Who really sold Joseph into slavery?

Nov 22, 2021

לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים וְיָדֵנוּ אַל־תְּהִי־בוֹ כִּי־אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ הוּא וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו׃

Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed.

Genesis 37:27

Sending his beloved son Joseph to visit his brothers after his dreams depicting his future grandeur may have been an error on the part of Jacob, but dressing him in a gorgeous coat surely sealed his fate, ensuring a dire outcome from the intense sibling rivalry. After following their trail to Shecheh, a mysterious stranger directed Joseph to Dothan. The very sight of their younger brother set the brothers to conspire to kill him. Reuben stepped in, lightening the plans of vengeance to throwing Joseph into a pit which, according to Rashi, was empty of water and only contained snakes and scorpions.

But was his fate really improved? According to the Torah, the brothers saw a traveling band of Ishmaelites from Gilead and lit upon the idea of selling Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:25-27):

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. Then Yehuda said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed.

But was this what actually took place? The Torah then describes another band of merchants, this time Midianites, who pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28):

When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Yosef up out of the pit. They sold Yosef for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Yosef to Egypt.

The Midrash explains that this was possible because even though the enmity was caused by Joseph’s visions of greatness, they loved him nonetheless and could not bear to hear him cry out from the pit. They therefore distanced themselves from Joseph and the pit. At this point a band of Midianite merchants came by. The Midianites were thirsty and approached the pit seeking water, and were surprised to discover the young man.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the medieval Biblical commentator known by the acronym Rashi, explains a three-stage sale of Joseph: the brothers pulled Joseph from the pit and sold him to the Midianites, who sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to the Egyptians.

Though Rashi seems to explain the seeming contradiction in the text on these verses, the Bible has another seeming contradiction later on. In one verse, it says that Joseph is sold to Potiphar the Egyptian by the Midianites (Genesis 37:36). But less than two chapters later, we are told that Potiphar the Egyptian bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites (Genesis 39:1).

Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th-century Biblical commentator known as Chizkuni, explained the enigmatic sale in this manner, basing his explanation on the words of the Sages in Bereshit Rabbah:

“Whilst the brothers were discussing selling him to the Ishmaelites: come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and before the latter reached them, Midianite merchants passed by, to whom the brothers sold him, while he was yet in the pit so that his weeping should not shame them. The Midianites drew him out of the pit since they had bought him. Whilst they were doing this, the Ishmaelites came along and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites to the Midianites, and the Midianites to Pharaoh a total of four sales. The text states, however, that Potiphar bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites. Why? – The tribes had sold him to the Midianites, but this sale was not recorded, since it was only temporary. The Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites.

“This third sale was likewise not recorded, since it was concluded in haste and secrecy for fear the Midianites might retract. The Midianites sold him to “Potiphar, who was suspicious, asked them for a guarantee that the transaction was legal and no one would come to reclaim him. The Midianites brought the Ishmaelites who gave the necessary guarantee, and that is the force of the wording of the text: Potiphar bought Joseph from the hand of the Ishmaelites since they gave him their hand or guarantee.”

The medieval Sephardi commentator Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, also known as the Ramban, suggested a different possibility; the Ramban suggested that the Torah was actually describing one caravan composed of Midianite merchants and Ishmaelite camel-drivers. Hence the brothers first caught sight of the camel drivers and later encountered the merchants. The brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites, the merchants, since the Ishmaelite camel drivers did not engage directly in trade. They merely hired their camels themselves to traders. Even though the Midianites actually carried out the sale of Joseph, the Bible attributes some blame to the Ishmaelites who enabled the slave trade and were therefore not entirely free of sin. 

But Joseph does not entirely absolve his brothers of the misdeed. When he breaks down after being confronted by Judah, he identifies himself as “Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:5)

This claim is not entirely accurate, especially if you assume that it was the Midianites themselves who found Joseph in the pit. And what about Reuben who was not even present at the time of the sale and had intended to save Joseph from the pit? The Rashbam explains Joseph’s statement to mean, ‘your deeds caused me to be sold to Egypt,’ meaning that their actions led him to be sold. In the case of a group acting as one, the guilt is collective, even including those who managed to remove themselves. When joining with a group, the individuals must still express objections or be considered as guilty as the active members.

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