New Reading of Who Sold Yoseph to Slavery in Egypt

Posted by on Jan 8, 2024

Yoseph was the first Israelite to become enslaved. In the issue of who sold Yoseph to slavery, there is a common mistake made when it is asserted that it was his brothers who sold him, for the Torah appears to blame the sale of Yoseph to slavery to them, based on Yoseph’s accusations of having sold him to Egypt in Gen 45:4. The story of Yoseph’s troubles began with Ya’akov sending Yoseph to visit his brothers who attended their father’s sheep. Careful reading of the text, however, draws a different picture of what happened in the wilderness. So, who sold Yoseph to slavery? Although most commentators have already treated this matter exhaustively blaming Yoseph’s brothers, we will answer this question in a new reading of the story offering a different interpretation.

A father should not show favoritism

Ya’akov had worked for Lavan fourteen years only in order to marry his beloved Rachel. In contrast, his marriages to Leah and the handmaids, were only consequences unforeseen by him in achieving this goal. Ya’akov therefore must have considered Yoseph, the son of his favorite wife, his heir and leader of the family, because he loved him more than all his other sons.

The story begins when Yoseph was seventeen years old, and he was feeding the flock with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. Yoseph he was constantly with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, for Ya’akov had commanded them to watch over him on account of his youth. But Yoseph was bringing evil reports of them (the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah) to his father (Gen 37:2). That Yoseph did not bring an evil report to Ya’akov concerning Leah’s children is clear from the fact that Scripture only mentions the sons of the handmaids. It was for this reason that the sons of the handmaids, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, hated Yoseph, but Ya’akov loved him.

Leah bore six sons and one daughter to Ya’akov, more children than all the other wives combined. The sons of Leah might have felt a superiority because of their number, even though they are the sons of the least favored wife. When the sons of Leah saw that their father loved him more than all of them, they became jealous of Yoseph and hated him too. Thus, Yoseph saw himself hated by all, as each group of his brothers had a different reason for hating him–all because the father discriminated among his children.

The Yoseph story per the Torah

A pit in the desert.

A pit in the desert.

The brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. They were not afraid of the Kana’anites to go to Shechem, for they had killed all male population of that city for the rape of Dinah only a year or two earlier. Ya’akov sent his son Yoseph to see if it was well with his sons and flock and bring back a report of them. Evidently, Ya’akov did not think that his sons posed a threat to his favorite son, otherwise he would never have sent him alone in the wilderness.

On his way, straying from the road and not knowing where to go, Yoseph encountered a stranger. From now on, all that would happen to Yoseph, and the brothers was arranged in heaven. As we argued in the article A Stranger on the Way to Egypt – Time of Reckoning Ministry, that the stranger Yoseph encountered in the wilderness was none other than a messenger (angel) of Elohim, who was sent as a guide in order to bring him to the brothers.

The brothers seeing that Yoseph was coming, plotted to kill him and throw him into a pit as if a beast had eaten him (Gen 37:18-20). But the oldest brother Reuven intervened suggesting throwing him into the pit instead. His plan was to come later and rescue him and bring him back to his father (verses 21-22). Upon his arrival, the brothers stripped Yoseph of his robe and threw him into the pit (verses 23-24). They then returned to the flock and sit down to eat. When they saw the Ishmaelites from a distance on their way to Egypt (verse 25), Yehudah offered the plan that they should not kill their brother, for he was their blood and flesh, but rather should sell him to the coming Ishmaelites (verses 26-27). Meanwhile, we are told by the narrator that Midianite traders, who were passing by, pulled Yoseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, who took him to Egypt (verse 28). After the meal, Reuven returned to the pit but only to find that Yoseph was not in it. He went to his brothers to tell them that Yoseph was not there (verses 29-30). Facing the consequences of their action and to cover up the sudden disappearance of their brother, they invented the story that Yoseph must have been eaten by a wild animal, which story they told to their father (verses 31-35). Meantime the Midianites went down to Egypt and sold Yoseph to Potiphar (verse 36), but later we are told that it was the Ishmaelites who took Yoseph to Egypt and sold him there in slavery (Gen 39:1).

Although all the brothers (but Reuven) had participated in the plot to kill or to sell Yoseph, a closer examination of the entire story shows that perhaps only two of them were the conspirators of what happened: Shimon and Yehudah.

Chain of errors that led to the sale

When we reflect on the Yoseph story, we find a chain of errors by Ya’akov and his sons, which resulted in the sale of Yoseph in Egypt. Ya’akov, the head of the family, erred in showing bias and favoritism towards his favored son, which led his brothers to envy him. Yoseph erred in bringing evil reports of his brothers’ behavior to his father. To add even more problems, Yoseph felt the necessity to share his dreams of his superiority over his brothers (as he interpreted his own dreams) with his father and brothers. Due to his naiveté, Yoseph did not realize the possible negative consequences of his actions. The brothers erred in not considering the youthfulness of their brother. They hated him for being the favorite son of the father and for relating his dreams to them in a boastful manner. The Scripture says that they could not speak peaceably to him.

