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GENUNG Matthew Charles

“And They Sold Joseph”. Incoherence and Meaning in the Composition of Genesis 37

Mod.: R.P. Jean Louis SKA, S.J.

From the beginning of critical research into the Joseph Story the problem of who sold Joseph to whom has been at the fore, and has remained so until today. Other tensions recognized in Genesis 37 mainly pertain to the motives for the brothers’ hatred of Joseph, ambiguity in the narration of Joseph’s dreams, and the use of both Jacob and Israel to name the father. Up to now no agreement has been reached.

This study consists in a fresh literary critical analysis of Genesis 37, treated passage by passage, guided by the literary tensions in the narrative in dialogue with the most important solution models. This method has led to a new explanation of the compositional history of Genesis 37 that contributes to an understanding of the meaning of the actual text, both its elements of tension and incoherence, and the historical milieu from which they arose.

The canonical text is a composition of an original base narrative with a redactional updating layer, and minor insertions to facilitate its integration into a priestly framework. The original story narrated that Reuben sought to save Joseph from fratricide, and return him to the father, a plan partially thwarted by the Midianites’ surreptitious capture and sale of Joseph into Egypt. The redactional insertions updated the story by adding Judah’s plan to sell Joseph and the involvement of the Ishmaelites. The stylistic unity of both dreams was challenged, resulting in the judgment that Joseph’s second dream is part of the redactional updating, along with three contexts involving Joseph’s special tunic. The patriarch’s name alternation may be understood as intentional and unified with the original narrative.

The reconstructed original narrative is stylistically elaborate, coherent, and complete, while the redactional material updates the original text, giving Judah a primary role, diminishing the role of Reuben, and demoting Joseph by saddling him with some responsibility for the vendetta. This creates a new setting for the JS, allowing Judah to later undergo a transformation and foster reconciliation among the brothers.

The original narrative was likely written in the northern kingdom of Israel before the fall of Samaria. This narrative was re-actualized by the post-exilic community, which sought the reunification of the northern and southern kingdoms into a new Israel, most likely in the late Persian period. A second type of redactional material consists in post-priestly insertions seeking to integrate the JS into a context shaped by P, probably in the Hellenistic period.