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B'resheet/Genesis 37:28 And they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty [pieces] of silver
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Our text is the middle phrase from a verse that describes how Yosef was sold into slavery in Egypt: "When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Yosef up out of the pit. They sold Yosef for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Yosef to Egypt." (B'resheet 37:28, NJPS). The plain meaning of the text seems quite clear. It was the Midianites who - having pulled Yosef out of the cistern, pit or well - sold him to the Ishmaelites for the princely sum of twenty shekels of silver. The Hebrew text of the verse goes like this: and Midianite men, traders, passed by; and they pulled Yosef out of the pit; and they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty [pieces/shekels] of silver; and they brought Yosef to Egypt. The subject of the verbs "they pulled" and "they sold" by normal grammatical rules is the last mentioned noun - the Midianites - who are clearly the subject of the first verb, "and they passed by". The subject of the last verb, "and they brought" is ambiguous. It could still be the Midianites or it could be the Ishmaelites; the latter seems more likely, as they have just bought Yosef.
One thing seems clear: the traditional idea that the brothers sold Yosef to either the Midianites or the Ishmaelites is entirely absent from the text. The 'they' of these action verbs simply cannot be construed to be the brothers. In fact, the narrator tells us that the brothers "sat down to a meal" (v. 25, NJPS). Nahum Sarna suggests that "it might be assumed that, to avoid hearing Yosef's cries, the brothers had removed themselves some distance from the pit while they ate their meal." They certainly had enough distance from Yosef to be able to take notice of the Ishmaelite caravan, hear Judah's suggestion that they sell Yosef rather than killing him and agree between themselves that this was a better course of action. Nevertheless, the major classic commentators do not agree.
On the one hand, the Rashbam, Rashi, Chizkuni and the Sforno all agree with the position outlined by theRashbam: "The Midianites passed by, saw Yosef of the pit and pulled him out; it was they who sold him to the Ishmaelites. The brothers were not the direct cause of the sale of their brother." On the other hand, the Ramban says bluntly that "'they', the brothers, pulled him out." He appears to be joined by the Radak, Saadia Gaon, Bekhor Shor and Ibn Ezra, as described by the Radak: "The brothers sold him to the Midianites, who are the Ishmaelites mentioned in the prior verse." The Abravanel adds that "they did not sell Yosef for the money, but just to get him out of their father's house."
Let's look at some of the later references to see how Yosef himself relates the incident. When he is in prison and has just interpreted the dream of Pharaoh's chief cup-bearer and asked him to think well of him and to mention him to Pharaoh, he tells the cup-bearer that "in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews" (40:15, NJPS). This is consonant with the idea that the Midianites pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites; the Midianites kidnapped him and sold him. Later on, however, when - as Grand Vizier of Egypt - he has revealed his identity to his brothers, he tells them, "do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither" (45:5, NJPS). This makes the brothers the sellers, although not necessarily the ones who pulled him out of the pit; they might have rushed over when they saw what was going on in order to stake their claim and conduct the deal. Yosef, then, adds to the ambiguity that some commentators see in our text. The brothers can later rebuke themselves for ignoring Yosef's cries and Yosef can hold them responsible for his sale to Egypt. Whatever the agency, the principal responsibility rests with the brothers. Let's put that on one side for the moment and consider the financial settlement that was reached.
Our text doesn't contain either the word 'pieces' or 'shekels'; it says simply "twenty of silver", with the unit being implied. This is the same situation as when someone leaves their wallet at home and turns to another member of the family or party and says, "Can you lend me a fiver until we get home?" The unit of currency is implied: in England, they are talking about a fine pound note; in the USA, a five dollar bill. In the Ancient Near East, merchants almost universally traded in a weight that was known as a shekel; religious transactions used a standard "sanctuary shekel" that might have been a little heavier to convey its sacred character. Yosef was sold for twenty units of silver - which Gunther Plaut points out is the redemption price for a male five to twenty years old according to the Torah (Vayikra 27:5). According to Nahum Sarna, this is the average price of a slave in the laws of Hammurabi.Bekhor Shor suggests that "this was a really good deal for them, since they were given two pieces of silver each when in fact they would have paid to get rid of him." Slightly more pragmatically, Gordon Wenham explains that "for shepherds who might expect to earn, if employed by others, about eight shekels a year, the sale of Yosef represented a handy bonus."1
TheChizkuni seems disappointed with just twenty shekels, commenting that "all they could get for him was twenty shekels - two shekels each, just enough to buy a pair of sandals." He gets the idea of the brothers buying sandals by pointing to "they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals" (Amos 2:6, NJPS). The Baal HaTurim introduces another degree of uncertainty by pointing out that "the atonement fine for [one whose ox kills] a slave is thirty shekels (Shemot 21:32, Targum Onkelos) [so indicating a slave's average worth]." He suggests that since the brothers sold Yosef secretly, they had to reduce the price by a third. Terence Fretheim tells us that "historically, a lively slave trade existed between Canaan and Egypt"2 so there was both supply and demand as well as established price norms, although there must have been some variation depending on the age and condition of the slave.
