Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
The conversation / negotiation between the brothers and Jacob, to fetch Benjamin and then go pick up Simeon… it does not start out well. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
And it came to pass as they emptied (literally, they emptying) their sacks, that (literally, and), behold, every man’s bundle of money (or silver) was in his sack: and when (literally, and) both they and their father saw the bundles of money, they (literally, and they) were afraid.
They discover upon arriving back at home that they did not just return home with some of their food-purchase money… they returned home with it all. Realistically then they have to assume that they will be returning to Egypt, perceived as thieves. Continuing on:
And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved (or are ye bereaving) of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not (Jacob appears to suspect that in some way or another his sons had been responsible for Joseph’s disappearance as well as Simeon’s), and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me—literally, upon me, as an heavy burden, which I must bear alone.
As the note states, this verse has some depth. Jacob seems to blame them for Joseph’s apparent death (despite their story blaming wild animals) and he also seems to believe Simeon is as good as dead by now, too. He believes – understandably – that Benjamin traveling with them will lead to Benjamin’s death.
Does God hold it against Jacob that he has such overt favoritism toward Rachel’s sons? I think that remains to be seen but we will look into it more later. Continuing with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(37) Slay my two sons.—Reuben does not suppose that Jacob would really put his grandchildren to death. but simply means to offer his father a strong assurance that Benjamin would run no danger. He regarded the risk as so slight that he was willing to stake the lives of two of his children, perhaps all he then had, upon Benjamin’s safe return. To take such a proposal as meant literally is irrational. But it was but feeble talk, in agreement with the general weakness of Reuben’s character.
Reuben offers to let Jacob slay his two sons – Jacob’s grandsons – in the event he does not successfully return home with Benjamin. The note does not take this promise seriously, describing it as “feeble talk.”
Reuben is the oldest of Jacob’s sons but he has fallen out of favor with his father. He did not protect Joseph from his brothers (or from Jacob’s perspective, from the wild animal.) Worse, Reuben slept with one of Jacob’s concubines.
From thetorah.com, with an excerpt of the article below: Reuben’s Sin and Its Consequences in Genesis and Chronicles by Dr. Shani Tzoref:
Reuben’s sin and its consequences in the Torah, Pseudepigrapha and Midrash.
Genesis 35:22 reads:
בראשית לה:כב וַיְהִי בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר.
Gen 35:22 While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel heard. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.
This laconic verse is troubling. What are the consequences of Reuben’s transgression? The text in our parasha does not tell us. Rather, there is a “loud silence,” quite literally, a gap in the text. In printed versions, the Hebrew of this verse looks like this:
וַיְהִי בִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו וַיִּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל (פ) וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר
The letter peh in the middle of the verse indicates that in a liturgically kosher Torah scroll, a space appears between the words “And Israel heard” and the continuation of the verse concerning the twelve sons of Israel. Spaces in ancient scrolls served as punctuation, and this scribal practice is well-attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The particular scribal phenomenon seen here—a “pisqa be’emsa passuq” (a break in the middle of a verse) is unusual, and various explanations have been suggested for its occurrences.
A Cross-Reference to Chronicles?
The late Prof. Shemaryahu Talmon proposed that a mid-verse break may act as a sign directing the reader to a related text in the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Talmon saw the gap as a sort of “hyperlink” intended to point to the genealogical list in Chronicles:
דברי הימים א ה:א וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן בְּכוֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי הוּא הַבְּכוֹר וּבְחַלְּלוֹ יְצוּעֵי אָבִיו נִתְּנָה בְּכֹרָתוֹ לִבְנֵי יוֹסֵף בֶּן יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא לְהִתְיַחֵשׂ לַבְּכֹרָה.
1 Chron 5:1 The sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel. (He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as first-born in the genealogy.)
Whether or not this is the intent of the scribal break, it is clear that 1 Chronicles relates to the event mentioned in Genesis 35. “Defiled his father’s bed” reflects “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.” This in itself shoes how biblical authors drew upon earlier biblical texts and traditions, offering us a brief glimpse into the process of the composition of biblical texts.
