The Joseph Story in Genesis and the Documentary Hypothesis

The Joseph Story in Genesis and the Documentary Hypothesis March 25, 2014

A basic first step in grasping the meaning of a biblical text as it may have been intended to be understood by its original authors is to establish something of its literary history. Most biblical texts developed over a long period of time, beginning with the earliest forms of the texts that served particular ideological purposes in their original historical contexts, then undergoing a succession of various literary and editorial adaptations by scribes and priests for the purpose of creating new textual entities to meet the ideological and religious needs of later periods, and finally a standardization process that led to the construction of a canon of sacred literature in Second Temple Judaism.

As is well known, over the last two centuries the classic Documentary Hypothesis (DH) has been a very important model for elucidating the literary development of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch, since it provides a critical explanation for the patently obvious disunity and redundancy that we see in the text by positing several distinct parallel sources as the basic building blocks of the present form of the narrative. However, in recent years the DH has increasingly come to be regarded as problematic as a literary reconstruction, resulting in a proliferation of alternative models and theories and a scholarly discourse dominated by those who believe that the DH is still viable in its basic outlines and need only be modified in minor ways (referred to as Neo-Documentarianism) and others who reject the DH in toto and adopt more fragmentary and/or supplementarian approaches (i.e. the Pentateuch/Hexateuch is an amalgamation of various discrete non-continuous and non-parallel narratives or a product of gradual supplementation to one basic narrative).

For myself, I believe that neither of these general approaches (the Neo-Documentarian and fragmentary-supplementary) are adequate by themselves for explaining the compositional origin of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch, but see each as only partially accurate and offering insights that like pieces of a puzzle can be profitably synthesized into a greater whole. However, for the purpose of this blog post, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly examine one particular biblical narrative in light of the Neo-Documentarian model in order to evaluate its methodology and explanatory power as a literary hypothesis: the Joseph story.


The Joseph story has long served as a prime example of the DH’s ability to differentiate two distinct parallel sources in Genesis, in this case a Yahwist and Elohist, because of several notable difficulties that we encounter in the text. These difficulties include contradictory reports of who sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Midianites 37:28//brothers 45:5) and brought him to Egypt (Midianites 37:36//Ishmaelites 39:1); narrative gaps based on the presence/absence of Reuben in the juxtaposed narratives detailing actions by the brothers against Joseph (Reuben comes to the defense of Joseph to save him from death in vv. 18-24, while in the next episode there is no mention of Reuben and the brothers decide to sell Joseph, vv. 25-28; then finally Reuben returns in v. 29 as though he had been gone somewhere); repetitions such as double speech introductions for Reuben (37:21, 22), similarities in the speeches of Reuben and Judah (“lay not your hand upon him” 37:22//”let not our hands be against him” 37:27), and the recurrence of the name Joseph as direct object in v. 28.


The problems in the Joseph story clearly point to significant compositional disunity, and because source critics have successfully isolated distinct narrative threads elsewhere in Genesis, the tendency in the history of Pentateuchal scholarship has been to look to traditional source criticism as the favored mode for elucidating the literary history of the text. For Neo-Documentarians the solution is relatively simple: because some elements of the narrative contradict each other and can be divided up into parallel stories about Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and transfer to Egypt, all that is needed is to separate out what belongs to the different stories by paying attention their narrative continuity and consistency. What CAN BE READ in terms of one side of the contradicting story is identified as a distinct narrative strand and what can be read in line with the other side of the contradiction is identified as another strand, resulting in the isolation of two coherent and mostly readable narratives. As Neo-Documentarian advocate Joel Baden remarks, “By simply following the story in its plain meaning, the two strands emerge naturally from the text.” [1]


But is this process as natural, simple, and self-evident as Baden suggests? Even if the Joseph story can be read as the combination of two originally independent narratives, in a way that resolves some of the contradictory and difficult features of the present form of the text, does that necessarily mean that this literary-critical explanation is the most plausible of all reconstructions, that is, more than likely grounded in historical reality rather than merely the creative imaginations of modern scholars?


