Genesis 37:26-30 (Hebrew translation)
And Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Come, let us hand him over to the Ishmaelites and let not our hands be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” And his brothers listened. So, the Midianite merchants pulled and lifted Joseph from the cistern, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 shekels, and they brought Joseph to Egypt. Then Reuben returned to the cistern, and behold, Joseph was not in the cistern, and he tore off his garment.s And he turned to his brothers and said, “The boy is not there! And I, where should I go?”
Two questions are raised from this text: (1) Who are the Midianites? I thought they were Ishmaelites? (2) Where did Reuben go that he returned to his brothers?
For the first question, these are two different types of people, which means these Ishmaelites and Midianites were travelling together. The brothers allowed the Midianites to pull Joseph out of the cistern—essentially their property now—and sell him to the Ishmaelites for 20 shekels (220 grams of silver, 11 grams per shekel). Judah wanted to get rid of Joseph for a profit, so it is likely the Midianites split the profits with Judah. Although the text does not say they did this, we can draw this as a likely conclusion since that was Judah’s purpose.
As for the second question—where Reuben went that he returned—we cannot know, for the text does not tell us. Yet I believe it is safe to assume Reuben went to check on the flock back in Shechem since they were left unattended for quite some time (remember, Shechem is a 16-17-mile hike from where the brothers were, Dothan, so this would’ve easily covered the amount of time it took for Joseph’s other brothers to throw him into the cistern, eat, and sell him into slavery).
Our inclination, I think, is to empathise with Reuben. He tried to save his brother and he grieved when he discovered he was not in the cistern (the tearing of garments was a customary gesture of grief in Israelite culture). However, I don’t think we should be so quick to empathise with him.
Remember his words before he left, “Do not shed his blood; throw him into the cistern…” What made Reuben think this was a better solution to killing Joseph? Sure, in a way, it’s better than murder, but it would’ve been far better if Reuben didn’t offer another suggestion in getting rid of Joseph but rather rebuked his brothers outright and immediately took Joseph back to their father.
The text says he made this suggestion so that he might return him to their father, but surely not making this suggestion and instead immediately taking him back yourself would’ve been far better! How could he take him back to their father by throwing him into a cistern? It makes no sense. So, Reuben is just as guilty as his brothers since he didn’t try hard enough to rescue Joseph from his brothers’ hands. He utterly failed his brother.
An objection could be interposed here, “But if Reuben brought Joseph back to their father, then he would not have provided grain for all Israel during the famine and, therefore, all Israel would not have been preserved and Christ would not have been born.” Yes, obviously. I’m not saying how it should’ve gone down; my point is that we cannot empathise with Reuben’s grief because he is just as guilty as his brothers since he didn’t try hard enough. My further point is that all of Joseph’s brothers are guilty, even Reuben who was the only one who expressed his grief because he still failed his brother since he could’ve done more—a lot more.
This brings me to the text’s application. All of us are like Reuben. There are many around us who have sinned so obviously and yet are not sorry for their sins, like Joseph’s brothers. Then there are those of us who recognise the wrong we’ve done and are even sorry for them, like Reuben, yet this does not excuse our guilt. We might be sorry, but we are still guilty.
That is, until our guilt meets the mercy of Christ. That is the mercy in repentance. In repentance, we recognise our guilt and are heartily sorry for it, and it is only in Christ that our guilt is completely erased and God the Father counts us as blameless because of what Christ has done. Like Joseph was completely innocent when he was handed over to slavery, so Christ was completely innocent when He was handed over to death.
Everyone is guilty for this, even we who recognise that what we have done is wrong. Yet Christ, in His mercy, forgives us for our sins just as Joseph later forgives his brothers for what they did to him all those years before. Thanks be to God.
©Featured image is artwork by Konstantin Flavitsky, Jacob’s Sons Sell Joseph into Slavery (1855)