Joseph Accuses His Brothers of Selling Him – But Did They?
Joseph Is Thrown into a Pit, Then Sold
Despite the brothers’ hatred of Joseph, Jacob sends him on a mission to find them, see how they are doing, and report back (Gen 37:13–14). When they see Joseph coming, their first reaction is to plot to kill him (Gen 37:19–20).
Reuben’s Suggestion—Throw Him into a Pit
Reuben, the oldest brother, stands up to them (Gen 37:21-22):
בראשית לז:כא וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. לז:כב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן אַל תִּשְׁפְּכוּ דָם הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְיָד אַל תִּשְׁלְחוּ בוֹ לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל אָבִיו.
Gen 37:21 When Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” 37:22 Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.
The brothers agree to throw Joseph into the pit, and once they do, they sit down to a meal (Gen 37:25).
Judah’s Suggestion—Sell Him
While they are eating, they notice a caravan of Ishmaelites passing by. Judah then proposes another plan:
בראשית לז:כו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל אֶחָיו מַה בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת אָחִינוּ וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת דָּמוֹ. לו:כז לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים וְיָדֵנוּ אַל תְּהִי בוֹ כִּי אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ הוּא וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו.
Gen 37:26 Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? 37:27 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.
The Ambiguous Sale
In the next verse, Joseph is taken out of the pit and sold, but, as Nahum Sarna comments: “The subject of the two Hebrew verbs [‘pulled’ and ‘sold’] is ambiguous.”
בראשית לז:כח וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִן הַבּוֹר וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִצְרָיְמָה.
Gen 37:28 Midianite traders passed by; they pulled and lifted Joseph up out of the pit and they sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.
To whom does the pronoun “they” refer in this verse? Who lifted Joseph out of the pit, and who sold him?
The Brothers Sold Him: Rashi
The most common understanding has long been that Joseph’s brothers were the ones who pulled, lifted, and sold him, as Rashi (1040–1105) writes explicitly:
וימשכו—בני יעקב את יוסף מן הבור, וימכרוהו לישמעאלים.
“They pulled”—Jacob’s sons pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites.
This interpretation makes sense since the previous verse has Judah suggesting that they (=the brothers) sell him. Moreover, it finds support later in the story when Joseph, now the vizier in Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and notes explicitly that they—his brothers—had sold him:
בראשית מה:ד אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה
Gen 45:4 I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
Yet the understanding that Joseph’s brothers are the subject of verse 28 is difficult.
The first half of the verse contains four verbs, all with the same grammatical form: וַיַּעַבְרוּ (they passed by), וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ (they pulled), וַיַּעֲלוּ (they lifted), and וַיִּמְכְּרוּ (they sold). The subject of the first verb, וַיַּעַבְרוּ, is explicitly the Midianites, not Joseph’s brothers. It does not make sense to say that the subject switches to the brothers for the next three verbs.
This suggests that the Midianites sold Joseph, but this leaves us with a disconnect between verse 27, in which Judah suggests that they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and verse 28, in which the Midianites sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. What happened to the brothers? Why are the Midianites the ones to sell him?
The Modern Critical Solution
One solution, favored by many modern critical scholars, is that the confusion here is a result of chapter 37 being a composite text: One story has Reuben suggesting that they throw Joseph in a pit, but before Reuben can save him, Midianites traders find him and take him away. In the other story, Judah suggests that Joseph be sold to the Ishmaelites, and this is what the brothers do.
When combining these two stories, the redactor kept the original phrasing of each source, thus yielding the ambiguity discussed above. According to this theory, vs. 28 is actually a pasting together of words from two different sources that tell two different irreconcilable stories, one of which ends with Midianites bringing Joseph to Egypt (37:36) and the other with the Ishmaelites doing so (39:1).
Whatever one thinks of this solution, traditional commentators could not consider this possibility. To them, the story was a description of an historical incident written by one author. Unsatisfied with the cumbersome and syntactically problematic interpretation of Rashi, peshat commentators attempted to make sense of the Midianites' actions in the story line.
