Moses and Joseph’s bones

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Nissim Bellahsen


Chapter 13 of Exodus narrates the events occurring immediately after the Hebrews’ departure from Egypt, revealing important details about their itinerary during this time.[1] Verse 19 tells us the following:

Moses took away Joseph’s bones, for [Joseph] had formally adjured the children of Israel, saying, “God will take charge of you and then you will take away my bones from here.”

Commentators[2] explain that it was not Joseph’s descendants alone who were charged with carrying these bones; by making the “children of Israel” as a whole swear, Joseph gave the responsibility to the entire nation. It is hence understandable that the one who carries the bones is not specifically one of Joseph’s descendants.

But why does the verse take the trouble to tell us that it was Moses himself who took the bones of Joseph, rather than someone else?

The answer that we propose is rooted in sources introduced several chapters prior, in the book of Genesis, and harks back to the origins of Joseph’s misfortunes.[3]

The sale of Joseph

Chapter 37 of Genesis describes how Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold to the Ishmaelites, who brought him down to Egypt.

Joseph had twelve brothers. Which brothers were involved in the sale? Evidence points to the involvement of at least four brothers.

For two of Joseph’s brothers, Judah and Reuben, we have direct textual proof of their involvement in the unfolding of these events:

Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness but lay not your hand on him.” (Genesis 37:22)

Judah said to his brothers, “What good is it if we kill our brother and seal his death? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and let our hand not be on him, for he is our brother, our flesh!” (Genesis 37:26-27)

The involvement of two other brothers can be deduced from Jacob’s blessings to his sons at the end of his life. Jacob takes this opportunity to admonish Simeon and Levi:

For in their anger they have slain men and for their passion they have struck a bull. (Genesis 49:6)

What is the bull to which Jacob is referring? If we look at Moses’s final blessings to the tribes of Israel, we see that he refers to Joseph using the term “like a firstborn bull is his majesty” (Deuteronomy 33:17). From this blessing, we see that the bull is Joseph’s token animal. It is therefore likely that in his final words, Jacob is also referencing Joseph when he mentions the bull, and is blaming Simeon and Levi for Joseph’s sale.[4]

While the participation of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah in the transgression of the sale of Joseph is certain, the extent of the involvement of the remaining seven brothers is unclear. There is no direct textual mention of their implication, and Jacob does not mention this sin in his appraisals/blessings to them.

We have seen that four brothers have sinned. But are all four brothers punished?

Any transgression may require atonement/reparations or punishment, even for seemingly similar actions. For example, someone who kills another person is put to death, a punishment, whereas someone who kills an animal must pay, an atonement/reparation (see Leviticus 24:21). The main difference between atonement and punishment is that the atonement benefits the victim, whereas the punishment does not.

Joseph’s brothers sinned by selling him into slavery. This transgression seems to have been done by a collective, so any punishment and atonement must be borne by the group. But when we look more closely, we find that two pairs emerge within the four brothers whose involvement in the offense is certain: the Reuben-Judah pair and the Simeon-Levi pair. Within each pair, one bears the punishment and the other enacts the reparation.[5] This indicates that within each pairing the sins of each of the brothers were in fact somewhat different.[6] We will now examine the sins and consequences of each pair more closely.

Reuben and Judah

The relationship between the tribes of Reuben and Judah is one of subtle rivalry. Indeed, all that Reuben and his descendants could have hoped to obtain by birthright, it is Judah who secures through his deeds,[7] because Reuben behaved inappropriately on several occasions (see Genesis 49:4).

Reuben’s punishment of losing his position of authority makes sense, considering that within the Joseph story alone he is twice shown to be powerless as a leader of his brothers:

  1. His attempt to rescue Joseph was unsuccessful since Joseph was sold in his absence (see Genesis 37:29-30);
  2. He was unable to convince his father to let Benjamin go down to Egypt. We can note that his proposal, that his father kill his two children should he fail to bring Benjamin back to him (see Genesis 42:37), makes no sense: if he failed, Jacob would find himself with three missing sons and two more dead grandchildren, in addition to the death of Er and Onan (see Genesis 38). This proposal seems to indicate a form of despair on Reuben’s part: he has sunk so low that he cannot offer a rational argument to his father convincing him to entrust his son to him.

