37 21 When Reuben heard, he came to his rescue and said, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “We must not strike him mortally! Fling him into this wilderness pit, but do not raise a hand upon him.” This was so he could rescue him from their hand and return him to his father.
23 When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his cloak, the ornamented tunic. 24 They took him and threw him into s pit, an empty pit with no water in it. 25 They sat down to eat bread. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels carrying balm, balsam, and ladanum on their way down to Egypt.
26 Judah said to his brothers, “What gain is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him. Let’s not harm him because he’s our brother; our flesh.” His brothers agreed.
28 Meanwhile, some Midianite merchants passed by and hauled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt.
Reuben made a previous attempt at tribal leadership when he lay with Bilhah in a bid to overthrow his father. Readers can sense the wheels turning in Reuben’s head. Two possibilities came to mind regarding an attempt to rescue Joseph from his brothers. One begins to put Reuben back in Israel’s good grace by caring for his father’s favorite—Joseph. A second might give him an edge with the current favorite for leading the next generation—again, Joseph. Rueben’s attempted rescue seems to arise more from calculation than compassion. It also evidences Reuben’s distance from his brothers. With this making of independent decisions based on what is good for him, not the community, he will not be able to hold the tribe together.
Reuben’s suggestion effects a shift from a quick death for Joseph to captivity. For Reuben, this may supply an opportunity to rescue Joseph and hie him hence to his father. Points go to Reuben, who may be able to play his father’s game of gaming his father.
Stripped of his cloak of privilege, Joseph finds himself in a wilderness pit without water. We don’t hear Joseph crying out for mercy or help. He appears to be standing by his dreams. After all, his brothers have already circled round him. Now, it is just a matter of time before they bow down to him as he stands upon a pillar rising from the pit to tower over it and his brothers.
Meanwhile, as the brothers share a victory mean, they see a caravan journeying from Mesopotamia to Egypt.
While Reuben is setting up his plan, Judah raises a mediating voice. Judah, fourth and last born to Leah, consolidates his brothers’ actions. They are not to kill one of their own but to sell him to their extended family, the Ishmaelites. [Note: Ishmaelites and Midianites refer to the same people at different historical times. This confusion indicates a conflation of sources.] This plan will bring immediate gain—two pieces of silver apiece to the shepherding brothers and the trading city of Dothan is right close. [Note: This division presumes Benjamin was still too young to have been away to tend the flocks.]
We don’t know if Reuben is thinking here what Joseph will later claim from Egypt—that acts intended for harm, may yet be transformed into good. Of course, it is easier to see the obverse —the best of intentions can quickly turn into unintended consequences, harm.