“Who Sold Joseph?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the sale of Joseph.

The sale of Joseph plays a key role in Jewish history, drawing the Jewish people down to Egypt and into Egyptian enslavement, culminating with the Exodus and the liberation from Egypt.

Not only did the sale of Joseph lead to Jewish enslavement and liberation, but, according to tradition, the sale of Joseph was the reason for the tragic martyrdom of ten great sages during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 ACE), for having defied an imperial edict against founding schools for study of Torah. The loss of these ten great sages is regarded as so devastating that it is included in the Yom Kippur liturgy and again in the elegies that are chanted on the national day of mourning, Tisha b’Av.

Philip Birnbaum, in his High Holiday Prayer Book, translates the Yom Kippur poem about the Ten Martyrs as follows:

These martyrs I will remember, and my soul is melting with secret sorrow. Evil men have devoured us and eagerly consumed us. In the days of the tyrant there was no reprieve for the ten who were put to death by the Roman government.

Having learned from the sages how to interpret the written law, the tyrant maliciously turned to the scriptural passage, which reads: “Whoever kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his possession, must be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16). He commanded to fill his palace with shoes, and arrogantly summoned ten great sages who were completely versed in the law. He said to them: “Judge this matter objectively, pervert it not with falsehood, but pass on it truthfully; if a man is caught kidnapping one of his brothers of the Children of Israel, treating him as a slave and selling him?” They answered, “That thief shall die!” (Deuteronomy 24:7).

Then he [the tyrant] exclaimed: “Where are your fathers who sold their brother [Joseph] to a caravan of Ishmaelites and bartered him for shoes?! You must submit to the judgment of Heaven, for since the days of your fathers, there has been none like you. If they were alive, I would convict them in your presence; but now it is you who must atone for the iniquity of your fathers.”

The ten sages asked the tyrant for three days reprieve to confer with Heaven to determine what their fate should be. Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, received the Heavenly response: “Submit, beloved saints, for I have heard from behind the curtain that this would be your fate.” Rabbi Yishmael reported to his colleagues the word of G-d. At that moment, Hadrian commanded to slay the ten sages with force.

But who actually sold Joseph?

The biblical narrative is so obscure that Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in his studies on the weekly parasha, begins his analysis regarding who sold Joseph to Egypt with the following comment: “The commentators discuss the identity of those who sold Yosef. As far as the verses in the Torah are concerned, they conceal more than they reveal, and they sometimes even seem to be contradictory.”

How does Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob who dwells in Canaan, become a slave in Egypt?

Joseph was sent by his father, Jacob, to Shechem to check on the well-being of his brothers who had gone there to shepherd the family’s flocks.

When the brothers see Joseph from afar, their hatred of him is kindled and they decide to murder Joseph. When Reuben, the oldest brother, hears his siblings’ scheme to murder Joseph, to throw him into one of the pits and report to their father, Jacob, that a wild animal had eaten Joseph, Reuben suggests not to harm the lad. Instead, he advises his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit unharmed, and let him die of starvation. Scripture reveals that Reuben’s intention was to return later and save his brother.

After throwing Joseph into the pit, scripture reports, Genesis 37:25, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד

They [Joseph’s brothers] sat to eat food; they raised their eyes and they saw, behold!–-a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead.

Judah then tells his brothers, Genesis 37:26, “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him.” The brothers agree with Judah and it is at this point, in Genesis, 37:28, that the Bible notes, וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִן הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִצְרָיְמָה  Midianite traders passed by and they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. Then they brought Joseph to Egypt.

The Bible thereafter reports (Genesis 37:36),  וְהַמְּדָנִים מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מִצְרָיִם, לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים Now the Medanites had sold him to Egypt, to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh, the chamberlain of the butchers.

Rashi maintains that from his understanding of the Biblical narrative, it was clearly the brothers, the sons of Jacob, who sold Joseph. The text that follows informs the readers that Joseph was subsequently sold many times. According to Rashi, the brothers drew Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites in turn sold him to the Midianites, and the Medanites to the Egyptians. Rashi appears to identify the Medanites as a brother clan of the Midianites. What remains unresolved according to Rashi’s interpretation is the statement in Genesis 39:1, where the Torah describes Potiphar as having bought Joseph “from the hand of the Ishmaelites who brought him down there.”

However, not all commentators agree with Rashi that Joseph was sold by his brothers. Rabbi Nachshoni cites the interpretation of the Rashbam, calling his elucidation of the text regarding the sale of Joseph “revolutionary.”

While it is true that the brothers spoke about selling Joseph, apparently, while they were waiting for the Ishmaelites to come, a caravan of Midianites passed by, who heard Joseph’s cries from the pit. The Midianites then drew Joseph from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to Potiphar. The Rashbam suggests that it is very possible that Joseph’s brothers did not even know about the sale.

When Joseph later identifies himself to his brethren, Genesis 45:4, declaring,  אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה “I am Joseph, your brother. It is me whom you sold into Egypt,” Joseph does not mean to say that they actually sold him, but rather that they caused him to be sold.

Despite the fact that they did not actually sell him, the brothers’ actions are considered sinful, for it was as if they sold him.

Unfortunately, Hadrian and other enemies of the Jews are never interested in actual facts, fine print or the nuances of the text, and will use any pretense to blame the Jews.

When Joseph later identifies himself to his brothers, and tries to calm them about the role they played in selling him to Egypt, he says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, הֵנָּה, כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ-לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם “Now, be not distressed nor reproach yourself for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you.” Joseph explains that the brothers’ actions were actually part of a Divine plan to ensure the survival of the land and to sustain the people for a momentous deliverance. Joseph specifically says in Genesis 45:8, וְעַתָּה, לֹא אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי הָאֱ-לֹקִים, “And now, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d.”

No matter whether his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites or whether the Midianites pulled Joseph out of the pit, when our enemies seek to harm us, even the most indisputable evidence will not be allowed to interfere with their nefarious plans.

Fortunately, the Al-mighty is always there to watch over His people and to protect them.

May you be blessed.