The significance of Joseph being killed by a “fierce animal” (חיה רעה) in Gen 37:20 & 33

When Joseph is betrayed by his brothers and sold to the Midianite/Ishmaelite caravan, an interesting lexical item is used.  In Gen 37:20, the brothers plot to kill Joseph and claim that a “fierce animal” (ESV) has killed him.  Jacob too, when he sees Joseph’s bloodied garment, is convinced that a “fierce animal” has killed him.  But the collocation used in Hebrew (חיה רעה) is rare and has some fascinating occurrences in the Old Testament.

Leviticus 26:6 – Removal of חיה רעה from the land is one of the blessings the Israelites will receive for “walking in God’s statutes and obeying his commandments” (26:3).

Ezekiel 5:17 – God sends famine and חיה רעה upon the people of Jerusalem as divine punishment.

Ezekiel 14:15 – God describes sending חיה רעה through the land to ravage it, and says that he would not spare the inhabitants of that land even if Noah, Daniel and Job (three righteous men) were there.  (Don’t miss the echoes to Gen 18:22-33 here.)

Ezekiel 14:21 – A few verses later, God uses a qal vahomer (קל וחומר) argument, listing חיה רעה as one of the four acts of judgment he will send upon Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 34:25 – God says he will make a “covenant of peace” with the people.  Part of that involves the removal of חיה רעה from the land.  (The relationship between this and Lev 26:6 piques my curiosity as it relates to questions of covenant theology.)

Thus it seems that the presence of a חיה רעה is used in priestly terminology to indicate God’s judgment, and the absence of a חיה רעה indicates God’s mercy or deliverance.  What then does this say about Gen 37:20?

Victor Hamilton picks up on this connection, suggesting that Jacob’s response to the חיה רעה may be because he fears that Joseph has met his demise because of divine judgment – either for his own sin, or for some sin Joseph may have committed.  (NICOT, pg. 427.)  It is interesting that most other commentators leave this question completely unexplored.

My hunch is that Hamilton is on the right track here, although I’m not sure that the use of חיה רעה is meant to convey that either the brothers or Jacob really understood the significance of it.  It would be hard to imagine, however, that the writer didn’t have this significance in mind.  Perhaps the author is connecting the lawlessness and unrighteousness of the brothers with divine wrath, showing that their actions are polluting the land and are likely to provoke more of God’s חיה רעה judgment.

(Incidentally, a similar thing seems to be happening with Numb 13:22; the presence of the Nephilim there seems to connect the Spy Narrative with Gen 6:4, showing that the land of Canaan is as ripe for judgment as was the earth prior to the flood.)

The Sin of Onan in Gen 38:9 (for a future post) seems also to fit this theme – that the actions of the family are corrupting the earth and making it ripe for divine wrath.The presence of חיה רעה in Gen 37:20 & 33 seems to call for some kind of attention.

I’m surprised that so few commentators notice this.  It seems to have some significant interpretive import, although the precise nature of that import may be a matter of debate.

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

3 thoughts on “The significance of Joseph being killed by a “fierce animal” (חיה רעה) in Gen 37:20 & 33”

  1. I’m not convinced by the argument here. I think the other contexts of covenantally based blessing or judgement, don’t readily apply to the Genesis 37 passage. I suppose it’s plausible, but not likely, and not strongly warranted by the context of Genesis 37. Thanks for the interesting post, all the same.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Lon. I appreciate the critical engagement! I think it’ll just take some more analysis of the entire Joseph story to see if such an idea can be teased out. Something I’ll let percolate some more!



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