Genesis (Part 169)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 37: 25-28

25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.


Judah – the son who eventually receives the lion’s share of his father’s blessing – is also the son who suggests selling Joseph to Egypt. He first appeals to the greed of his brothers and suggests that they get something out of all of this. Then he appeals to their heart and argues that he is their own flesh and that they should not kill him for that reason. This plan works. Was Judah’s underlying motive to save Joseph or did he view selling him as more profitable than killing him?

But first we will examine the Ishmaelite traders. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, Behold, a companyorchath, from arach, to walk; a band of travelers, especially of merchantmen; a caravan; συνοδία ὁδοιπόροι (LXX.; of. Job 6:19)—of Ishmaelites—Arabs descended from Ishmael, who occupied the district lying between Egypt and Assyria (Genesis 25:18), and, as appears from the record, carried on a trade with the former country. That Ishmael’s descendants should already have developed into a trading nation will not be surprising (Bohlen) if one reflects that Ishmael may have married in his eighteenth or twentieth year, i.e. about 162 years before the date of the present occurrence, that four generations may have been born in the interval, and that, if Ishmael’s sons had only five sons each, his posterity in the fifth generation (not reckoning females) may have amounted to 15,000 persons (Murphy). But in point of fact the Ishmaelites spoken of are not described as nations—simply as a company of merchants, without saying how numerous it was (Havernick, ‘Introd.,’§ 21)—came (literally, comingfrom Oilcad (vide Genesis 31:21with (literally, and) their camels bearing spicery—נְכאת, either an infinitive from נָכָא, to break, to grind (?), and signifying a pounding, breaking in pieces, hence aromatic powder (Gesenius); or a contraction from נְכָאוֹת (Ewald), meaning that which is powdered or pulverized. Rendered θυμιαμάτα (LXX.), aromata (Vulgate), στύραξ (Aquila), it was probably the gum tragacanth, many kinds of which appear in Syria (Furst, Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Keil, Kalisch, Lange, Murphy), or storax, the resinous exudation of the styrax officinale, which abounds in Palestine and the East (Aquila, Bochart, Bush, ‘Speaker’s Commentary,’ Inglis)—and balm—צֱרִי (in pause צרי, after vau of union צְרִי), mentioned as one of the most precious fruits of Palestine (Genesis 43:11), rendered ῥητίνη (LXX.) and refina (Vulgate), and derived from צָוָה, to flow, to run (hence, literally, an outflowing, or out-dropping). was unquestionably a balsam, but of what tree cannot now be ascertained, distilling from a tree or fruit growing in Gilead, and highly prized for its healing properties (Jeremiah 8:22Jeremiah 46:11). Vide Lexicons (Gesenius and Furst) sub voce; Michaelis, ‘Suppl.’ p. 2142; Kalisch in locoand myrrh,לֹטστακτή (LXX.), stacte (Vulgate), pistacia, was more probably ladanum (Gesenius, Furst, Rosenmüller, Keil, Kalisch, et alii)an odoriferous gum formed upon the leaves of the cactus-rose, a shrub growing in Arabia, Syria, and Palestine—going—the caravan route from Gilead crossed the Jordan in the neighborhood of Bersan, and, sweeping through Jenin and the plain of Dothan, joined another track leading southwards from Damascus by way of Ramleh and Gaza—to carry it down to Egypt. At that time the land of the Pharaohs was the chief emporium for the world’s merchandise.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary also includes a length note on the caravanners, and the apparent issues with calling them simultaneously Ishmaelites and Midianites:

(25) A company of Ishmeelites.—Dothan was situated on the great caravan line by which the products of India and Western Asia were brought to Egypt. As the eastern side of Canaan is covered by the great Arabian desert, the caravans had to travel in a north-westernly direction until, having forded the Euphrates, they could strike across from Tadmor to Gilead. The route thence led them over the Jordan at Beisan, and so southward to Egypt. For “Ishmeelites,” we have “Midianites,” Heb., Medyanim, in Genesis 37:28, and Medanites, Heb., Medanim, in Genesis 37:36; but the Targum and the Syriac, instead of Ishmeelites, read Arabs. Midian was a son of Abraham by Keturah, and Ishmael was his son by Hagar. But probably these merchants were descended from neither by blood, but belonged to some branch of the Canaanites, who were the great traders of ancient times, and which Ishmael and Midian had compelled to submit to their sway. (But see Note on Genesis 25:2.) The Jewish interpreters are reduced to great straits in reconciling these names, and even assert that Joseph was sold three times. Really Ishmeelites, Midianites, and Medanites are all one and the same, if we regard them as bearing the names only politically.

It is remarkable that the Egyptians never took part in the carrying trade. Even the navigation of the Red Sea they left to the Phœnicians, Israelites, and Syrians, though Psammetichus, Pharaoh-Necho, and Apries tried to induce the Egyptians to take to maritime pursuits. Their products were corn, stuffs of byssus and other materials, and carpets; but the exportation of these goods they left to foreign traders.

