What does Genesis 37:21 mean?
ESV: But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”
NIV: When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. 'Let's not take his life,' he said.
NASB: But Reuben heard this and rescued him out of their hands by saying, 'Let’s not take his life.'
CSB: When Reuben heard this, he tried to save him from them. He said, "Let's not take his life."
NLT: But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. 'Let’s not kill him,' he said.
KJV: And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him.
NKJV: But Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands, and said, “Let us not kill him.”
Verse Commentary:
Joseph's older brothers want him dead (Genesis 37:3–5, 18), and so have arranged a plot. When he arrives at their camp (Genesis 37:12–17), they have planned to kill him and throw his body in a nearby dry cistern (Genesis 37:19–20). Later, they can then tell their father that his favorite son was killed by a wild animal.

For reasons Scripture does not directly explain, the oldest brother objects. Reuben insists they should not kill Joseph. His plan is to rescue Joseph and present him back to Jacob (Genesis 37:22). One possible motivation for Reuben might be seeking to restore himself to his father, after committing a depraved sin with one of his father's wives (Genesis 35:22). This would also be an ironic echo of his own birth, where his mother Leah hoped that bearing Jacob a son would make him love her (Genesis 29:31–32). Reuben might hope that bringing Jacob's favorite son back would restore some of his lost reputation.
Verse Context:
Genesis 37:12–36 describes how Joseph's wildly resentful brothers finally get rid of him. They hate Joseph for being Jacob's favorite (Genesis 37:3) and for his grandiose dreams (Genesis 37:5, 9). When Joseph arrives alone at the camp of his brothers, very far from home, they have an opportunity. Only Reuben's intervention keeps them from killing Joseph outright. Instead, while Reuben is absent, the brothers sell Joseph to passing slave traders and later convince their father he has been killed by a wild animal. Joseph becomes a slave in an Egyptian home. Genesis 39 will return to Joseph's story.
Chapter Summary:
Joseph, 17, is deeply loved by his father Jacob and deeply resented by his ten older brothers thanks to Jacob's favoritism. Jacob gives Joseph a princely robe, and Joseph reports dreams that predict his family will one day bow before him. When alone with Joseph in the wilderness, the brothers decide to kill him. Reuben stops them, suggesting they throw him alive into a pit, instead. While Reuben is gone, however, the brothers sell Joseph to slave-traders, later convincing their father Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Joseph is placed in the home of an Egyptian nobleman.
Chapter Context:
Following the death of Isaac and the story of Esau's people, Genesis begins a section called the "generations of Jacob." The story will focus primarily on Jacob's son Joseph. Joseph is deeply hated by his brothers. While alone with him in the wilderness, they sell him to slave-traders, who take Joseph to Egypt. Chapter 38 details some of the scandals which happened while Joseph was gone. Genesis 39 will resume a focus on Joseph's experiences.
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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