Who Sold Joseph?

Who sold Joseph? Here’s the pasuk in Vayeshev (Genesis 37:28)-

וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִן-הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף; וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, מִצְרָיְמָה
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; 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 into Egypt.

The straightforward answer, as Rashi sees it, is that the brothers took Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites and the Midianites to the Egyptians.

I learned from my son, however, (it’s so wonderful when you can learn from your kids) that Rashbam (who is the grandson of Rashi; can you imagine challenging your own scholarly grandfather?) sees this differently. He suggests that the “they” who do the selling are the Midianites: “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.”

This helps explains Genesis 39:1, where Potiphar buys Joseph from the Ishmaelites. Other commentators complain that Rashi does not adequately explain this pasuk (how do the Midianites fit in? Who sold him to Egypt, Midianites or Ishmaelites?). But if the Midianites take Joseph without the brothers knowing and sells him to the Ishmaelites, then this pasuk makes sense.

Much more on this topic in Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Breishit.

blood_stripesA much simpler question is why does the text in beginning of Miketz say “brothers of Joseph”? Rashi’s explanation is that they went down to Egypt to look for him, that he was very much on their minds (daughter of Mrs. S. said it was out of love for their brother). But if one follows Rashbam’s explanation, that the Midianites sold him and the brothers thought him dead, why does it say “brothers of Joseph”? (I don’t know).

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While we are discussing Joseph, I just want to remark on what Rabbi Levi Meier, z”l, calls “Joseph’s astonishing ability to forgive his brothers.” In his book Ancient Secrets: Using the Stories of the Bible to Improve Our Everyday Lives, Rabbi Meier talks about Fate vs. Destiny: you can have reasons to hold a grudge, you can have a terrible start in life, and you can either sulk and not move forward or you can use it as a way to learn and grow:

Joseph’s forgiving is hard to achieve, especially when you have been terribly wronged by another person. In the case of Joseph, his life could have been ruined by the actions of his brothers. However, it was not, because he did not allow that to happen… Nursing your hurt feelings, your anger, and your bitterness will not bring you to happiness. It will only make you a slave to your fate, and you may never come to know that you could have freed yourself—that you could have been the master of your destiny.

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More interesting posts on this parsha:
Ilana-Davita: Forget All My Father’s House
Aron Grinshtein: Why Couldn’t the Wise Men of Egypt Figure Out the Dreams?

And on last week’s parsha on Tamar:
Shorty: she writes about Tamar and wonders why Rivka and Tamar had to be sneaky. Any ideas for her?

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5 thoughts on “Who Sold Joseph?

  • It is great that you can learn from your kids. IMH by our family soon, :-). That has got to be one of the most difficult things to do, forgive someone who has wronged you. Not only to forgive but even to return kindness to those who have wronged you.

    P.S. Thanks for mentioning me in your post.

  • Yes, it’s a detail from the bar-mitzvah invitation I did last year. It’s Joseph’s coat, with blood dripping.

    I highly recommend Rabbi Levi Meier’s books.

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