One of the most dramatic scenes in the Yosef narrative is when he is sold as a slave. The three artworks shown here, Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers by Donato Mascagni,1 Joseph Sold by His Brothers by an unknown artist,2 and Brothers Sell Joseph into Slavery by Konstantin Flavitsky,3 all depict the scene similarly, with the brothers on one side and the merchants on the other. Only Yosef's position varies, depending on the exact stage of the transaction being portrayed. Despite the overall similarity, the artists differ in several details which raise questions as to who participated in the sale, the identity of the merchants, and the nature of Yosef's coat.
Mascagni chooses to depict the final moment before the sale is closed. The merchants, dressed alike in yellow cloaks and red hats, are grouped to the right. One of the brothers is standing with them, and a merchant is dropping coins into his open purse. The rest of the siblings watch from the side, with one holding a bundled garment, Yosef's cloak, in his arms. Yosef, himself, kneels between the two groups, his face turned beseechingly towards his brothers, as they completely ignore him.
In this colorful image, only five of the brothers are depicted. They stand in a semi-circle, waiting for the elder brother to divvy up the money from the sale. Here, too, the brother in the corner of the picture holds a colored garment, presumably, Yosef's cloak. None of them pay attention to the pleading Yosef as he is led away by a merchant to the trail of camels.
Flavitsky portrays the moments after the deal is finalized, illuminating two separate scenes. On the right, several dark-skinned traders pull a bound Yosef onto a waiting camel. The rest of the caravan stretches out into the desert behind them. On the left, a group of the brothers huddle together, holding out their hands to take a share of the proceeds. Some look towards Yosef, perhaps enjoying his plight. In the meantime, in the shadows in the background, two of the brothers dip Yosef's cloak into blood to prepare their cover-up.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Number of Brothers
Flavitsky has nine brothers participate in the sale while Mascagni portrays only eight. The unknown artist depicts even fewer of the siblings, painting just five figures. How many brothers were actually present during the sale? Most readers, like Flavitsky, assume that everyone but Reuven and Binyamin played a part. The text, though, is ambiguous. Only Yehuda is mentioned by name and the number of accompanying brothers is not explicit. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, in fact, suggests that half the brothers were shepherding with Reuven when the Midianite merchants passed, and these were unaware of the sale. See Who Sold Yosef for more.
Both Mascagni and the unknown artist paint Yosef's cloak in solid colors while Flavitsky portrays it as a striped garment.4 Which depiction best matches a "כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים"? Though readers versed in modern Hebrew assume that the phrase refers to a striped coat, the meaning of the word "פַּסִּים" is unclear in Biblical Hebrew. It appears in only two other places in Tanakh, in Shemuel II 13:18-19,5 where it can refer to any adjective that might be applied to a tunic, and, in Aramaic, in Daniel 5:5 where it seems to mean the palm of a hand. Commentators in Bereshit, thus, offer an array of possible meanings including: long sleeved, embroidered, striped, colored, and ankle-length.6
Midianites or Yishmaelites?
In Mascagni's image, the merchants appear as a cohesive group, all dressed similarly. In Flavitsky's painting, on the other hand, the merchants are a motley crew. Some are dark skinned while others are light; some are bare-chested while others are more richly garbed. The different portrayals might relate to a difficulty in the Biblical text. While Bereshit 37:25,27 and the end of verse 28 speak of selling Yosef to the Yishmaelites, the beginning of 28 and verse 36 speak instead of Midianite merchants. What is the relationship between these two groups? Are they simply different names for the same people?7 Did the caravan contain traders of multiple ethnicities,8 or was Yosef later resold from one group of slave traders to another?9 See Who Sold Yosef.
"When he pleaded with us…"
All three artists show Yosef pleading for mercy in various degrees of intensity.10 Interestingly, in Bereshit 37, there is no mention at all of Yosef's reaction to the sale. It is only in Chapter 42, when Yosef accuses the brothers of spying, that we hear from the brothers, "אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ". It is unclear if Yosef's anguished cries were a response to being thrown into the pit or to the sale.11 Moreover, why does the text share this fact only at this later point in the story?12