Nonspeculative redactional analysis

Recently, in 2311, archaeologists discovered this ancient letter from the early 21st century. Happily, our ingenious biblical scholars have been able to isolate the various redactional layers of this letter.

Jan. 14, 2018


Dear Harry, { This name is currently unattested in the 21st century and should be understood allegorically with reference to the recipient’s hair length}


I regret {inconsistent with the narratorial voice, this was added by the 2nd redactor} that we cannot {polite addition by 2nd redactor} grant your requested extension {21st-century writers applied “extension” to added fake hair, obviously the original subject of this correspondence}. You should be aware {3rd redactional layer} that you should apply {allusion to a hair-cutting appliance} for extensions before the deadline {note etymological root “dead,” subtly threatening penalties if hair is not cut}, as clearly {3rd redactor, wrongly thinking hair color at issue} specified both in the syllabus and in the student handbook {2nd redactor; no original author would include two prepositional phrases}. If I may step aside from the usual professional language for a moment, applying for an extension six weeks after the close of the semester is irresponsible behavior characteristic only of immature, preadolescent {2nd redactor, who thinks the recipient too young to grow hair}, whining brats. Are you aware that our institution {3rd redactor envisions here a barbershop} provides basic counseling services at no cost to the student? I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity, and also, if your counselor so advises, to check yourself into a psychiatric institution. {3rd redactor, wrongly thinking barber scissors cause brain damage}


Your Advisor {3rd redactor, alluding to helmet visors, which can prevent brain damage}


Life is the Pits

Thrown into a pit by his brothers—Genesis 37:18-24

How did Joseph’s have time to plot against him once they realized that he was approaching them (37:18-20)? Joseph’s brothers saw him from far away and (37:18); he was coming across a level area and his special coat reaching to the feet (37:3, 23) made his identity conspicuous. For narrative purposes, it may sound as if all of Joseph’s brothers conspired against him (37:19), but that the narrator explicitly excludes Reuben, who is not part of the conversation but overhears (37:21), suggests that the narrator might be emphasizing the participation of all more than did any more detailed story he may have been condensing. Reuben was not with these brothers all the time (37:29-30); probably some brothers had been watching flocks that were spread out.

Ironically, the hostile brothers’ plan to throw Joseph into a pit and then “see what will become of his dreams” (37:20) ultimately serves God’s plan to bring fulfillment to those very dreams (50:20). That Reuben, now perhaps about twenty-four years old, seeks to protect Joseph (37:21), probably reflects him being older and more mature than his siblings. Still, Joseph’s other brothers are not young adolescents. Most are probably in their twenties; only Benjamin was younger than he (30:23-24). (Joseph was probably six when they entered Canaan, and Reuben thirteen; see 30:25-26; 31:41.) Reuben might also hope to win back some of his father’s favor by delivering Joseph safely to him, acting more faithfully than his younger brothers (37:22).

When Joseph arrived, suspecting nothing, his brothers tore his special robe from him (37:23). As is typical for victims of stress, this scene probably reenacted itself repeatedly in Joseph’s mind in months to come. Not only in Joseph’s mind, however, but in his actual experience of life, God will allow subsequent scenes to again evoke this one. Potiphar’s wife later seizes his garment (39:12-13); by contrast, when God exalts Joseph, Pharaoh provides him the best garments (41:42).

And these are only the scenes that Joseph experiences directly. When Jacob sees his beloved son’s torn robe, he tears his own clothes in mourning (37:34; cf. also Reuben in 37:29), as do his sons later when they suppose that slavery awaits Benjamin (44:13). That is, Joseph’s suffering brings grief to his father, and the fear of Benjamin’s suffering and their father’s further grief grieves his brothers. They have long regretted their hasty and hate-filled choice to betray a brother. Yet in Joseph’s forgiveness he later gives each of them changes of clothes (45:22). (Recall that earlier in Genesis God also showed his mercy by making tunics for Adam and his wife, after their fall into sin, in 3:21.)

After ripping off his garment, Joseph’s brothers hurl him into a pit (Gen 37:22-29). This circumstance, too, Joseph would face again; the same Hebrew term also appears more than once for the prison house where he was thrown after being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife (40:15; 41:14). The Psalmist often praised God for not letting him perish in the pit, sometimes a metaphor in the Psalms for death (Ps 28:1; 30:3; 40:2; 88:4, 6; 143:7).

