Posted by: mattcolvin | March 3, 2012

Where was Reuben?

(Reposted from Fragmenta, October 9, 2006 — written on the ferry from Texada Island to Powell River!)

One of the things I like best about David Daube is his eye for the significant details that make all the difference in a narrative. But sometimes, when I try to employ his method, the details do not seem to fit. For instance, the story of the selling of Joseph by his brothers presupposes a law concerning shepherds: if a sheep is killed by a beast, the shepherd responsible can avoid responsibility for the loss by presenting the mangled remains to his master (or father) — which is precisely what the sons of Jacob do with the Joseph’s multi-colored tunic. Of all the brothers, it is Reuben who seems to be in the position of shepherd to Joseph’s sheep. But his role and responsibility are very difficult to discern in the narrative.

It is interesting that the brothers are shepherding in the fields of Shechem, of all places — as though to remind the reader that some of them are already bloodstained men from when they avenged Dinah’s rape at the hands of Shechem by a wholesale massacre. (Though it does seem to me that Levi and Simeon do not come in for much, if any disapproval from the narrator. They have the last word, after all — “Should he have treated our sister like a harlot?”, and Shechem’s people are clearly depicted as scheming to dispossess Jacob’s clan by intermarriage — the Baal of Peor avant la lettre. So I am inclined to say that Genesis treats them rather favorably than not. But I suspect that some, e.g. James Jordan, would disagree with me on this point.)

As we were reading the first part of the Joseph story (Gen. 37), I noted that Reuben comes off rather well, trying to save Joseph’s life, and tearing his robes upon discovering the “death.” He is the oldest brother, and thus appears to bear special responsibility for the safety of the youngest ones. But he is mysteriously absent at the moment when the decision is made to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites: “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, ‘The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?'” Reuben is in the place of a shepherd who cannot account for the “sheep” his father will miss. Later, he will poignantly offer his own two sons as hostages to Jacob for the safety of Benjamin as well (42:37).

The following points are clear enough:
1. Reuben is not present at the time of the sale, or presumably, when Judah (apt name for a proto-Judas) proposes that course of action.
2. Reuben is surprised at the apparent death of Joseph, since he tears his robe. The rabbis later would exhaustively specify, as only the Rabbis could, all the occasions when one must tear one’s garments (b.M.Kat. 25b f., according to Daube). For our present purposes, it is enough to note that it was a usual gesture on discovering the death of a beloved relative or teacher. Jacob does it himself upon being presented with false evidence of Joseph’s death. Elisha does it when his master Elijah is taken up to heaven. Some would argue that God Himself did it when Jesus died, in tearing the veil of the temple.
3. It is essential to the brothers’ plan that Reuben be made to think that Joseph has been killed by an animal. As the one brother opposed to harming the lad, he must be kept in the dark, for otherwise he could be expected to divulge the sale to Jacob. At the same, he must not be made to think that the other brothers themselves have killed Joseph, for he cannot be trusted to keep such a deed secret. Duping Reuben is essential if Jacob is to be fooled and the brothers are to escape punishment.
4. Reuben himself suggested that Joseph be deposited in a pit, in order that he might come back and rescue him later (37:22b). It is while returning to accomplish this rescue that he comes upon the empty pit (37:30).

It would be convenient if the other brothers had prepared the torn and bloodstained tunic in Reuben’s absence, and deposited it in the pit to deceive him. The narrative, however, seems to say otherwise: “‘The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go? Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood.” (37:31)

Reuben, then, is apparently present for the preparation of the falsified evidence. We are left wondering how and why he was not present during the decision to sell Joseph into slavery.

Was he on his way back to the pit to rescue Joseph? But if so, how did the other brothers have time first to discuss the plan and still to reach the pit before Reuben arrived?

Did the other brothers create some ruse to distract him? But if so, what was it and why is it omitted?

Or is there some third alternative?



  1. […] against them. There is a pleasing symmetry here. (See Law in the Joseph Narrative 1: Custodia and Where was Reuben?, from earlier years of this […]

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