reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
Joseph’s brethren went down to Egypt to buy corn at the bidding of their father. Let us study the first six verses of chapter 42, which starts from this point:
Jacob said unto his sons. Why do ye look one upon another? And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt. But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren. And the sons of Israel came to buy corn amongst those that came. And Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.
We may note here that the identical subject in each of the above quoted verses (the ten brothers) is referred to under differing epithets. They are referred to as the sons of Jacob, Joseph’s brethren, the sons of Israel. Our commentators remarked on the significance of these variations. Jacob first addresses his sons , dispatches them to Egypt, but as soon as we reach the subject of Egypt the Biblical record prepares us and them for the meeting with Joseph. This is explained to us as followed by Rashi:
Joseph’s brethren: It is not written: the sons of Jacob, alluding to the fact that they repented of their stealing him and undertook to conduct themselves towards him as brothers.
Benjamin was not sent along with his brothers (not with the sons of Jacob) underlining the fact that though they were his brothers, Jacob was again guilty of favoritism and discriminated between the brothers. It is the whole tribe which arrives in Egypt and, as far as the Egyptians were concerned, the group who arrived from the land of Canaan were neither Joseph’s brothers nor the sons of Jacob, but merely the sons of Israel. As they stood before the Egyptian prince, who, as Providence would have it, was also their long lost brother, the dramatic irony of the epithet, Joseph’s brethren, as they bow down to Joseph and thereby fulfill the dream, becomes apparent. Joseph, however, does not reveal his true identity to his brothers immediately, but speaks to them harshly. Many reasons have been advanced and these were the subject of our previous Studies.
Ramban apparently quite justifiably explains, that all the suffering that he inflicted on them from that moment until he revealed himself to them, was intended for their benefit, in the sense implied in the following phrase occurring in the Psalms (119) It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might relate of thy statutes. This implies that the aim of all this was to refine them and purify them, as it were, and put them to the test. In the course of our further study of this point we shall understand this more clearly.
On three occasions the feeling of guilt and consciousness of their wrongdoing emerges and wells up from the words uttered by the brothers. The first occasion occurs during their conversation, after Joseph had released them from prison where they had been placed for three days:
And they said to one another, We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we paid no heed; therefore is this distress come upon us.
Ramban was the first to note how the information regarding Joseph’s supplication for the mercy of his brothers reaches us, indirectly, through the remorseful reminiscing of the brothers, rather than its true chronological context, when Joseph was standing at the pit before his brothers. There is no mention before this chapter that Joseph had begged them for mercy.
Here is the comment of Meir Weiss in an article on the narrative artistry of the Bible devoted to the flashback technique, one example of which is the passage we have quoted:
The recalling of this long buried episode here, at this juncture, represents the awakening of the brothers’ conscience. Joseph’s heartrending pleas for mercy more than any emanate from the pit now well up from the depths of their own hearts. This constitutes the underlying intention of the narrative in citing this detail here. It is meant to reveal what was going on in the consciousness of the brothers at the moment indicating their remorse.
Only now do the brothers recall that painful memory:
When he besought us and we paid no heed;
therefore is this distress come upon us.
Our commentators discussed, at length, why these feelings of guilt and remorse are only awakened, after the brothers had suffered three days imprisonment, and after the Egyptian governor had relented and agreed to send them home, keeping back only one of them. Why did they not recall the sale of their brother during the three long days in prison, when they lived in fear of what destiny awaited them and were apprehensive that they would not return home. Surely, this incarceration is particularly appropriate for stimulating feelings of remorse.
In the light of this, the Akedat Yizhak (15th C.) provides us with an illuminating explanation. This commentary suggests that only when they were faced with the prospect of returning home to their father, one brother short, did the memory of Joseph arise in their minds, by association:
Our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul. Measure for measure the sin and its punishment were mirrored clearly before their eyes; Therefore is this distress come upon us.
On the second occasion, they sense this retribution and their guilt even more intensely, in the inn:
And he said unto his brethren, “My money is restored; and look, it is even in my sack”: and their hearts failed them and they were afraid, saying one to another, ‘What is this that God hath done unto us’?
There are commentators, including Rashi who maintain that the last exclamation of the brothers did not represent an admission of guilt but rather their resentment at being placed in such a situation. But the objection to this approach found in Haketav Vehakaballa seems to be more acceptable.
Rashi comments on the words What is this the Lord has done to us – to bring us to this false accusation; for the money was only returned to us to incriminate us. This would, then show the brothers as questioning God’s justice. Surprising! Had they so quickly forgotten their confession of verily we are guilty?
