Who sold Joseph?

technicolor dream

A friend suggested that when confronting the problems of the Pentateuchal narrative, it’s best to begin with an innocuous passage–that is, one that has low theological stakes. Part of the problem with the average person’s acceptance of the theory is that usually one starts with creation, or flood, or even, as I did earlier, covenant in Exod 34. So let’s take one such case, one that is both theologically bland and relatively straightforward in terms of narrative.

At the end of Genesis 37, Joseph tells his brothers of his portentious dreams, is given a coat, and, in a move envied by older brothers everywhere, they conspire to kill him. I quote here the KJV of Gen 37 and the first verse of Gen 39:

KJV Genesis 37:21 And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. 22 And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; 24 And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. 25 And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. 28 Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt. 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? 31 And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; [ ... Narrative about Jacob's reaction to bloody tunic ...] 36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard. 39:1 And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.

So let’s attempt to answer the question: who sold Joseph, and to whom? Should be simple enough for us biblical literalists, right? Well, first, we have Reuben (v. 23) trying to thwart his brothers by suggesting they throw him into the pit, where he will die without their shedding his blood themselves. His design was then to return and rescue him. But Judah also has a non-violent plan. In verse 26 he still thinks they’re going to kill him by shedding blood, so he suggests (v. 27) they sell him to the approaching Ishmaelites. But in v. 28 things get interesting. The Midianites pass by “and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt”. So did the brothers do it, or the Midianites? It would depend on the antecedent of “they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit”, but the straightforward reading makes it sound like the Midianites thwarted Judah’s plan, stealing him and selling him themselves to the Ishmaelites. This seems to accord with the fact that Reuben returns and is distraught not to find him. Okay, so far, so good. But then in verse 36: “The Midianites sold him into Egypt, unto Potiphar.” Wait–I thought the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites!? And, even stranger, after the interruption of Gen 38 (the Judah/Tamar story), 39:1 begins by saying that the Ishmaelites sold him to Potiphar! So who was it? I hope we would all agree that this is a major narrative problem, at least to someone reading the text plainly. The rabbis already puzzled over this problem. So let’s look at 3 possible solutions:

1. Midianites = Ishmaelites. This solution tries to avoid the problem by calling the two ethnic designations synonyms. The rabbis proposed this as one solution. The problem is, of course, that this makes v. 28 sound like they sold Joseph to themselves! Unless you take the “they” of v. 28 to mean the brothers, in which case there’s a triple redundancy in Midianites/Ishmaelites etc. Not to mention the fact that the biblical authors knew very well that Midianites are not Ishmaelites.

2. As I hinted at above, the brothers’ intent was to sell him to the Ishmaelites but the Midianites came along first, saw him, and sold him to the Ishmaelites. This works for v. 28 but not for the rest. Other rabbis proposed this as a solution, but it doesn’t explain how it’s the Ishmaelites in 39:1.

3. The text as we have it is a compilation of two separate stories that can be separated into two seamless narratives without changing a single word in Hebrew. In one, Reuben saves Joseph from death at the hands of his brothers by telling them not to shed blood and to throw him into a pit. They do, and leave to eat. Midianites find him, pull him out, take him to Egypt, and sell him to Potiphar. In the other, Judah exhorts his brothers not to kill him, but instead to sell him to the Ishmaelites. They listen, sell him to the Ishmaelites, and the Ishmaelites take him to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar. Here they are in their narrative glory:

A. (21) And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. (22) And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again. And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. (25a) And they sat down to eat bread. (28a) Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, (29) And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. (30) And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? (36) [But/Now*] the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard.

B. (23) And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; (25b) and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. (26) And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? (27) Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. (28b) and [they*] sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt. (31) And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; [ ... Narrative about Jacob's reaction to bloody tunic ...] (39:1) And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.

Which of these (or others?) makes the most sense to you?**

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* The changes I’ve made, indicated by the brackets and asterisk, are only to help the English translation make sense. There is absolutely no change to the Hebrew. Further, this indicates the necessity of being able to work in the original language in order to provide a full and cogent analysis.

**If it’s the third option, as I obviously think it must be, there are all sorts of implications about the process of compilation: that there were multiple sources, not authored by Moses, compiled by someone interested in preserving all the text, even at the cost of narrative bumps and disjunction, etc.

  • Manuel

    # 3. Compilation of two stories. They (the brothers) sold Joseph, thus story line 3-B being the one that makes the most sense in the context of the completion of the dramatic saga and Joseph’s response when he is reunited with his brothers: “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.” Then Joseph saving them from famine makes the story the much more compelling!

    Genesis 45:

    3 And Joseph said unto his brethren, I am Joseph; doth my father yet live? And his brethren could not answer him; for they were troubled at his presence.

    4 And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.

    5 Now therefore be not agrieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    So good to see you blogging again! Great post and welcome back.


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