affliction” in the first explicit pun foreshadows that Reuben will have one of 
Jacob’s minor wives in Reuben’s tent for one night, and for that Reuben will 
receive a final curse from his father Jacob.  Yet Reuben is retained within 
the Covenant by Jacob, showing that Jacob “loves” his somewhat wayward 
firstborn son, as focused upon by the second explicit pun.  Finally, the second 
explicit pun in Reuben’s name is that Jacob loves Leah.  That neatly foreshadows the 
ending of the Patriarchal narratives, when Jacob shows his long-delayed love 
for Leah by naming one of Leah’s sons, namely Judah, as the leader of the next 
generation of the new Hebrews, rather than naming Jacob’s favorite son 
Joseph, whose mother was statuesque Rachel, as such leader.  Thus in a real sense, 
the second half of the Patriarchal narratives is largely foretold by the two 
explicit puns on the name “Reuben”.
The puns on the names of Jacob’s 12 sons work only if we ignore all 
vowel-type sounds.  The true consonant sounds are the key.
Note also that there are three puns on the name “Reuben”, including one 
implied pun.  Thus it is not sufficient to duly note one explicit pun for each of 
the names of Jacob’s 12 sons.  Rather, we must be alert both to (i) multiple 
explicit puns, and (ii) implied puns.
It is my view that one of the best ways to understand the author’s constant 
punning and clever Hebrew wordplay throughout the Patriarchal narratives is to 
start with the implicit and explicit puns on the names of Jacob’s 12 sons.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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