Who Sold Yosef?

Exegetical Approaches


The story of Yosef's sale focuses on the actions of two brothers – Reuven and Yehuda, and four groups of foreign nationals – Yishmaelites, Midianites, Medanites, and Egyptians. Commentators disagree about the internal relationships among both the brothers and the foreign parties, and the extent of the interaction between them. This has significant consequences for reconstructing the sequence of events in this episode as well as evaluating the brothers' character.

Bereshit Rabbah views the brothers as acting in unison to sell Yosef, with Reuven being the lone holdout. It also maintains that there were numerous unrelated groups of foreigners and multiple transactions, with the brothers' sale to the Yishmaelites being merely the first in a series. In contrast, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor portrays the brothers as divided between the two factions of Reuven and Yehuda, and the foreign nationals as all being part of the same caravan. According to him, half of the brothers sold Yosef to the foreign conglomerate which then proceeded to take him to Egypt. Finally, Rashbam presents all of the brothers including Reuven as one entity which was not responsible for Yosef's sale. He posits that the transaction was instead conducted between the different foreign groups themselves.

All of the Brothers (Except for Reuven) Sold Yosef

Yosef's brothers were the ones who sold him, but Reuven was elsewhere when the sale occurred.1

"וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ, וַיַּעֲלוּ... וַיִּמְכְּרוּ" – This approach subdivides into differing interpretations of how these three verbs relate to the Midianites who were introduced at the beginning of the verse ("וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים"):
  • According to Rashi, all three verbs are unconnected to the Midianites, but rather refer back to the brothers who were the subject of the previous verses. The brothers pulled and raised Yosef from the pit and then sold him to the Yishmaelites precisely as they had planned. This position, though, is problematic, as the mention of the Midianites at the beginning of the verse becomes seemingly irrelevant and out of place.5
  • In contrast, the Ma'asei Hashem6 suggests that though the brothers are the ones who sold Yosef to the Yishmaelites, it was the Midianites, playing the role of porters and intermediaries in the sale, who pulled him out of the pit. This proposal easily explains the mention of the Midianites in the first clause of the verse, as they are the subject of what follows.
Yishmaelites and Midianites
  • Separate and equal – Bereshit Rabbah understands these to be two totally separate groups of merchants.7 The Yishmaelites bought Yosef from the brothers, and the Midianites subsequently bought him from the Yishmaelites and then marketed him in Egypt.8
  • Separate but unequal – R. Tam and the Ma'asei Hashem also view them as two distinct groups, but suggest that the Midianites played the role of middlemen in facilitating the sale of Yosef by the brothers to the Yishmaelites.9
  • Same caravan – On the other hand, Ibn Ezra,10 R. Avraham b. HaRambam, and Ramban maintain, that they were part of the same caravan.
    • Ibn Ezra asserts that these are simply two names for one group of people,11 but does not explain why sometimes they are referred to in one way and sometimes in another.
    • Ramban, in contrast, suggests that the Yishmaelites were the camel drivers12 while the Midianites were the slave owners.13
    • R. Avraham b. HaRambam's position is some place in the middle as he proposes that both the Yishmaelites and Midianites were distinct members of the caravan, but maintains that their names are sometimes interchanged as they shared a common lineage and features.14
Midianites and Medanites
  • Distinct – It appears15 that Bereshit Rabbah understands them to be two different groups. R. Avraham b. HaRambam also maintains that they were two distinct peoples, but says they were part of the same caravan.
  • Identical – Most of the medieval commentators16 identify the Midianites and Medanites with one another.17
How many sales?
  • Two – Most of these commentators maintain that there were only two sales: by the brothers to the caravan of Yishmaelites18 and by the Yishmaelites to Potiphar.
  • Three – Tanchuma (Buber)19 and Rashi on Bereshit 37:2820 assert that there were was a total of three sales: Yosef's brothers sold him to the Yishmaelites, the Yishmaelites sold him to the Medanites or Midianites,21 and the Medanites or Midianites sold him to Potiphar.
  • Four or five – R. Yudan and R. Chona in Bereshit Rabbah84:22About Bereshit Rabbah take the extreme position that Yosef was sold four or five times, with every (or almost every) group mentioned in the story participating in the series of transactions.22
Reuven's surprise – Rashi asserts that Reuven was not with the brothers during the sale, and hence was surprised when he returned to the pit to find Yosef missing. Rashi suggests that Reuven was either busy atoning for his sin with Bilhah (Bereshit 35:22),23 or that he had returned home to serve his father.24 Radak, though, suggests that Reuven had simply gone to graze his sheep in a different location25 when the plan to sell Yosef was hatched and implemented.
The cover-up – This position might suggest that the brothers first conceived of a cover-up only after Reuven returned, because their real goal was simply to ensure that Reuven did not get into trouble. Alternatively, only after seeing his distress did they realize how upset their father would be.
"וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו" – In response to Yehuda's proposal to sell Yosef, the verse tells us that "the brothers heard." Rashi maintains that this implies consent.26
"וְאָחִיו מֵת" – Rashi suggests that when Yehuda says this to Yosef, he is lying, fearful of telling the vizier of Egypt that his brother had been sold.27
"אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה" – At face value, this verse reflects Yosef's belief that his brothers were the party which sold him, and it supports this approach.
Did Yaakov ever find out? RambanBereshit 45:27About R. Moshe b. Nachman contends that Yaakov never became aware that the brothers sold Yosef, but rather thought that others had abducted Yosef and sold him.  According to this, the brothers are not telling the truth in Bereshit 50:16-17 when they claim that Yaakov arranged for a message be delivered to Yosef (after Yaakov's death) requesting that Yosef forgive his brothers (see also Radak and Ralbag there). In contrast, ShadalBereshit 49:23About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto cites the opinion of R. Mordechai Mortara that Yaakov must have been aware of the brothers' role in Yosef's sale, or else the message to Yosef would not have been credible.
Does Binyamin ever find out? ShadalBereshit 45:4About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto suggests that Binyamin may have never learned the true story.  He explains that when Yosef revealed himself to the brothers as "Yosef whom you sold to Egypt" Binyamin was not within hearing range.  He points out that immediately beforehand, Yosef said to the brothers, "גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי", asking them alone to come close,28 so that Binyamin would not overhear.29

