Q: #367. How old was Benjamin when Joseph was sold into slavery?
By: Steve Shirley
A: This is a VERY difficult and complicated question to answer! Honestly, when I first set out to answer this, I thought I knew the answer, and it wouldn't take long to study, but I was wrong! There are several positions on this subject, but I will primarily discuss the one that most scholars hold, and which seems most likely to me. You might want to grab your Bible for this. Here we go!
First, we know that Joseph was 17 when he was sold into slavery (Gen 37:2). Thirteen years later, when Joseph was 30 years old, he interpreted Pharaoh's dream, thereby becoming Pharaoh's 2nd in command in (Gen 41:46). Seven years of plenty followed this (Gen 41:47-49), followed by another 7 years of famine (Gen 41:53-57). In the 2nd year of the famine (Gen 45:6) (9 years after Joseph's interpretation), Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to get food (Gen Ch. 42). Putting this together, this means Joseph would have been 39 when they came.
After the events of (Gen Ch. 42-45), Jacob, his sons, and all of his descendants moved to Egypt to be with Joseph. Jacob was 130 at this time (Gen 47:9). Taking 130 and subtracting it from Joseph's age of 39 means Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born. Thus, Joseph was indeed a "child of Isaac's old age" (Gen 37:3). Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years, dying at age 147 (Gen 47:28).
Now, we must look at when Joseph was born. He was born while Jacob was in Padan Aram. Jacob lived there for 20 years (Gen 31:38,41). During this 20 years, he married Leah, then her sister Rachel (Gen 29:15-30). He had 6 sons with Leah (Gen 29:31-35)(Gen 30:17-20), and one with Rachel (Gen 30:22-24), who was Joseph. (He also had 4 sons with the concubines of Leah and Rachel: Gen 30:3-13.) Jacob left Padan Aram with these 11 children at the end of the 20 years. (Joseph, being the youngest, almost certainly was born near the end of the 20 years.) Benjamin clearly had not yet been born.
After leaving, he headed with his family to Canaan (Gen 31:17-21). He traveled first to Mahanaim (Gen 32:1-2), then to Penuel (Gen 32:30-32), then to Succoth, where he must have stayed for a period of time, building a house and shelters for his cattle (Gen 33:17). After an unspecified amount of time, he left there and moved to Shechem, where he bought land (Gen 33:18-20). After another unspecified period of time, God told Jacob to leave Shechem and move to Bethel in Canaan (Gen 35:1), and they lived there for a period of time (Gen 35:4-15). Then, they left Bethel and traveled towards Ephrath (Gen 35:16). It was during this journey that Rachel gave birth to Benjamin, and unfortunately she died in childbirth (Gen 35:16-20).
I mention these last two paragraphs simply to point out that it seems clear there was a fairly significant period of time between the birth of Joseph and the birth of Benjamin. How long this was, we cannot be sure.
THIS is where the controversy begins! Based upon what we have read to this point, it seems pretty clear that Benjamin was born BEFORE Joseph was sold into slavery (at 17). There are several additional points that seem to bolster this argument.
First, just before Joseph was sold into slavery (at 17), he had two dreams, with "sheaves of wheat" (Gen 37:5-8) and "11 stars" (Gen 37:9-11) bowing down to him. These dreams foretold when his brothers would come to Egypt in the future, and bow down before him asking for food. When Joseph said "11 stars," it seems to infer pretty clearly that Benjamin had already been born (or else the dream really wouldn't make sense to anyone).
Second, when Jacob and his descendants travelled to Egypt, it says in (Gen 46:26) that 66 people made the trip, INCLUDING Benjamin and his 10 sons (Gen 46:21). This almost certainly has to make Benjamin somewhere in his 30's when he went to Egypt.
Third, it seems odd that if Rachel had been alive when Joseph was sold into slavery (meaning Benjamin had not yet been born), it is not mentioned that she grieved over the (supposed) death of her only son when the brothers told Jacob that Joseph was dead (Gen 37:31-35). Surely this would have been included.
Fourth, when Benjamin went to Egypt, he was old enough to eat a lot of food (Gen 43:34).
However, those who belief that Benjamin was born AFTER Joseph was sold make a few arguments for their position as well. They explain away the first and second points above by saying they were "prophetic," and could have been looking at a future event (i.e. the "11th star" might have been pointing to Benjamin's future birth). This seems a stretch to me. They also believe that when Joseph includes in his second dream that the "sun and moon" would also bow down to him, and Jacob interprets this to mean he and his wife (Joseph's mother) would bow, it points to Joseph's mother still being alive when he was sold. (Most scholars believe that Leah would have taken the place of Rachel as Joseph's mother when Rachel died.
Two other points they make are: why was Joseph referred to in (Gen 37:3) as the "son of his (Jacob's) old age" right before Joseph had been sold if Benjamin had been born. Instead, wouldn't Benjamin have been the "son of his old age?" Also, when the brothers appeared before Joseph in Egypt, they referred to Benjamin, as "a little one" and "lad" in (Gen 44:20,22,30,32-34)(KJV) ("little child"/"lad: NASB) ("young son"/boy: NIV). Joseph also called Benjamin "my son" (Gen 43:29). These do not seem to be indicative of a man who would be in his 30's.
Sooo, after all of this, the answer to the question would be that if the first (and prevailing) view is correct, then Benjamin was likely around 10 years old to an early teenager when Joseph was sold into slavery. Since Joseph was 17 when he was sold, and 39 when they came to him in Egypt, this would have made Benjamin 32-35 years old when he went to Egypt (which fits with Benjamin having 10 sons when he went).
However, if the second view is correct, Benjamin wasn't born when Joseph was sold. (This would also make Benjamin no older than 22-25 years old when he went to Egypt to be with Joseph, since Joseph had been in Egypt 22 years when his family moved there.)
Clear? Sorry, but I made this as simple to understand as I could. Just to add more to the confusion, there are also some who run yet another set of verses and numbers, and come up with an age for Benjamin that make him an old man when he went to Egypt.... This is sometimes used to show contradictions in the Bible. There are smarter people out there than I am who can reconcile these apparent contradictions.
At any rate, it makes for an interesting study.