Snakes and Scorpions in Joseph’s Pit?

During my studies at Hebrew University, I remember my Hebrew professor made an interesting exegetical comment while the class was translating Genesis 37. This chapter, which describes Joseph’s relationship with his resentful brothers, contains a rather peculiar statement in v.24. Here is what the verse says:

And they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty, there was no water in it. (Gen 37:24 RSV)

At this point in the class, my professor stopped our translating exercises and pointed out the apparent redundancy in the second half of the verse. “If the pit was truly empty,” he argued, “then there would be no need for an additional statement saying there was no water in it. Therefore, several Jewish rabbis claim the pit actually contained snakes and scorpions at the bottom.” As my roommate and I walked back to our dorm after class, we discussed this statement and tried to wrap our heads around how one can make the exegetical leap from an empty pit with no water to a pit containing snakes and scorpions.

As it turns out, this interpretation comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Here is the relevant text in English from Shabbat 22a:

R. Kahana also said, R. Nathan b. Minyomi expounded in R. Tanḥum’s name: Why is it written, and the pit was empty, there was no water in it? From the implication of what is said, ‘and the pit was empty’, do I not know that there was no water in it; what then is taught by, ‘there was no water in it’? There was no water, yet there were snakes and scorpions in it.[1]

The Midrashim also mentions this idea: (continue reading…)

Genesis 2:4a & 2:4b

If you have ever spent time studying the creation stories in Genesis or comparing different outlines of the book, you may have noticed some disagreements about when the first creation story ends and when the second creation story begins. Some scholars claim the first creation account concludes with Gen 2:3, while others assert that the narrative extends to Gen 2:4a. The confusion comes from Gen 2:4, which combines grammatical elements normally associated with two distinct sources: P and J. Here is the verse:

אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם ביום עשות יהוה אלהים ארץ ושמים 

What is of particular interest is that v.4a uses language often connected with P, such as the תולדות formula and the use of the verb ברא, while v.4b seems characteristic to J due to its use of the divine name יהוה. For this reason, many scholars conclude that the P creation account extends into and ends with v.4a.

On the other hand, several other scholars point out that the division of v.4 between two sources is not without difficulties. For example, the term תולדות, which occurs several times in Genesis, usually refers to the narrative that follows the phrase and not to the preceding text. Therefore, it would appear to some that v.4a is actually the start of a distinct creation narrative.

While the arguments continue with several other points and counterpoints, it is fascinating to notice the chiastic structure of v.4 that links the two creation accounts together. Here is a visual breakdown of the verse:  (continue reading…)