It seems to me that we have to split the sentence into two parts as indicated by the cantillation. The tevir under zot indicates a pause. The sentence reads: What is this? Here they simply register their astonishment at the discovery of the money and their sorrow at the provocation. But immediately they sensed that this was no mere coincidence by the intervention of the Divine justice repaying them measure for measure. Just as previously they had accepted their deserts by saying verily we are guilty, so now they felt that they were being justly punished by being suspected of spying and cast into the pit just as they had done to Joseph. Simon who had played the major role in the sale of Joseph remained under arrest in the prison. Now too the money was found in Levi’s sack who also prominently figured in the sale. They realized this was retribution from God and accepted it exclaiming: Thou Lord has done this to us. It is no accident but the workings of Divine justice.
Whether we accept his splitting of the sentence into two parts – into an exclamation followed by a statement or not we must agree it most plausible to regard the brothers’ exclamation as an expression of their concern and guilt.
Here we note the great progress that had been achieved in their sense of sin, in comparison with the first occasion. Then too they realised the connection between their conduct towards Joseph in the past, and what they were suffering now. But the source of that retribution, who it was who was responsible for linking these two events had not received explicit recognition. Here at the inn their heart failed them (literally—went forth) the source had been discovered:
What is this that God hath done unto us?
An even more intense realisation of their guilt and more profound sense of remorse overcomes them on the third occasion, when the cup is discovered. Here are Judah’s words:
What shall we say unto the Lord?
What shall we speak?
Or how shall we clear ourselves?
God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. (44:16)
Judah surely knew that they had not stolen the cup, neither they nor the man with whom it had been found. He was quite aware that they had been wrongly accused, but he was not confessing to this crime, though this was how is was meant to be understood by the Egyptian Governor. But he was confessing to the iniquity, not which the Egyptian had found in him but that: god hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.
For this reason he and his brothers accepted any punishment and any fate, realizing that they deserved it.
This “ambivalency in Judah” is referred to in the following Midrash”
What shall we say unto my Lord? – referring to the first money (in Benjamin’s sack). What shall we speak? – referring to the second money (in Benjamin’s sack), or how shall we clear ourselves? – with the cup.
What shall we say unto my Lord? – referring to the incident of Tamar, What shall we speak? – referring to the deed of Reuben (see Genesis 35:22), Or how shall we clear ourselves? – referring to the deed of Shechem (see Genesis 34).
What shall we say unto my Lord? – what shall we say to father in the land of Canaan regarding Joseph? What shall we speak? – with reference to Simeon, Or how shall we clear ourselves? – regarding Benjamin.(Midrash Rabbah)
The Midrash sees a triple implication in the above verse, explaining the words my lord in three different ways: (1) as the Egyptian governor standing in front of them, (2) as the Lord of the Universe who knows their guilt, (3) as their aged father in Canaan against whom they had sinned.
The Midrash unearths for us the nine different sins recalled by the text, showing us how the brothers repented not merely of the one wrongdoing but emulated the true baal teshuva (penitent) who sees his guilt and sin in every step and turn, a thought which is expressed instructively in the following phrase occurring in the psalms (51):
And my sin is ever before me
After his brothers had reached his level of penitence, remorse, and sense of sin, Joseph can then make himself known to them.
And there passed by Midianites, merchants; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph to Egypt.(37, 28)
This chapter constitutes a turning point in the life of Joseph and the history of the Jewish people; for it marks the descent of the Israelites into Egypt. The interpretation of the above verse has been the subject of much dispute. The accepted explanation is that of Rashi:
This was another caravan, the text informing us that he was sold many times. They drew – refers to the sons of Jacob – they took him out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites and the Midianites to the Egyptians.
Let us try to understand Rashi. The appearance of the Midianites caravan surprises us. We have hitherto been told:
They lifted up their eyes and behold a caravan of Ishmaelites: (37:25)
Then we hear Judah’s suggestion:
Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.(37:27)
Till that point nothing had been mentioned of Midianite merchants. Even in the very verse under study, it is stated: And they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, evidently according to the suggestion made by Judah which was accepted by the brethren (v. 27: And his brothers hearkened). What was the role of the Midianites? Where did they fit in? Rashi tried to overcome this difficulty, following Talmudic exegesis, by postulating a threefold sale (the brothers to the Ishmaelites – to the Midianites – to Egypt). Evidently Rashi identifies the Medanites mentioned at the end of the chapter:
and the Medanites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar … (37:36)
with the Midianites. But he provides no explanation for the problem posed by Chapter 39, Verse 1:
And Potiphar … bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites. Even Mizrahi, Rashi’s super commentary and champion is forced to admit: I don’t know what Rashi makes of this verse.
Rashi’s identification of the subject of the second part of the verse with his brethren mentioned at the end of the previous verse (And his brethren hearkened)is followed by a number of commentators, though they propose different solutions to the question of the caravans. Here is Hizkuni:
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 Medanites and the Medanites 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 an the Ishmaelites to the Medanites.
