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 is actually one meaning of the word text, the idea that this story is woven together with other stories. 1
E’s version and J’s version
12 And his brothers went to feed their father’s sheep in Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Aren’t your brothers feeding in Shechem? Come on and I’ll send you to them.”
And he said to him, “I’m here.”
14 And he said to him, “Go, see how your brothers are and how the sheep are and bring me back word.” And he sent him from the valley of Hebron. And he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him, and here he ws straying in a field. And the man asked him, saying, “What are you looking for?”
16 And he said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Tell me, where are they feeding?”
17 And the man said, “They traveled on from here. Because I heard them saying, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” And Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan. 18 And they saw him from a distance, and before he came close to them they conspired against him: to kill him.
19 And the brothers said to one another: “Here comes the dream-master, that one there! 20 And now come on and let’s kill him and throw him in one of the pits, and we’ll say a wild animal ate him and we’ll see what his dreams will be!
21 And Reuben heard, and he saved him from their hand. And he said: “Let’s not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them: “Don’t spill blood. Throw him into this pit that’s in the wilderness, and don’t put out a hand against him”—in order to save him from their hand, to bring him back to his father.
23 And it was when Joseph came to his brothers that they took off Joseph’s coat, the coat of many colors which he had on.
24 And they took him and threw him into the pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 And they sat down to eat bread. And they raised their eyes and saw, and here was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices and balsam and myrrh, going to bring them down to Egypt. 26 And Judah said to his brothers: “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover his blood? 27 Come on and let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hands not be on him, because he’s our brother, our flesh.” And his brothers listened.
28 And Midianite people, merchants, passed and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit. And they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty weights of silver.
And they brought Joseph to Egypt. 29 And Reuben came back to the pit, and here: Joseph was not in the pit. 30 And he tore his clothes. And he went back to his brothers and said: “The boy’s gone! And I, where can I go?
31 And they took Joseph’s coat and slaughtered a he-goat and dipped the coat in the blood. 32 And they sent the coat of many colors and brought it to their father and he said: “We found this. Recognize: is it your sons coat or not? 33 And he recognized it and said, “My son’s coat. A wild animal ate him. Joseph is torn up! 34 And Jacob ripped his clothes and wore sackcloth on his hips and mourned over his son many days. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters got up to console him, and he refused to be consoled, and he said, “Because I’ll go down mourning to my son at Sheol,” and his father wept for him.
36 And the Midianites sold him to Egypt, to Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh, chief of the guards.
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.