Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Early Traditions on the Kidnapping and Sale of Joseph: Part I

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Early Traditions on the Kidnapping and Sale of Joseph: Part I

Article excerpt

At the kidnapping and subsequent sale of Joseph, one would have expected emotions to have run high among his brothers, coupled with a degree of outrage on the part of the offspring of the handmaids at the violence intended against him by the sons of Leah. After all, the Torah emphasizes that Joseph was a lad with the sons of the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen. 37:2), suggestive of a large measure of empathy on his part for those siblings of lesser family status who were also closer in age to him. One would have expected some strong opposition on their part, therefore, to that evil conspiracy. Nothing, however, is further from the truth. They were as culpable as the rest, if not more so.


Significantly, the Torah's account of the kidnapping and sale of Joseph highlights only the role of Reuben and Judah, sons of Leah, while the remainder of the siblings are portrayed as silently complicit. In the early post-biblical Pseudepigraphic literature (circa 200 BCE), however, a variant picture emerges, wherein two of the other brothers, Dan, son of Bilhah, and Gad, son of Zilpah, serve as primary instigators of the sale of Joseph and the subsequent deception of their father. (1) That source also reveals the existence of a compact of total silence among the brothers, to which they all bound themselves on pain of death. This tradition was also picked up in the much later midrashic literature. (2) We are not told on whose particular initiative that compact was drawn up, but, from the earlier of the two sources, the evidence points directly to Dan and Gad, since Dan is specifically credited with having first suggested that they dip the coat into blood, and Gad admits to a particularly vehement hatred of Joseph. (3) We may thus conclude that according to early post-biblical tradition there was an equal representation of the offspring of both Leah and the handmaids in that entire fearful affair.

Rabbinic tradition has consistently ignored the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphic literature because of the fact that it was mainly written in Greek and by Jewish writers who were perceived as assimilated since they did not bear a pharisaic imprimatur. The exclusion of that literature from the Canon meant that it was left to the Church to be its custodian and the guarantor of its survival, a fact that misled many to regard it as a heretical work. The present writer believes that it is time we reclaim it, since it constitutes a valuable repository of many authentic traditions going back generations before the midrashic literature. The tradition we referred to above, regarding the solemn compact entered into by all the brothers, constitutes a clear example of a common reservoir for the contents of both Pseudepigrapha and Midrash.

It is often difficult to locate the origin or rationale of midrashic traditions, though our initial inquiry is always in the direction of some indication, however subtle or indirect, in the biblical text itself or some syntactical or grammatical variation. The blessing of Jacob (4) makes a direct reference to the brothers' violent encounter with Joseph: 'The archers have dealt bitterly with him, shot at him and hated him' (Gen. 49:23), but it may also contain two further references to that event within the addresses to both Dan and Gad. Jacob alludes to an episode in Dan's life when he behaved like 'a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path that bites the horse's heels so that the rider falls backward' (49:17). The implication is that, at some time, Dan had been involved in some act of duplicity and violence--a reference that might well have inspired that early tradition regarding his dark role in the sale of Joseph.

Jacob's blessing of Gad consists of a mere six Hebrew words: Gad gedud yegudennu, ve-hu yagud akev [Gad, a troop will troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel] (v. 19). Whatever the unspecified, underlying historical reference, the notion of Gad as warlike by nature and regularly embroiled in violent retaliation is unmistakable. …

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