What made him think the culprit was an animal and not a human being?
It’s not just that one should think well of humans and never imagine that they could do terrible things to others – a fantasy that our age knows quite well puts too positive a spin on what human beings are capable of – but there must have been some feature of the story that pointed to an animal.
Where had Joseph been? It misleads us to translate basadeh as “in the field”. Fields suggest cultivated areas where wild animals are not likely to roam.
Basadeh probably means “out in the open”, and indeed one of the Biblical ways of referring to wild beasts is chayat hasadeh, literally “beast of the field”.
If Joseph was wandering on his own, away from populated areas, he was in grave danger of being attacked by animals, and it was logical for Jacob to assume that that was what had happened.
The truth is that it was his own brothers who had jumped him and dipped his coat in blood to give the impression that the animals were to blame. Joseph was not in fact dead and the brothers had sold him as a slave to Egypt, where years later he had become a high official to whom they came seeking corn in time of famine.
He recognised them at once and played a trick on them, but they for their part did not recognise him (Gen. 42:6-8) – according to Rashi and some of the commentators (quoting the Talmud, BM 39b), because he had been a beardless youth when they saw him last and now he was a mature man with an adult’s beard.