Reuben, the oldest, gets a scathing review. It probably wasn't unexpected.In Genesis 35:22, there is a strange gap in a sefer Torah (the hand-written Torah scrolls used in Orthodox synagogues). The gap is typically used when there is a paragraph break; but, in this case, the Text continues after the break as though completing the same idea. The rabbis suggest that this break represents silence: that Jacob never spoke to Reuben again, until his last words were spoken in Genesis 49:3.
But, there is something startling in Jacob's words when we consider the way that the Jewish people have been taught to interpret the writings of Moses. Water is universally understood to represent the Word of God and the wisdom of God. "Unstable as water?! Couldn't he, maybe, been unstable as something else?!"
When when we look at Reuben's life, we see a guy who had great ambitions and a strong sense of conviction; but not a whole lot of effectiveness. Reuben, as a young man, brought mandrakes to his mother, hoping that they could be used to help build his parents' relationship. That didn't go so well. Then, in an attempt to rescue his younger brother from a family coup, he suggested the kid be dropped into a pit for a while. Finally, when Dad preferred Bilhah (Rachel's handmaid) over his first wife, Leah (Reuben's mother), Reuben, er... stepped in. Reuben consistently shows that he has a passion for taking a stand to benefit those around him. He just doesn't demonstrate a real positive success rate.
He knew what he wanted to achieve. It's just that the process he chose never seemed to yield quite exactly the result that he intended.
Unstable as water?
Unstable as Torah (God's Law)?
Paul actually speaks to this idea in 1st Timothy 1:8. "But we know that the Law is good, if a man use it lawfully."
Sadly, the law of God is often looked at as a perfect standard, without much regard for the biblical process. When we see the Torah just as the end result (anything less than perfect just doesn't measure up), we fail to recognize the design of the Law: to draw us into a closer relationship with God. Suddenly, we find that the Law is profoundly volatile, divisive and erosive... like water. Instead of drawing people together and building a solid foundation, the becomes terribly destructive.
Using the law lawfully means understanding the process of obedience. It's not just a matter of condemning anything that we see as error. Otherwise, we find ourselves doing more damage than good.