Joseph Narrative (1): Did brothers know what would happen in the pit?

Please note that this article is based entirely on my memory after reading Joel S. Baden’s book, the Composition of the Pentateuch. For Korean version click here.

The Joseph narrative is one of the most famous biblical stories in the Hebrew Bible. As well known, Jacob most favored Joseph out of all his sons. He was a spoiled child. Joseph should have understood his brothers might hate him because of the father’s favoritism. But he, without considering the brothers’ harsh feelings against him, brags about his dreams, in which the brothers and even the parents will later bow down before him. His behavior provokes the brothers’ anger much. So the brothers conspire to kill him, but after some turns and twists, he arrives in Egypt and is appointed to rule the whole country by Pharaoh. Joseph, now as a ruler of Egypt, saves the entire area where people suffer from extreme drought. In the meantime, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food because of the drought, and he and his brothers finally meet each other. After then, Jacob and all his households immigrate to Egypt. Joseph comforts his brothers, saying, “it was all God’s plan that he came to Egypt first.” Thus, the story reveals God’s mysterious providence.

This is perhaps how we remember the story. But is this how the story unfolds? Does the story really have a plot like this? The answer is, strictly speaking, no! Let’s explore the details of the story centering around chapter 37.

18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.
19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.
20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”
22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.
23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;
24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

The passage above is from Genesis 37. Joseph’s brothers, as they recognize Joseph from afar coming, conspires to kill him. But Reuben, the firstborn, feels responsibility heavily on this matter and tries to change the plan so that he can later save Joseph. Reuben proposes to put Joseph in a pit and do not shed blood. Here, Reuben’s proposal is a little ambiguous. In v. 21, he first said, “let us not take his life,” but in v. 22, he proposes to throw Joseph into a pit, which means, in Hebrew, “cistern.” If he meant “cistern,” he should have also meant to let Joseph drowned. If all brothers knew that the pit was empty, that is, without water, but still agree to throw Joseph into the pit, it means the brothers give up on killing Joseph. But they didn’t know the pit is empty, and it means they didn’t mean to shed blood by themselves, but they still intend to kill him by drowning. What is the fact? Perhaps the latter is more plausible because, according to v. 22, Reuben assumes that the rest of the brothers didn’t really change their minds and tries to save Joseph from them. Thus, when brothers throw Joseph into the pit, they probably think that the pit is filled with water. That is why Reuben proposes to throw Joseph into a pit. It is more reasonable to believe that the brothers except for Reuben think that Joseph will be drowned in the pit. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense that Reuben tries to save Joseph from the brothers and throw Joseph into the pit.

See next story (2) here

3 thoughts on “Joseph Narrative (1): Did brothers know what would happen in the pit?

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