The narrator might mention that the pit into which Joseph’s brothers threw him lacked water (Gen 37:24) to note that he would not drown there (cf. Jer 38:6), but more likely he narrates this lack of water to suggest that he would die of thirst if left there. (The text might also qualify this because the Hebrew term used here could also refer to a cistern or sometimes to a well; the text thus specifies that no water is involved in this case.) They threw him into a pit in the “wilderness,” presumably so that he would die there without his brothers having to directly shed his blood (Gen 37:22).

The callousness of his brothers is underlined by their activity after stripping him and throwing him into the waterless wilderness pit: they sat down to eat bread (37:25). All this while Joseph was certainly crying out, pleading with them, but they refused to listen (42:21). Eating bread together was an act of bonding and unity (14:18; 18:5; 31:54), though it also was the context of their father’s betrayal of his brother (25:34; 27:17). More ironically still, their survival will someday depend on bread supplied by Joseph himself (41:54-55; 47:12).

We cannot possibly imagine how God could build his chosen people from these brothers, later forgiven by Joseph, without understanding that God is a God of grace. He forgives the guilty and changes them. Their story is also our story, because all of us need forgiveness. And just as Joseph’s forgiveness was a costly act, so it cost God much to forgive those who offended against him so deeply by how we have treated lightly his own Son’s sacrifice for us. Yet because of that sacrifice, his forgiveness is free to all who ask him.

When bad things happen to good people

Joseph checks on his brothers—Genesis 37:12-17

Jacob had entrusted the flocks to Joseph’s older brothers, but now he sends him to check on their welfare. Joseph had been shepherding with some of his brothers before (37:2), work that could start at far younger than his seventeen years (37:2), and perhaps had been kept home because of conflicts (37:4-11). In any case, Joseph inquiring about their welfare (literally “peace”) offers a stark contrast with the treatment that Joseph will receive at his brothers’ hands.

Concerned about his sons’ welfare, Jacob thus sends Joseph to find out how his brothers are doing near Shechem. Here is what seems a remarkable point in the story, because the ruins of Shechem remind us immediately of his brothers’ violence there in ch. 34—a violence that may foreshadow what awaits Joseph. Figuring out why Jacob feels free to let his older sons pasture there (37:12) and to send Joseph there by himself (37:13-14) is harder to determine. The family knew well the pasturage near Shechem (33:18). Perhaps trouble in the neighborhood of Shechem must have now quieted down (cf. 35:5). Alternatively, perhaps this narrative chronologically precedes Gen 34 (and perhaps Joseph’s dream that includes his mother in 37:9-10 even precedes her death in 35:19). Genesis might choose to keep the Joseph narrative together at the expense of chronology. The information needed to decide on such a matter historically is no longer available to us, but the narrative in its current form presumes that matters had become more quiet. (Joseph was probably six when they entered Canaan, and Dinah only a little older; see 30:25-26; 31:41. If he is seventeen in 37:2, this is eleven years later; still, Dinah was probably only a little older than Joseph, 30:21, so the terrible events in Shechem may have remained more recent.)

But while this was a fairly peaceful period in Canaan, wild beasts remained a possibility, and Jacob’s sending of Joseph in what will become Joseph’s disappearance will haunt Jacob for years to come. That will be why he will fear to leave Benjamin out of his sight (42:38). Any of us who worry about our children’s safety can identify with Jacob, but this is especially true for someone who has endured great loss.

Joseph’s response to his father’s commission, literally, “Behold, I [am here]” (37:13) is the appropriate response for an obedient son to a father’s summons (27:1, 18), just as it is for a human obedient to the Lord’s command (22:1, 11; 31:11). That a man had overheard the brothers discussing their move to Dothan, and found Joseph looking for them (37:15-17), seems providential: God planned Joseph’s difficult encounter with his brothers and made it happen even despite some natural circumstances that could have worked against it. The narrator would hardly have expended such detail on how Joseph learned of his brother’s whereabouts were it not significant. (As for why the man was in the vicinity and had had contact with his brothers, it is not unlikely that some people had resettled, or were at least making use of, the remains of Shechem. Had fugitives simply returned, they would probably have been less than hospitable to Joseph’s brothers, but it is possible that other rural people once oppressed by Shechem have now found a place there. Whether by returned fugitives or by new residents, sites of previous habitation were usually quickly resettled.)

In the same way, the circumstances of our lives are not accidental. Theologians debate whether God plans the details (such as, here, Joseph’s brothers having moved on), but God certainly does arrange matters to bring about his purposes (such as Joseph’s encounter with his brothers, ultimately to save many lives, 45:5, 7). We cannot second guess ourselves, with, “What would have happened if …” We can instead recognize that God has a plan and purpose in our lives and entrust ourselves to him from here forward.