Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who sold Joseph?

In the past I've called the Sale of Joseph story "maddeningly unclear" writing: "Who took Joseph out of the pit? Who brought him down to Egypt? Midianites or Ishmalites? In the post that follows, I identify some of the problems.

Bible Verse

18 And when they saw him from afar, and before he came near to them, they conspired against him to put him to death.19 And they said one to another, Behold, there comes that dreamer! 20 And now come and let us kill him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, An evil beast has devoured him; and we will see what becomes of his dreams.

Here the brother state their original intentions, regarding their brother Joseph:. They wish to kill him.The Rabbis suggest that they set themselves up as a court, and sentenced Joseph to death for the sin of delivering false prophecies, ie, the dreams mentioned at the end of Verse 20. Note that the plan is to toss Joseph's corpse into no specific pit.

21And Reuben heard [it], and delivered him out of their hand, and said, Let us not take his life.
22And Reuben said to them, Shed no blood: cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness; but lay no hand upon him -- in order that he might deliver him out of their hand, to bring him to his father again. 

Reuben does not support the plan, and appropriating his brother's language (cast him into a pit) instead suggests that a live Joseph be thrown into a particular pit, a "pit which is in the wilderness." Reuben likely has in mind a pit the brothers saw at some earlier time and suggests it, as the the last part of the verse explains, to buy some time and to afford himself the opportunity to rescue Joseph without being seen. The fact that the pit Rueben chose is not nearby will become significant later.

23And it came to pass when Joseph came to his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his vest, the vest of many colours, which he had on; 24and they took him and cast him into the pit; now the pit was empty -- there was no water in it.

The plan is accepted. 

25And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead; and their camels bore tragacanth, and balsam, and ladanum -- going to carry [it] down to Egypt.

During their meal (bread is a synecdoche for food) the brother see a caravan off in the distance. Two assumptions:  (1) the caravan is traveling on the Via Marias, the Derech Yam Suf, which was the main trading route. This route cuts across the Jezereel Valeey. (2) The brothers are still near Dothan, which (check a map) overlooks the Valley.  Problem: How can this caravan be made up of Ishmalites? At the time, the only Ishmalites were second cousins to Joseph and his brothers. Later, the meaning of the word shifted, and it became a generic term for Arab traders. Its usage two verses later in Judah's quoted speech is anachronistic, and suggests the story was written or edited after the word took on its new meaning.  

26 And Judah said to his brethren, What profit is it that we kill our brother and secrete his blood? 27 Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites; but let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh. And his brethren hearkened [to him].

Seeing the caravan in the Valley below, Judah proposes the brother's have their cake and eat it, too.Selling Joseph to the caravan achieves Reuben's desire to preserve Joseph's life, while also getting rid of him. Though the Rabbis assume the brothers followed Jewish law, I don't know how the new plan fits that assumption. A court, such as the one the brothers are believed to have formed, can sentence someone to death, but they can sentence him to a life of foreign slavery? 

28 And Midianitish men, merchants, passed by; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver-pieces; and they brought Joseph to Egypt.

Though the brothers have agreed to sell Joseph to the caravan, a group of Middianites beats them to it. While the brothers were plotting and eating the Midianites, who were perhaps on their way to meet the caravan, stumbled upon Joseph abandoned in the wilderness, far off from where the brothers were, and took advantage. This is Chizkuni's view. Rashi, disagrees, writing that the brothers took Joseph from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to the Midianites. If so, why mention the arrival of the Middianites here? Isn't it out of place?  Problem: In Judges 8:22-24 Midinaite and Ishamlite seems to be interchangeable terms for the same people. Indeed, the scholarly consensus is that two different versions of the same story have been woven together here. In one, Reuben the first born, tries to save Joseph; in the other Judah, heroic ancestor of the kings, plays that role. Ishmalite is one narrator's word for merchant; the other narrator uses Midianite. IWhen the story was finalized, the last editor preserved both words and both accounts of a heroic brother; rather than choosing between the different versions, the last editor combined them.This explains why the brother's resolution to sell Joseph is immediately and brusquely contradicted by the unexpected arrival of the Midianites.  

29And Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph [was] not in the pit; and he rent his garments, 30 and returned to his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, where shall I go? 
Until now, Reuben had been with his brothers; following their meal, Ruben makes his move and discovers a bitter surprise. However, both the Rabbis and the scholars disagree with this reading. According to the Rabbis in Genesis Raba, Reuben was with his father; according to Peskikta d'Rav Kahana he was preoccupied his mourning and repenting for his sin with his father's bed. I do not know why it is necessary to separate Reuven from his brothers. Scholars, on the other hand, note another anomaly, and presume that his reaction here means he was ignorant of the brother's plot, though his absence from the meal where the plot was discussed and agreed upon is not indicated. 

36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt, to Potiphar, a chamberlain of Pharaoh, the captain of the life-guard.

The claim here that it was the Midianites "who sold him into Egypt" is why Rashi above says that the brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites. He seems to think verses 27- 28 should be read: 

Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites; but let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh. And his brethren hearkened [to him] (And [meanwhile] Midianitish men, merchants, passed by) and they [ie the brothers] drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver-pieces; and they brought Joseph to Egypt.

However, there is a complication: Verse 28 speaks of מִדְיָנִים (Midianites); in the MT the final sale in verse 36 is made by וְהַמְּדָנִים (Medanites?); perhaps these are the same people... but see 39:1:

1And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, a chamberlain of Pharaoh, the captain of the life-guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought him down thither.

In the story of the kidnapping of Joseph itself, both groups are present, and as seen, their specific roles are ambiguous; however, when the time comes to report the sale of Joseph into Egypt one account names the Medanites (who may, or may not be the same  Midianites who found him in the pit); the other account tells us he was sold by Ishmaelites. 

1 comment:

Solomon said...