An Interpretation of Verse 15 of the Chapter of Joseph

This article is taken from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

 فَلَمَّا ذَهَبُوا بِهِ وَأَجْمَعُوا أَنْ يَجْعَلُوهُ فِي غَيَابَتِ الْجُبِّ وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْهِ لَتُنَبِّئَنَّهُمْ بِأَمْرِهِمْ هَذَا وَهُمْ لاَ يَشْعُرُونَ (يوسف: 15).

So when they took him away and agreed that they should throw him to the bottom of the well, and We revealed to him: “You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware” (12.15).
Although stressing that Joseph’s brothers took him, the verse does not state explicitly whether that happened with or without Jacob’s permission. Significantly, this verse occurs after a verse in which Jacob’s sons had the last words in their conversation with their father as they tried to convince him: “They said: ‘If a wolf would devour him despite the fact that we are a band, we are then certainly a failing group’.” This implies that Joseph’s brothers took him with their father’s permission. Indeed, we will see later in the story Jacob remind his sons, when they asked him to send Benjamin with them to Egypt, that he “entrusted” them with Joseph but they betrayed that trust: “He said: ‘Should I entrust you with him, would I be doing other than what I did before when I entrusted you with his brother? So, Allah is the best protector, and He is the most Merciful of the merciful ones’” (12.64). This proves that Jacob’s sons took Joseph with the permission of their father. Note that the verb آمَنَ على “entrust someone with” is the same verb that occurred in Joseph’s brothers’ request, “O our father! Why do you not entrust us with Joseph? Surely we seek good for him,” implying that at the end Jacob agreed to the request.
I have already shown that Jacob was aware that Joseph’s brothers harbored evil for their brother; why, then, did he agree that they take him? The answer to this question has two sides that may be described as “apparent” and “subtle.” I will start with the former. We have seen in our study of Jacob’s reply, “It saddens me that you should take him away, and I fear that a wolf might devour him while you are not attending to him,” that he was so keen on changing the attitude of his sons toward Joseph that he did not want to say explicitly that he saw them as a source of potential danger to Joseph. He preferred to attribute any harm that may occur to Joseph to an external source, mentioning a wolf. It seems that Jacob reckoned that if Joseph’s brothers would take him with them that might improve the way they felt about Joseph, so he agreed to their request.
We should not forget that the verse “send him with us ghadan (in the early morning) to enjoy himself and play, and surely we shall be protective of him” does not refer to a discussion that occurred on one day between Jacob and his sons and ended up with him agreeing to their request to take Joseph with them the next day. This is what many may think because of mistaking the word غَدًاghadan” to mean “the following day,” when in fact it means “in the early morning” of any day. This verse refers to the pretext that Joseph’s brothers used to persuade their father to send Joseph with them, a pretext that they would have used in their discussion with him over many days until he agreed in good faith to their request.
Jacob’s keenness on changing his sons’ feelings toward Joseph may not be sufficient to explain the great risk that he took by allowing them to take Joseph away. This takes us from the “apparent” to the “subtle” explanation of Jacob’s acceptance of his sons’ request: Allah made Jacob agree to his sons’ request so that the story of Joseph would unravel as He decreed.
The verb وَأَجْمَعُواand [they] agreed” indicates that all of Joseph’s brothers agreed to throw him to the bottom of the well. This is in line with my already mentioned conclusion that the fact that the conversation about how to get rid of Joseph ended with the verse “one of them said: ‘Do not kill Joseph, but cast him down into the bottom of the well where some caravanners will pick him up, if you would do something [to him]’” (12.10) means that they all agreed to that plan. Note that the verb يَجْعَلُوهُ[they] should put him” shows that by putting Joseph in the well, Joseph’s brothers did not intend to kill him, but wanted some passers by to rescue him and take him to a land far from where his father lived.
After Jacob’s sons lowered Joseph to the bottom of the well, Allah revealed to him: “You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware.” He told Joseph that one day he will mention this plot to his brothers, and that this would come as a complete surprise to them. Indeed, this is what happened many years later in Egypt. Verses 12.89-90 describe how Joseph reminded his brothers of their evil scheme against him while they were totally unaware that the dignitary they had been visiting was in fact their brother Joseph whom they cast to the bottom of the well years earlier: “He said: ‘Do you know how you treated Joseph and his brother when you were ignorant?’ (12.89). They said: ‘Are you indeed Joseph?’. He said: ‘I am Joseph and this is my brother; Allah has indeed conferred on us favors; surely, as for he who acts dutifully and patiently, Allah does not waste the reward of the good doers’ (12.90).”
Allah’s revelation brought much kindness, care, and mercy to the child Joseph who was in grave distress. Joseph would have badly missed his father when he realized what his brothers were going to do to him. Allah’s consolation, however, was greater than any consolation that Joseph could have received from any human being, including his father.1


1 Some exegetes have referred to the absence of the answer to لَمَّاlamma (when)” from the verse. It looks as if Allah said: “and when Joseph’s brothers took him away and agreed to cast him at the bottom of the well,” but then instead of going on to talk about what happened, He diverted to talk about His revelation to Joseph. Exegetes have suggested a number of reasons for the omission of the answer of “lamma” from this verse. For instance, this is what atTabatabai has to say:

The answer to “lamma” has been omitted to highlight the horrendous and terrible nature of the matter, which is a common usage in language. You may find a speaker describing a heinous matter, such as the killing of an innocent person, that makes the heart burn with pain and which the ear cannot bear to hear. He then starts to detail the causes and circumstances that led to it. When he reaches the event itself, he goes into deep silence, before starting to talk about events that followed the killing. This indicates that the murder was so heinous that the speaker would not be able to describe it and the listener would not bear hearing it.