Judah enacts the atonement, by displaying his willingness to sacrifice himself so that Benjamin can return to his father (see Genesis 44:33). He makes a physical commitment in order to avoid putting his father through the same ordeal that he brought about the first time with Joseph. Now, Leah’s children are willing to sacrifice themselves for Rachel’s children. Judah also accepts that Jacob may prefer Rachel’s children, and ignores it. Note that in doing this, Judah succeeds in saving his brother Benjamin – thus keeping his promise to his father that he would protect him.

At first glance, these punishments and reparations seem to be disproportionate to the respective involvement of Reuben and Judah. After all, Reuben intended to save Joseph from death! And Judah is the one who suggested and convinced his brothers to accept the idea of selling Joseph! One might have thought that the opposite outcomes should have taken place: atonement for Reuben and punishment for Judah. And yet if we look more carefully at the sale of Joseph and its aftermath, we see why the result was warranted.

What was Reuben’s fundamental mistake in his attempt to save Joseph? His main fault was that he did not clarify his intention enough – he was not specific enough with his brethren to avoid any misunderstanding. The brothers’ initial plan is to kill Joseph and throw him into a pit to conceal the body. Reuben suggests throwing him directly into the pit instead.

[Joseph’s brothers] saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Now this, come, let us kill him and throw him into some pit, and then we will say that a fierce beast has devoured him. Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!” When Reuben heard this, he wanted to save him from them. He said, “Let’s not take his life.” So Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay not your hand on him.” It was to save him from their hands and bring him back to his father. (Genesis 37:18-22)

Reuben does not explicitly state his aim of saving Joseph’s life. The text tells us this, so as readers we know his good intentions, but his brothers remain unaware. Let us reread Reuben’s statement from the point of view of Reuben’s brothers. The brothers had just suggested killing Joseph directly. Reuben seems to be saying, “Let us throw him into the pit so that he may die there, and we’ll avoid getting our hands dirty. Let us not kill him ourselves, let us not lay hands on him ourselves, let us not spill his blood ourselves.” Without any additional information about his intentions – without the “subtitles” that the text gives us through internal focalization on Reuben – we may have construed the sentence in the same way as Reuben’s brothers did – that he did not want to kill Joseph directly but rather wanted to let him die in the pit. In the eyes of the brothers, Reuben is not saving Joseph from death.

We know that this is in fact how the other brothers understood Reuben based on Judah’s proposal to sell Joseph. Judah tells his brothers, “What good is it if we kill our brother and seal his death?” (Genesis 37:26). Judah is implying that they originally intended to let Joseph rot and die in that pit. Now Judah proposes two things to his brothers: to save Joseph, or at least not kill him, and to sell him to the Ishmaelites, that they may be rid of his presence. The brothers consent. Here, it is Judah who has just saved Joseph from death! It is the first time that he succeeds where Reuben failed. Even though Reuben’s intentions were praiseworthy, his performance was not up to the task, causing the chain reaction that led to the sale of Joseph. As for Judah, while he certainly erred in proposing and participating in the sale of Joseph, he did successfully convince his brothers not to kill him – quite a feat in this loaded context. This may justify a more “lenient” treatment than Reuben’s.

Let us finish with Reuben’s ultimate misunderstanding: having spent three days in Joseph’s jail, and after Joseph expresses his will to bring Benjamin to Egypt, this is the dialogue that occurs between the brothers:

And they said to one another, “Truly we are being punished for our brother’s sake; we saw his despair when he cried out to us and we were deaf. That is why this misfortune has befallen us.” Reuben said to them, “Didn’t I say to you at that time: Don’t you be guilty of this child! And you did not listen. Well then! Now his blood is required of us.” (Genesis 42:21-22)

While all the brothers (and at least those who actually participated in the crime) seem to admit their responsibility, the same cannot be said of Reuben. Worse still, he berates his brothers for ignoring his plea, without ever analyzing himself. Perhaps that is why he was punished twice, losing both the trust of his father and his position of authority: once for being unclear, thus enabling the brothers’ act without his knowledge, and a second time because he did not admit to his mistake.

Within the Reuben-Judah pair, we can now understand why Reuben’s actions warranted punishment, whereas Judah’s actions warranted atonement, although at first glance their sins seem the same. The different consequences stem from the fact that Reuben’s deeds almost got Joseph killed, whereas Judah’s “only” led him to slavery.

Simeon and Levi

There are numerous passages which explicitly give evidence to the fact that Simeon and Levi are a team. First, it is Simeon and Levi who massacre the city of Shechem. Additionally, Jacob begins his admonishment of them at the end of his life by saying that “Simeon and Levi are brothers” (Genesis 49:5), and therefore must be disbanded.

