The Sale of Joseph

Nov 29, 2015

וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל־לֶחֶם וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט הוֹלְכִים לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה׃

Then they sat down to a meal. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilad, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt.

Genesis 37:25

וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל־בָּנָיו וְכָל־בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי־אֵרֵד אֶל־בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ אָבִיו׃

All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him.

Genesis 37:35

While Joseph languishes in his pit, which medieval commentator Rashi explains is filled with snakes and scorpions, the brothers sit a distance away to eat. They notice a caravan of spices heading towards Egypt, and Judah hatches a new plan: rather than kill Joseph, they should sell him into slavery. The brothers agree, and Joseph is retrieved from the pit and sold down to Egypt.


When Reuben returns to rescue Joseph, he discovers that he is gone. To disguise their actions, the brothers dip Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and show it to their father, who immediately concludes Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Jacob is inconsolable.


The Israel Bible compares Reuben’s (failed) plan with Judah’s suggestion. While Reuben’s idea included throwing Joseph into a dangerous pit, one which Jewish law normally considers a death sentence, the Torah praises him. Meanwhile Judah, whose suggestion resulted in saving Joseph from the immediate threat of the pit, is not praised. From this we can learn that being in danger in the Land of Israel is better than seeming safety outside the land.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

With the many players mentioned in the text and the ambiguous pronouns, this question has troubled Jewish scholars for centuries: who sells Joseph to whom?

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