#69. Is the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah only OR all his brothers? (Gen 37:2 vs Gen 37:4)


We are almost through the book of Genesis. What remains is a discussion of the Joseph story or stories as we shall see.

A close reading of Genesis 37-50 would reveal that the Joseph story is a composite of two once separate versions of this story. When these two versions were later edited together minor narrative inconsistencies and contradictions were created. Since Joseph is a hero of the north, it is not surprising that most of the Joseph story as it now stands comes from the pen of the Elohist, and exhibits many of the Elohist’s features. The Elohist has an additional political stake in the Joseph story. Not only are Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, eponymously two northern tribes, but the text legitimates and explains how the tribe of Ephraim came to rule over the other northern tribes (Gen 48). This is not a coincidence. The founder of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam I, was from the tribe of Ephraim, and we will learn more about Jeroboam when we start looking closely at passages from the Exodus narratives.

Commentators usually note that the conflict presented in the Joseph story between Joseph and his brothers may only include Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher—i.e., the northern tribes—in one version of the story, while the other version suggests that it is with all his brothers. This contradiction, however, is barely visible in the text, and I only list it here because after we look at contradictions #71-73, it will become more apparent that chapter 37 is indeed a composite, a cut-and-paste job, of two once separate Joseph stories. Thus the story’s beginning may have existed in two slightly different versions as well. If we reconstructed the beginnings of both version, they would look something like this:

Genesis 37:2+3b
Joseph, at 17 years old, had been tending the sheep with his brothers, and he was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their fathers. And he made him a coat of many colors.

Genesis 37:3a+4
And Israel had loved Joseph most of all his children because he was a son of old age to him. And his brothers saw that their father loved him most of all his brothers. And they hated him, and they were unable to speak peaceably toward him.

Both accounts are whole and complete narratives in and of themselves. Moreover, in one account only the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah despise Joseph because he brings a bad report against them. Yet in the other account all of Joseph’s brothers hate him for a different reason: because he is most loved by his father. Here also in this version our author uses quite consistently the name Israel. Again, further support for seeing these as two different beginnings of the Joseph story will come in contradictions #71-73.

One thought on “#69. Is the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah only OR all his brothers? (Gen 37:2 vs Gen 37:4)

  1. This isn’t a contradiction. For a contradiction to take place, neither of these events can coexist. Both stories could be completely true and give different details of the relationship between Joseph, his father, and his brothers.

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