Of the two brothers, Simeon was the one who was punished, being forced to remain in Joseph’s cell until his brothers returned. The text explicitly states that Simeon was in captivity for the whole period between the departure of the brothers from Egypt and their return with Benjamin:

On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man. If you are honest men, let one of you brothers be held in your place of detention, while the rest of you go and take home rations for your starving households; but you must bring me your youngest brother, that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” And they did accordingly… [Joseph] took Simeon from among them and had him bound before their eyes. (Genesis 42:18-20, 24)

[Joseph] said, “Be at peace, don’t be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, has made you find treasure in your sacks. Your money had come to me.” And he freed Simeon to them. (Genesis 43:23)

The word vayotzei used in the Hebrew text is a word of deliverance; Joseph “brought” Simeon out of his shackles to return him to his brothers. And this imprisonment was not a short one. Simeon remained in jail for a substantial amount of time:

Famine weighed on the country. So when all the grain which they had brought from Egypt was consumed, their father said to them, “Go again and buy us a little food.” But Judah said to him, “The man warned us, ‘Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you.’ … If we hadn’t been delayed, we would have come back twice by now!” (Genesis 43:1-3, 10)

Regardless of the conditions relating to his detention, Simeon must have been separated from his father and brothers for a considerable period. And this separation from his family is significant. In addition to being a son and brother, Simeon was also the father of six sons (see Genesis 46:10).[8] Thus, by being imprisoned for this length of time, he experienced the pain of separation both from the perspective of a father (like his father Jacob had experienced with Joseph) and from the point of view of a son (like Joseph to Jacob).

We have shown that Simeon is the brother in the pairing who receives the punishment, but why? There is little compelling data that would provide a satisfying answer to the question. However, by looking at Simeon, Levi, and their respective tribes later on, we see a pattern showing a clear separation of their paths.

Throughout the rest of Pentateuch, Simeon and his tribe experience a descent:

  • Perhaps Joseph imprisoned Simeon to isolate the brother who had demonstrated a greater potential for violence in the past.

  • It is Zimri son of Salu, prince of the tribe of Simeon, who defiles himself with the Midianite Kozbi daughter of Zur, thus indirectly defying the authority of Moses and God.

  • The count of the tribe of Simeon goes from 59,300 at the beginning of the book of Numbers (Numbers 1:23) to 22,200 during the fortieth year in the desert (Numbers 26:14), a loss of 37,100 people. There were various epidemics that struck the Hebrews during their journey through the Sinai desert, all a result of sin; the large decrease in Simeon’s numbers indicate that they were likely disproportionately affected by these epidemics, implying that they likely disproportionately sinned.

  • Simeon is the only tribe not to be blessed by Moses at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.

Meanwhile, throughout the latter part of the Pentateuch, the tribe of Levi is ascendent:

  • It was the Levites who all fought for God during the event of the golden calf, resulting in the deaths of three thousand people. While the Levites certainly committed an act of violence, it was in the service of God, demonstrating that their violence can be channeled for a noble purpose.

  • The Levites are the ones who serve in the Tabernacle/Temple in place of the firstborn. As a result of this, they are regularly referred to as God’s heritage and are given gifts such as terumah and ma’aser.

If we assume that the descent of Simeon indicates personal lacking and the ascent of Levi indicates personal merit, then it is fitting that Simeon is the one who receives punishment and Levi would be the one who receives atonement.

We have demonstrated that within this pairing, Simeon is the one who receives the punishment, and have attempted to explain why. But what about the other member of the pairing? Levi’s atonement is missing! It is not impossible that Levi made some sort of “atonement” during his lifetime and that of Joseph, but the verses do not mention it, and so it is likely that a personal atonement had never occured. Once Levi is deceased, it is logical that the atonement would fall to one of his descendants. And to atone for the sin of removing Joseph from his family, the ultimate reparation to benefit the victim is to ultimately return him (or his bones after he dies) to his home.

Why Moses

But Levi had many descendents. Why was Moses specifically the one tasked with carrying out the atonement? There are several clues that can point us in the right direction.

Firstly, although Levi had many descendents, the text emphasizes that Moses is among them. Even before his conception, Moses is connected to Levi; he is introduced to us as the fruit of the union of an unnamed Levite and the unnamed daughter of Levi (see Exodus 2:1). Although they are named elsewhere, at Moses’s birth his parents are not defined by name, but by their tribe, and this tribal connection is passed on to Moses. Even though Aaron is also called “ha-levi” (Exodus 4:14), this occurs immediately after he is called Moses’s “brother”; he is connected to the tribe of Levi because Moses is.

