The Prime Suspects
Bereshit 37:25-27 describes how Yehuda conspired with his brothers to sell Yosef to the Yishmaelites.
(כה) וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט הוֹלְכִים לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה. (כו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל אֶחָיו מַה בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת אָחִינוּ וְכִסִּינוּ אֶת דָּמוֹ. (כז) לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים וְיָדֵנוּ אַל תְּהִי בוֹ כִּי אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ הוּא וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו.
(25) And the brothers sat down to eat bread, and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold a caravan of Yishmaelites coming from the Gilad with their camels bearing spices and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. (26) And Yehuda said to his brothers, 'What profit is there in killing our brother and concealing his blood? (27) Come, let us sell him to the Yishmaelites; and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our own flesh', and his brothers listened.
Ostensibly, the sale of Yosef to the Yishmaelites at the end of the very next verse describes how Yehuda and his brothers implemented their plan. This reconstruction of the events also fits well with the Torah's later narration of how the Yishmaelites brought Yosef to Egypt and sold him there:
...וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִן הַבּוֹר וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִצְרָיְמָה. (בראשית ל"ז:כ"ח)
וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה. (בראשית ל"ט:א')
...and they pulled and raised Yosef from the pit and they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver and they brought Yosef to Egypt. (Bereshit 37:28)
And Yosef was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Paroh, head of the executioners, an Egyptian man, bought him from the Yishmaelites that had brought him down there. (Bereshit 39:1)
וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי וַיִּגָּשׁוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה. (בראשית מ"ה:ד')
And Yosef said to his brothers, 'Please come near to me', and they came near, and he said, 'I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt.' (Bereshit 45:4)
Had the verses cited above been all the Torah had to say about the matter of Yosef's sale, the case might have been an open and shut case, with the brothers3 obviously guilty of the crime as charged. However, the first four words of the verse in Bereshit 37:28 cited above throw a wrench in the prosecution's case. Let us now reexamine the verse in its entirety:
וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִן הַבּוֹר וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִצְרָיְמָה.
And Midianite merchants passed by and they pulled and raised Yosef from the pit and they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver and they brought Yosef to Egypt.
Were it not for these first four words, the story would read smoothly, but with them comes a major source of confusion. Who were these Midianites, and how did they suddenly get injected into the middle of the supposed transaction between the brothers and the Yishmaelites? Are the Midianites the subject of any (or all) of the verbs "וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ" ("they pulled"), "וַיַּעֲלוּ" ("they raised"), and "וַיִּמְכְּרוּ" ("they sold"), or do these verbs all refer back to Yosef's brothers mentioned in the previous verses?
To confuse matters more, in Bereshit 37:36, a fourth party, the Medanites,4 is said to have sold Yosef to Potiphar:
וְהַמְּדָנִים מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מִצְרָיִם לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים.
And the Medanites sold him in Egypt, to Potiphar, Paroh's officer, head of the executioners.
What is the relationship between all of these various groups?5 Who sold Yosef and to whom? Were there multiple different transactions or only a single multi-party transaction?
Reuven in the Dark
After reporting on the consummation of the transaction, the Torah proceeds to tell us that Reuven returned to the pit, only to discover to his horror that Yosef was no longer there.
(כט) וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל הַבּוֹר וְהִנֵּה אֵין יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר וַיִּקְרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו. (ל) וַיָּשָׁב אֶל אֶחָיו וַיֹּאמַר הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי בָא. (בראשית ל"ז:כ"ט-ל')
(29) Reuven returned to the pit, and behold Yosef was not in the pit, and he tore his clothing. (30) And he returned to his brothers and said: 'The child is gone, and I, where will I go?' (Bereshit 37:29-30)
However, if the brothers were the party who sold Yosef, how is it possible that Reuven was so clueless as to what had occurred?6
One might have expected that a severe punishment would have been exacted for so heinous a crime as the abduction and sale of Yosef. Indeed, some classical sources7 explain the following prophecy of Amos as indicating that the sale of Yosef had damning eternal consequences for the Jewish people:
כֹּה אָמַר ה' עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ עַל מִכְרָם בַּכֶּסֶף צַדִּיק וְאֶבְיוֹן בַּעֲבוּר נַעֲלָיִם. (עמוס ב':ו')
Thus says Hashem: 'For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not reverse it; because they have sold the righteous man for silver and the poor man for a pair of shoes.' (Amos 2:6)
If the "righteous man" in this verse is identified as Yosef, this verse would constitute proof that Yosef was sold by his brothers and that their descendants were punished for this sin. However, very few medieval and modern exegetes adopted this interpretation, in part because Amos is prophesying about the sins of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (i.e. Yosef's own descendants), rather than the Kingdom of Yehuda (the instigator of the sale).8 Either way, though, Yosef's brothers themselves do not seem to be punished.9 But if they were the ones who sold Yosef, why did they get off scot-free?10
The various verses dealing with the sale of Yosef name four different parties, each of whom may have sold Yosef: Yosef's brothers, the Yishmaelites, the Midianites, and the Medanites. In Approaches, we will attempt to understand the various possibilities as to the relationship between these groups and what really happened to Yosef.