Genesis 42 displays a variety of doublets that reenforce our hypothesis that the Joseph story is in fact a compilation of two once separate Joseph stories. These duplicate renditions of the same narrative details once belonged to each of the two originally separate sources.
If you read the chapter closely you will notice that there are:
—2 mentions of the brothers having come down to Egypt to buy grain (42:1-4 [J] & 42:5 [E])
—2 occurrences of Joseph recognizing his brothers, but the brothers not recognizing him (42:7 [E] & 42:8-9 [J]),
—2 narratives outlining the choice to leave one brother behind as the rest go back to Canaan to fetch Benjamin (42:14-20 [J] & 42:23-25 [E])
—2 times that the brothers open their sacks and find that their silver has been returned to them (42:26-28 [J] & 42:35 [E]).
This last doublet is the only one that actually produces a contradiction in the combined JE text. Besides the difference in the location where this event happens—en route or at home—there is a difference in vocabulary between our two sources as well. Similar to the different word used between the J and P flood narratives for ‘dry ground,’ so too here one source [J] prefers the Hebrew word ’amtahat, ‘bag,’ while the other [E] uses saq, ‘sack.’
And they loaded their grain on their asses and went from there. And one opened his sack to give fodder to his ass at a lodging place, and he saw his silver, and here it was in the mouth of his bag (42:27).
And it was that they were emptying their sacks, and here was each man’s bundle of silver in his sack, and they saw the bundle of silver, they and their father, and they were afraid (42:35).
An excerpt from Stories from the North [E] and the South [J]:
Such differences or variations on the same story were often the result of a story’s flexibility in its oral tradition prior to it being recorded down. Stories and traditions were told and retold from generation to generation and often with slight variations or modifications, and these variations were often shaped by the concerns of the reciter or the community for which they were intended.
The ancient Israelites were no exception. They told stories, retold stories, modified their stories, recited them at festivals, and eventually wrote them down, collected them, and codified them as scripture. The Bible as it has come down to us preserves numerous stories, and many of them are duplicates—that is, a traditional story that was told in one manner at one place and time, and told in a variant manner at another place and time. In the end, these different versions were written down by scribes and thenceforth became unalterable. Later, editors who collected Israel’s various stories preserved both versions of the story, even when, as we shall see, they contradicted one another, or a later story was written to replace an earlier version! … read more