In Genesis Chapter 37 Joseph’s brothers consider whether to kill him.

But Reuben heard, and he saved him [Joseph] from their hand[s], and he said, "Let us not deal him a deadly blow. And Reuben said to them, "Do not shed blood! Cast him into this pit, which is in the desert, but do not lay a hand upon him," in order to save him from their hand[s], to return him to his father… And they took him and cast him into the pit; now the pit was empty there was no water in it.

Rashi here reports an exposition from the Talmud (Shabbos 22a, Chagigah 3a):

Since it says: “now the pit was empty,” do I not know that there was no water in it? For what purpose did the Torah write “there was no water in it?” [To inform us that] there was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.

My question:

The purpose of putting Joseph into the pit was to save his life. Naturally, this purpose would only be served by putting him into a pit which did not contain snakes and scorpions.

The exposition seems based on the issue of redundancy: the pit was empty and there was no water in it. But wouldn’t the more natural explanation be that the pit was empty – there were no snakes or scorpions, which would have been immediately fatal – and what’s more, there was also no water – which might have been dangerous too if the pit was wide, the water was deep, and Joseph was left there too long to continue to tread.

In other words, isn’t the exposition contrary to the plain meaning of the passage?

  • 1
    You're right. So what? The vast majority of expository Midrash is not the plain meaning of the passage. That's what the genre is all about. Motion to close as not a question. This is just an argument with a question mark after it.
    – Double AA
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:09
  • Actually I'm wondering. I made this point in shul, and everyone disagreed and claimed that the plain meaning was Rashi's. I'm wondering if progress is possible on that question.
    – Chaim
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:10
  • Are you asking how the talmud derives snakes & scorpions from no water? Dec 14, 2017 at 15:53
  • @Monica Cellio I'm not sure I could put it that way. The purported logic is that the word "empty" is being LIMITED by the words "no water," implying something else in the pit. Perhaps it seemed obvious what that something would be. I was rather observing that the explanation defies common sense: they would not save Joseph by putting him in a pit of snakes and scorpions. Perhaps (as the Ramban says in my one answer so far) the word "empty" is actually AUGMENTED by the words "no water," because that word "empty" is not always used in a strict sense.
    – Chaim
    Dec 14, 2017 at 16:04
  • Oh I see; you're asking why "empty" doesn't mean "empty", so (a) "no water" is redundant and (b) how do you get scorpions from "empty". Consider editing to make that a little clearer. By the way, I've found that questions do better when they ask questions, including offering theories, but don't make judgements like what's arbitrary. "I'm having trouble understanding X given Y" has served me better than "how could they say X when Y - that's inconsistent" or whatever. (I'm not putting words in your mouth, to be clear.) Dec 14, 2017 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


Ramban (Genesis 37:22) writes that this Midrash is not the peshat, and that the words אין בו מים aren't superfluous, and thus do not warrant the derash that there were snakes and scorpions:

ועל דרך הפשט יאמר והבור ריק אין בו מים כלל שגם אם היו בו מים מעט יקרא רק

According to the peshat it makes sense to say that the pit was empty, and had no water at all, since even if it had some water, it would still be called 'empty'.

For a general discussion of whether Rashi is really peshat, see here. See also my comments here regarding different elements of peshat, that different commentators, including Rashi, consider peshat.

  • In other words the Ramban thinks the word "empty" means "no water," the words "no water" mean "not even a little bit of water," and nothing in the passage refers to snakes or scorpions.
    – Chaim
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:32
  • That is clearly what he is saying. That Rashi's diyyuk, is not a diyyuk according to peshat, since 'ein bo mayim' isnt superfluous; it is necessary to teach that there was no water. It therefore doesn't indicate that there was anything else in the pit.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:35

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