#71. Is it Reuben OR Judah who saves Joseph’s life? (Gen 37:21-22 vs Gen 37:26-27)

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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).

7 thoughts on “#71. Is it Reuben OR Judah who saves Joseph’s life? (Gen 37:21-22 vs Gen 37:26-27)

  1. What’s interesting is that although Reuben succeeds in saving Joseph’s life, he fails at his goal. He intended to return Joseph to Jacob but Joseph was removed from the pit by Midianites before he can do so. Similarly, when Reuben offers his own sons as surety in exchange for custody of Benjamin Jacob refuses him. Judah, on the other hand, is successful in both instances. Given that the brothers must bring Benjamin to Egypt I wonder how the E source managed to do that in the original.

    I wonder if this reflects that at the time of writing, the Tribe of Reuben was either severely diminished or extinct?

  2. Actually, what happened was first the brothers decide to kill him and throw him into a pit. Then Reuben says don’t kill him, throw him into a pit instead, even though they already decided to throw him into a pit. So they throw him into a pit. Then Judah says don’t kill him but sell him to Ishmaelites instead, even though they already decided not to kill him. Then Midianites come by and pull Joseph out of the pit. Then they sell him to the Ishmaelites. Then the Midianites sell him again in Egypt. If the storytelling is not contradictory, it is at the very least confused.

    As for whether this is two stories combined into one, there really can’t be any debate about that, because it can be separated into two complete stories. I think most scholars who are not already committed to a literalist interpretation of Genesis agree that the reason is because there were originally two accounts that were edited together.

    1. Robert,

      This is a nice balanced reply to Bob. Thanks. Let me just reinforce, as I mentioned in the post, the brothers’ plot to kill Joseph by throwing him into a pit, whereas Reuben’s plot to save Joseph from the brother’s “spilling his blood” was to throw (hide) him in a pit—so per the chronological reading of the text(s), Joseph has been saved per Reuben’s plan. So when Judah proposes in verse 26 to save Joseph and not spill his blood, this is redundant considering Joseph had already been saved per Reuben’s plan. Furthermore, Judah’s plan to save Joseph is different from that of Reuben.

      It is apparent—granted Bob perhaps not from this single text, but based on hundreds of other parallel stories—that the story of Joseph’s rivalry with his brothers was variously told over the centuries that it was recited and that these variations were preserved by later scribes. The Reuben as savor and Judah as savor stories read as two whole narratives when separated out. This type of editorial procedure also exists in stories of the Flood, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the next episode of the Joseph story.

  3. I don’t see any contradiction here, just not enough information to satisfy some readers. Reuben said don’t kill Joseph but put him in a pit. Reuben’s plan being to come rescue him later. While Joseph was in the pit, Judah suggests they sell him to the Midianites, and they do. Thus Judah also ensures his brother will not be killed. As for this being two stories combined into one, I’m sure all scholars do not agree on that.

  4. Does the small detail realy matter. Gods plan was to have Joseph taken away to safe he’s father and brothers in the time of drought. And that is what happend. Gods plan will always be no matter what!

  5. Ruben saved Joseph’s life first by having them put him in the pit. As we later see he went to look for Joseph.

    Judah saved Joseph’s life the second time – by selling him to Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver.

    The Midianites lifted up Joseph from the pit.

    Bottom line is: if Ruben had not suggested they put Joseph into the pit, he would have been killed then.

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