Yosef’s brothers are threatened by his dreams which seem to predict that he will eventually rule over them. All of them agree that such a situation cannot be allowed to develop. They disagreed, however, on how to remove the threat. Shimon and Levy were of the opinion that the dreams were fabricated; it was actually Yosef’s conscious desire to rule over his brothers. As a result they counseled, “…come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits….” Since they realized that they could not let their father Yaakov know what they had done, they continued, “…and we will say that a wild beat devoured him….”
Reuven, however, was afraid that Yosef’s dreams were a prophetic message from G-d. How could they interfere with the will of G-d by killing him? He proposed instead that they “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.” If his dreams were of a prophetic, miraculous nature then G-d would extricate him from the pit miraculously as well. If he died, however, this would prove that Shimon and Levy were correct. In any case, at least, the brothers would not have been the direct cause of his death, and the threat would be removed. What Reuven did not tell his brothers was that he actually intended to rescue Yosef from the pit and return him to his father, hoping to atone for having previously interfered with his father’s marital life.
The other brothers accepted Reuven’s solution and threw him into an empty pit. “The pit was empty, no water was in it.” Abarbanel explains that if the pit was full of water he would have drowned immediately and there would have been no opportunity for a ‘test’ to see if G-d would save him.
At this point Reuven leaves the scene and the other brothers, demonstrating their cruelty, sit down to enjoy a leisurely meal. When they notice a caravan of Arabs coming by on its way to Egypt they come up with a different plan for dealing with Yosef. Even though the pit was empty they realize that a sudden deluge could drown him; again there would not be sufficient opportunity for a proper test. Yehuda also realized that there was actually not sufficient justification for killing him, however indirectly: “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” There are three reasons that people kill: protecting property, defeating a known sworn enemy, or demonstrating dominance. None of these reasons applies in this case. There is no monetary loss, he is not a sworn enemy, but rather “…our brother, our own flesh.” Finally, there is no demonstration of power because they are actually covering up their actions by saying that he was torn apart by wild beasts.
Selling him into slavery in Egypt is the ideal solution. If his dreams were actually prophetic then we are leaving room for G-d to bring about a miracle later on wherever he goes. If, on the other hand, his ideas were his own, dominance over us will be replaced by its opposite — lowly servitude in a faraway place. Everyone agrees to the plan. They remove him from the pit and sell him to the Arabs. Since they had no intention of profiting greatly from this, intending only to get rid of him, they sell him for a nominal price.
When Reuven returns and notices that Yosef is gone, he is afraid that perhaps his brothers ultimately decided to kill him. He cries out, “The boy is gone!” which means that an innocent boy has been executed. As a result he then says, “And I, where can I go?” What he is saying is that how can I rejoin my brothers since they may want to kill me as well?
The brothers take Yosef’s special tunic that Yaakov had given him, dip it in animal blood, and show it to Yaakov while explaining that a wild animal had devoured him. They ask him to identify it and he says, “My son’s tunic!” Abarbanel is bothered by this strange response. Yaakov should have said, “It is my son’s tunic!” Yaakov is actually speaking to the garment, as it were. Yosef is not only his son, but a very special individual, which the tunic represents. When Yaakov cries out, “A savage beast devoured him!” he is actually asking questions: “How is it that a savage beast devoured him? Why wasn’t he Divinely protected by the merit of being my son or his own exceptional merit? Additionally, how could it be that not a single bone remained?” Yaakov refuses to be comforted and instead says, “I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.” Something is amiss; he refuses to believe the brothers and there can be no closure.