Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 18, 1949
NUMBER 15, PAGE 1,4,6b

"Unstable As Water"

R. L. Whiteside

In the Gospel Advocate of July 7, there appeared an overweening, biased editorial, evidently aimed at some unnamed person or persons, under the heading "Unstable as Water." Some of the editorial sounded as if the editor had one of his staff-writers in mind. One thoughtful brother said the editor's remarks on war matters fitted brother Brewer better than anybody else. Now I am set for the defense of brother Brewer or brother Anybody when his further study on any question leads him to make a change. A man who will not change to what he learns is right, fearing the pressure and criticism that would come against him because of the change, is no better than the man who will violate his convictions because of pressure and for fear of criticism.

If the editor had used the American Standard Version of Jacob's speech to Reuben and had given heed to what many scholars say, he could not have made his editorial fit the text; but using the Common Version as a text he makes Reuben a rather sorry character; whereas in their early life Reuben was better than the other sons of Jacob, excepting Joseph and Benjamin. When the nine conspired to kill Joseph, Reuben begged them not to do so. They readily fell in with his suggestion to put him into a pit. He intended in their absence to get him out and send him back to their father; but evidently they meant to kill Joseph when Reuben was away looking after his stock. However, when Reuben was away, they sold Joseph to a company of slave-traders. Reuben was terribly distressed when he found Joseph was missing. (Gen. 37:18-34)

It seems that the most, if not all the writers, have overlooked one important fact in this case, namely, the nine who plotted to slay Joseph never told Reuben what they did with Joseph. He naturally supposed they had done as they plotted to do, and that thought lingered with him all the years till Joseph made himself known to them in Egypt.

The evidence seems plain enough. When the brethren, on their first trip to Egypt for grain, found themselves in such a distressing situation, the nine "said to one another, We are very guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon, us." That speech would rather confirm Reuben in his idea that they had shed Joseph's blood as they had plotted to do; so he spoke up and said, "Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore also, behold, his blood is required." That shows that Reuben still believed they had shed Joseph's blood. Yes, in some respects Reuben was better than the nine. Considered solely from a moral standpoint even Reuben's connection with Bilhah was no worse than Judah's immoral connection with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. (Gen. 38:12-30) It seems that in those days adultery on the part of the man was considered rather lightly. In outlining the character and the future of his sons and their posterity Jacob made no reference to Judah's immoral connection with Tamar. Why then did he condemn Reuben? Reuben had sinned against Jacob—he had not shown respect for his father.

"Unstable" A Poor Translation

The King James' translation made Jacob say, "unstable as water." But that translation of Jacob's speech is not well supported. The American Standard version has, "boiling over as water." In the Bible Dictionary by James Hastings I find this translation: "Reuben, thou wast my firstborn, my strength, and the first of my virility; over-impetuous, exceedingly passionate, seething like water, thou shalt not excel; For thou didst ascend thy father's bed, Then cursed I my couch thou didst ascend."

Smith's Bible Dictionary, revised and edited by F. N. and M. A. Peloubet, says that Reuben was "not crafty and cruel, as were Simeon and Levi, but rather, to use the metaphor of the dying patriarch, boiling up like a vessel of water over a rapid wood fire."

The terms, "boiling over as water," "seething like water," fit in better with what happened and with what Jacob said than does "unstable as water." In the very nature of things we know that Reuben would not have prowled around to see if he could seduce one of his father's concubines. Bilhah must have so tempted him as to fire his passion to the boiling point, else he would not have invaded the sanctity of his father's family and in so doing grievously sinned also against clan ethics.

So it seems that the editorial did not have a good foundation. But here are some of the things said:

"If Reuben were alive today, he would find much to remind him of himself and of his father's prediction. He would find among those who pose as leaders and guardians of orthodoxy a spirit of vacillation and instability reminiscent of his own. He would find men who in time of peace cried loudly for peace, but who in time of war cried as loudly for war. He would find men who could change their views on the church-college question accordingly as they change connections with college or paper. He would find men who can change their views on the eldership to be agreeable with the congregation immediately in question. And some oppose premillennialism in one section of the country and apologize for it in another. In short, he would find men who have taught both sides of many major questions, as well as men who stand ready to teach either side of some questions."

And if those who killed Jesus and Stephen were alive today, they would find some professed Christians trying to destroy certain preachers, and for the same reason, namely, defeated in arguments. No need to call names—people know who they are. But whom does the editor have in mind in his veiled charges? So far as his language shows he may have in mind men in any of the colleges, and also men who support any of the papers, even the men who support the Gospel Advocate. In summing up what he says Reuben would find, if he were alive today, the editor says, "In short, he would find men who have taught both sides of many major questions." The editor calls such men "modern Reuben's."

Who Are The "Reuben's"?