The basic problem with the Neo-Documentarian approach is that it privileges the criterion of continuity/readability for reconstructing earlier textual levels under the assumption that multiple continuous sources exist and were strictly preserved in the Pentateuch/Hexateuch (J, E, and P) while at the same time failing to allow for non-documentary processes that would account for much of the literary disunity we find in these texts. As David Carr has observed, readability is by itself a weak basis for unraveling the compositional history of a text, since it is so subjective and fairly easy for someone to produce any number of shorter readable texts from a narrative as complex and extensive as the Pentateuch/Hexateuch. [2] Furthermore, comparison with other documented cases of transmission history suggests that narrative inconsistencies, redundancies, contradictions, and gaps are equally if not more likely to have been a product of compositional/editorial processes of supplementation or abbreviation than the combination of independent sources.


Because there are so many ways for literary disunity to have arisen in a traditional narrative with such a long diachronic career, it is important when engaging in source/literary criticism that we strengthen our methodology and use multiple criteria for establishing textual development. That is, the literary-critical argument needs to be based on more than simply our ability to recover more than one coherent readable text in a narrative, but must rely on a combination of independent factors that mutually strengthen each other and provide for some methodological control (the principle of consilience).


Ideally, a robust method of source/literary criticism would involve a correlation of three kinds of criteria:


1) Literary-critical signs of seams or fractures in the narrative (e.g. narrative gaps, doublets, resumptive repetition, and grammatical infelicities)

2) Divergent narrative content associated with those seams (e.g. distinctive historical claims, ideology, style, and terminology)
3) The presence of other material of the same profile associated with similar seams in the broader narrative context (the more material that can be identified with the same profile, the stronger the case becomes)

This use of multiple criteria can be graphically illustrated:


1) Seams



Continuous narrative


 Continuous narrative


 Continuous narrative

← 3) Correlation with similar material    

1) Seams

2) Content



 Continuous narrative





When we examine the Neo-Documentarian approach to the Joseph story, we see that this use of multiple independent literary-critical criteria is for the most part missing. There are many cases where material has been divided between two sources when there is no evidence for literary seams or fractures (e.g., there are no literary-critical indications that v. 18 should be separated from v. 19 or v. 20 from vv. 21-22) and other cases where seams are apparent but it is unclear or doubtful whether the content as a whole diverges from the surrounding narrative (e.g., most of the content of v. 25 and v. 28 is readable in its present context). Most problematic to the documentary interpretation is the highly limited scope of the putative contradictory narratives and their restriction to a few verses of chap 37. The rest of the Joseph story, aside for a few obvious additions (chs. 38, a Priestly section in 46, and 49), reads very well as a unified composition. In other words, in the Joseph story we lack correlating criteria that can be used to confirm the notion of multiple literary strands embedded in the narrative, the kind of criteria that were so useful in establishing the independent origin of the Priestly source elsewhere in Genesis.


So then how do we explain the obvious contradictions and literary disunity we see in the narrative? The major contradictions on which the case for a documentary solution rests relate to the coincidence of two similar narratives describing a brother coming to the defense of Joseph (that on their face appear to be working at cross purposes) with divergent reports of the sale of Joseph and his transfer to Egypt. As was mentioned before, there can be little doubt that there are substantial problems here at a synchronic level.


But on closer examination, these problems do not rise to the level of providing support for the existence of conflicting narrative traditions that once had separate origins, but can be better explained as having arisen through various compositional/redactional processes.


In the case of the motif of a brother coming to the defense of Joseph, the two episodes are more easily understood synchronically as successive events in the temporal narrative leading to Joseph’s sale to Egypt and not as divergent literary traditions. In the first episode, the narrator reveals the murderous intentions of the brothers (v. 18) and their dialogue describes a plan to kill Joseph and place him in a pit (vv. 19-20). Then Reuben as the eldest brother objects to the direct taking of life and suggests as an alternative that they simply throw him into a pit in the wilderness, presumably to satisfy the brothers since Joseph would eventually die on his own, all with the intention of eventually rescuing and restoring the boy to his father (vv. 21-22). In line with Reuben’s recommendation, the brothers strip Joseph and place him alive in the pit (v. 23). In the second episode, Joseph is implied to have already been captured and placed in the pit, since there is no mention of him coming to the brothers a second time and the discussion by Judah and the brothers indicates that they still have qualms about killing Joseph even indirectly and thus “concealing his blood” (vv. 25-27). In response to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites, Judah proposes that they not physically harm the boy and instead attempt to make some profit out of a bad situation. So Joseph is removed from the pit and sold to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver (v. 28).


