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Related: Did Reuben believe that his brothers had killed Joseph?

From Genesis 42:21-22:

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.”

Earlier in the text, Reuben had, in fact, talked them out of killing Joseph outright. Instead, they cast him into an empty cistern. In the meantime, at Judah's suggestion they eventually sold Joseph into slavery.

That being said, what were they referring to here, given that they did not, in fact, kill him? If they were referring to when they were considering killing him outright, why did they say that they wouldn't listen to him (given that they did not, in fact, go through with that)? If they were talking about when they sold him into slavery, why did they talk about him pleading for his life? Or were they conflating the two incidents?

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The sequence of events as recorded in Gen 37 is as follows:

  • V18 - Joseph is seen at a distance and the brothers discuss what to do. They decide to throw him in a pit. Reuben then leaves temporarily (see V29).
  • V23 - Joseph is thrown into a pit
  • V25 - the brothers (without Reuben) eat a meal and see a trading caravan approaching
  • V27 - the brothers decide to sell Joseph as a slave to be traded in Egypt
  • V29 - Reuben returns and is very distressed that Joseph is not there
  • V31 - to cover their actions, they decide to on a ruse of slaughtering a goat and spattering Joseph's robe to make it look as though he had been killed by a wild animal.

Thus, Reuben was part of the latter deception to cover the Joseph's absence.

The act of selling a person into slavery was, in most cases, a death sentence. Many slaves were treated very poorly and often died; very few escaped. Thus, selling a person into slavery was most often (not always) as good as killing them by the hands of a slave master but with the added advantage of gaining a profit, in this case of 20 shekels. As evidence of this, the brothers had never seen Joseph again, he had never returned and they assumed he was dead.

It was this guilt that plagued the brothers for many years until the time they met Joseph.

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  • So, him begging for his life was referring to them selling him into slavery (because Joseph knew that that would probably be the outcome)? – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Jul 26 '20 at 22:01
  • @EJoshuaS-ReinstateMonica - being sold into slavery was for the Hebrews, often worse than death because of the great ignominy associated with it. – Dottard Jul 26 '20 at 22:05
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First of all, let me start by saying this is not an easy question to resolve. Hopefully, my attempt to answer will add to our journey of understanding and not make it more confusing.

The traditional interpretation of Genesis 37: 26-28 is that the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. I say "traditional" because - of course - not everyone agrees.

The disagreement comes from Gen. 37:28 - but is reflected in your question about Gen. 42:21.

In this case, we have to pay attention to what is NOT said in Gen. 42:21. The brothers think Joseph can't understand them but they never mention "selling Joseph into slavery." They mention his distress, but not that they participated in the selling. Why not specifically mention what they did?

This takes us back to Gen. 37:28 and a problem with translation. Here are two different English versions:

NKJV:

Then Midianite traders passed by; so the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

(the words "so the brothers" are italicized in the NKJV because they are added into the English. Those words - the brothers - are not in the original Hebrew.)

Here is the ESV:

Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

(who is "they?" In the original Hebrew the "they" are the Midianites...not the brothers)

This, of course, leads to the other interpretations as biblical scholars are attempting to solve the issues of "who pulled Joseph out of the pit?"

Most Christian scholars - based on source criticism - smooth over these inconsistencies by saying that two different source documents were brought together and not cleaned up well enough by the editors.

Many Jewish scholars do not follow this but rather they go by the plain meaning of the text. If it says the Midianites pulled him out then it was the Midianites who pulled him out. One Jewish scholar, in particular, is Rashbam (an acronym for RAbbi SHmuel Ben Meir)

Using this line of thinking then the brothers would truly not have known what happened to their brother. In Gen. 42:21 they would be genuine in only knowing the distress they saw on Joseph's face when they left him in the cistern.

Here is a good explanation from Bar-Ilan University: Here

Again, hope this helps you on your journey. There are MANY scholarly articles written on this inconsistency so we are not the first to venture down this path - and I'm sure won't be the last.

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