This third sale was likewise not recorded, since it was concluded in haste and secrecy for fear the Medanites might retract. The Medanites sold him to Potiphar whose suspicions however were aroused by Joseph’s handsome appearance. It wasn’t usual for wandering slave traders , for dark people, to be selling a white man – it was usually the other way around! He could not therefore be a slave. He asked them for a guarantee that the transaction was bona fides and no one would come to reclaim him. They brought the Ishmaelites who gave the necessary guarantee, and that is the force of the wording of the text: he brought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites – they gave him their hand or guarantee (cf. Gen 43:9: I shall stand surety, from my hand shall you require it – the latter part of Hizkuni is based on Bereshit Rabbah 86).
Hizkuni’s approach is rather complicated but it has two advantages: the many candelstine sales fit in well with the atmosphere of dealings in stolen property. The traders realised that this was no bona fides transaction and tried to get rid of their merchandise. Similarly it disposes of the contradiction between our texts (where Joseph is sold finally to the Ismaelites) and the last verse of the chapter: and the Medanites sold Joseph into Egypt, and the first verse of Chapter 39: And Potiphar bought from the hand of the Ishmaelites.
The flaw in this explanation is the fact that it presupposes two sales not recorded in the text. For this reason we cite here Ramban who suggests another explanation. He regards the two caravans of Midianite merchants and Ishmaelites as one, in which the Midianites were the merchants and the Ishmaelites the camel-drivers, so that the brothers first caught sight of the Ishmaelite caravan and when they drew near saw Midianite merchants:
The brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites, the merchants, to trade with him, since the Ishmaelite camel-drivers or hauliers did not engage directly in trade – they merely hired their camels themselves to traders. The text: And they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites implies that Joseph was handed to the Ishmaelites to be transported to Egypt by them. This is also the implication of the text: From the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought his down thither; but the Midianites were his owners; they traded with him. That is the force of the text: The Medanites sold him into Egypt.
Ramban then shows that the Torah often attributes a deed, sometimes to its ultimate author and at others to its intermediary or direct commissioner. Thus Moses is sometimes credited as in (Deuteronomy 34:12): the great terror Moses wrought in the eyes of all Israel, and, at others, God, as in (Deuteronomy 11:7): all the great work God had wrought. Similarly, here, the contradiction between: the Medanites sold him into Egypt and Potiphar bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites is solved by remembering that sometimes a deed is attributed to its immediate and direct cause, and sometimes, to its more remote, indirect one. Ibn Ezra wishes to regard the Midianites and Ishmaelites as identical. But irrespective of the difference between these commentators, they have this in common: The brothers who are not mentioned in our text at all are regarded as the understood subject: they drew Joseph out of the pit, and they sold Joseph. This interpretation would seem to be borne out by Joseph’s words, when he revealed his identity to his brethren: I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt.
But this approach raises many difficulties. First, it leaves unexplained how Reuben remained ignorant of the sale, though he no doubt did his best to save Joseph and presumably kept watch on his brothers. But was he at the time of the sale? Admittedly, the Midrash states he was engaged otherwise (ministering to his father, subjecting himself to penance for his relations with his father’s concubine), but this is forced. Again it leaves unexplained why the brothers did not answer him when stunned, he said: the child is not; and as for me wither shall I go? Their silence indicates that they were similarly stunned. That the brothers considered him really dead seems to be indicated from a number of texts, besides the fact that otherwise they would presumably have made an effort to trace him: e.g: the one is not (42:13, 32). It is obvious that this phrase implied he was dead. Cf.: 44:20: We said unto my lord, we have an old father and a child of his old age, and his brother is dead. Otherwise how would Judah have dared to make such a statement?
When amongst themselves the brothers explicitly indicated their conviction he was dead: but verily we are guilty … did not I tell you, sin not with the child but you did not listen, therefore also his blood is required (42, 22). Had Rashi’s contention been correct that the brothers had sold him to the Egypt-bound caravan, why couldn’t the brothers, after they had suffered complete remorse for their act, have hoped to trace him and mend matters? This has led Rambam and, subsequently, other commentators to
And there passed by Midianites, merchants. The brothers sat down to a meal at some distance from the pit, out of qualms of conscience and waited for the Ishmaelites they had seen. But before the latter arrived, others, Midianite traders passed, saw Joseph in the pit and drew him out and sold him to the Ishmaelites, presumably without the knowledge of the brothers. Thought the text says, whom you sold to Egypt, that was meant only in the sense of ultimate responsibility… the Midianites passed quite accidentally and they sold him to the Ishmaelites. But even if you wish to say that it was the brothers who sold him to the Ishmaelites, (as his grandfather Rashi learnt), you must say that the brothers had commanded the Midianites to draw Joseph out of the pit, and they sold him afterwards to the Ishmaelites.