A Missing Scene: Sekhel Tov
One approach, suggested by the Byzantine commentator, R. Menachem ben Shlomo in his Sekhel Tov (written in 1139), is that the brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites while he was still in the pit, after which the Midianites remove Joseph from the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites:
ויעברו – כלומר קדמו אנשי מדינים סוחרים והגיעו אצל אחי יוסף קודם שהגיעו הישמעאלים... ולפי שאלו מדינים מבני אברהם הם וקדמו לבא לפני הישמעאלים מכרוהו להם
“They passed by”— meaning, the Midianite merchants pulled ahead and got to the brothers before the Ishmaelites arrived… And since the Midianites were [also] sons of Abraham [like the Ishmaelites], and they got there before the Ishmaelites, [the brothers] sold him to them.
והם עצמם המדינים כתיב וימשכו ויעלו את יוסף מן הבור. כיון שהעלוהו נתחרטו עליו, אז הגיעו ארחת ישמעאלים ומכרוהו המדינים ההם לפני אחיו לישמעאלים בעשרים כסף במה שנתנו בו...
And the verse is referring to the Midianites themselves when it says “and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit.” But once they took him out, they regretted the purchase. Then, when the Ishmaelites arrived, the Midianites sold him, in front of his brothers, to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver pieces, what they themselves had paid for him…
This creative solution suffers from a major problem, what the sages sometimes call עיקר חסר מן הספר, “the core element is missing from the book.” The verse says nothing at all about the brothers selling Joseph to the Midianites.
When the Brothers Weren’t Looking: Rashbam’s Solution
Another, more persuasive, solution to the problem of the Midianites’ role in the story was put forward by Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080-c. 1065), who suggests that while the brothers were eating lunch, the Midianites found Joseph and sold him on their own:
ויעברו אנשים מדיינים – בתוך שהיו יושבים לאכול לחם, ורחוקים היו קצת מן הבור לבלתי אכול על הדם, וממתינים היו לישמעאלים שראו, וקודם שבאו הישמעאלים עברו אנשים מדיינים אחרים דרך שם, וראוהו בבור ומשכוהו ומכרוהו המדיינים לישמעאלים.
“Midianite traders passed by”—The brothers were at their meal, sitting some distance from the pit so as to refrain from “eating on the blood” (Lev 19.26), waiting for the Ishmaelites whom they had seen (vs. 25). However, before those Ishmaelites arrived, different people—Midianites—passed by, saw Joseph in the pit and pulled him out. These Midianites sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites.
ויש לומר שהאחים לא ידעו, ואף על פי אשר כתב: אשר מכרתם אותי מצרימה (בראשית מ"ה:ד'), יש לומר: שהגרמת מעשיהם סייעה במכירתו.
It is to be understood that the brothers did not know [of the sale]. Although it is written [that Joseph later said to his brothers] (Gen 45.4), “[I am ... he] whom you sold unto Egypt,” that phrase is to be understood to mean that their actions indirectly led to his sale.
זה נראה לי לפי עומק דרך פשוטו של מקרא. כי ויעברו אנשים מדיינים – משמע על ידי מקרה, והם מכרוהו לישמעאלים.
To me, this represents the profound interpretation, following the plain meaning of Scripture. For the phrase, “Midianite traders passed by,” implies that it happened by coincidence, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites.
Reuben’s Behavior: Support for Rashbam
Reuben’s surprise upon finding the pit empty supports Rashbam’s interpretation. As noted above, Reuben had proposed to his brothers that they throw Joseph into the pit, לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל אָבִיו—“intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” In other words, Reuben planned that when his brothers were not looking, he would go back to the pit and take Joseph out and return him to his father.
In this reading, following Rashbam, while the brothers eat their meal, Reuben returns to save Joseph as planned only to find that he is gone:
בראשית לז:כט וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל הַבּוֹר וְהִנֵּה אֵין יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר וַיִּקְרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו. לז:ל וַיָּשָׁב אֶל אֶחָיו וַיֹּאמַר הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי בָא.
Gen 37:29 Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit; he rent his clothes. 37:30 Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?”
Why would Reuben be surprised that Joseph was missing if the brothers themselves had just sold him?
R. Loli’s Reconstruction of Events
Rashbam’s interpretation was adopted by Rabbi Hizqiah ben Manoah (c. 1250-c. 1310), who often incorporates Rashbam’s explanations into his Hizquni commentary, but other than that, it remained unknown for centuries. Rashbam’s commentary was finally printed for the first time in the 18th century, at which point his reading began to gain traction among traditional commentators.
The commentary of Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) offers a lengthy defense of Rashbam’s reading, based on insights from his cousin, Rabbi Shmuel Chaim b. David Loli (1788–1848).
