The Testament of Reuben

T.Reuben deals with the problem of sexual promiscuity. In the Hebrew Bible, all we are told is Reuben “defiled his father’s bed” by sleeping with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen 35:22). The writer of the Testament of Reuben uses this story to admonish his readers despite the fact the text of Genesis devotes but a single line to his sin! T.Reuben 3:11-15 expands on the biblical story: Reuben sees Bilhah bathing and he became consumed with lust and was “not able to sleep until he performed this revolting act” (obviously alluding to David adultery with Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11). For this sin at the age of thirty he was struck with an illness which kept him on the brink of death for seven months (1:7-10).

Reuben’s repentance lasted seven years, during which time he did not eat meat nor drink wine. Chapter 2 describes the seven “spirits of man” (life, seeing, hearing, smell, speech, taste and procreation). Procreation is last because it can lead a young person “over a cliff.” Each of these spirits can be mixed with error, Reuben himself is a witness to the last spirit leading him astray (chapter 3).

The mixing of a good thing with error is reminiscent of Greek ethics, especially Aristotle’s Golden Mean and the idea of “all things in moderation.” Taste, for example, is the enjoyment of food a drink. In excess it is gluttony and drunkenness, both are vices. But to take too little food and wine would be, in Aristotle’s ethic, also a vice (something like the modern “eating disorders”). Chapters 4-6 repeat this theme to avoid promiscuity and devote one’s self to “integrity of heart in the fear of the Lord (4:1). Reuben continues to have guilt for his sin despite his age (4:4).

The main problem for modern readers of this Testament is the blame it puts on women for promiscuity. In 5:1 women are evil, they are enchanting (5:2) but they are an incurable disease and a plague from Beliar (6:3). Women contrive in their hearts against men and “deck themselves out” in order to lead men astray (5:3). A man should not let his wife or daughter adorn their heads since it will “deceive men’s minds (5:5). Even the Watchers were “charmed” by women when they fell (5:6). A man must guard his mind against women in order to stay pure (6:1).

Testament of Reuben 5:1-3 “For women are evil, my children, and by reason of their lacking authority or power over man, they scheme treacherously how they might entice him to themselves by means of their looks. And whomever they cannot enchant by their appearance they conquer by a stratagem. Indeed, the angel of the Lord told me and instructed me that women are more easily overcome by the spirit of promiscuity than are men. They contrive in their hearts against men, then by decking themselves out they lead men’s minds astray, by a look they implant their poison, and finally in the act itself they take them captive.

There are several similar statements made in the New Testament, although they are less harsh than T. Ruben. For example, in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul makes a statement against women braiding their hair and wearing expensive clothes and excessive adornments (cf. 1 Peter 3:3-5). In 1 Timothy 2:11 Paul makes the highly controversial statement concerning women exercising authority over men. Following this line, Paul comes very close to the occasional statement in the pseudepigrapha that Eve is to blame for the fall (2:13-15).

Has anyone commented on the potential use of the Testament of Reuben for reading 1 Timothy 2? It is less likely because the Greco-Roman background of first century Ephesus is considered the primary background for the Pastorals. The Jewish background for 1 Timothy may be muted because scholars assume the letter to be a later Pseudepigraphic work with a Greco-Roman background. But if the setting of the Pastorals is more Jewish than is often recognized, then the use of the Testament of Reuben as shedding some light on attitudes toward women is merited.

8 thoughts on “The Testament of Reuben

  1. This is very interesting! Perhaps it might shed light into what was the common thinking regarding women in those days.

    • More like today. Women today are exactly how reuben describes. Don’t low ball it

  2. It was not my point, but the point of the early Jewish document. You do not have to agree with the Testament of Reuben (I certainly do not).

    From the article, “The main problem for modern readers of this Testament is the blame it puts on women for promiscuity.”

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