The situation here is as if when the story teller, glory be to His name, said: “So when they took him away and agreed that they should throw him to the bottom of the well,” He went silent and refrained from describing what Joseph’s brothers did to him in sadness and regret, because the ear would not bear hearing what they did to this wronged, infallible prophet and son of prophets. He did not commit anything that deserves what his brothers did to him while in full knowledge of how much his father, the noble prophet, loved him.

AtTusi thinks that “the answer to ‘lamma‘ is’ omitted and that it is equivalent to the clause ‘their plot was so grave or that what they intended to do was so serious’.” He also refers to an opinion of linguists of the school of the Iraqi city of Kufa that the particle æ “wa (and)” in وَأَجْمَعُواwa ajma’u (and [they] agreed)” has been “forced in,” and that the meaning is أجمعوا “[they] agreed.” The linguists of the school of the Iraqi city of Basra have rejected this view. AtTabari is one exegete who adopted the view of the linguists of Kufa. The problem with this interpretation is that it suggests that Joseph’s brothers agreed to cast him in the well after they took him away, when in fact they took him in order to cast him in the well.
The interpretation of al-Jalalayn states that the omission of the answer of “lamma” means that they did throw Joseph in the well. Al-Qurtubi mentions the view of some that the answer of “lamma” is the sentence قَالُوا يَا أَبَانَا إِنَّا ذَهَبْنَا نَسْتَبِقُThey said: ‘O our father! We went to race with one another’” in verse 12.17, which we will study later. He indicates that according to the Basra linguists, the implied answer of “lamma” is جعلوه فيها “they cast him in it.” He also mentions an opinion of the Kufa linguists that there is a “forced in” “wa (and),” though he refers to “wa” in وَأَوْحَيْنَاwa awhayna (and We revealed)” not in وَأَجْمَعُواwa ajma’u (and [they] agreed).” Al-Qurtubi points out that the Kufa linguists think that “wa” can be added superfluously to “lamma” and حَتَّىhatta(until).” He cites some examples from the Qur’an, including the following use of hatta:

وَسِيقَ الَّذِينَ اتَّقَوْا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ زُمَرًا حَتَّى إِذَا جَاءُوهَا وَفُتِحَتْ أَبْوَابُهَا وَقَالَ لَهُمْ خَزَنَتُهَا سَلاَمٌ عَلَيْكُمْ طِبْتُمْ فَادْخُلُوهَا خَالِدِينَ (الزمر: 73).

And those who were dutiful toward their Lord shall be driven to paradise in groups; until when they come to it, and its doors shall be opened, and its keepers shall say to them: “Peace be on you, you shall be happy; therefore enter it to abide thereinto for ever” (39.73).
He indicates that “wa” in وَفُتِحَتْwa futihat(and [its doors] shall be opened)” is زائدة “superfluous” and that the implied meaning is فُتِحَتْfutihat ([its doors] shall be opened),” as in the following very similar verse from the same sura:

وَسِيقَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِلَى جَهَنَّمَ زُمَرًا حَتَّى إِذَا جَاءُوهَا فُتِحَتْ أَبْوَابُهَا وَقَالَ لَهُمْ خَزَنَتُهَا أَلَمْ يَأْتِكُمْ رُسُلٌ مِنْكُمْ يَتْلُونَ عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِ رَبِّكُمْ وَيُنْذِرُونَكُمْ لِقَاءَ يَوْمِكُمْ هَذَا قَالُوا بَلَى وَلَكِنْ حَقَّتْ كَلِمَةُ الْعَذَابِ عَلَى الْكَافِرِينَ (الزمر: 71).

And those who disbelieved shall be driven to hell in groups; until when they come to it, its doors shall be opened, and its keepers shall say to them: “Did messengers from among yourselves not come to you, recite the verses of your Lord, and warn you about the meeting of this day of yours?” They shall say: “Yes.” But the word of punishment is due against the disbelievers (39.71).
As another example on the presence of a superfluous “wa” in the answer of “lamma,” al-Qurtubi mentions verses 37.103-104, stressing that the word وَنَادَيْنَاهُwa nadaynahu(and We called him)” is equivalent to نَادَيْنَاهُnadaynahu(We called him)”:

فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ (103). وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ (104). قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ (الصافّات: 105).

So when they submitted [to Allah’s command], and he [Abraham] laid him [Ishmael] on his forehead (37.103). And We called to him saying: “O Abraham! (37.104). You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, this is how we reward the good doers (37.105).
It is clear that there are many verses, of which I have cited only a few, in which the answer of “lamma” and “hatta” is absent. Therefore, an interpretation such as that advocated by atTabatabai does not seem plausible, because it tries to explain the absence of the answer of “lamma” from verse 12.15 as if it was a phenomenon that is unique to that verse, rather than seen in many Qur’anic verses.
I find more acceptable the view of the linguistic school of Kufa that the answer to “lamma” and “hatta” is not actually absent from those verses, but that it looks that way because of the presence of a superfluous “wa (and)” in the answer, causing it to look absent. In the case of verse 12.15, the superfluous “and” could be the one in “wa ajma’u(and [they] agreed)” or “wa awhayna(and We revealed).” We have already ruled out the former; the latter possibility means that the superfluous “and” separates between the description of the acts of Joseph’s brothers, “so when they took him away and agreed that they should throw him to the bottom of the well,” and that of the divine act, “and We revealed to him: ‘You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware’.” This, in turn, means that Allah’s act is the answer of “lamma,” and represents the response to the acts of Joseph’s brothers. The reason for the presence of the superfluous “and” may be for stressing the verb in “awhayna(We revealed),” thus ultimately emphasizing Allah’s act.

          Copyright © 2005 Louay Fatoohi
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