Vayeshev: The Sale of Joseph

Vayeshev: The Sale of Joseph

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

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 Midianites 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 verse 1 Ch. 39:

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 withhis 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 aked 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 clandestine sales fit in well with the atmosphere of dealings in stolen property. The traders realized 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 ch. 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 haulers 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 (Deut. 34:12): the great terror Moses wrought in the eyes of all Israel,and, at others, God, as in (Duet 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 seek another way out:

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.

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.: Gen. 23:16; 30:22; 34:24; Ex. 18:24; Nu. 2:3).

Vayishme’u by itself implies the contrary, that they heard him out, but demurred, disapproved. Cf.: Gen. 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 (Ex.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.

Questions for Further Study

  • The following objections have been raised to Rashi’s interpretation: What forced Rashi to explain that the brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites and the latter to the Midianites and not that the brothers sold him to the Midianites and the latter to the Ishmaelites, which would fit the text better? Explain which texts this explanation would suit better and why Rashi, in spite of this, preferred his explanation?
  • What did Ranban wish to prove by his quotation from Deut. 11:7. (all the great work that God has wrought on p. Did Joseph contradict himself in stating on one occasion (40:15): I was surely stolen from the land of the Hebrews and on another (44, 4): whom you sold to Egypt?
  • Rashi always explains the meaning of a word whether by resort to the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos or to another example in the Bible or by translation into the vernacular (Old French), the first time he comes across it. Why then did Rashi wait till our sidra to explain this connotation of the Hebrew word shema instead of in Gen. 28, 7, where it first appears and on which he indeed bases himself?