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…)