Our first reading today, taken from Chapter Thirty-Seven of the Book of Genesis tells the story of how Joseph was carried off to Egypt.
Actually, that chapter gives two conflicting stories about how he was carried off; even though the Lectionary, by carefully cropping the Bible’s account, gives us only one version of the story. Let me explain. The account in our Lectionary tells us that when the brothers saw some Ishmaelites travelling down to Egypt Joseph’s brother Judah suggested that instead of killing their brother, they should sell him; and they received twenty pieces of silver for him.
(Judah has asked, “What is the good of killing our brother and concealing his blood.” That showed their belief that a murdered man’s blood, if not covered over, would call out to heaven for vengeance.)
In our Lectionary’s version of the story the brothers had first thrown Joseph down a deep dried cistern, with the thought that he would starve there. The part of the story that our Lectionary leaves out is that the oldest of the brother’s, Reuben, had intended returning to rescue Joseph; but on going back to the cistern after he had sat and ate with his brothers, the only thing Reuben found was Joseph’s tunic.
In the part of the story omitted from our Lectionary, without the brother being aware of it, some traders from Midian had heard Joseph calling up from the cistern. It was they, not the Ishmaelites who brought Joseph as a slave to Egypt.
In this omitted part of the story the brothers, not knowing what had happened to Joseph, smeared goat’s blood on Joseph’s tunic, then went to telling their father Jacob that Joseph had been devoured by beasts.
Which ever way it happened, Joseph was taken down to Egypt after 1800 B.C. when the Israelites had no written language. Each of the twelve tribes had a special family of storytellers who generation after generation passed on the tribe’s stories.
It was only after 600 B.C. that the tribes came together to put into writing the ancient legends shared by the twelve tribes. That was when the people were carried off to Babylon. There they were impressed by the way the Babylonians had put all their legends into writing. That had them bringing together the storytellers from all the tribes to fit together what became the Books of Genesis and Exodus.
At times the accounts of the tribal storytellers didn’t agree. Here, the way the descendants of Judah remembered it, it was Judah who had tried saving Joseph, while the way the descendants of Reuben remembered it, it was Reuben who tried to save Joseph. That had them putting the two conflicting accounts into our Chapter Thirty-Seven of Genesis.