רוב העולם מאמינים כי אחי יוסף מכרו אותו, ורשב״ם כתב כי לא כן היה הדבר.... וידידי ובן דודי מהר״ר שמואל חיים בן דוד לאלי זצ״ל העמיק החקירה בענין הספור הזה וכיוֵן לדעת רשב״ם, וכתב אלי דעתו באגרת (כ״ח כסלו תקפ״ט).
Most people believe that Joseph’s brothers sold him. But Rashbam writes that this was not so.... My friend and cousin, Rabbi Shmuel Chaim b. David Loli, delved deeply into this story, and arrived at Rashbam’s conclusion. He outlined his approach to me in a letter dated December 4, 1828.
Here is how Shadal, quoting his cousin, Loli, describes the unfolding plot:
כאשר ראו אחי יוסף אותו מרחוק התנכלו להמיתו... וישמע ראובן ויצילהו מידם, ויעץ אותם להשליך אותו הבורה (למען הציל אותו מידם) ונעשתה עצתו וישליכוהו הבורה, ואח״כ וישבו לאכל לחם וירחקו מן הבור שלא לשמוע זעקת יוסף בהתחננו אליהם...
When Joseph’s brothers saw him from afar, they plotted to kill him... But Reuben heard and saved him from them, and advised them to cast Joseph into the pit in order to save him from them. His advice was followed; they cast him into the pit. Afterwards, they sat down to eat, and they distanced themselves from the pit, so as not to hear Joseph’s cries as he pleaded with them.…
עודם אוכלים וישאו עיניהם ויראו ארחת ישמעאלים, ויאמר יהודה לכו ונמכרנו וגו׳, וישמעו אחיו, כלומר הסכימו כלם, כי אחרי כלותם לאכול ישובו אל הבור וְיעלו משם את יוסף ויביאוהו אל הישמעאלים למכרו להם....
While they were eating, they noticed a caravan of Ishmaelites at a distance. Judah said, “Come, let us sell him...” His brothers listened to him, i.e., they all agreed that after they finished eating, they would return to the pit, lift Joseph from there, and bring him to the Ishmaelites to sell him to them…
ויהי עד כה ועד כה, עודם מדברים ביניהם, רחוק מהבור, והנה, בלי ידיעת אחד מהם, ויעברו אנשים מדינים סוחרים (במקרה אשר הקרה ה׳) אצל הבור, וימשכו המדינים ויעלו את יוסף מן הבור ויביאוהו אל הישמעאלים וימכרוהו להם בעשרים כסף ויביאו את יוסף מצרימה.
Meanwhile, while they were speaking among themselves, far from the pit, without their knowledge, Midianite merchants passed by the pit by divine providence, pulled Joseph out of the pit, brought him over to the Ishmaelites, and sold him to them for twenty pieces of silver. They brought Joseph to Egypt.
והנה אחרי אכלם, וימהר ראובן לבדו ויפרד מאחיו בלא ראותם וישב בזריזות אל הבור להעלות את יוסף ולהשיבו אל אביו טרם יגיעו אחיו להעלותו ולמכרו, אבל... כהמס דונג מפני אש כן נמס לב ראובן ויהי למים בהביטו אל תוך הבור ואין עוד יוסף שם, ויקרע את בגדיו
Now, after they ate, Reuben hurried off by himself, leaving his brothers without them noticing, and returned quickly to the pit to lift Joseph out and return him to his father before his brothers could reach him to lift him out and sell him. However, ... as the melting of wax before fire, so Reuben’s heart melted and turned into water as he gazed into the pit, but Joseph was no longer there. He rent his clothes...
But Joseph Says His Brothers Sold Him
When Joseph meets his brothers, however, he says that they sold him:
בראשית מה:ד אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה
Gen 45:4 I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.
Here Joseph, not the narrator, is speaking. When a character in the Bible (or in some other work) describes what happened in a way that differs from what the narrator told us, we have two options:
1. Gap Filling—The character’s speech can fill gaps in the original narration. A good biblical example is from the Joseph story, when years later, Joseph’s brothers refer to his begging for mercy when they threw him into the pit (Gen 42:21), something unmentioned in the original narration in ch. 37.
2. Inaccuracy—A speaker can also be describing the event inaccurately. In such a case, the text wishes the reader to pay attention to the inaccuracy. The following are some examples of this phenomenon:
- A wife from Abraham’s family—Abraham’s servant tells the family in Haran that Abraham had asked him to find Isaac a wife from the family, even though Abraham never used the word “family.” Presumably the servant is embellishing on the original command in order to curry favor with his listeners.
