Do the brothers bring? (Gen 37:32)

There is an interesting textual feature in Gen 37:32. After selling Joseph to the Midianite/Ishmaelite caravan, they dip his special garment in goat blood in order to deceive their father. (Don’t miss the irony here as Jacob himself used both a goat and a garment to deceive his own father many years before.) But do they bring the bloodied garment to him personally, or do they do so through the work of an intermediary?

When I first read v.22, I was struck by the phrase “And they sent the garment” (וישלחו את-כתנת הפסים). John Currid seems to pick up on this too: “…the brothers send the blood-soaked coat to Jacob by the hand of others” (pg. 202). In this case, the brothers don’t even want to look their father in the eye, but sent a messenger to do the dirty work for them. But two other features weaken the likelihood of this.

First, the verb “they brought” (ויביאו), though in the Hiphil stem, seems to have the brothers as subject: “They [i.e., the brothers] brought it [the garment] to their father.” Currid, however, suggests that the Hiphil of בוא should be rendered as a causative, “They caused it [the garment] to be brought to their father.” Though the Hiphil does sometimes carry a causative force, it is not clear that it does so with בוא. After all, as a hollow verb, בוא can’t be rendered in the Piel which might allow for a morphological distinction between “to bring” and “to cause to bring.” (I suppose a Pilpael could accomplish this, though I just don’t know if the א allows it. I don’t know enough about Pilpael verbs to say one way or the other.)

Quite the contrary, for the primary definition of בוא in the Hiphil, HALOT (a.k.a. the Koehler & Baumgartner lexicon) lists “to bring, lead in, with אל….” The preposition אל is exactly what we have here: “They brought [it] to their father.” (ויביאו אל-אביהם) We find a similar verbal form and usage only a few verses earlier (v.28): “And they brought Joseph to Egypt” (ויביאו את-יוסף מצרימה). It seems unlikely that this verb is being used causatively here (i.e., “The brothers caused Joseph to be brought to Egypt.”). Rather it is the Midianite/Ishmaelite caravan that brings Joseph.

Since v.28 lacks שלח, the verb which elicits the “causative” interpretation in v.32, reading ויביאו as “and they brought” is very natural. But even if it had שלח, and even if it was in the Piel as it is in v.32, that would not necessarily mean that the object is being removed by means of another agent. Though HALOT does suggest that the Piel of שלח can mean “to send, dismiss,” it suggests that this is usually reserved for the Qal. In fact, it is possible to render שלח in the Piel as “to accompany, escort.” HALOT suggests Gen 12:20, 18:18 and 31:27 as examples.

The second feature that weakens the liklihood of a causitive interpretation to v.32 is less grammatical and lexical. V.35 seems to put the brothers alongside Jacob when he learns of Joseph’s apparent death: “All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him ….” Introducing a time gap between the sending of the garment (v.32) and the rising up to comfort (v.35) seems unwarranted. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan suggests that the sons of Leah sent the garment with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah in v.32. This lets the Targum have it both ways! But such an interpretation is conjecture.

As interesting as it would have been to interpret the passage as the brothers sending the bloody coat instead of bringing it themselves (since it would have heightened their disdain both for Joseph and their father), it just seems that they brought the coat and simply lied to his face. This is a widely held reading of this verse and the grammar doesn’t give us very firm warrant for dismissing it.

(By the way, this post is not meant to be critical of Currid’s 2-volumes on Genesis. I only own volume 2, but have found it to be a really excellent study of the text!)

Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA