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In the text, it says that Joseph was 17 years old and was with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. Why aren’t Leah and Rachel mentioned?

Genesis 37:2 KJV

These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.

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Leah and Rachel are not mentioned because Joseph was starting from the lowliest position, as a servant to the sons of his father's concubines. The KJV says simply that Joseph was "with" these brothers rather than the sons of Leah. But other translations emphasize that he was not even an equal to them, serving them as an assistant-shepherd. It other words, he was at the bottom of the pecking order, with Leah's own sons at the top and the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah next in line.

  • for he was serving-lad with the sons of Bilha and the sons of Zilpa, his father’s wives... (Schocken Bible)

  • he was an assistant to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah... (NABRE)

In these translations one gets the picture of Joseph as a mere water-boy or similar inferior position, excluded from the companionship of Leah's own sons. Although Jacob began soon to show favor to Joseph, the implication here is that, as the youngest son except for Benjamin, Joseph had been relegated lowly position, serving his half-brothers by his fathers' concubines. Meanwhile the direct sons of Leah probably did not work full-time as mere shepherds but also supervised their father's business as foremen and conducted trade on his behalf. Later, as Jacob began to favor Joseph, they grow jealous of him, just as Cain grew jealous of Abel and Esau wanted to kill Jacob.

From a literary point of view this passage serves to portray Joseph as beginning from the position of an isolated 'servant of servants,' related to a position outside the inner circle of his elder brothers. It also creates dramatic tension between Joseph and his brothers by Leah, who were in positions relative power. This is a typical pattern in the Bible, where the younger brother receives God's blessing and rises to the the top. In the NT Jesus reinforced this when he said "the last will be first and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)

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