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(Gen 37:1 - 40:23)

B'resheet/Genesis 37:18   And they saw him from far off and before he came near to them, they plotted together against him, to kill him.


In this week's text, 'they' is Joseph's ten brothers other than Benjamin and 'he/him' is Yosef. Given the way that biblical Hebrew struggles with the full range of tenses available in many non-Semitic languages (particular Greek, Latin and most european languages such as English that are derived from them), it is interesting see see how this text uses the available syntax to interleave different slices of past time as reported by the narrator and read by us, the readers. The scribes of the What Is ...

The Masoretic Text: The traditional Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible, defining not just the text but also the books and order of the Jewish canon; generated in the 8th-9th centuries by a group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes, by adding vowel and cantilation markings to the extant consonantal text stable since 2nd Temple times; also known as the Ben Asher text after Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher who devised in the early 900s CE the marking scheme that is still used today
Masoretic Text who added pointing for vowels, cantilation and punctuation also help us to see what is going on.

The first verb, - the Qal prefix 3mp form of the root , to see - has a vav-conversive to signal both past tense and that it is the next sequential action in the narrative chain following the two in the previous verse: "And Yosef went after his brothers and he found them in Dothan" (B'resheet 37:17). The action smoothly continues - "and they saw him ..." - in our text. The atnakh under the khet in the word , the third word of the verse, marks the major break in most Hebrew Bible verses and brings that action to a close: what happened next, the narrator tells us, is that the brothers saw Yosef from some way away.

The second half of the verse begins with the adverb , starting another time slice. It is followed by the second verb, - the Qal prefix 3ms form of the root , to approach or draw near - noticeably without a vav-conversive so remaining in its open, incomplete state hinting of a future action. This is clearly a second time slice set forward of the first.

But there is more. The zakef katan accent on the last syllable of introduces another, but less major, break in the flow. It is followed by the third verb in the verse, - the hitp'ael prefix 3mp form of the root , to plot together against someone (Davidson) - with a vav-conversive signalling past tense and sequential action. This, then, is a third time-slice sitting between "and they saw" and "before he came near".

The last twist in the tale is that the fourth verb in the verse, - the Hif'il infinitive of the root , to die, with a 3ms object pronoun at its end, so here "to cause him to die" or "to kill him" - is yet another time-slice set still further forward than "before he came near". They couldn't kill him until after he had reached them, the second time-slice in the verse. We can now see the time sequence of the four actions in the verse like this:

  1. the brothers saw Yosef coming from a long way off;
  2. while Yosef was still coming towards them, but before he had arrived, they plotted together against him, with the outcome of that plotting - including the commuting of the active killing to a passive allowing him to die - is narrated in verses 19-22;
  3. he then arrived, which will be announced as the next sequential even in verse 23: "And it was, when Yosef came ...";
  4. after he arrives, he will be thrown into the pit and left to die; this is reported in verses 24-25: "they stripped Yoseph of his tunic ... and cast him into the pit" (NJPS).

We could therefore insert the English word 'had' into our translation to make it clear which actions happen in which order: "And they saw him from far off and, before he came near to them, they had plotted together against him: to kill him" (v. 18, amended). A totally past time story, which happened well over 3,500 years ago, is skillfully told by the narrator - and if that is, as tradition suggests, Moshe, he is still narrating events several hundred years in his past - to give the impression of texture and variation in the time sequence that we would expect from current events reporting, making the text alive and interesting to its hearers and readers rather than a flat and boring list of long past sequential events.

This is a difficult story for the traditional Jewish commentators, since a plain reading of the text makes it fairly obvious that the ten brothers (all Ya'akov's sons except Yosef himself and his full brother, Benjamin) not only had feet of clay but were actively plotting to murder Yosef. Not exactly a glowing report for characters otherwise held up in high esteem as the patriarchs of the nation Israel. What Is ...

Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era
Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew verb , "and they plotted together" to the Aramaic , "and they thought about". Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner explain that this is "one of about one hundred instances in B'resheet where the targumist softens the biblical language to protect and elevate the temperament and moral behaviour of Israel's biblical ancestors." The Who Is ...

Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death
Sforno turns the translation of the conspiracy verb completely around - "they were conspired against by him, that he slay them" - and puts these words in their mouths: "He has come to find fault or transgression that he can report to our father so that he will curse us." He can then make the excuse that "we are then being told (by the Torah) that the brothers were convinced that Yosef was beguiling and deceiving them with the intent of destroying them, so they felt justified in slaying (or selling) him to prevent him from slaying them." The Sforno enters a plea for the brothers of this being a preemptive strike made in self-defence.

Other commentators are more pragmatic. Who Is ...

Abraham Ibn Ezra: (1089-1167 CE), born in Tudela, Spain; died in the South of France after wandering all around the shores of the Mediterranean and England; a philosopher, astronomer, doctor, poet and linguist; wrote a Hebrew grammar and a commentary on the Bible
Ibn Ezra's assessment is blunt - "they schemed to do evil. The verb focuses on their evil thoughts" - while the Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban says that "they conspired to kill him by trickery before he came close, so they would not have to spill his blood with their own hands." Even less flattering, Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi concludes that, "this means that they filled themselves with conspiracies and cunning." The Who Is ...

The Rashbam: Rabbi Samuel ben Asher (1085-1174 CE), a grandson of Rashi; lived in Northern France; worked from the plain meaning of the Hebrew text even when this contradicted established rabbinic interpretaton
Rashbam invites us to "compare this with 'the trickery they practised against you' (B'Midbar 25:18, NJPS) or 'a curse on the cheat who has an unblemished male' (Malachi 1:14, NJPS)." The modern commentator, Nahum Sarna doesn't exacrly mince his words either: "The brothers are now far from their father's restraining presence. The mere sight of Yosef ignites their hatred and murderous passions."

In the New Covenant Scriptures, the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees, the chief priests and temple officials and others are variously listed as conspiring to kill Yeshua. The Jewish leaders in Antioch and other groups plotted against Rav Sha'ul. Yet Peter tells to the people on the day of Pentecost, "Yeshua of Nazareth, a man attested to you by G-d with mighty works and wonders and signs that G-d did through Him in your midst ... delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of G-d, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. G-d raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it" (Acts 2:22-24, ESV). You did it, he says, in this time, but it was all the foreknown plan of G-d; it already existed in its time.

So let's look at the time slices that surround our lives. Before we were born, the sin of our father Adam meant that "sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Romans 5:12, ESV). But before that happened, our names were written "before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain" (Revelation 13:8, ESV). Yeshua came at a physical point in time, approximately two thousand years ago, and died on the cross to redeem all those who trusted in Him, whether (then or now) past or future, because "G-d shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Messiah died for us" (Romans 5:8, ESV). We live in this physical world, in bodies that are decaying, yet our lives are "hidden with Messiah in G-d" so that "when Messiah who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:3-4, ESV).

We are here now, yet at the same time, "G-d, being rich in mercy ... even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Messiah ... and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Messiah Yeshua" (Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV). What is dead becomes alive; what is here becomes there; what is now becomes what will be. It is as if we live in two worlds, two time-slices, the olam ha'zeh and the olam ha'ba simultaneously. Yeshua told the people that, "whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24, ESV) and "I will raise him up on the last day" (6:54, ESV). This too is "the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40, ESV).

Further Study: Psalm 37:12-15; 1 Peter 1:18-21

Application: Are you confused about which time-slice you are meant to be living: past, present or future? The answer is 'yes', all three, as we live out the life of the kingdom in this present life: eternal life now but not yet. Why not ask the One True Time Lord to show you His perspective on your life!

02:09 25Nov18 Diana Brown: Excellent teaching! Hidden in Christ until the mystery of the gentiles is fully revealed (before the 7th Trump of Revelation) keeps us focused as a body of the Messiah to intercede for his nation who must accept Him as their king when He comes. Caesar has not served them well. Israel must enthrone the king of G-d's own choosing according to Deuteronomy 17:15 for the kingdom of Heaven to come to earth. Joseph and his brothers foreshadow Yeshua and his brothers. Israel will have to accept Him as king and messiah to possess the Land G-d unconditionally gave them to own. The kingdom comes with a king.

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© Jonathan Allen, 2018



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