This week, what I would like to focus on is the part of Genesis 37 where Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. Some of his brothers would clearly have been happy to kill him – and we understand why, because in the earlier part of the chapter Joseph has shown himself to be such an annoying kid, and yet somehow he’s the one that their father loves the most.
Let’s start by looking at Gen 37:19-21. Jacob has sent Joseph to check on the brothers, and by now they have spotted him. As George Savran points out, the key to understanding what comes next is the seemingly innocuous phrase that introduces v. 19, “They said to one another.” The verb is plural, but the Hebrew subject is singular, implying that each of the brothers is saying part of what follows. It is a jumble of voices. Here’s how it might sound (in my version of the conversation):
– הִנֵּ֗ה בַּ֛עַל הַחֲלֹמ֥וֹת הַלָּזֶ֖ה בָּֽא Here comes that dream-meister!
– וְעַתָּ֣ה You know what?
– לְכ֣וּ וְנַֽהַרְגֵ֗הוּ C’mon, let’s kill him!
– וְנַשְׁלִכֵ֙הוּ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד הַבֹּר֔וֹת We can throw him into one of these pits.
– וְאָמַ֕רְנוּ חַיָּ֥ה רָעָ֖ה אֲכָלָ֑תְהוּ We’ll say a wild animal ate him!
– וְנִרְאֶ֕ה מַה־יִּהְי֖וּ חֲלֹמֹתָֽיו Then let’s see what becomes of his dreams.
You remember those dreams. Their implication was that one day the brothers were all going to be bowing down to Joseph. That’s why they hated him. But which brothers are we talking about?
At the beginning of the story in Genesis 2, Joseph is 17 years old. He is called a נַ֗עַר na’ar, which can mean “a boy,” but here, crucially, he is a na’ar “with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives.” To me, the implication is that (1) Joseph is being grouped with the “lesser” brothers, who are (2) being raised in rank to the level of Leah’s sons, but they are still (3) lower than Joseph, who has been put in charge of them. That last point is because the word na’ar can also refer to an employee, and specifically to one who is in charge of others. (See Ruth 2, where Boaz’s “boy” is the foreman of the harvesters.)
By the time Joseph finds “his brothers” at Dothan in v. 17, it is no longer clear exactly whom we’re talking about. Was it Bilhah and Zilpah’s sons, who hated him for bossing them around? Was it Leah’s sons, who saw him favored by their father even though they were the sons of Jacob’s first wife? Did all the brothers dislike him equally for his obnoxious dreams? Why was Joseph still at home when “his brothers” had taken the flocks to pasture them elsewhere? Where is Benjamin in all this?
I suggested two weeks ago that the task of the book of Genesis was to get Abraham’s descendants down to Egypt so that they could be enslaved there. This week’s story shows that the book is trying to achieve some other tasks as well. I say this because the only brothers other than Joseph who are named in the story are Reuben and Judah, and they are contrasted quite starkly.
V. 21 tells us that Reuben “heard” the brothers plan to kill Joseph and “saved” him from them, by declaring, “We mustn’t kill him.” His plan is to have them throw Joseph in a pit and leave him to die. Then Reuben will return quietly, rescue Joseph, and send him home to Jacob.
But there is another brother with other ideas: Judah. He goes further than Reuben, saying not merely that they shouldn’t have Joseph’s blood on their own hands, but that there is no need to kill him at all. They can sell Joseph to the caravan that is just then serendipitously passing by on its way down to Egypt. The annoying teenager will be out of their hair, and they will have a little extra silver to boot.
Even more serendipitously, in v. 28 a bunch of Midianites come along, and they are the ones who pull Joseph out of the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites. Just after the nick of time, Reuben goes back to the pit expecting to find Joseph there – and he’s not.
What Reuben exclaims then is a beautiful example of why you must learn to read the Bible in the original Hebrew. In the English of the King James Version, he says, “The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?” Now, listen to what you are missing: הַיֶּ֣לֶד אֵינֶ֔נּוּ וַאֲנִ֖י אָ֥נָה אֲנִי־בָֽא ha-yeled eiNeNNu va-aNi aNa aNi-va. He has failed to save Joseph after all, and you can hear him wailing.
You all know what happens next. Having stripped Joseph of the fancy cloak that aroused their jealousy, they doctor it up with goat’s blood and send it to Jacob to let him think Joseph has been killed. This is exactly the plan they had discussed before, with one exception: Joseph is alive, not dead.
Both Reuben and Judah spoke up in the story to achieve this very purpose. The narrator told us that Reuben wanted to save Joseph and send him home; he is the obvious good guy of the story. Judah is portrayed as on board with the plot to get rid of Joseph; he sounds more like a bad guy. Yet Reuben is incapable of carrying out his good intentions, and Judah’s apparently bad intentions succeed brilliantly.
The same two brothers will compete again, at the end of Genesis 42 and the beginning of Genesis 43, to be the brother who will manage to bring Joseph’s full brother Benjamin down to Egypt. Again, Reuben will fail, and Judah will succeed. In fact, until Genesis 46 gives us the genealogy of the family, not one of the other brothers is even named, except poor Simeon, who must cool his heels in an Egyptian prison while Reuben and Judah have their second round of competition.
Documentary scholars attribute these doubled stories to different documents, tracing the Reuben stories to E and the Judah stories to J. I am not someone who rejects the existence of these earlier sources out of hand, but I don’t think they’re the most helpful way to look at the Joseph story. The competition between Reuben and Judah works beautifully on the storytelling level if we take Genesis as the story of the family that will become Israel. We know that Reuben plays no role in the history that will eventually follow, and that Judah plays the major role in that history. We’ll get yet another look at him soon, as what is ostensibly the story of Joseph continues.