Another clue that it is Moses who will atone for Levi is given at the event of the (non-)burning bush, where God reveals Himself to Moses and asks him to lead His people out of Egypt. There, Moses is appointed the “trustee” of the form of deliverance enunciated by Joseph:

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am going to die. Know that the Lord will take charge of you and bring you back from this land to the land he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And Joseph made the children of Israel swear, saying “Yes, the Lord will take charge of you, and then you will take my bones out of here.” (Genesis 50:24-25)

Go and gather together the elders of Israel and say to them, “The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have taken charge of you and of what they are doing to you in Egypt.’” (Exodus 3:16)

Moses’ actions following this command also highlight a connection with Joseph.

Moses returned to Jethro, his brother-in-law,[9] and said to him, “I would like to go away and return to my brothers in Egypt, to see if they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” (Exodus 4:18)

Moses returns to Midian to see Jethro, whose flock he is in charge of. Surprisingly, he asks Jethro’s permission to go and rescue his brothers, and his brother-in-law agrees.

If we examine Moses’s request to return to Egypt, we see that it closely parallels Jacob’s request of Joseph that begins all of Joseph’s troubles:

He (Jacob) said to him (Joseph), “Go and see, please, how your brothers are, how the flocks are, and bring me news of them.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron and he came to Shechem. (Genesis 37:14)

Although the order of phrases between the two verses is not the same, the similarities are numerous:

  • The root sh-u-v is used in both verses: Moses comes back (va-yashov) to Jethro, and asks to return (ve-ashuva) to his brothers, and Jacob tells Joseph to report information back to him (va-hashiveini);

  • The phrase va-yomer lo, “he said to him,” is used in both verses[10];

  • Moses says elekhah na, “I would like to go,” and Joseph is commanded lekh-na, “please go”;

  • Moses wants to check on ahai, “my brothers,” and Joseph is commanded to check on ahekha, “your brothers”;

  • In both stories, an indication of the place of departure and the place of destination is given: Moses departs from Midian and goes to Egypt, and Joseph departs from the valley of Hebron and goes to Shechem;

  • Both Moses and Joseph are to “see” their brother’s welfare: Moses says ve-er’eh, “and I will see,” and Joseph is commanded re’eh, “see”;

  • The word “peace” is used in both verses: Jethro tells Moses to go le-shalom, – “in peace,” and Jacob commands Joseph to see et shelom “the peace/wellbeing of” his brothers.

In addition to containing linguistic parallels to the specific verse where Joseph is requested to check on his brothers, Moses’s request also contains linguistic parallels to other parts of the Joseph story.

  • Ha-odam hayyim – are they alive? The question asking whether someone is alive using this type of language appears in the words of only three characters in the Bible, including Joseph (indirectly in Genesis 43:7, directly in Genesis 43:27 and Genesis 45:3) and Moses here. They are the only ones in the Pentateuch.

  • Ve-ashuvahand I will return: This term appears only six times in the Bible, only two of them in the whole Pentateuch: here, concerning Moses, and in Genesis 50:5, when Joseph tells Pharaoh that he will return to Egypt after burying his father.

  • Seneh – bush: this word appears in the entire Bible six times: five during the (non-) burning bush episode, which starts Moses’s journey (Exodus 3:3-4), and the sixth at the end of Moses’s life, when he blesses Joseph’s tribe (Deutoronomy 33:16).

At the end of Moses’s life, we see a final clue that Moses is the one who atones for Levi, one other event that connects him strongly to both Levi and to Joseph. When Moses blesses the tribes at the end of his life, the longest blessings that he gives are to those two tribes. These blessings are significantly longer than the blessings given to the other tribes (see Deuteronomy 33).


Now that we have examined Moses’s connection to Levi and to Joseph, we are able to explain why the text emphasizes that Moses specifically was the one to take Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Of the known protagonists of the sale of Joseph, only Levi, Moses’s anscestor, had not brought any atonement. Recovering Joseph’s bones and transporting them out from Egypt and into the land of Canaan is the ultimate compensation for the damage Joseph has suffered. Because of Moses’s strong connection to Joseph, it makes sense that he is the one to fulfill this task. While he may have no obligation to do so, by burying Joseph, Moses is “paying” what can be seen as his ancestor’s centennial debt.

