Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayeshev

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Vayeshev 5760/1999

Who Sold Joseph?

Dr. David Henschke

Dept. of Talmud

According to the story as we all know it, Joseph's brothers threw him into a pit, and when they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites they sold their brother Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. However, even early commentators (Rashbam and others) noted that this is not what actually happened. If this had been the course of events, why would Reuben have been shocked when he saw "that Joseph was not in the pit"? And why would the brothers not have calmed him down when he exclaimed, "The boy is gone!" Further, how could Reuben have said to them (in Parashat Miketz), "Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (Gen. 42:22), when he had not died at all but had been sold? If indeed the brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and Potiphar purchased Joseph from them, as is stated explicitly in this week's reading, what role was played by the "Midianite traders" mentioned in the plot?

In light of these questions, the early commentators already observed that the brothers' selling was no more than a plan which Judah proposed to his brothers and which they were taking into consideration -- "His brothers harkened" (Gen. 37:27) -- as they sat down to eat, some distance away from the pit. While they were eating and thinking the matter over, "Midianite traders passed by, they [the Midianites] pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They [the Midianites] sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites." Then, when Reuben returned to the pit, he discovered to his shock and amazement that the pit was empty. Henceforth the brothers assumed that a beast carried Joseph away and that he had indeed fallen prey to a wild animal. However, to persuade their father that this was true, they sent off Joseph's multicolored tunic stained in blood to their father. Indeed, in Parashat Va-Yigash Judah tells Joseph (whom he thinks is a highly placed Egyptian official), that Benjamin's brother died.

If this is what transpired, does this absolve the brothers of their crime? The opposite, it seems, is the case. The main thrust of this interpretation lies in the fact that even though the brothers did not actually sell Joseph, it is considered as if they had sold him. "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt" (Parashat Va-Yigash, Gen. 45:4).

Someone who abandons his brother in a pit, intending to sell him, cannot wash his hands of responsibility if later his dirty work happens to be performed by others. The moral responsibility for selling Joseph rests on his brothers, who sat down to eat after having cast their brother into the pit. Judah begged, "let us not do away with him ourselves," yet even though it turned out that they did not, the brothers nevertheless said, "Alas, we are to blame on account of our brother" (Gen. 42:21).

Responsibility for the results of one's actions or one's failure to act, be it directly or indirectly, is actually highlighted in the context of this week's reading. For the entire course of events as they unfold in the narrative points clearly to the hand of Providence, directing from afar: "So, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d" (Gen. 45:8), and "God intended it for good" (Gen. 50:20). Nevertheless, even if the entire chain of events was directed from the outset by the Ultimate Cause, the Torah teaches that human beings remain responsible for their actions to the end, according to their own plans and intentions.

People must do the right thing with integrity and good faith, "and the Lord will do what is fitting in His eyes" (2Sam. 10:12)

(Ed. note: Cf. Parashat Vayishlah by D. Stattman)

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.