Such language as the editor uses would include many of the great preachers of the last century, such men as the Campbell's, "Raccoon" John Smith, and others. It would certainly apply to that great gospel preacher, Benjamin Franklin, who argued for Missionary Societies and then argued against them—arguing on both sides of a major question. In our times a number of preachers argued over a considerable period for organized societies and instrumental music; then changed and have since been vigorously arguing against such things—arguing on both sides of major questions. I wonder how they feel about being contemptuously referred to as "modern Reuben's" and "unstable as water". Many of these men are arguing effectually against what they once argued for.

Then there is the aged J. A. Minton. He was older than I, but we were school mates in West Tennessee Christian College in 1890. He had a keen mind and was a forceful speaker. Later he debated the Missionary Society question with Brother Elam in the columns of the Gospel Advocate. Some of our readers will remember that Brother Hardeman reported in the Gospel Advocate some months ago that Brother Minton had given up the things for which he fought nearly sixty years—"unstable as water," eh?

I guess any of us can "find men who have taught both sides of many major questions." But it is nauseating for the editor of a once-high class religious journal to make these men out as "modern Reuben's" and "unstable as water." Besides, who ever heard that Reuben argued on both sides of any question?

Peter And Paul

In the following sentences I suppose the editor includes in the pronoun "they" all who have argued on both sides of major questions and also those who defend those who have manhood enough to argue the other side when they learn they have been on the wrong side. But here is the sentence:

"They go to the wrong apostles for an example at this point. They should go to Peter, not Paul, for comfort. Peter flickered at Antioch on an important issue." (Gal. 2:11-13)

But Peter did not argue both sides of a major question, nor did he defend anyone who did so. Under pressure by some fanatical Jew Christians, he went contrary to what he knew was right; and Paul tells us Peter acted a hypocrite in doing so. There is no point in bringing Peter forward as an example of those who have argued both sides of questions and those who have defended the right and duty of men to change to the other side of a major question when they find that they are on the wrong side, unless the editor means to say that all who do so are hypocrites. That is evidently what he means, for he speaks of Peter's hypocritical act as their example. This editor had better put up his sword (not the sword of the Spirit) before he hurts himself worse than he has already done.

Notice how he contrasts Peter and Paul "Peter flickered on an important issue at Antioch. (Gal 2:11-13) The attitude and determination of Paul, the Christian, are summed up in these words, 'None of these things move me.' (Acts 20:24)." His contrast: Peter and Paul, the Christian. Now read the last sentence in the editorial in question:

"If there were such persons, Reuben would be the `patron saint' of all such as vacillate and flicker."

After assuming there are such folks, and writing an article about them, why the "if"? Also he says Peter flickered. It seems, therefore, that the editor has canonized Reuben as Peter's patron saint.

For many years Paul's conduct at his last visit to Jerusalem puzzled me. I could not, and still cannot, see how his performances there could be made to harmonize with what he had taught in Romans 7:1-6, II Cor. 3, and in much of Galatians. Paul did not have to make journey to Jerusalem, but evidently the desires of the brethren had moved him to do so. (I Cor. 16:3, 4) At Tyre the disciples "said to Paul through the Spirit that he should not set foot in Jerusalem." (Acts 21:4) But Paul had his heart so set on going to Jerusalem that even a command of the Holy Spirit did not move him. The Lord allows people to follow their own ways, but warns them of the results. So, when they reached Caesarea, Agabus, a prophet, told Paul some of the things that would befall him in Jerusalem. The disciples begged him not to go. (Acts 21:10-14)

Space will not allow a full discussion of all that occurred in Jerusalem. The fanatical Jew Christians were fiercely opposed to Paul. Likely, James and the elder: had tried to modify their fanaticism, but with little, as no, success. They knew the fanatics would boil over when they learned that Paul was in the city. But James and the elders thought they had a plan that would appease the fanatics. "Do therefore this that we say unto thee: We have four men that have a vow on them; these take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges for them, that they may shave their heads: and all shall know that there is no truth in the things whereof they have been informed concerning thee; but that thou also walkest orderly, keeping the law." (Read Acts 21:17-36) This was evidently the Nazarite vow. (Numbers 6:1-21) Notice the things the Nazarite was required to offer at the end of the period of his vow, "besides that which he is able to get." Multiply the animals and other things by four and you will have the number of things Paul was to pay for, but still we do not know how many additional things the men had vowed to give. In taking part in making animal sacrifices for sin-offerings and for peace-offerings, Paul was not performing any gospel service—it was as empty a performance as could have been engaged in. But Paul did not get to complete his undertaking, What he did was done with good intentions, thinking it might modify the feelings of the fanatics, but there is no proof of beneficial results. Paul did not volunteer to do this, but was "moved" to do so by James and the elders.

It may startle some to know that the expression, "None of these things move me," is not found in the American Standard Version nor in the Revised Standard version. It is singular that the two expressions that are the foundation of the short, confused editorial of July 7 are not found in the American Standard Version.

That fact ought to move even the editor.