Was Joseph Really Sold By His Brothers?

‘Joseph Sold by His Brethren’ by Gustave Doré

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, describes the infamous sale of Joseph into slavery by his very own brothers. At least, this is the commonly-held view of what had transpired. A closer examination reveals that the story is a little more complex than that, and the brothers are not as guilty as they may seem at first glance.

First, the background: The parasha begins by telling us “These are the geneologies of Jacob…” (Genesis 37:2) and then only mentioning Joseph. What about all of Jacob’s other children? They are not mentioned, and the text continues to describe how Joseph was the favourite of his father. It’s as if Jacob didn’t even pay attention to any of his other children. He knits a special garment just for Joseph, and spends most of his time with this son, while the others are off shepherding in faraway pastures. Not surprisingly, this caused some tension among the sons.

The tension was further exacerbated by the fact that Joseph would apparently “snitch” on his brothers. Though the commentaries suggest that this was done with positive intentions, with the hopes of improving his brothers’ conduct, nonetheless it may have been misinterpreted as a form of lashon hara – evil speech. On top of this, Joseph had a number of dreams where he saw himself dominating over his family, with the others bowing down to him. He proudly shared these stories with his siblings. Naturally, the brothers thought that he was some kind of megalomaniac who wished to rule over them. They soon began thinking of a way to get rid of him.

Many question how it was possible for such great people, the sons of Israel, and the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, to even think of such actions. However, there is quite a bit of logic in their plans. The brothers knew that essentially every preceding generation in their family line had at least one wayward son who was wicked. In their father Jacob’s time, it was their uncle Esau, and in their grandfather Isaac’s time, it was his half-brother Ishmael. Even before this, Abraham had Haran, the sons of Noah had Ham, and all the way back to Eden where Abel had Cain. There was a clear pattern of one child doing more harm than good. The sons of Israel thought that Joseph played that role in their generation. Their intention was to get him out of the way before he could do some serious damage. But how?

Putting Joseph to the Test

Led by Shimon, the brothers said, “And now, let us kill him, and we will send him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (v. 20) Rashi draws from the Midrash when commenting on this verse, pointing out an apparent inconsistency: why would the brothers say “we will see what will become of his dreams” if they were going to kill him? Obviously, if they were going to kill him, his dreams would not materialize!

What Rashi is telling us here is that the brothers essentially put Joseph to a test. If he was indeed the wicked one, as they believed, then he deserved to die, and they would succeed in killing him, proving that his dreams were nothing more than crazy fantasies. On the other hand, if the dreams were truly prophetic, and Joseph was really the greatest among them, then they could never succeed in killing him anyway, and his dreams would materialize after all.

The brothers agreed that this is the best course of action, but Reuben protested. “And Reuben said to them, ‘Do not shed blood! Send him into this pit, which is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him’” (v. 22). Reuben agreed that Joseph should be put to the test, but they should certainly not be trying to kill him. Instead, they should just leave him in a pit in the wilderness. If he were to be saved from such an ordeal, it would be proof enough.

At the same time, Reuben intended to return to the pit and save Joseph himself. Reuben, the elder of the brothers, understood that the others had taken their understanding of God’s ways in the wrong direction. They thought that God would save Joseph if He so wished. Reuben understood that the world didn’t necessarily work that way. At the end of the day, God gave man the gift of free will. People can use this gift for the good, or for the bad, and God rarely intervenes. If the brothers tried to kill Joseph, he could indeed die, despite his greatness and prophetic dreams. (An analogy to this twisted logic may be one where a murderer says that since he succeeded in killing another, God must have wanted it that way, and he should be exonerated! Of course, this is completely false.) Reuben recognized his brothers’ flawed logic, and convinced them not to kill Joseph. Nonetheless, they would still throw him into the pit.

After they did so, they sat down for a meal and spotted a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants passing by on their way to Egypt. Yehuda got an idea: “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh” (v. 27). Instead of killing Joseph, Yehuda proposed selling him into slavery. Why would he suggest such a thing? Did the brothers really need twenty pieces of silver? We have already read previously how wealthy the family was; it is unthinkable that the ten of them would sell their brother for just two silver coins each. No, Yehuda’s suggestion had far more meaning. Joseph had dreamt and told his brothers that he would one day rule over them. So, what could be better to test Joseph than to sell him into slavery, the very opposite of what he dreamt? Can it ever be possible for a slave to rise to the level of royalty, especially in a foreign land? If this could happen, it would indeed be miraculous, and no better proof would be necessary. The brothers would sell Joseph into slavery. But somebody beat them to it.


This is an excerpt from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion & Holidays.

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