A few problems present themselves before the careful reader that are created by two seemingly contradicting narratives: (1) Midianites pulled Yoseph out of the pit and took him down to Egypt, where they sold him as a slave, (2) the brothers pulled Yoseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, who then sold him as a slave in Egypt. In other words, Yoseph was sold by his brothers to Ishmaelites, or Yoseph was kidnapped by Midianites. This raises the inevitable question: Who sold Yoseph in Egypt?

Questions for the careful reader

At this point in the discussion, it is necessary to understand that there are series of questions that are forced upon us. We will first present them in brief, after which we will explain them at length.

Reuven saved Yoseph from being killed by suggesting they throw him into an empty pit and avoid spilling blood, but when he returned to the pit, he was shocked to find Yoseph gone. If the brothers had sold Yoseph to slavery, why did Reuven not know of the sale, and where was he when they had sold him? Reuven was against the killing of his brother, for he intended to save him, but he did not stand up against them. Had he said immediately: “we will not kill our brother”, they would have listened to him for he was the oldest of them. But he did not. Why? How could the brothers calmly sit and eat bread immediately after selling their brother Yoseph into slavery? Because they were wicked and heartless?

With these questions we are coming to the next issue: Who sold Yoseph to whom? For indeed Yoseph was sold, but it is unclear who had sold Yoseph.

Verse Gen 37:27 says that the brothers intended to sell Yoseph to the Ishmaelites whom the brothers saw from a distance. But then the next verse says that the Midianites sold Yoseph to the Ishmaelites. This contradicts Gen 37:36 which plainly says that the Midianites sold him in Egypt. To make the things even more complicated to the careful reader, Gen 39:1 says that the Ishmaelites took him to Egypt thus contradicting Gen 37:36. Why does Scripture refers to the traders first as Ishmaelites, then as Midianites, and again as Ishmaelites? This makes the sale of Yoseph confusing. He was pulled out of the pit by Midianites but sold to the Ishmaelites. He is then sold to Egypt by the Midianites, but also by the Ishmaelites?

The statement that Yoseph was “stolen away from the land of the Hebrews” in Gen 40:15 is inconsistent with another statement of his that he was sold by his brothers in Gen 45:4. Was he kidnapped by the traders (Ishmaelites or Midianites) or sold by his brothers to them?

These contradictions are noted and explained by the medieval Jewish commentators. Some of them suggest that Yoseph was sold twice: first by the brothers to the Ishmaelites who then resold him to the Midianites. Others suggest that the brothers never actually sold Yoseph, but that while they were deliberating and eating, a group of Midianites came first, pulled Yoseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. But then, why are we told that it was the Midianites who sold him in Egypt?

How are these verses to be reconciled? This is a rule of interpretation. If two verses seem to be mutually contradictory, let them remain in their place until a third verse comes to decide between them, for it is written that every matter shall be established by two or three witnesses.

So, what did really happen in the wilderness, and why is that important to us?

What it takes to misread a verse

The confusion that the brothers had sold Yoseph to the Midianites comes from the ambiguity in Gen 37:28, which reads: “Midianite traders passed by; they pulled and lifted Yoseph up out of the pit and they sold Yoseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites. And they brought Yoseph into Egypt”.

Who is the subject of the Hebrew verbs “they pulled”, “they sold”, and “they brought”? Who are the “they”, who lifted Yoseph out of the pit, and who sold him to the Ishmaelites? The understanding that the brothers are the “they” is difficult. The verse contains four verbs, all with the same grammatical form: וַיַּעַבְרוּ “they passed by” (reinforced by the noun “Midianites”), וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ “they pulled”, וַיַּעֲלוּ “they lifted”, and וַיִּמְכְּרוּ “they sold”. The correct interpretation appears to us to be that since the subject of the first verb is clearly the Midianites, it does not make sense to say that the subjects of the next three verbs are the brothers, for this is not how Hebrew grammar works. It was the Midianites who passed by, who pulled Yoseph out of the pit, and who sold him to the Ishmaelites. And they (the Ishmaelites) took him to Egypt. All this is obvious, for it is illogical and counter intuitive to say that the Torah suddenly switches the subject in the middle of the verse.

Those who say that there is a disconnect between verse 27, which reads, “Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, etc.” and verse 28 are incorrect, because verse 27 indicates the brothers’ intent to sell Yoseph the Ishmaelites, but not their action, while verse 28 clearly shows that it was the Midianites who sold him to the Ishmaelites.

