After thrusting Yosef into a pit, his brothers sit down to eat. When they observe an approaching caravan of Ishmaelites, Yehuda convinces his siblings to sell Yosef into bondage rather than allow him to die.
The text then continues (note the pronouns and their referents): “And Midianite men passed by, merchants, and they drew Yosef up out of the pit; and they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; and they brought Yosef to Egypt.”
Later, the Torah relates: “And the Medanites sold him (Yosef) to Egypt, to Potiphar, a court official of Pharaoh…”
Finally, even later, the text states: “And Potiphar…bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there.”
The text concerning the critical event of Yosef ’s sale seems strangely ambiguous, even contradictory.
Who are the Midianite men who suddenly appear, as if out of nowhere, and what is their relationship, if any, to the caravan of Ishmaelites?
Who actually pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites: his brothers or the Midianites?
If Yosef was sold to the Ishmaelites why does the Torah state that the Medanites “sold him to Egypt, to Potiphar…”?
Why does the Torah seem to contradict itself again with the statement “and Potiphar…bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought him there”?
Finally, why is the Torah so deliberately vague concerning the sequence of events at this critical juncture in the story of our people?
Rashi maintains the classical position that Yosef ’s brothers actively sold him into slavery. Commenting on the phrase “and they drew…,” Rashi simply states, “The sons of Yaakov (drew) Yosef from the pit.”
Rashi further explains that the appearance of the Midianites reflects the fact that Yosef was sold numerous times: “The brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites who sold him to the Midianites, and the Midianites sold him to Egypt.”
Yosef ’s grievous treatment at the hand of his brothers is further exacerbated when he is treated like chattel and sold from one hand to the next.
Numerous other scholars, while agreeing with Rashi’s basic premise that the brothers sold Yosef into slavery, offer their own solutions to the mention of Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites.
The Ramban and the Sforno both simplify the scene by suggesting that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were operating in partnership within one caravan, with the Ishmaelites serving as camel drivers for the Midianite merchants. Yosef was, therefore, only sold twice: first by the brothers to the passing caravan and then by the merchants of the caravan to Potiphar. The Ramban further explains that the references in the text to the Ishmaelites underscore their role as the ones who physically brought Yosef to Egypt, while the Midianites are highlighted as the merchants who actually bought and sold him. The Sforno, for his part, suggests that the brothers were unwilling to speak directly to the Midianites for fear that they might be recognized. For this reason, he says, they negotiated with the Ishmaelites.
The Ibn Ezra goes a step further and claims that there was only one group of merchants, at times referred to by the text as Ishmaelites and at times as Midianites. To prove his position he quotes a passage from the book of Shoftim which identifies Midianite kings as Ishmaelites.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Chizkuni suggests that Yosef was actually sold four times. The brothers sold Yosef to the Midianites while he was still in the pit. The Midianites then drew Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites who in turn then sold him again to the Midianites (Medanites). Finally, the Medanites sold Yosef, for the last time, to Potiphar.
An entirely different, revolutionary approach to the sale of Yosef is first suggested by the Rashbam and then echoed by a number of subsequent commentaries including Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and the Malbim. Remaining true to his pashut pshat approach to text, the Rashbam maintains that Yosef ’s brothers were not actually involved in his sale. He literally interprets the passage “and Midianite men passed by, merchants, and they drew Yosef up out of the pit; and they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver…” as follows:
“The brothers were eating at a distance from the pit…and waiting for the arrival of the Ishmaelites whom they had observed approaching. Before the Ishmaelites arrived, however, others, Midianites, passed by, saw [Yosef] in the pit, drew him up out of the pit – and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites. It is even possible that the brothers were unaware of these events.”
This approach, closer to the text, changes our entire conception of the events surrounding Yosef ’s sale: Yosef ’s brothers fully intended to sell him but never actually got the chance to carry out their plans.
The most important question, however, yet remains. Why is the Torah, at this critical and dramatic moment in the story of our people, so deliberately vague? Why doesn’t the text tell us clearly whether or not Yosef ’s brothers were actively involved in his sale? Why allow for conflicting interpretations?
Perhaps the text is deliberately vague to teach us that it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the brothers actually pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him or whether they simply set the stage for others to do so. Their guilt, in either case, remains constant.
Centuries later the Torah text will proclaim: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your friend” – If you witness danger to another, you are obligated to act. We are responsible for the pain we cause or allow to occur to others even when it is not inflicted directly by our hands.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.