Rashbam was forced to find another explanation by the grammatical construction of the text. The only feasible subject of our text is the Midianites, since they are referred to last. He observes therefore that even Rashi’s explanation that it was the brothers who drew him out can only be accepted if we take it in the sense that the Midianites did the drawing out, at the brothers’ behest. Since this, too, is forced, Rashbam advances the revolutionary but apt explanation that Joseph was sold without their knowledge, thus bearing out Joseph’s own contention: I was surely stolen from the land of the Hebrews (40:15). Many commentators have accepted this, including Hizkuni (the latter’s explanation we cited earlier is an alternative) whose main motivation for adopting it was:
When Reuben didn’t find him in the pit, they all thought an evil beast had consumed him. They did not lie to their father. Had they really sold him, they would have searched every country in an effort to trace whether he was alive or dead.
Other commentators who follow this approach are Bahya, Mendelsohn, Hirsch, and Malbim. The most exhaustive treatment from this standpoint is Samuel Lali’s, in a letter quoted in Luzatto’s commentary to this verse. Here is an extract:
They moved away from the pit so as not to hear Joseph’s cries of mercy (when we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, (42:21). Whilst they were eating, they caught sight of an Ishmaelite caravan and Judah said: What profit … and his brothers listened. They all agreed that as soon as they finish eating, they would haul Joseph out of the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites. Whilst they were talking the Midianites passed by, quite by accident and took him and sold him to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver. Reuben, unseen by them, rushed to the pit to haul Joseph out and return him to his father before his brothers would have a chance to sell him. But Reuben was stunned to find the pit empty; rent his garments and was convinced that a bear or lion had dragged him out of the pit alive to devour him in its lair, since there were no traces of bones and blood. He forthwith reported to the brothers what had happened and they believed him. Reuben blamed himself for the tragedy, since it was he who had suggested casting him into the pit … The brothers thought up the idea of dipping the coat in blood, in order to protect Reuben and convince their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast. None of them went in search of Joseph, because they were fully convinced that he was no longer alive.
Reuben had kept quiet on hearing Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph because he thought he would be able to rescue Joseph from the pit, unseen by them, before they implemented their design. Now we may understand why the brothers did not react to Reuben’s news that the child is not by saying we have sold him since they knew no more of his whereabouts than Reuben himself. Similarly this explains Joseph’s: I was surely stolen from the land of Hebrew … The discrepancy between the Medanites who sold him and Ishmaelites from whom Potiphar is said to have bought him, may be explained by the fact that Ishmaelite is a generic term for all descendants of Abraham other than Isaac, or they were the descendants of Medan the son of Abraham (Genesis 25:2). But the Midianites who sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, though they too were the sons of Abraham, were certainly others who were not in the Ishmaelite caravan. Since the sellers and buyers could not be one and the same, they are termed merchants (following Rashbam’s explanation).
Joseph’s statement: that you sold me is no contradiction since, as Benno Jacob points out, sale does not cover just the financial side of the transaction but also the more general disposing of the object, accompanied by an undertone of bitterness and misfortune. God sold Israel into the hands of her enemies. (Ju. 2:14, 3:8, 4:2). Joseph could have meant that his brothers had sold him, in the sense of getting rid or disposing of him, or in the sense of indirect instrumentality.
Jacob finds a more convincing proof that it was not the brothers who sold him. After Judah had suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites, the verse ends with the words: and the brothers hearkened, Rashi explains this in the sense of their acceptance of his plan. But Jacob argues that it would have an object to mean that (and the brothers hearkened to him or to his voice, cf.: Genesis 23:16; 30:22; 34:24; Exodus 18:24; Numbers 21:3).
Vayishme’u by itself implies the contrary, that they heard him out, but demurred, disapproved. Cf.: Genesis 35:22: And Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard. Thus the last words of the verse 27 does not prepare the ground for the brothers’ sale of Joseph, but the contrary: that no unanimous decision had been reached, and that in the meantime, the second caravan drew up and hauled Joseph out.
But the main question is how does this new interpretation affect the significance of the story as a whole. To this, Benno Jacob replies: The tribes had not been guilty of the sin of stealing a man and selling him (Exodus 21:12-18) punishable by death and for which there was no atonement, being tantamount to murder. God had contrived matters that their design was not implemented by them. Joseph was sold by strangers. Had it been by his brothers, it would not have been a permanent sale, since the sale by a Jew, whether to a heathen or another Jew is redeemable. But Joseph was sold by heathens to heathens – into eternal slavery. This is the force of the emphasis in the text that Potiphar, an Egyptian bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites. In spite of all this, the almighty redeemed him from Egyptian slavery, a foretaste of what was to happen to all Israel, all the tribes of Jacob in Egypt in the house of bondage, from which the Lord would bring them out from slavery to freedom.