Sale of Yosef in Art


One of the most dramatic scenes in the Yosef narrative is when he is sold as a slave. The three artworks shown here, the engraving by Gustave Doré,1 the image from the Hortus Deliciarum,2 and the lithograph by an unknown artist,3 all depict the scene. The many differences in the details of the images raise questions as to who participated in the sale, the identity of the merchants, and the nature of Yosef's coat.

Contrasting Images

Gustave Doré

Dore's print highlights the merchants rather than the brothers. Several sit upon the camels, while others stand in a half circle around Yosef. The image divides them into two groups, with some colored in light shades and others in dark. Yosef himself is garbed in white, with no evidence of his "כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים" anywhere in the image. As he faces one of the merchants, his back is to the viewer, leaving his expression unknown. In the top right of the image, the brothers stand in a group, presumably dividing up the money from the sale.

Hortus Deliciarum

The  picture from the Hortus Deliciarum is the most static of the images, depicting only the various characters of the story and almost no activity.  The eleven brothers stand in a group to the left, each dressed similarly in rich colored cloaks. Yosef is significantly younger than them, and uniquely dressed in a striped garment.4  He looks back at his brothers as he is taken by the Yishmaelites, perhaps accusingly, perhaps just perplexed. Two merchants are portrayed on the right. One stands by the loaded donkeys, while the other grasps Yosef by the arm and pays the brothers.

Providence Lithograph

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. 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.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

Number of Brothers

The Hortus Deliciarum has all the brothers participate in the sale, while Dore and the unknown artist portray only a few of them (seven and five respectively). How many brothers were actually present during the sale? Most readers 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 ShorBereshit 37:25About 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.

כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים

The unknown artist paints Yosef's cloak in solid colors while in the Hortus Deliciarum it is portrayed as a striped garment.5 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 13:18-19,6 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.7

Midianites or Yishmaelites?

Though not highlighted, in the lithograph the merchants appear to all be dressed similarly and be part of one long caravan. In Dore's image, in contrast, they appear to be divided into two groups, some portrayed in darker shades and others in lighter tones. 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 verse 28 as well as verse 36 speak instead of Midianite merchants. What is the relationship between these two groups? Are they simply different names for the same people?8 Did the caravan contain traders of multiple ethnicities,9 or was Yosef later resold from one group of slave traders to another?10 See Who Sold Yosef.

"When he pleaded with us…"

In both the lithograph and the Hortus Deliciarum, Yosef turns towards his brothers with an imploring look, perhaps pleading with them not to go through withe sale. 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