Others suggest that the brothers sold Yoseph to the Midianites while he was still in the pit, after which the Midianites pulled Yoseph from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. But this interpretation suffers from a major problem: The sale of Yoseph by the brothers to the Midianites is not recorded in the Torah, and it should not have been interpolated into the text by the commentators. The Midianites, who passed by (the wording Torah has used to describe a coincidence), sold Yoseph to the Ishmaelites, and then the Ishmaelites resold Yoseph to Potiphar at a much better price. The verse thus describes the Midianites passing by as something totally coincidental, having nothing to do with what the brothers had planned to do with Yoseph, namely to sell him the Ishmaelites. Even if the Torah had intended to say that the brothers had sold Yoseph, it should have been said explicitly and not through Yoseph’s words in Gen 45:4: “I am Yoseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt”.

Thus, we are coming in our study to the two sides of the story of selling Yoseph in slavery. Who sold him?

The brothers’ side of the story

When Yoseph’s brothers saw him from afar, they conspired to kill him. But Reuven saved him from death proposing to cast him into a pit. His plan was to return to the pit later and bring him back to his father without brothers’ knowledge. The brothers accepted Reuven’s proposal and cast him into a pit and sat down to eat. They distanced themselves from the pit, because they did not want to hear Yoseph’s cries as he pleaded with them.

While they were eating, they noticed a caravan of Ishmaelites at a distance going down to Egypt. Yehudah proposed to the brothers to sell him to the traders instead of killing him. They all agreed.

While the brothers were eating and still debating among themselves if to sell Yoseph to the approaching Ishmaelites, who were traveling south to Egypt, the Midianites coming from Egypt. And as they passed, they were thirsty and stopped by to draw some water. But instead, they saw Yoseph in the pit. They pulled him out and took him with them. When they encountered the Ishmaelites down the road, they sold him to them for they had little use of him.

Now, the brothers saw the Ishmaelites coming, but they did not see that the Midianites who came to the pit. Why? The answer is hinted in the meaning of the expression, “The pit that is in the wilderness” (Gen 37:22) suggesting that the pit was not in a direct line of sight with them; perhaps there was a hill between the camp and the pit, which explains why they threw him in it, for they did not wat to hear his cries.

The Ishmaelites purchased Yoseph from the Midianites and went on their way to Egypt. Following this, the Ishmaelites sold Yoseph to Potiphar, when they arrived in Egypt.

Back in the camp, when Reuven heard that the brothers wanted to sell him to the Ishmaelites, he ran to the pit to save Yoseph (as he intended), before his brothers could sell him, but only to find that he had already disappeared. The Midianites had already pulled Yoseph out the pit and went on their way. His brothers had no knowledge at all of what had happened to Yoseph after they had thrown him in the pit and returned to the flock. When Reuven came back to the pit and did not find him, all of them thought that some wild animal must have devoured him, which must have been the most natural conclusion they had made. They did not lie to their father, when they said that a beast must have devoured him. They lied that the blood on the tunic was Yoseph’s, but not of their presupposition that a beast must have eaten their brother.

When the brothers presented to their father the false story, neither Reuven nor the brothers ever knew what happened to Yoseph, for they had not witnessed what had happened at the pit. In fact, it seems clear from their sincere confession of their grave sin that Reuben believed Yoseph had been killed [by a wild beast], never to be seen again, saying to his brothers in Egypt: “his blood is now required of us” (Gen 42:22). This confession (witnessed by Yoseph years later) would have made no sense, or even worse it would have been a lie, if they had sold Yoseph into slavery. For what would be the reason to say that his blood would be required of them, if they had sold him? And when Reaven arrived at the pit, why would he be surprised that Yoseph was missing, if the brothers themselves had just sold him?

If the brothers themselves had sold him to Egypt, they had any reason to believe that he might still have been alive, when they went down to Egypt to buy grain. Moreover, they would have recognized their brother when they stood before him, especially when the viceroy of Egypt was speaking to them through an interpreter in Hebrew. The brothers were not fools. They knew that Hebrew was spoken only in their family and by his brother who was in Egypt. Finally, they would have recognized him when he gave Binyamin food that was five time larger than the food, he gave to them (Gen 43:34), and when he had seated them at the table in strict accordance with the order of their birth.

To sum up the story from the brothers’ perspectives: The sale of Yoseph by his brothers to the Midianites is not recorded in the Torah, and it should not have been interpolated into the text by the commentators. The Midianites pulled Yoseph out of the pit (unwitnessed by the brothers) and then sold him to the Ishmaelites. Then the Ishmaelites resold Yoseph to Potiphar at a much better price. And where it is said in Gen 37:36 that the Midianites sold Yoseph to Egypt, this is not in contradiction with other verses (i.e., Gen 39:1), according to which Potiphar bought Yoseph from the Ishmaelites. For indeed the Ishmaelites were in fact those who sold him to Potiphar, but the Midianites were those who initiated Yoseph’s troubles.

