Genesis (Part 170)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 37: 29-36

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.


I think we can infer from verse 22 earlier, and verse 29 here, that Reuben’s plan was to leave, wait until his brothers were not paying attention, and then go alone to the pit, pull Joseph from it, and to send his brother back home safely. He seems to have done too good a job in the first part of his plan, wherein he went off alone, because he is absent during the sale of Joseph. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(29) Reuben returned.—Evidently he was not present when Joseph was sold to the Midianites. This has been made into a difficulty, but really it confirms the truth of the narrative. For the difficulty arises solely from the supposition that Joseph’s brethren immediately after casting him into the pit “sat down to eat bread,” an act well described as most cold-blooded. But they were not actually guilty of it; for what the narrative says is that they were having their evening meal when the caravan came in sight. Reuben, between the casting of Joseph into the pit and the evening meal, had apparently gone a long round to fetch in the more distant cattle, and probably had remained away as long as possible, in order to feel sure that his brethren would on his return be at their dinner. He hoped thus to be able to go alone to the cistern, and rescue Joseph, and send him away home before the rest could interfere. Thus rightly understood, it is a proof of the trustworthiness of the history.

In verse 22, the text states outright that Reuben talked his brothers into not harming Joseph, with the intention of restoring Joseph to Jacob later. Here we see the second half of Reuben’s plan coming off the rails. Joseph is already gone. We can only wonder how the other might have reacted if Reuben had simply spoken of sending Joseph home at the outset of this ordeal. It seems he would have at least had a potential ally in this with Judah.

The Pulpit Commentaries helps translate verse 30:

Genesis 37:29Genesis 37:30

And Reuben (in whose absence apparently the scheme of sale had been concocted and carried through) returned to the pit (obviously with a view to deliver Joseph); and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes—a token of his mingled grief and horror at the discovery (of. Genesis 37:34Genesis 44:132 Samuel 13:312 Kings 18:37Job 1:20). And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child (or young man, as in Genesis 4:23, where יֶלֶד in the one hemistich is equivalent to אִישׁ in the other) is not; and I, whither shall I goi.e. however shall I account for his disappearance?

From Strong’s Dictionary at BlueLetterBible:

Where am I go go? = אָן ʼân, awn; or אָנָה ʼânâh; contracted from H370; where?; hence, whither?, when?; also hither and thither:— any (no) whither, now, where, whither(-soever).; בּוֹא bôwʼ, bo; a primitive root; to go or come (in a wide variety of applications):—abide, apply, attain, × be, befall, besiege, bring (forth, in, into, to pass), call, carry, × certainly, (cause, let, thing for) to come (against, in, out, upon, to pass), depart, × doubtless again, eat, employ, (cause to) enter (in, into, -tering, -trance, -try), be fallen, fetch, follow, get, give, go (down, in, to war), grant, have, × indeed, (in-) vade, lead, lift (up), mention, pull in, put, resort, run (down), send, set, × (well) stricken (in age), × surely, take (in), way.

The Pulpit Commentaries continues on with the aftermath of Reuben’s return:

Genesis 37:31Genesis 37:32

And theyi.e. Joseph’s Brethren, including Reuben, to whom manifestly the matter had been explained, and who wanted the courage either to expose their wickedness or to dissent from their device for deceiving Jacob—took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats,—more correctly, a he-goat of the goats, since the name of goat seems to have belonged in a wider sense to other animals also (Gesenius); usually understood to mean the somewhat older he-goat which was used as a sin offering—Le Genesis 16:9Genesis 23:19Numbers 7:16Numbers 15:24 (Furst)—and dipped the coat in the blood; and they sent the coat of many colors (vide on Numbers 15:3), and they brought it (or caused it to be brought by the hands of a servant) to their father, and said (of course by the lips of the messenger), This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no. Either Jacob’s sons had not the fortitude to witness the first outburst of his grief, or they had not the effrontery requisite to carry through their scheme in their own persons, and were accordingly obliged to employ another, probably a slave, to carry home the bloody coat to Jacob in Hebron.

We see here again some additional condemnation of Reuben. Not only did he lack the courage to do the right thing, and prevent Joseph from being tossed into a pit in the first place, he also lacks the courage to let his father know the truth in the aftermath. He goes along with the coverup, instead. The text does not tell us which of the other brothers is the ringleader here.