We have seen that at first glance the verse about Moses taking Joseph’s bones seems to be a throwaway detail, informing us that the tribes’ promise to Joseph was kept. However, by analyzing the precise terms used, we learn that in fact it hints to much larger implications regarding the character of Moses and his relationship to those who came before him. But this is not the only verse in the Torah with these types of insights hidden beneath the surface. By frequently asking questions and probing the exact uses of words and terms across the Torah, exploring why one term is used rather than another, we will be able to further discover the wonders contained therein.

[1] This article is adapted from a chapter of a book of original commentaries on the Pentateuch that will be published in French in 2021, with God’s help. My deep thanks to Myriam Ackermann-Sommer and Avital Harris for their help in translating this commentary, and to Davida Kollmar for her kind review and comments.

[2] See Rashi on Exodus 13:19, quoting Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, as well as Baal Ha-Turim on Genesis 50:25. Rabbeinu Bahya on Genesis 50:25 goes further, saying that Joseph made not only his brothers, but also the future “children of Israel” swear, which explains why when Joseph made his brothers swear, they are referred to as “the children of Israel” rather than “his brothers” (Genesis 50:25).

[3] Seforno (Exodus 13:19) makes the simple claim that “Moses was the ruler of the generation, therefore the task fell to him.” While this answer is logical and demonstrates Moses’s leadership, it seems too simplistic in view of the emphasis that the text places on the idea that it was Moses himself who carried the bones, not as the leader of the people but as a private individual.

[4] In general, there are many parallels between Jacob and Moses. Many of these parallels occur specifically within their respective last words, including the use of token animals and phrases such as le-rosh yosef u-lekodkod nezir ehav (Genesis 49:26, Deuteronomy 33:16) and gur aryeh (Genesis 49:9, Deuteronomy 33:22). It is therefore likely that Jacob and Moses would refer to the same person when mentioning a bull.

[5] Note that the Or ha-Haim on Exodus 13:19 also mentions this idea of reparation, based on the term “from here” used by Joseph. Or ha-Haim interprets this phrase not as an indication of the place from where the children of Israel should retrieve Joseph’s bones, but rather as the reason for the retrieval of his bones.

[6] This is not to claim that the punishment and reparation is or is not “divine”; intriguingly, God does not explicitly intervene in this specific episode.

If we look more closely, we can see that the punishments and atonements for one pair are carried out directly by Joseph and for the other pair are carried out indirectly. Reuben’s punishment and Judah’s reparation are not directly caused by Joseph. Reuben undergoes his punishment without the slightest intervention on the part of Joseph, as we will see later on. For the reparation of Judah, Joseph certainly intervenes, but in a very indirect way, and there is no evidence that Joseph’s actions were with the intent of allowing the reparation to occur. On the other hand, the punishment of Simeon and the reparation of Levi are directly provoked by Joseph: it is Joseph himself who punishes Simeon by putting him in prison, and it is Joseph himself who requests that his bones be brought out of Egypt with the children of Israel, a wish fulfilled by a descendant of Levi. This difference may be due to the differing guilt of the Simeon-Levi pair and the Reuben-Judah pair. It was Simeon and Levi who directly and actively participated in Joseph’s troubles, with ill intentions towards him, as is evident from Jacob’s admonishment of them alone for the incident. Conversely, Reuben intended to save him, and Judah did indeed save him from death.

[7] The theme of the elder getting less than his younger brother(s) is omnipresent in the Torah from Cain and Abel, through Ishmael and Isaac, or Esau and Jacob. Let us note here, however, that this is the first time that the elder loses a position he once held because of his acts AND that the younger one recovers that place because of his acts.

[8] It may be that Simeon also had daughters, but the verse does not mention this.

[9] The relationship between Moses and Jethro is the subject of debate among the commentators. I argue for the interpretation that they are brothers-in-law in my book.

[10] It is unusual to use such a common expression as an element of comparison between verses because of its abundance in the whole Bible. While this expression on its own may not be enough for comparison, it does contribute to the similarity between the two verses when taken in context of the rest of the parallels.

A French citizen, Nissim Bellahsen is currently the right-hand man of an entrepreneur working in the energy sector. He holds a degree in Industrial Engineering from Supméca Paris and a Master’s degree in Management, specializing in Finance, from HEC Paris. Passionate about the biblical text, he won the 2021 edition of the French Bible Contest for Adults and published in 2021 his first book of commentaries on the Humash: « Puzzles Bibliques » (in French for now). For further discussion about the book or this commentary, he can be contacted at