We must not suppose, however, that the sale of Yosef was without cost. The brothers might well have wanted to be rid of Yosef and his pestilential dreams, but the tensions, accusations, suspicions and fears that followed as the brothers allowed their father Ya'akov to discover that his favourite son was dead, would have constantly wrought havoc within the family. Even between the brothers things were not easy, particularly with hindsight. As Leon Kass illustrates, "While the brothers are speaking over lunch, the Midianites find Yosef (he was no doubt crying out), extract him from the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites who in turn deliver him to Egypt. They have the same idea as Judah had, but beat him to it. Yosef gets safely to Egypt, but the brothers must assume that he is dead and - most important - that they are responsible for his death."3 They cannot escape the ultimate responsibility of stripping Yosef and putting him in the pit, vulnerable and defenceless.
TheSforno makes a larger claim for damages in the affair: "The sale of Yosef by his brothers caused the exile of our forefathers to Egypt, as our sages tell us." This is based on a Talmudic discussion about the dangers of favouring one family member over another, where "Raba ben Mehasia also said in the name of Rabbi Hama ben Goria in Rab's name: A man should never single out one son among his other sons, for on account of this ... [Yosef's] brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers' descent into Egypt" (b. Shabbat 10b). Although we know that HaShem told Avraham that there would be a time of exile, the sages hold the hatred of the brothers - "when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him" (B'resheet37:4, NJPS) - responsible for the period of exile and enslavement in Egypt, in the same way as the rabbis hold hatred between brothers responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple(b. Yoma 9b).
The figure of thirty pieces of silver becomes significant in Second Temple times when Yeshua was sold to the chief priests and others who hated him. Judas Iscariot, the man from the K'riyot area of Israel just north of Haifa, "went to the chief priests and said, 'What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?' And they paid him thirty pieces of silver" (Matthew 26:14-15, ESV). Later that week, after Yeshua and the disciples had celebrated the festival of Pesach together in an upper room in Jerusalem, Judas took the waiting priests and officials out to the Garden of Gethsemane where he knew Yeshua and the other disciples had gone to pray. There he betrayed Him with a kiss so that He could be arrested, brought to trial and executed.
Yeshua, then, in the same way as Yosef was sold by his brothers for twenty shekels of silver, was sold by one of his brothers for thirty pieces of silver. How often do we sell Yeshua, our faith in Him or our obedience to Him, for thirty pieces of silver? Or often a lot less! When we fail to acknowledge that we follow Yeshua and belong to Him, that we are His bond-servants, we sell Him for the favour of those around us, in whose eyes we don't want to look different or foolish. When we disobey Him, are dishonest in our words or actions, often for some small financial gain but sometimes to avoid ridicule or criticism or simply selfish convenience, we sell a part of our relationship with Him for thirty pieces of silver. Although once we have repented, G-d often graciously turns these situations around, in the same way as Yosef said, "G-d sent Me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors" (B'resheet 45:7, NJPS), Peter could say that Yeshua was "delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of G-d" (Acts 2:23, ESV), the men of Jerusalem and Yosef's brothers needed to repent and confess their sin. So do we!
1. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50 Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 356.
2. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 228.
3. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2003), page 523.
Further Study: Zechariah 11:7-14; Matthew 27:3-10
Application: Look back in your life and see if you can see those times when you sold Yeshua for thirty pieces of silver. Then pray and cry out to Him for forgiveness so that He may repair that discontinuity and make your relationship with Him whole and strong again.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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