Why does Jacob say Reuben is “wanton as water” for lying with Bilhah [Gen 49:4]? You say [that this is difficult because] water is a primarily beneficial force, but even in the Torah itself water is not always beneficial. In Noah’s time, the whole world drowns in water and in Moses’ time, Pharaoh’s army meets its demise in water.
Sometimes water seeps, drips and trickles causing mold, rot and ruination.
Although for the case in point, I think what is salient is that water flows without discrimination, which is what Reuben has done. Also: “wanton as water” is more apropos to a philandering man than a woman, because flow applies better to the male sexual anatomy.
Actually, I think I said the expression “wanton as water” was troubling primarily because water did not seem to have any obvious connection to wantonness; this, rather than water’s positive or negative role in other biblical texts, was what was puzzling. That is why ancient interpreters offered so many differing explanations of what “wanton as water” meant. The targums (ancient translations of the Bible into Aramaic) held that Reuben was like “a little garden flooded by water,” in the sense that he was overcome by his own feelings of lust. Another explanation was that his lust “overflowed like water,” or that water on the contrary flows down to the lowest level possible. And then there was the explanation that Reuben had been wanton “in” or “by” water. Three thousand years before the invention of the water bed, such an approach required some imagination, but someone came up with the idea that Reuben had been wanton in observing Bilhah bathing in water. (You can find all these in my book Traditions of the Bible, or the abbreviated version, The Bible As It Was.) But modern scholars are still sloshing around on this verse today.