Ambiguity in the Old Testament

I’ve been studying and teaching the Bible for over thirty years, both on the UCLA faculty and with Logos Bible Study.  I’ve taught through the Bible, verse-by-verse, dozens of times.  And every time I do, I find something new.  That’s the joy of great literature in general and of the Bible in particular.

Recently, one of our Logos students asked a question about Genesis 37, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt.  I had just taught this story in class.  Here are the verses in question:

Konstantin Flavitsky, “Jacob’s Sons Sell Joseph into Slavery” (1855)

Konstantin Flavitsky, “Jacob’s Sons Sell Joseph into Slavery” (1855)

Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?  Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”  His brothers agreed.

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. 

When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes.  He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there!  Where can I turn now?”

Genesis 37: 26-29

The quote is from the NIV translation, which indicates his “brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him.”  And this is how I’ve always taught the story.

But a quick look at the Hebrew calls this reading into question.  In the Hebrew of 37: 26, the brothers agree to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites and also that the Midianite merchants came along and took him to Egypt.  But then ambiguity enters the text, as 37: 28 reads: 

Then there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty [pieces] of silver; and they brought Joseph into Egypt.

Notice that the Hebrew is far more ambiguous than the NIV translation suggests.    Since “they” is grammatically a masculine plural in the Hebrew, it can point to Joseph’s brothers or to the Midianites. 

I had always thought that the Ishmaelites and the Midianites were interchangeable, the result of two textual traditions merging in the text or to both groups being closely related as sons of Abraham (Genesis 25: 2).  If that is the case, then the brothers sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites/Midianites, Reuben not being present when they do, and surprised when he finds out what his brothers had done.

But if the Ishmaelites and the Midianites are two different groups of people, the Midianites discover Joseph in the cistern and sell him to the Ishmaelites, who then takes him to Egypt and sells him to Potiphar.  If this is the case, then the brothers know nothing about it until Reuben discovers that Joseph is missing.

The Hebrew grammar allows for either reading.

If we accept the latter reading, then the implications ripple throughout the rest of the story, manifesting themselves in how we understand the brothers’ guilt regarding Joseph’s disappearance, why they cover it up as they do, Joseph’s reaction to his brothers when he first meets them, the brothers’ reaction when they recognize Joseph, and Joseph’s struggle to forgive his brothers in the end.

In the traditional first reading, the brothers’ motives are malignant; in the second reading we witness a prank gone awry. 

Such ambiguity abounds throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, greatly enriching the text and opening a variety of interpretative possibilities.  This is a signature of world-class literature, and it is one feature that makes the Bible so intriguing and such a joy to read.