The Chronicler does not use the terminology of Genesis 35, however. Rather, the author borrows an expression from Jacob’s farewell address to his sons in Genesis 49:28.
The article goes into a lot of interesting detail about the incident and Reuben more generally. Either way, we might read into Reuben’s character and actions a desire to get back into his father’s good graces.
Returning to the text, and the last verse in the chapter, with Ellicott:
(38) Then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.—Heb., to Sheol (See Note on Genesis 37:35). Jacob, both here and in Genesis 47:9, speaks as one on whom sorrow had pressed very heavily. Always of a timid and affectionate disposition, he looks onward now without hope, and sees in the future only dangers and ill-fortune. Probably by this time he had lost Leah as well as Rachel, but the blow that had struck him utterly down had evidently been the loss of Joseph, in whom Rachel had still seemed to live on for him. And therefore now he clung the more warmly to Benjamin, and it is plain that the father’s deep sorrow for the loss of the petted son had softened the hearts of his brethren. They have no grudge against Benjamin because he has taken Joseph’s place, but rather seem to share in their father’s feelings, and their hearts were in accordance with what Judah says in Genesis 44:18-34, that any personal suffering would be cheerfully borne by them, rather than to have to undergo the sight of the repetition of such grief as they previously had themselves inflicted.
Jacob does not believe that this will go well and bleakly promises to die if Benjamin does not return.
There’s one other detail in this chapter that merits some amount of focus. Jacob says that he will go to Sheol. There is a sense by modern readers, sometimes, that Sheol equates to hell. However, that clearly cannot be the case – or not exactly anyway – if Jacob expects to go there. So what is Sheol?
First, let’s look at a Jewish perspective as presented by theTorah.com. Dr. Meghan Henning writes, No Heaven or Hell, Only Sheʾol, and I include an excerpt below:
Sheʾol and its synonyms, בּוֹר “pit,” שַׁחַת “chasm,” and אֲבַדּוֹן “oblivion,” was the fate of all people upon death. The wicked were sent there early, while the righteous were rewarded with a long life. During the Second Temple period, the negative attitude about death and sheʾol develops into a concept of post-mortem punishment and eventually hell. 1 Enoch’s four chambers for the dead is the first step in that direction.
Sheʾol: Grave, Death, or Underworld?
The Hebrew Bible does not offer a clear-cut depiction of what happens to a person upon death. Sheʾol (שְׁאוֹל), whose etymology is unclear, is the most common term used for where people go after they die. It connotes going down into the ground, but is it just a synonym in elevated language for the Hebrew word קֶבֶר (kever) “grave,” or does it imply something more, like entry into an underworld?
A good example of such ambiguity is when Jacob expresses his sadness for the untimely death of Joseph (as he understands the situation). Refusing to be consoled, he announces:
בראשית לז:לה כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה.
Gen 37:35 For I will go down mourning to my son in sheʾol.
What is Jacob expressing? Does he literally mean he will go down and see Joseph in the underworld, or does he simply mean this poetically, stating that he will be dead like his son when he lies in the grave?
In another example, after YHWH tells King Hezekiah that he will shortly die, Hezekiah composes a poem—the text refers to it as a letter—bemoaning his fate:
ישעיה לח:י אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בִּדְמִי יָמַי אֵלֵכָה בְּשַׁעֲרֵי שְׁאוֹל פֻּקַּדְתִּי יֶתֶר שְׁנוֹתָי.
Isa 38:10 I had thought: I must depart in the middle of my days; I have been consigned to the gates of sheʾol for the rest of my years.
While sheʾol could simply be elevated language for death, the reference to gates makes it sound like more than just a grave.
I highly recommend reading the entire article at the link. I also wanted to include a second description, this time in the format of a video from Old Testament Christian scholar, Dr. Michael S. Heiser:
What I want to convey is that this afterlife topic, especially as described in the Old Testament, is more complicated and less straight-forward that you might assume. Thus, if you are a Christian or a person who wants to understand the Christian viewpoint, you have to know how to square the presentation of the afterlife in the Old Testament with the message of the Gospel. If you are a Jew, then your task is obviously different but is nonetheless still interesting.
This takes us to the end of the chapter. Joseph’s big reunion plan is now in motion.
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