Selling Joseph

By Genelle Austin-Lett

Categories: Joseph, Men in the Bible


In reading the story of Joseph, it is hard to figure out who bought and sold Joseph. In Gen 37:25-28 it reads: "…behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt." Gen 37:36 "And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard."

Who sold him - the Ishmaelites or the Midianites?


That's a good question.

It is interesting to note the kinship related to these three groups of people. Joseph and his brothers are the great grandsons of Abraham. The Ishmaelites are descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son with Hagar. The Midianites are descendants of Abraham's family with Keturah, his second wife.

Richards writes, "They [Joseph's brothers] sold him to some Midianite slave-traders of the Ishmaelite nation, who in turn sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, captain of the royal guard (Gen 37)."1

That's probably the easiest explanation. Further research offers a couple of other interesting possibilities. For example, in the New Interpreter's Bible, it is suggested: "Some would resolve the issue by identifying the Midianites with the Ishmaelites (see Judg 8:24)…" "Others posit two interwoven traditions: (1) Reuben and the Midianites, who kidnap Joseph; (2) Judah and the Ishmaelites, to whom Joseph is sold."2

"The brothers agree and sell him for twenty shekels (see Lev 27:5) to the Ishmaelites (or the Midianites kidnap him), and he is sold on the Egyptian slave market."3

Another possibility is from John Gibson. He contends it is the combination of two accounts: the "E" and the "J" sources. The "E" account speaks of Reuben and the Midianites and the "J" source speaks of Judah and the Ishmaelites. He contends it's not important who sold Joseph. "The end result in either case is the same. The brothers engineer Joseph's disappearance and make out to their old father that he is dead. What should concern us more is the motives and characters of the participants, particularly perhaps Joseph who, it will be noticed, is given nothing at all to do or say throughout the whole of this scene. It is there that the lessons of this frightening story of a family hopelessly at odds with itself are to be found."4

If you have another explanation, please let us know.


1 Lawrence O. Richards. Richards Complete Bible Dictionary. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, Inc. 2002 p. 581.

2 The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994 vol 1 p. 599

3 Ibid. p. 600

4 John L. Gibson. Genesis, Daily Study Bible Series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982 vol 2 pp. 234-235

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