[b-hebrew] Was Reuben the Great Hero in a "First Draft" of the Patriarchal Narratives?

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Jan 25 11:16:03 EST 2008

Was Reuben the Great Hero in a “First Draft” of the Patriarchal Narratives?
In his fascinating article, “Joseph, Judah and the ‘Benjamin Conundrum’”, 
Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, volume 116 (2004), pp. 
223-241, Yigal Levin points out that several modern scholars have postulated a “
first draft” of the Patriarchal narratives, in which Reuben, as Jacob’s 
firstborn son, was the great hero in the so-called “Joseph narrative” at the end of 
Here is how Yigal Levin sets forth this scholarly idea:
“The Joseph narrative [is] told in the final chapters of the book of Genesis…
.  [P. 232]  …[Professor Donald] Redford proposed a three-stage development 
of the story.  In the original story, in which ‘Jacob’ [rather than ‘Israel’] 
is the preferred name of Joseph’s father, it was Reuben who was the leading ‘
good brother’.”  [P. 235]  …Redford has not been alone in proposing such a 
two or three-layered development of the story.  In a similar scheme proposed in 
1969, Samuel Loewenstamm attributed the ‘Reuben’ stage to the ‘E’ writer 
and the ‘Judah’ stratum to a later Judean redactor.  Forty years later, Walter 
Dietrich arrived at similar conclusions.  [P. 235]  …[T]he origins of the 
tradition of Reuben’s priority are beyond the scope of this study….  [Footnote 
87:]  For some of the studies on this topic see F.M. Cross, Reuben, First-Born 
of Jacob,…L.G. Herr, Tall al-Umayri and the Reubenite hypothesis….  See also 
Rendsburg, The Redaction of Genesis….”  [P. 239]
Are these famous scholars onto something here, in seeing a “Redaction of 
Genesis” by “a later Judean redactor”, who changed the original Joseph story?  
Was Reuben originally the great hero of the Joseph narrative, but then in a 
later draft by “a later Judean redactor” (that is, by one or more southern 
Hebrews in the mid-1st millennium BCE), Judah got substituted in as the new hero of 
the Joseph story?  
To check out whether these scholars have a convincing case here or not, as 
opposed to these scholars being guilty of purposefully and studiously ignoring 
what the text clearly and unequivocally says over and over and over and over 
and over and over and over again (seven times over, to be exact), let’s check 
out how firstborn sons do in the Patriarchal narratives.
1.  First Generation Firstborn Son:  Haran Gets the Shaft and Properly So
Haran is Terakh’s firstborn son, and likely is Terakh’s favorite son.  (By 
contrast, Abraham is a younger, non-favorite son of Terakh.)  Haran does not 
even survive his own father, and Haran dies in far-off Ur, in southern 
Mesopotamia.  As far as we can tell, Haran’s only “sin” was that Haran was Terakh’s 
firstborn son.
Thus firstborn sons get off to a bad start in the Patriarchal narratives.  
Younger son Abraham is obviously the big winner in the first generation.
2.  Second Generation Firstborn Son:  Ishmael Gets the Shaft and Properly So 
(Second Straight Case)
Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn son (at least in the important sense that 
Ishmael is Abraham’s first son borne by a woman who was not a mere concubine).  As 
usual, Ishmael as the firstborn son is the favorite son, but gets the shaft.  
Ishmael and his mother (Hagar) are exiled by Abraham with only bread and 
water, and Ishmael ends up outside of beloved Canaan.
Ishmael’s main “sin” may well have been that his mother was not his father’
s original main wife #1.  But it sure didn’t help matters that Ishmael was 
Abraham’s firstborn son.  Younger son Isaac, who is Ishmael’s younger half-broth
er, gets the grand prize of being named by Abraham to be Patriarch #2, the 
governing Patriarch of beloved Canaan. 
3.  Third Generation Firstborn Son:  Esau Gets the Shaft and Properly So 
(Third Straight Case)
Everything remains the same in the third generation.  Esau is Isaac’s 
firstborn son and favorite son.  Yet the grand blessing that Isaac planned to give to 
Esau instead ends up being given to Jacob, the younger twin son.  Firstborn 
son Esau ends up in the Transjordan, outside of beloved Canaan.  Younger twin 
son Jacob becomes Patriarch #3 “Israel”:  the super-famous namesake of the 
Israelites.  Once again, for the third straight time in the text, the firstborn 
son (Esau) gets the shaft, and properly so.  Esau’s only “sin” was to be his 
father Isaac’s firstborn son and his father Isaac’s favorite son.