- The calf just came out—When Aaron tells Moses (Exod 32:14) “וָאַשְׁלִכֵ֣הוּ בָאֵ֔שׁ וַיֵּצֵ֖א הָעֵ֥גֶל הַזֶּֽה—I threw it [the gold] into the fire and out came this [golden] calf,” the narrator wants us to realize that Aaron is obscuring his culpable actions, and deviating from the narrator’s original description of Aaron’s more active role (Exod 32:4).
- The vizier asked us—The brothers tell their father that the vizier in Egypt had asked them whether they had a brother or a living father (Gen 43:7). The original narration recorded no such question. This addition may be a lie meant to obscure from their father that they were overly eager in sharing of information with the vizier.
Similarly, Joseph might have reason to say that his brothers sold him even if they didn’t.
Indirect Responsibility: Rashbam and Loli
Above we quoted Rashbam who explained that what Joseph was really saying was that their actions indirectly led to the sale, i.e., responsibility fell on them. Shadal’s cousin Loli agrees, arguing that Joseph’s statement to the chief wine steward, כִּי גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים, “for I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews”(Gen 40:15), demonstrates that Joseph knew that Midianite strangers had stolen him, but still considered his brothers partly responsible (45:4).
Certainly, Loli argues, when Joseph said to his brothers that they had sold him למצרים “to Egypt,” he was not saying that they, themselves, directly brought him to Egypt and sold him there. Obviously, Joseph was referring to the indirect result of his brothers’ actions.
Why Not Defend Themselves?
But Loli’s solution creates a new problem: If the brothers had not sold him, why wouldn’t they have defended themselves and denied Joseph’s accusation? Loli answers:
כי לא יכלו אחיו לענות אותו גם לשאלת העוד אבי חי כי נבהלו מפניו ואיך יעיזו מצח להתוכח עמו בענין חטאם?
The brothers were not able to answer him at all (Gen 45:3). They couldn’t even answer the question, “Is my father still alive?” because they were so startled. How could they then be so brazen as to argue with him about their sin?
Shadal himself offers a different answer.
Joseph Was Mistaken
According to Shadal, Joseph accused his brothers of selling him since he mistakenly thought they had. He assumed that the Midianites, who took him from the pit and sold him, had purchased him from his brothers and were acting with their blessing.
As for the question of why the brothers didn’t challenge that accusation, Shadal writes:
ואחי יוסף לא אמרו לו מעולם כי הם לא מכרוהו, שהרי קים להו בדרבא מניה, כי כוונתם היתה שימות בבור, ואיך יאמרו לו – אל תחשוב כי אנחנו מכרנוך, כי אמנם היה בלבנו שתמות בבור, ואח״כ בעצת יהודה הסכמנו למכור אותך, והמדנים קדמו ומכרו אותך.
Joseph’s brothers never said to him that they didn’t sell him, for their plan was even worse than that. They intended to let him die in the pit. How could they say to him, “Don't think that we sold you. Actually, our plan was for you to die in the pit. Afterwards, we agreed to Judah’s suggestion to sell you, but the Midianites got there first and sold you themselves!”
The Dominance of the “Sold by His Brothers” Interpretation
Given all of these complexities surrounding the story of the sale of Joseph, why do most people simply believe that Joseph’s brothers sold him? Rashbam’s explanation that the Midianites were the ones who sold Joseph explains the details of the text more logically than the more standard reading. Some commentators have even spoken out strongly against Rashbam’s explanation.
Perhaps the persistence of the belief that Joseph’s brothers sold him is based, in part, on the fact that this interpretation has virtually been canonized through the Elleh Ezkerah martyrology poem recited by Ashkenazic Jews as part of musaf on Yom Kippur, and by Sephardic Jews on the fast of Tisha Be’av.
In that poem, which is based on early medieval midrashim, the Roman tyrant decides to punish ten great rabbis to compensate for the grievous sin of Joseph’s ten brothers:
נָם אַיֵּה אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲחִיהֶם מְכָרוּהוּ לְאֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים סְחָרוּהוּ
He [the tyrant] said: What about your ancestors who sold their brother, peddled him to a caravan of Ishmaelites?
Nevertheless, in later generations some traditional exegetes took a fresh look at the text and proposed a reading which might undermine a hallowed, moving prayer, but which shows greater sensitivity to what the verses say.
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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