Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Of Course the Brothers Sold Yosef

The correct interpretation, as peshat, is that the brothers sold Yosef. Yosef says so explicitly in parashas Vayigash (Bereishis 45:4):

וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, מִצְרָיְמָה
And he said: 'I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.

Yet all sorts of explanations abound, that the brothers didn't actually sell him.

It is all Rashi's fault. Rashi gives the correct peshat explanation local to our parasha, Vayeshev. But he includes just enough midrash, and people then take that midrash as peshat, and use the facts thereby established to make trouble.

Here are the pesukim (Bereishis 37:25-28):
וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד; וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים, נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט--הוֹלְכִים, לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, אֶל-אֶחָיו:  מַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ, וְכִסִּינוּ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ.
לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, וְיָדֵנוּ אַל-תְּהִי-בוֹ, כִּי-אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ, הוּא; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶחָיו.
וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִן-הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף; וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, מִצְרָיְמָה.
"And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, 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, our flesh.' And his brethren hearkened unto him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt."

In the first pasuk, the Ishmaelite caravan passes by. In the second and third, Yehudah suggests selling Yosef to the Ishmaelites rather than killing him. In the fourth, those Ishmaelite traders -- now called Midianite merchantmen -- pass by, and THEY, that is, the brothers, draw him out and sell him to the very same Ishmaelite caraven / Midianite merchantman. And those traders bring Yosef to Egypt.

That is the simple peshat. Rashi says the first part**, that it was the brothers who drew him out. This is not midrash. It is peshat. What makes it non-obvious is that it is a grammatical point, namely an "ambiguous antecedent". In English, consider this sentence: "Although the pizza was cold, it tasted good." It, as a pronoun, clearly refers to the pizza, so the pronoun "it" unambiguously refers to the antecedent "pizza". But consider the English sentence "Tim told his brother he was working too hard." The pronoun "he" can refer to either the antecedent "Tim" or to the antecedent "brother". So too, in the Hebrew:
וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִן-הַבּוֹר
the "they" who pulled Yosef out of the pit could refer to the Midianites earlier in the pasuk or to the brothers who hearkened to Yehuda's words at the close of the previous pasuk.

This grammatical point and ambiguity is one that isn't obvious to the casual reader, and they are then persuaded by the assertion that the pasuk in Vayeshev **literally** says that the Midianites pulled Yosef out. The pasuk says no such thing. It says "they" pulled him out, and alas, "they" is an ambiguous antecedent.

Then, Rashi messes us up by incorporating midrash. He writes***, based on Midrash Tanchuma, that the Midianites were a different caravan than the Ishmaelites. (See also the full text of the earlier Rashi.) Others make the Midanim of pasuk 31 into another group, such that the progression is brothers to Midianites to Ishmaelites to Midanites to Egypt.

By putting this forth, Rashi established in people's mind two ideas. (1) That the Midianites and the Ishmaelites are different groups. (2) They they, that is the Midianites, sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites. And then people say that if the Midianites sold him to the separate group the Ishmaelites, then they were also the ones who drew him from the pit. The same pronoun to the same antecedent.

But peshat involves being dismissive of irrelevant distinctions. It is midrash that makes a big deal of minor differences in wording. In truth, the Midiates are the same as the Ishmaelites. And the brothers drew Yosef from the pit and sold him to the Midianites, who were the Ishmaelites. That is, the brothers hearkened to Yehudah's plan (as the pasuk takes great pains to tell us), and so (in the next pasuk), they carry out Yehudah's plan. Ishmaelite is used (say, at the time of matan Torah) to refer to Arab traders who frequent the desert, while Midianite is national origin.

Why does the Torah switch between these two descriptors? I don't care why. You can work it out. It is trying to teach us some deep lesson about these characters. To give us more information about them. To keep the text from being repetitive. Because E and J have different traditions as to their identity. I don't care about the why, just about the what.

The other point people raise is why Reuven is so shocked and runs to tell his brothers, if the brothers including Reuven has sold him. Though it isn't explicit in the pesukim that Reuven had gone away after they hearkened to HIS idea, that is why pasuk 25 takes pains to say that sat to eat bread, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם

Some of the brothers stayed, while some went on to take care of the sheep. And so they were conveniently there to come up with this other plan, when the Ishmaelites passed.

There are other, peshat-oriented ways of reinterpreting the pesukim. This, to my mind, is the best peshat interpretation. It doesn't require a dismissal of an explicit pasuk in Vayigash. It doesn't work with a misunderstanding of the nature of peshat, in making much ado about irrelevant distinctions.

* See Rashi here:
וימשכו: בני יעקב את יוסף מן הבור וימכרוהו לישמעאלים, והישמעאלים למדינים, והמדינים למצרים:
"and they pulled: The sons of Jacob [pulled] Joseph out the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites, and the Midianites to Egypt. [From Midrash Asarah Harugei Malchuth]"

** See here for ambiguous antecedent:

*** See Rashi in same pasuk:
ויעברו אנשים מדינים: זו היא שיירא אחרת, והודיעך הכתוב שנמכר פעמים הרבה:
Then Midianite men, merchants, passed by: This is another caravan, and Scripture informs you that he was sold many times. [From Tanchuma Buber, Vayeshev 13]

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