There are a number of textual inconsistencies in Genesis chapter 37 that have consistently led commentators to the same conclusion: the Joseph narrative is a composite text of two, once separate, Joseph stories each with their own particular vocabulary, themes, and plot devices. The editor of these two textual traditions carefully attempted to safeguard both by stitching them together in an almost seamless and unperceivable manner.
The first doublet in the text is the duplicate accounts of Joseph’s life being spared. In one story Reuben saves his life (37:21-22), and in the other it is Judah (37:26-27). Furthermore, the authors of these two accounts display no knowledge of the other account. In one version, Reuben proposes a plan to save Joseph from his brother’s plot to kill him (37:18), which entails throwing him into a pit. “And they took and threw him into the pit” (37:24). We are then informed that Midianites “pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit” (37:28a), and that Reuben came back to check on a Joseph who was now no longer in the pit (37:29).
There is, however, another story line, a duplicate account of the plot to kill Joseph. In this story, the brother’s plot to kill Joseph is to throw him into a pit and claim that he was eaten by a wild animal. But in this account it is Judah, not Reuben, who argues against killing him and throwing him into a pit by proposing to sell him to a band of passing Ishmaelites (37:27). As with E’s account where Reuben’s advise is followed—”and they took him and threw him into the pit”—so too in the Yahwist account Judah’s proposal is followed out: “and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty weights of silver” (37:28b).
Thus in one account Joseph’s life is spared by throwing him into a pit where passing Midiantes pull him out and take him to Egypt, and in the other version Joseph’s life is spared by selling him directly to passing Ishmaelites. We can see the elements of this story that were told differently: the pit, passing foreigners, etc. The next verse, verse 28, holds yet another key to unlocking these two once independent stories (#72-73).