Are we beginning to see a pattern here yet?  In the Patriarchal narratives, 
each firstborn son always gets the shaft, and properly so.  How can this 
consistent pattern be missed by the proponents of the scholarly theory of a “
Redaction of Genesis” by “a later Judean redactor”?  (In fact, there never was any “
redaction” or substantive editing of the truly ancient Patriarchal 
narratives.  The Patriarchal narratives are eternally stuck in the time period of the 
well-documented secular history of the mid-14th century BCE, in every way, all 
the way.  Nothing substantive in the Patriarchal narratives was ever changed by 
anybody.  In particular, there is nothing whatsoever in this truly ancient 
text that is attributable to any “later Judean redactor”.  There’s no there 
there, as to any supposed 1st millennium BCE southern Hebrew component of the 
Patriarchal narratives.  Nada.)
4.  Fifth Generation Firstborn Son:  Er Gets the Shaft and Properly So (Fifth 
Straight Case)
Judah’s firstborn son is Er, who is so disliked by YHWH that Er suffers a 
very early death, even before Er has been able to sire a male heir.  Thus fifth 
generation firstborn son Er manages to do even worse than all the firstborn 
sons before him, which is saying quite a bit, considering the sorry lot of every 
firstborn son in the Patriarchal narratives.  Every single firstborn son in 
the Patriarchal narratives gets the shaft, and properly so.  
Why would we expect things to be any different for Reuben in the fourth 
generation, with Reuben being Jacob’s firstborn son?  Why would we think that in a 
supposed “first draft” of the Patriarchal narratives, firstborn son Reuben 
was the great hero in the Joseph narratives?  What southern Hebrew in the 
mid-1st millennium BCE -- “a later Judean redactor” supposedly doing “The Redaction 
of Genesis” -- would consider changing an earlier draft of the Patriarchal 
narratives so that in the final text, for the first time, every firstborn son, 
without exception, now gets the shaft, and properly so?  Is that a sensible 
theory of the case?  Did any southern Hebrews in the 1st millennium BCE think 
like that?
Why not admit the truth?  There simply is no southern Hebrew component whatso
ever in the Patriarchal narratives.  And there’s nothing of the 1st millennium 
BCE in the Patriarchal narratives either.  There was no “first draft” of the 
Patriarchal narratives, in which firstborn son Reuben was a grand hero.  No 
way.  Consider his mother Leah’s shocking explanation of the name “Reuben”:  “
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….”  Genesis 
29: 32  When the firstborn son’s name is interpreted to mean “look upon my 
affliction”, that’s not a good sign for that son’s future prospects.  (Younger 
son Judah’s grand name, by sharp contrast, means “praise YHWH”.  Now there’s a 
winning name.)  Consider also Jacob’s final harsh curse of his firstborn son: 
 “Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency;  because thou wentest up 
to thy father's bed;  then defiledst thou it -- he went up to my couch.”  
Genesis 49: 4  Now be realistic.  Couldn’t all of us see that terrible curse 
coming, the moment Reuben became Jacob’s firstborn son?
The author of the Patriarchal narratives won’t let Joseph favor Joseph’s 
firstborn son Manasseh in chapter 48 of Genesis, but instead insists upon Jacob, 
over Joseph’s explicit objections, putting younger son Ephraim ahead of 
firstborn son Manasseh.  The author won’t even let Judah’s firstborn son by Tamar 
come out of the womb first.  No, younger twin son Perez manages to get born 
before his “older” twin brother Zerah.  Genesis 38: 27-30  And at Genesis 46: 12 
we are told about younger twin son Perez’s male descendants, with nary a word 
about any male descendants of firstborn twin son Zerah.  Adding these two 
cases to the above 5 cases makes it 7 out of 7 times when the firstborn son gets 
the shaft in the Patriarchal narratives.  Why on earth would famous scholars 
imagine that in an alleged “first draft”, firstborn son Reuben had supposedly 
been the great hero in the Joseph narratives?  No way.  Though modern scholars 
are always trying to change the text, the text stubbornly remains the same 
way it has always been.  Modern scholars may like firstborn sons, but the text 
of the Patriarchal narratives does not.  It’s just that simple.  7 out of 7 
cases of the firstborn son getting the shaft, and properly so, means something. 
Neither Reuben, nor any other firstborn son in the Patriarchal narratives, 
ever has a ghost of a chance.  The southern Hebrews in the 1st millennium BCE 
truly loved and treasured their firstborn sons.  But there’s no hint of that 
southern Hebrew 1st millennium BCE love of firstborn sons in the Patriarchal 
narratives.  The Patriarchal narratives were not composed by one or more southern 
Hebrews, nor were they edited by “a later Judean redactor”.  Moreover, the 
Patriarchal narratives were neither composed nor edited in the 1st millennium 
BCE.  There simply never was any “Redaction of Genesis” as to the Patriarchal 
The substantive content of the Patriarchal narratives speaks for itself.  The 
Patriarchal narratives were composed by a single northern pre-Hebrew author, 
who spent several years working in Egypt in the tumultuous mid-14th century 
BCE, for a monotheistic Egyptian pharaoh who was a terribly jealous younger son. 
 Reuben, as a firstborn son, never had a chance.   
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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