So, how could the brothers calmly sit and eat bread immediately after selling their brother Yoseph into slavery? Because they did not sell him. Yoseph was found and kidnapped by the Midianites, who sold him to the Ishmaelites. Thus, the correct interpretation concerning the sale of Yoseph is that he was sold two times: first by the Midianites to the Ishmaelites, and then by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar in Egypt.

Yoseph’s side of the story

With the above in mind, we may now understand Yoseph’s words to his brothers. Yoseph knew that his brothers would come to Egypt on account of the famine. So, he waited for them to come and purchase food. When Yoseph met his brothers in Egypt years later, he said that the brothers had sold him. But these are the words of Yoseph, not of the narrator of the story. Yoseph could not have known what had come to pass outside of the pit. He might have assumed that the brothers had sold him to the Midianites, who came to pull him out of the pit, and for this reason he accused them of selling him since he mistakenly thought they had. He thought that the Midianites, who pulled him from the pit and sold him later to the Ishmaelites, had purchased him from his brothers.

But back in time when Yoseph was in prison for the alleged rape of his master’s wife, he stated before the chief wine steward that he was “stolen from the land of the Hebrews” (Gen 40:15), thus referring to the Midianites who had stolen him. Had he known (i.e., from the Midianites) that he had been sold by the brothers, he would have said “I was sold”. When he became the governor of Egypt and his brothers came to purchase grain, Yoseph overheard the brothers’ conversation and found out for the first time that it had been Reuven who had tried to save him. This was something new for him that must have changed his view on what had really happened back then. Until then Yoseph might have believed that it was Reuven who was the reason he was in Egypt. But now, he assumed it might have been Shimon, the second oldest brother, who must have instigated the brothers’ plot to throw him in the pit and abandon him. Yoseph might have not even suspected that his brothers planned the worst: to kill him. Excluding Reuven as the main suspect of the plot, Yoseph had Simeon (the second oldest brother) taken away from them and thrown in prison.

But having his brothers gone through series of tests to find out the truth of what had happened to him, Yoseph decide that the time had come to reveal himself to his brothers and reunite the family. The reconciliation came and the family was reunited, yet he considered his brothers partly responsible for his sufferings, when he said, “I am Yoseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt” (Gen 45:4). To this true statement the brothers had nothing in defense. Besides, they did not defend themselves, for their plan was even worse than that. They intended to let him die in the pit or even kill him. What Yoseph really said was that their actions indirectly led to his sale in slavery, and it therefore was their responsibility of what had taken place.

If Yoseph thought he were sold into slavery by his own brothers, he had every reason to feel wronged. Surprisingly, when finally reunited with them, Yoseph told his brothers that they were not responsible for what he had gone through. Even if they had sold him into slavery, it was Elohim who sent him there. In Gen 50:20, Yoseph said that although his brothers had evil intentions against him, He intended it for good and reversed their actions for good. Perhaps, he did not know they had not sold him, yet they had evil intentions. As Yoseph explains to his brothers (Gen 45:5): “it was to sustain life that Elohim sent me ahead of you”. The psalmist understood this correctly and wrote: “He (Elohim) sent ahead of them a man; Yoseph was sold for a servant” without blaming the brothers.

Measure for measure justice

Elohim pays back man measure for measure. Even a righteous man does He pay back measure for measure. Let us recall that Ya’akov deceived his father with goatskins and his sons deceived him with the blood of a goat. Thus, two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of evil reports—Ya’akov and Yoseph. Because Yoseph spoke badly of his brothers, he was taken from his father and sold in a foreign land. And because Ya’akov listened to these reports, he mourned her son accordingly—measure for measure. Elohim did not reveal to him the truth and made him mourn excessively because Ya’akov had loved his son Yoseph excessively—more than his other sons. And it was the brothers who recognized their unsuspecting brother from a distance, seized him, and threw him into a pit. And it was Yoseph who recognized his unsuspecting brothers at a distance, seized them, and threw them into prison.

One final thought. Ya’akov’s life was never smooth from the moment of his birth when he held on to the heel of his twin brother Esav to protect himself. Since then, his estranged brother grew up alongside him. Ya’akov lived in a foreign land to work for his uncle Lavan for twenty years. He anguished the rape of his only daughter Dinah followed by Yoseph’s sudden disappearance. For all these sufferings the Torah tells us that Ya’akov lived a good life in the last seventeen years of his life when he was reunited with his favorite son in Egypt. Ya’akov never learned the truth concerning Yoseph. He thought in the remainder of his life that Yoseph was lost in the wilderness, and those who found him sold him into Egypt. Perhaps, all because he favored one son over the others.

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