The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father’s marriage bed, his rights as firstborn were given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel; so he could not be listed in the genealogical record in accordance with his birthright, and though Judah was the strongest of his brothers and a ruler came from him, the rights of the firstborn belonged to Joseph). 1 Chronicles 5:1-2
In Biblical times, the firstborn son received double the inheritance of other sons. Reuben, forfeited his entitlement when he slept with father’s concubine, Bilhah (Genesis 35:22). One sinful action had long-term repercussions. Reuben’s double blessing passes to Joseph. His sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, become tribes in Israel, alongside Jacob’s other sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin (Genesis 48:5-6).
Reuben also lost the position of leadership in the family, and this passes to Judah. When Judah and his brothers go to Egypt for food, it’s Judah who takes the lead (Genesis 43-44). Later Jacob’s prophesy of continuing leadership for Judah, predicts the coming of Jesus (Genesis 49:10).
We don’t receive God’s favour or leadership by natural order. It’s easy to appreciate why God chose Joseph, who was faithful in challenging circumstances. The choice of Judah is more difficult to understand. He behaved badly, chose a wife from the Canaanites, didn’t honour his obligation to his daughter-in-law and visited a prostitute. However, when confronted he acknowledged his daughter-in-law’s righteousness and the lack of his own (Genesis 38:26). His heart was humbled and changed.
As Samuel learnt, “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and Jesus taught that God is looking for “those with a noble and good heart” (Luke 8:15).