Spicery, and balm, and myrrh.—The first was probably gum tragacanth, though some think that it was storax, the gum of the styrax tree (see Genesis 30:37). “Balm,” that·is, balsam, was probably the resin of the balsamodendron Gileadense, a tree which grows abundantly in Gilead, and of which the gum was greatly in use for healing wounds. “Myrrh” was certainly ladanum, the gum of the cistus rose (cistus creticus)As all these were products of Palestine valued in Egypt, Jacob included them in his present to the governor there (Genesis 43:11).

As the note states, there are alternative explanations regarding the sale of Joseph. The note says Jewish writers are “reduced to great straits” in that they propose a much more complex situation wherein Joseph is sold multiple times. From an article titled “Who Really Sold Joseph?” we get some of this multi-sale explanation that the note dismisses.

The Midrash explains that this was possible because even though the enmity was caused by Joseph’s visions of greatness, they loved him nonetheless and could not bear to hear him cry out from the pit. They therefore distanced themselves from Joseph and the pit. At this point a band of Midianite merchants came by. The Midianites were thirsty and approached the pit seeking water, and were surprised to discover the young man.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the medieval Biblical commentator known by the acronym Rashi, explains a three-stage sale of Joseph: the brothers pulled Joseph from the pit and sold him to the Midianites, who sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to the Egyptians.


Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th-century Biblical commentator known as Chizkuni, explained the enigmatic sale in this manner, basing his explanation on the words of the Sages in Bereshit Rabbah:

Whilst the brothers were discussing selling him to the Ishmaelites: come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and before the latter reached them, Midianite merchants passed by, to whom the brothers sold him, while he was yet in the pit so that his weeping should not shame them. The Midianites drew him out of the pit since they had bought him. Whilst they were doing this, the Ishmaelites came along and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites to the Midianites, and the Midianites to Pharaoh a total of four sales. The text states, however, that Potiphar bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites. Why? – The tribes had sold him to the Midianites, but this sale was not recorded, since it was only temporary. The Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites.

“This third sale was likewise not recorded, since it was concluded in haste and secrecy for fear the Midianites might retract. The Midianites sold him to “Potiphar, who was suspicious, asked them for a guarantee that the transaction was legal and no one would come to reclaim him. The Midianites brought the Ishmaelites who gave the necessary guarantee, and that is the force of the wording of the text: Potiphar bought Joseph from the hand of the Ishmaelites since they gave him their hand or guarantee.”

The medieval Sephardi commentator Rabbi Moses Nachmanides, also known as the Ramban, suggested a different possibility; the Ramban suggested that the Torah was actually describing one caravan composed of Midianite merchants and Ishmaelite camel-drivers. Hence the brothers first caught sight of the camel drivers and later encountered the merchants. The brothers sold Joseph to the Midianites, the merchants, since the Ishmaelite camel drivers did not engage directly in trade. They merely hired their camels themselves to traders. Even though the Midianites actually carried out the sale of Joseph, the Bible attributes some blame to the Ishmaelites who enabled the slave trade and were therefore not entirely free of sin. 

But Joseph does not entirely absolve his brothers of the misdeed. When he breaks down after being confronted by Judah, he identifies himself as “Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:5)

I am inclined to agree with Ellicott though I do not suppose the details mattered in too much particular to Joseph (or to history) inasmuch as the outcome remains the same and his eventual blame of his brothers remains the same.

Continuing this section in The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 37:26Genesis 37:27

And Judah (apparently shrinking from the idea of murder) said unto his brethren, What profit is it if (literally, what of advantage that) we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? (i.e. and hide the fact of his murder). Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him (literally, and our hand, let it not be upon him, i.e. to slay him); for he is our brother and our flesh—or, more expressly, our brother and our flesh he (cf. Genesis 29:14). And his brethren were content—literally, hearkened, viz; to the proposal.

Genesis 37:28

Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen;—literally, and passed by the men, Midianites (by country), merchants (by profession). On the different appellations given to the traders vide infraGenesis 37:36and they—not the Midianites (Davidson), but Joseph’s brethren—drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver—literally, for twenty (sc. shekels) of silver—L2 10s.; the price afterwards fixed for a boy between five and twenty (Le Genesis 27:5), the average price of a slave being thirty shekels (Ezekiel 21:32), and Joseph only bringing twenty because he was a lad (Kurtz), because the Midianites desired to make money by the transaction (Keil), perhaps because-his brethren wished to avoid the reproach of having acted from love of gain (Gerlach), but most probably because Joseph’s brethren cared little what they had for him, if so be they were rid of him (Lawson). On the term keseph vide Genesis 20:16And they brought Joseph into Egypt—where they in turn disposed of their purchase, doubtless at a profit (verse 36).

And just like that, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. Unlike his great grandfather Abraham, his trip south is not done willingly. However, this event with Joseph will make a way for his father Jacob, and these brothers who just sold him into slavery, to sojourn safely and successfully sometime in the future.