Ellicott confirms the interpretation of The Pulpit Commentaries in that the brothers do not report what has happened personally.

(32) They brought it.—Heb., they caused it to go, that is, sent it by the hand of a messenger. They were unwilling to see the first burst of their father’s agony.

And said.—These were the words that were to be spoken by the messenger who was charged to bear the coat to Jacob.

We see Jacob’s reaction in verse 33. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 37:33

And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast (vide Genesis 37:20hath devoured him (this was precisely what his sons meant him to infer); Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces—טְרֹף טֹרַף, the inf. abs. Kal with the Pual expressing undoubted certainty.

Genesis 37:34

And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins,—שָׂק (cf. σάκος, el, frog, saccus)the usual dress of mourners (2 Samuel 3:31Nehemiah 9:1Esther 4:1), was a coarse, thick haircloth, of which corn sacks were also made (Genesis 42:25), and which in cases of extreme mental distress was worn next the skin (1 Kings 21:27)—and mourned for his son many days. Though twenty-two years elapsed before Jacob again beheld his son, and though doubtless the old man’s grief for the premature and, violent death, as he imagined, of Rachel’s child was little abated by the lapse, of time, yet the expression “many days” may only be employed to mark the intensity of Jacob’s sorrow, which continued longer than the customary mournings of the period.

Ellicott also makes not of the phrase “many days” in his note covering verse 34:

(34) Many days.—Jacob mourned for Joseph not merely during the usual period, but so long as to move even the hearts of those who had wronged him. For not only his daughters, but “all his sons rose up to comfort him.” Probably he had several daughters by Leah and the two handmaidens, Dinah alone having been mentioned by name, because two of her brothers forfeited the birthright by the cruelty with which they avenged her wrong. We learn how long and intense Jacob’s sorrow was from Genesis 45:26-28. His daughters are mentioned also in Genesis 46:7.

Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries at verse 35:

Genesis 37:35

And all his sons—the criminals become comforters (Lange)- and all his daughters—either Jacob had other daughters besides Dinah (Kalisch, Gerlach, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’), or these included his daughters-in-law, the word being employed as in Ruth 1:11Ruth 1:12 (Willet, Bush, Murphy), or the term is used freely without being designed to indicate whether he had one or more girls in his family—rose up to comfort him (this implies the return of Jacob’s brethren to Hebron); but he refused to be comforted; and he said (here the thought must be supplied: It is vain to ask me-to be comforted), For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning—or, retaining the order of the Hebrew words, which is almost always more expressive than those adopted by our translators, I will go down to my son mourning to, or towards, in the direction of, Sheol. The term שְׁאֹל—more fully שְׁאוֹל, an inf. absol, for a noun, either

(1) from &#שָׁאַל שָׁעַל, to go down, to sink (Gesenius, Ftirst), signifying the hollow place; or,

(2) according to the older lexicographers and etymologists, from שָׁאַל, to ask, and meaning either the region which inexorably summons all men into its shade, the realm that is always craving because never satisfied (Keil, Murphy, Lange), or the land that excites questioning and wonder in the human heart, “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns” (T. Lewis)—is not the grave, since Jacob’s son had no grave, but the place of departed spirits, the unseen world (Ἅδης, LXX.) into which the dead disappear, and where they consciously exist (2 Samuel 12:23). Thus (literally, and) his father (not Isaac) wept for him.

“The criminals became comforters.” That turn of phrase really drives home how unseemly all of this was.

“I shall go down to Sheol.” What is Sheol? From Wiki:

Sheol (/ˈʃiː.oʊl, -əl/ SHEE-ohl, -⁠əlHebrew: שְׁאוֹל‎ Šəʾōl) in the Hebrew Bible is a place of still darkness which lies after death.[1] Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died.

Within the Hebrew Bible, there are few – often brief and nondescript – mentions of Sheol, seemingly describing it as a place where both the righteous and the unrighteous dead go, regardless of their moral choices in life.[1] The implications of Sheol within the texts are therefore somewhat unclear; it can be interpreted as either a generic metaphor describing “the grave” into which all humans invariably descend, or, it may be interpreted as representing an actual state of afterlife within Israelite thought. Though such practices are forbidden, the inhabitants of Sheol can, under some circumstances, be summoned by the living, as when the Witch of Endor calls up the spirit of Samuel for Saul.[2]

While the Hebrew Bible appears to describe Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BCE–70 CE) a more diverse set of ideas developed. In some texts, Sheol is considered to be the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments; in others, it was considered a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone,[3] and is equated with Gehenna in the Talmud.[4] When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BCE, the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, owing to its similarities to the Underworld of Greek mythology.[1] The gloss of Sheol as “Hades” is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.

