Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it: he went up to my couch.
Read Chapter 49
Ambrose of Milan
Doesn’t this seem to be a reproach rather than a blessing? Thus it really is more a prophecy than a blessing. For a prophecy is an announcement of events to come, whereas a blessing is the longed for bestowal of sanctification and of graces. The Jews suppose that the old man is saying these things to his son Reuben on this account, because the latter lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and polluted his father’s bed. But they are easily refuted; this had already taken place. Now Jacob is promising that he will speak of events to come in the last days, not what took place before. Therefore the meaning is consistent and in accord with the thought of the patriarch himself: he sees the future passion of the Lord under persecution from the Jews and execrates the boundless audacity of that firstborn people …. For Israel itself was called the firstborn and said to be stiffnecked, and of it Moses said, “You are a stiffnecked people.”
Just as the justice of Jacob cursed his firstborn because of his evil deed and this curse of Reuben was blotted out by Moses who was the descendant of Jacob, so too was death decreed by God against Adam when he transgressed the commandment. But the Son of God came and, with the promise of the resurrection that he promised, brought to nought the judgment that accompanied Adam out of paradise.
Grow thou not. This was not meant by way of a curse or imprecation; but by way of a prophecy, foretelling that the tribe of Ruben should not inherit the pre-eminences usually annexed to the first birth-right, viz., the double portion, the being prince or lord over the other brethren, and the priesthood: of which the double portion was given to Joseph, the princely office to Juda, and the priesthood to Levi. (Challoner)
Thou hast abandoned thyself to thy brutal passion; do so no more, ne adjicias. (St. Jerome, q. Heb.) Let Ruben live, and die not; let him be small in number, Deuteronomy xxxiii. 6. His tribe never became very considerable. (Calmet)
Couch. See chap xxxv. 22. Eternal infamy attends the name of Ruben. (Haydock)
He said “couch” and “bed,” that is, the holy flesh of Christ, on which the saints are saved while enjoying their rest as on a holy divan. This is the flesh that those outlaws took possession of and then outraged by offering him [Christ] vinegar, by hitting his head with a reed, by flogging him on the back, by spitting on his face, by skinning his cheeks with slaps and by piercing his hands with nails. All these things the impious and unbelieving people did in accordance with the high priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people. That is why the blessed prophet neither has remained silent about their deeds nor wants to be involved in their wickedness and evil decisions. On the contrary, he keeps himself away from their intrigues where such criminal plots are conceived.
First he mentions the event—that in the last days the people will assault the bed of the Father, that is, the bride, the Church, with intent to corrupt her; which thing, indeed, it does even at this present day, assaulting her by blasphemies.
First he mentions the event,—that in the last days the people will assault the bed of the Father, that is, the bride, the Church, with intent to corrupt her; which thing, indeed, it does even at this present day, assaulting her by blasphemies.
See how through the insight granted him by the Spirit Jacob anticipates the legislation of Moses against allowing father and son to have relations with the same woman. Ahead of time he forbids this in censuring his son thus, “You stained the couch” by entering your father’s bed. You committed an unlawful act, he says. Hence “you ran riot like water, but you shall not break out again.”