Joseph sold into Egypt – Two Parallel Narratives
When reading the story in Genesis about Joseph being taken by his brothers, one could walk away somewhat confused. They may think, “What is happening here?” Who took Joseph? Was it the Midianites or the Ishmaelites? When read carefully, this story is full of contradictions and puzzling information. Was he taken or sold? Was he put into a pit, only to be found missing later, or was he sold into slavery into the hands of the Ishmaelites? Was it Judah’s idea to sell him, or was Reuben the brother who suggested he not be killed?
By viewing the text as two different strands of the same story, told from the viewpoint of two different authors, with differing views, we can begin to see that this is actually an example of these two narratives that were stitched together by a later redactor. This idea is known in Biblical scholarship as the Documentary Hypothesis. This is actually one meaning of the word text, the idea that this story is woven together with other stories. 1
As a reminder, it is good to know beforehand that what we are reading is a text with both northern and southern objectives. The northern text, what I have colored blue and labeled “E” is the Elohist text. You will notice that the blue text treats Joseph more favorably than the southern text, or “J,” and the reason is that Joseph is a northern tribe of Israel, and when these texts were redacted and put into one record, each account had its own biases and objectives. Reading the text this way can help us to see the Bible for what it is: a composite text. We can also see and understand why this story can be confusing when it is read by modern readers as if it were one text by a single author. As you read, look for clues as to how these two accounts are different, how the various brothers are portrayed, and how the author treats Joseph in particular. The first two verses are by the priestly author and the redactor respectively, otherwise, we are dealing with J and E throughout the narrative of Genesis 37.
J E P R
Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. 2 This is the history of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they only hated him the more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed: 7 behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold, your sheaves gathered round it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him yet more for his dreams and for his words. 9 Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers, and with the flock; and bring me word again.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields; and the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said, “tell me, I pray you, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him afar off, and before he came near to them they conspired against him 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 beast 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 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; cast him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand, to 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 cast him into a pit. The pit was empty, there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ish′maelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ish′maelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers heeded him. 28 Then Mid′ianite traders passed by; and they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ish′maelites for twenty shekels of silver; and they took Joseph to Egypt.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers, and said, “The lad is gone; and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, and killed a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood; 32 and they sent the long robe with sleeves and brought it to their father, and said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Mid′ianites had sold him in Egypt to Pot′i-phar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
One way to view this story
When separated, our two sources yield two complete, independent, and internally consistent narratives. That there are similar themes in these two versions of this story is clearly evident: the plot to kill Joseph, the pit, being sold into Egyptian slavery, and one brother’s opposition to the plan to kill Joseph. Viewing this story as two stories woven together also removes the problems with this narrative. In this account, Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites as well as the Midianites. Two different brothers come up with the plan to not kill Joseph, and so forth. This story is similar to the creation account and the flood narrative, in that they are two different stories that were put together into one narrative, and seeing them this way helps us to navigate the inconsistencies in all three of these stories.
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that the “J text” chooses Judah as the model figure who condemns the plan to kill Joseph, and who steps up later in the story to offer security for Benjamin (43:8-10). Judah, both a southern tribe and the southern kingdom, is J’s place of origin. Additionally, in the Yahwist narrative Judah’s older brothers have already been eliminated from receiving the inheritance of their father: Simeon and Levi are disqualified because of their treacherous handling of the people of Shechem and the rape of Dinah (Gen 34), and Reuben is disqualified for sleeping with his father’s concubine (35:21-22). J’s replacement of Reuben with Judah is just another way to legitimatize Judah’s reign over the other tribes (brothers) of the northern kingdom. Likewise, in the “E text”, a northern account of this story, we have Reuben stepping up to the plate with the plan to save the life of Joseph. Reuben was from the north, so this account emphasizes northern perspectives and has heroes from the 10 tribes of the north, led by Ephraim. 2
- Ann Loades, Michael McLain, Hermeneutics, the Bible and Literary Criticism, Palgrave Macmillan, 1992, p. 6. David Klemm writes, “The word ‘text’ comes from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, as past participle of texere, ‘to weave’.”
- For more on these ideas, see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? Harper One, 1989.