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The phrase in question is And his brethren were content. The whole verse (KJV)

27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content.

The Masoretic text indicates were content is שָׁמַע or H8085 which is for hearken/hear/etc mostly but I believe this verse usage falls under miscellaneous (33x)

So does this verse just mean And his brethren listened? Or is there a more nuanced meaning in context with the rest of the verse?

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There is nothing mysterious and complicated about this text in Gen 37:26-28 -

Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay a hand on him; for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened. So when the Midianite traders passed by, his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.

The highlighted word above is (as the OP points out) is שָׁמַע (shama) = to hear or listen.

Thus, our text contains a simple narrative where Judah suggests a plan to avoid killing Joseph by selling him to the Midianites/Ishamaelites. Thus, there is a nice little play on words here:

  • the brothers listened שָׁמַע
  • they then sold him to the Ishmaelites - a word that means "God hears".

The force of the text here is therefore, the brothers listened, ie, they agreed to Judah's suggestion. A number of modern versions says this:

  • NIV, NLT, BSB, CSB, HCSB, etc: His brothers agreed.
  • NASB, ESV, ISV, etc: And his brothers listened to him

Interestingly, if this is placed in slightly more archaic English we get closer the original meaning by saying (Brenton)

  • and his brethren "hearkened". Thus it is translated by JPS and a few others.

I am at a loss to understand the KJV translation of "content" - it appears highly interpretive, unusual for the KJV but not unknown.

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  • +1 thanks for the answer, the play on words is interesting. I'll give it a few days to see if anyone can point out why 'be content' was used but I'll probably accept yours
    – depperm
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 21:53
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It is important to remember that the Authorised Version was written before we had these discussions about "word-for-word" or "phrase-by-phrase".

Thus we get "were content [to do as Reuben expounded]", the bits in square brackets being obvious by the context, which is in the middle-ground of the two contemporary approaches to the text, which are (as Dottard pointed out): "His brothers agreed" and "His brothers listened".

Now "agreed" implies more a more active participation than "שָׁמַע" can carry. While the English word "listen" has a more narrow range than "שָׁמַע". (Reuben is also the eldest brother, the first among equals, which changes the nuance again.) That is, the translators of the KJV had in mind the same thoughts as the NIV translators do. Of course, as Dottard points out "hearken" is perfect, and the word is old enough. My guess is that the word simply didn't come to mind during the translation process and wasn't searched out. And the translators were content.

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