In a lot of modern and western Christian thought, “hell” is a place of fire and torment. There is some indication though that the afterlife of the ancient Israelite was somewhat more complexly conceived. The note above talks of both Sheol and Gehenna – the latter of which is usually more aligned with a modern conception of hell.

For a discussion on Sheol in the Old Testament, I will direct you to the video below from Old Testament scholar Dr. Michael Heiser:



Returning to the text, we can look at Ellicott’s note for verse 36 and the text tells us who now has ownership of Joseph:

(36) Midianites.—Heb., Medanites. (See Note on Genesis 37:25.)

Potiphar.—Three chief interpretations are given of this name The first explains it by two Coptic words, according to which it would signify “father of the king.” This would make it an official name equivalent to prime minister or vizier. Gesenius considers it to be the same name as Potipherah (Genesis 41:50), and explains it as meaning “consecrated to Ra,” that is, the sun-god. Thirdly, Canon Cook, in the “Excursus on Egyptian Words,” at the end of Vol. I. of The Speaker’s Commentary, argues with much cogency, that it means “father of the palace.” This again would be an official name.

An officer.—Though this word literally in Hebrew signifies an eunuch, yet either, as seems probable from other places, it had come to mean any officer of the palace, or Potiphar was chief of the eunuchs, and therefore is himself numbered among them.

Captain of the guard.—Heb., chief of the slaughterers, by which the LXX. understand the slaughterers of animals for food, and translate “chief cook.” The other versions understand by it the commander of the king’s body-guard, whose business it would be to execute condemned criminals. A comparison with 2 Kings 25:8, where the same title is given to Nebuzar-adan, proves that this interpretation is correct.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes on Jacob’s refusal to be comforted in an article titled “The Refusal to be Comforted.” I include some excerpts below:

Why did Jacob refuse to be comforted? There are laws in Judaism about the limits of grief—shivah, sheloshim, a year. There is no such thing as a bereave­ment for which grief is endless. The Gemara says that G‑d says to one who weeps beyond the appointed time, “You are not more compassionate than I.”2

A midrash gives a remarkable answer. “One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living.” Jacob refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Joseph was still alive. That, tragically, is the fate of those who have lost members of their family (the parents of soldiers missing in action, for example), but have as yet no proof that they are dead. They cannot go through the normal stages of mourning, because they cannot abandon the possibility that the missing person is still capable of being rescued. Their continuing anguish is a form of loyalty; to give up, to mourn, to be reconciled to loss is a kind of betrayal. In such cases, grief lacks closure. To refuse to be comforted is to refuse to give up hope.

On what basis did Jacob continue to hope? Surely he had recognized Joseph’s bloodstained coat and said explicitly, “A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces”? Do these words not mean that he had accepted that Joseph was dead?

The late David Daube made a suggestion that I find convincing. The words the sons say to Jacob—haker na, “do you recognize this?”—have a quasi-legal connotation. Daube relates this passage to another, with which it has close linguistic parallels:

If a man gives a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to his neighbor for safekeeping, and it dies or is injured or is taken away while no one is looking, the issue between them will be settled by the taking of an oath before the L‑rd that the neighbor did not lay hands on the other person’s property . . . If it [the animal] was torn to pieces by a wild animal, he shall bring the remains as evidence, and he will not be required to pay for the torn animal.3

The issue at stake is the extent of responsibility borne by a guardian (shomer). If the animal is lost through negligence, the guardian is at fault and must make good the loss. If there is no negligence, merely force majeure—an unavoidable, unforeseeable accident—the guardian is exempt from blame. One such case is where the loss has been caused by a wild animal. The wording in the law—tarof yitaref, “torn to pieces”—exactly parallels Jacob’s judgment in the case of Joseph: tarof toraf Yosef, “Joseph has been torn to pieces.”

I recommend reading the entire article.

When next we see Joseph, he will begin his life and eventual ascent in Egypt.

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