As this summary suggests, the mini-episodes are not actually doublets or representations of essentially the same event, but are different in nature and content. Their dramatic contexts and characterization are different and the proposed solutions for how to deal with Joseph presuppose different stages in the development of the narrative, the first a more volatile and violent situation requiring the direct interposition of the eldest brother and the second a more thoughtful and dialogic interaction, where the cooler and wiser head of Judah prevails. Furthermore, the depiction of Reuben and Judah as distinct characters that make their own unique and complementary contributions to the narrative continues throughout the rest of the Joseph story, making it unlikely that they would have functioned independently of one another in earlier textual forms. Finally, as others have noted, the Joseph story as a whole “has a conspicuous fondness for the number two” [3], or doublets of events that can in no wise be seen as literary-critical doublets.


Admittedly, some difficulties remain in the text, including the repetition of the name Reuben in the speech introductions of v. 21 and v. 22 and the phrase “but lay no hand on him” in Reuben’s speech, since it strangely parallels Judah’s speech that they not “lay our hands on him” in v. 27. Furthermore, there is the problem that v. 25 picks up as though Reuben were present for the deliberations about what to do with Joseph, though v. 29 implies that he was somewhere else. However, all of these difficulties can be explained as having arisen at a compositional/redactional level subsequent to the original composition of the Joseph story and not as source-critical markers of transmission history. Because the rest of Reuben’s speech in v. 22 makes perfect sense in its current placement, the repetition of the name Reuben in the speech introduction could have been an explanatory gloss or scribal addition in order to identify the speaker as clearly as possible. That some minor scribal reworking occurred in this verse is further supported by the phrase “but lay no hand on him,” since this statement is likely secondary and harmonistic. It comes awkwardly at the end of Reuben’s speech, after he has already made two different commands not to hurt Joseph, the first as an indirect imperative “Let us not take his life” and the second a direct imperative “Shed no blood,” and following his proposal to throw him into a deserted pit. Because this part of the speech is where he is pretending to advocate for a non-violent but certain death, the repeated injunction to do no harm is superfluous and problematic in terms of narrative flow (thus a good example of a correlation of a seam with divergent content). As a redactional insertion, its purpose seems to have been to portray Reuben as deeply interested in the welfare of Joseph and to correlate his language with Judah’s speech in v. 27.


On the other hand, the lack of any reference to Reuben in vv. 25 -28 is better understood as having resulted from a scribal abbreviation of material linking the two episodes. The beginning of v. 25 is only loosely connected with v. 24, thus raising suspicions that something has been left out. The movement from “they threw him into a pit” to “they sat down to eat” feels too quick and undeveloped based on the quality of narrative seen elsewhere in the Joseph story. The narrator has already told us of Reuben’s intentions to rescue the boy, and in v. 29 he returns to the pit, finds the boy missing, and is distraught, as though he had not been privy to the deliberations among the brothers when the Ishmaelite caravan was passing, both of which make it unlikely that he was a silent participant to the plan to sell Joseph in vv. 25-27. That Reuben was not there for the sale is further suggested by a statement he makes later when in Egypt, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood” (42:22). In view of these various indicators of a narrative gap and missing content, it seems likely that at some point an unknown amount of material describing Reuben’s temporary departure from the scene was deleted, thus creating, perhaps unintentionally, a tension or contradiction in the narrative.


In the case of the sale and transfer of Joseph to Egypt, it is similarly unlikely that the presence of both Midianites and Ishmaelites in the narrative is evidence of distinct sources with their own body of continuous text. First, the mention of Midianites in v. 28 is extremely abrupt and awkward. We have already been given a thorough and developed introduction to a caravan of Ishmaelites in the immediate vicinity of the brothers, which causes Judah to come up with the idea of selling Joseph. Then suddenly Midianite traders appear out of nowhere, pull Joseph up out of the pit, and sell him to the Ishmaelites, thus giving the impression that the brothers ended up not making a profit on Joseph at all. The problems here are multiple: 1) with the change of subject, there’s a seam or narrative gap separating the content of v. 27 from v. 28; 2) the Midianite traders have not been properly introduced and prepared for in the narrative; 3) we would have expected the brothers to have been the ones who drew Joseph from the pit, since the pit was in a deserted place and no one passing by would have been able to see the helpless captive and, further, the brothers’ whole interest in selling Joseph was to make a profit.