Only Some of the Brothers Sold Yosef

One group of Yosef's brothers (led by Yehuda) sold Yosef, while another group of the brothers (headed by Reuven) were not present and did not participate.

Reuven out to lunch – According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, the brothers dined in shifts.30 While Yehuda's group ate lunch ("וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם"), Reuven's group was tending to the sheep.31 Thus, Reuven and his entire group of brothers were completely unaware of both Yehuda's proposal and the sale itself.32
"וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו" – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, this term implies not just hearing and consent, but also implementation ("ויעשו כן") of Yehuda's plan.
"וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ, וַיַּעֲלוּ... וַיִּמְכְּרוּ" – Yehuda and his contingent of brothers are the subject of the verb "וַיִּמְכְּרוּ". It is unclear, though, whether the brothers also raised and pulled Yosef out of the pit, or if the buyers did that.33
"אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה" – R"Y Bekhor Shor proves from this verse that the brothers were responsible for the sale.
Yishmaelites, Midianites, and Medanites – R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that these three groups were all traveling together in one caravan, as they were related to each other, all being descendants of Avraham's concubines, Hagar and Keturah. As they were essentially all part of one broader population, the different names are used interchangeably in the text.34
How many sales? Yosef was sold only twice. The brothers sold him to the combined Yishmaelite / Midianite / Medanite caravan, who then resold him to Potiphar.
"וְאָחִיו מֵת" – R"Y Bekhor Shor does not comment on this verse, but he could maintain, like Rashi above, that Yehuda was simply lying, or that he thought Yosef was as good as dead.
Why Yosef never sent to Yaakov? R"Y Bekhor Shor35 explains that when the brothers sold Yosef, they forced him to take an oath that he would never reveal his identity or communicate with Yaakov.36

None of the Brothers Sold Yosef

While Yosef's brothers planned on selling him, they never actually succeeded in doing so, as the Midianites preempted them by abducting Yosef from the pit.

"וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ, וַיַּעֲלוּ... וַיִּמְכְּרוּ" – According to this approach, the subject of all three of these verbs is the Midianites, as they are the direct antecedent in the first part of the verse ("וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים").‎39
The original plan
  • According to most of these commentators, the brothers intended to sell Yosef to the Yishmaelites, but their plans were foiled when the Midianites beat them to it.40
  • R. Azariah Figo and Malbim, however, go a step further. They suggest that Yehuda never intended for the brothers themselves to sell Yosef. Rather, he persuades his brothers to leave the vicinity of the pit so that the Yishmaelites would find the abandoned Yosef and, of their own initiative, sell him as a slave.41
"וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו" – Shadal's cousin and Malbim interpret literally that all42 of the brothers agreed, but did not yet act on their plan.
Reuven's surprise – According to Shadal and Malbim, Reuven is with the brothers when they plan the sale, but hastily returns to the pit to save Yosef before the plan could be implemented, only to find the pit empty. Reuven is thus not the last, but rather the first, to discover that Yosef is missing.43 When he returns to his brothers, they are just as astonished as he is,44 and they all conclude that Yosef must have been devoured by a wild animal.
"וְאָחִיו מֵת" – Yehuda's later statement is readily understandable in light of the fact that the brothers truly believed that Yosef had died. Additionally, Shadal notes that Reuven's words, "וְגַם דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ", can be understood similarly.
No cover-up – The plans for what to tell Yaakov are discussed only after Reuven's discovery because until then none of the brothers were aware that Yosef was missing. Chizkuni adds that, as the brothers themselves believed that a wild animal consumed Yosef, their dipping of Yosef's tunic in blood was not intended to deceive Yaakov (but was merely an attempt to give him closure).45
No search for Yosef – Chizkuni and Shadal's cousin explain that although the brothers regretted their intended actions and tried to console Yaakov, they did not search for Yosef, because it was a foregone conclusion that he was dead.46
Yosef's brothers' character – Shadal's cousin explicitly states that taking this approach mitigates the brothers' sin – "כי בני יעקב שבטי יה אשר בחר לסגולתו אינם רשעים מתכונת נפשם הרעה", and transforms it into a temporary lapse for which they immediately repented: "ואף אם ברגע קטון חטאו מסיבת הקנאה והשנאה, כי הלא דרך אנוש למעול, אינם עומדים ח"ו במרדם, וקל מהרה יכירו חטאם וינחמו על כל אשר עשו, ויטרחו בכל יכלתם להינקות ממנו". Others have also suggested that this approach may be motivated by anti-Christian polemics.47
Yishmaelites, Midianites, and Medanites – This approach assumes that the Midianites and Yishmaelites are two distinct groups of people, with the Midianites being the original salesmen and the Yishmaelites the original purchasers.48 The approach subdivides, though, regarding the relationship of the Medanites to these two groups:
  • Rashbam and Shadal's cousin identify the Medanites as the Yishmaelites, with Shadal's cousin suggesting that all of the sons of Avraham (besides Yitzchak's line) can be referred to as Yishmaelites. This is how they eliminate the contradiction between 37:36 and 39:1.
  • Shadal and Malbim, in contrast, identify the Medanites with the Midianites. They propose that 37:36 is not saying that the Medanites physically brought Yosef to Egypt (as that would contradict 39:1), but that they sold Yosef towards Egypt (ie. with the intent that he arrive in Egypt).49 Alternatively, the verse might simply mean that the Midianites were the main cause of Yosef's going to Egypt, as they were the ones who originally drew him from the pit.
How many sales? According to this approach, there were only two sales. The Midianites stole Yosef from the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites who, in turn, sold him to Potiphar.
"אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה" – What did Yosef think? Rashbam explains that while the brothers did not actually sell Yosef, since their actions resulted in his sale, it is considered as if they sold him.50 Shadal's cousin adds that it is also possible that Yosef himself mistakenly assumed that the brothers had sold him to the Midianites who had then proceeded to claim their purchase from the well.51
"כִּי גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים" – Shadal's cousin reads these words of Yosef as a reference to the Midianites stealing him from the pit. Shadal, though, thinks that Yosef is referring to his brothers stealing him from Yaakov, and that this statement merely reflects Yosef's own erroneous assumption that his brothers had sold him.
Why Yosef never sent to Yaakov? R"Y Bekhor Shor notes that Rashbam's approach has the greatest difficulty explaining why Yosef did not send to his father, given the fact that he had not even been sold by his brothers.52
Yaakov's Blessings – In contrast to other exegetes, RashbamBereshit 49:9Bereshit 49:23About R. Shemuel b. Meir maintains that none of Yaakov's blessings in Bereshit 49 make reference to the brothers' sale of Yosef.  Thus, for example, Rashbam opts to interpret "וַיְמָרְרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים" as referring to Mrs. Potiphar's attempts to harm Yosef, rather than the brothers.53  See also ShadalBereshit 49:23About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto who notes that this position could be consistent with Rashbam's view that the brothers were not the ones who sold Yosef.54  For elaboration on Rashbam's reading of the blessing to Yosef, see Yaakov's Blessing of Yosef.
What did Yaakov think? ShadalBereshit 49:23About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto suggests that, according to Rashbam, it is possible that Yaakov never knew even of the brothers' hatred of Yosef, but rather assumed (correctly) that Yosef had been abducted and sold by a different party.  Shadal himself, though, in the later printed editions of his commentary,55 contends that Yaakov assumed (incorrectly) that the brothers had been directly responsible.56