Second, the secondary nature of the mention of Midianites is further suggested by the other reference to Midianites in v. 36, since this latter verse is part of a resumptive repetition bracketing the late insertion of ch. 38. The wording of the two sides of the bracket in 37:36 and 39:1 is highly similar and there can be little doubt that one is a doublet of the other. Based on the differences in syntax and language between them, 37:36 is most likely the unoriginal and imitative member of the pair: 1) the waw + noun formulation suggests that the verse is explanatory and parenthetical to the main narrative; 2) the phrase “they sold him to Egypt” is somewhat redundant after the description of the sale of Joseph and his journey to Egypt in v. 28 and seems to be dependent on the language of 45:4; 3) 39:1 resumes the context of 37:28, bypassing 37:36, and contains more specific information about the sale of Joseph by the Ishmaelites and the identity of Potiphar than that given in 37:36. Because Midianites appear in the Joseph story outside of 37:28 only in this redactional construction, it strengthens the impression that its earlier occurrence was similarly redactional or secondary in nature.


Third, later in the narrative it is confirmed that it was the brothers who sold Joseph (45:4-5), lending further support to the assumption that the reference to Midianite traders in 37:28a is compositionally secondary and that in the original Joseph story the transition between v. 27 and v. 28 was seamless and described the brothers agreeing to sell Joseph and then lifting him out of the pit themselves. Documentarians have often argued that the statement by Joseph that he was “stolen out of the land of the Hebrews” in 40:15 shows that there are multiple literary strands in the Joseph story, one where he is sold by the brothers and another where he is stolen by Midianites. But the pual formulation here of GNB does not provide evidence of another mode by which Joseph was taken to Egypt in addition to having been sold by the brothers. To GNB merely means to take illegally by means of stealth, and this is in fact precisely what happened when the brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites without the knowledge of their father Jacob.


So if all the evidence points to the reference to Midianites as a redactional addition, why was it placed there in v. 28 and then again in v. 36, especially since its introduction caused so much damage to the coherence of the narrative? Midianites are elsewhere closely identified with Ishmaelites (Jdgs. 8:24), so this helps explain in part why Midianites and Ishmaelites are used by the redactor/author almost as if they were interchangeable (37:36). And yet it would seem that this same redactor understood the Midianites to be somehow distinct from Ishmaelites, since the Midianite redaction of the Joseph story explicitly states that the Midianites sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites.


The answer to this biblical conundrum is most likely to be sought in the broader sweep of the Pentateuchal narrative of Israelite captivity and deliverance from Egypt. As is well known, the Midianites play a crucial role in the Exodus narrative that describes Moses’s refuge with a Midianite priest named Jethro, his marriage to one of Jethro’s daughters, the revelation of the god of his fathers in the same general territory, and the eventual return of Moses with the people Israel after their deliverance from Egypt to the vicinity of Midian, Jethro, and Sinai. Thus the insertion of Midianites into the Joseph story, which recounts how the people Israel got to Egypt in the first place, and the highlighting of their role along with Ishmaelites in selling Joseph to Egyptian bondage creates a larger literary bracket to the story of Israel’s redemption: because of this redaction Midianites are seen as having contributed prominently to the process that led to Israel’s captivity and were also there to help Israel on their way to the Promised Land.


In conclusion, we have seen that there is little evidence to support the Neo-Documentarian contention that the Joseph story is a combination of two distinct parallel narrative strands. Rather, all indications are that there was only one basic narrative of the early Joseph story, but that this original text has been adapted in various ways, through minor glosses, significant supplementation, and even the abbreviation and subtraction of material. In other words, the Joseph story is a complicated diachronically constructed narrative, in a real sense the compositional product of several hands working in relative isolation from one another over a long period of time.


If this reconstruction is correct, then it suggests that Neo-Documentarianism is not by itself the answer to the problems raised by contemporary Pentateuchal criticism and that further attention needs to be given to supplementary approaches for unraveling textual disunity. Of course, this is not to say that a documentary approach should simply be jettisoned, since the discussions catalyzed by the advocates of Neo-Documentarianism have been enormously fruitful in clarifying the literary history of many individual texts in the Pentateuch and in providing a counterweight to the more fragmentary European literary-critical approaches. But there are real problems in Neo-Documentarian methodology, such as its privileging of the criterion of readability/continuity to the neglect of other criteria and its assumptions that non-P can be divided into two continuous parallel sources and that these sources were rigorously preserved by the compiler of the present form of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch.




[1] Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 37.


[2] David Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press), 114.


[3] H. Donner, quoted in Jan Christian Gertz, Angelika Berlejung, Konrad Schmid, Markus Witte, T&T Clark Handbook of the Old Testament (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 347.

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