Selling Joseph into slavery—Genesis 37:25-28

Coming from a dysfunctional family does not mean that you will necessarily turn out badly. God used Joseph greatly, and there is no denying that he came from a dysfunctional family. His brothers planned to kill him until one of them decided that it would be more profitable and less impious to sell him into slavery instead. Of course, they do not expect him to survive the latter situation either (cf. 44:20)!

Slave trading in antiquity usually involved prisoners of war, their descendants or persons enslaved without a war. Enslaving free persons not taken in war was viewed as kidnapping, an offense punishable by death both in the later law of Moses (Exod 21:16; Deut 24:7) and some other Middle Eastern legal collections. As someone enslaved for money rather than in war, therefore, Joseph was illegally kidnaped (40:15).

His brothers sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver (37:25), the average price of a slave in this era (inflation later drove this to thirty shekels, Exod 21:32). What is striking is the providential timing that both spares Joseph’s life and transports him to an Egyptian household; the caravan is passing the brothers as they sit down to eat after throwing Joseph in a pit (37:25). Even in the midst of Joseph’s suffering and his brothers’ evil activity, God is at work behind the scenes. Knowing the future, God is at work to arrange for the future deliverance of not only Joseph, and not only his family (45:7), but many people in Egypt and the Levant (50:20).

When Judah asks what unjust gain (the meaning of the term for “profit” or “gain” in 37:26) they could get from killing their brother, one might expect him to repudiate unjust gain altogether. Instead, he suggests sparing their brother by selling him to the traders (37:27). Unlike Reuben, Judah does not spare him simply in hopes of later setting him free; he makes a profit. The narrative underlines the participants’ depravity. That these traders are “Ishmaelites” underlines the brothers’ folly; here the free line of Isaac sell one of their own to the putative descendants of Isaac’s slave brother Ishmael. That the traders are also called “Midianites” reinforces the offense: both Ishmael and Midian are names of Abraham’s sons by concubines of some sort, of less status and wealth than the brothers’ grandfather Isaac (cf. Gen 25:5-6; 1 Chron 1:32). (Midianites also frame two narratives together in the Torah: they bring Joseph into Egypt in Gen 37:36 and later receive Moses from Egypt in Exod 2:15-22.)

Admittedly, these might not be literal Ishmaelites. Keeping in mind the recent vintage of Genesis’s Ishmaelites (25:12-17) and Midianites (25:2, 4), it may be more likely that Genesis uses these designations here (37:25, 27-28, 36) more as a social type for nomadic traders than for Jacob’s literal relatives. (That is not because Abraham’s descendants necessarily would shy away from evil behavior such as slave trading; Joseph’s brothers here did not!) The narrator may thus use the designations interchangeably here. Of course, it is also possible that the narrator preserves and interweaves distinct oral memories of two groups, just as Reuben and Judah play somewhat related roles here (37:21-22, 26) and again later in 42:37 and 43:9.

The price for which Joseph’s brothers sold him was the average price of a slave in precisely the era that Genesis depicts, suggesting the precision of oral tradition on this point. Nevertheles, these twenty pieces of silver (37:28) are a small pittance, a bit over two shekels per participating brother, when we consider that Abimelech paid Abraham a thousand pieces of silver (20:16); that Abraham bought land from Ephron for four hundred shekels of silver (23:15), that Jacob bought land near Shechem for a hundred pieces of silver (33:19), and so forth. More astonishing is the grace these brothers later receive, exemplified in returned money in their sacks (probably partly a test to see how much they really valued money; 42:25; 44:1). Joseph later gives Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver (45:22).

Joseph’s disappearance is attributed to being torn by a harmful animal (37:20, 33); the Hebrew term I render “harmful” here (used with beasts in Ezek 5:17; 14:15, 21) could also mean “evil” when applied morally (cf. Gen 6:5; 39:9; 44:4), certainly applicable to the behavior of Joseph’s brothers (50:15, 17, 20).

The narrative withholds nothing in depicting the depravity of Joseph’s brothers—a depravity that will consequently underline the grace they receive. God did not choose this people because they were the most righteous (Deut 9:4) or powerful (7:7), but because of his covenant love toward Abraham (7:8-9). There is hope for all of us, not because of what we have been, but because of God’s great love and because of what God plans to make of us. Joseph behaves honorably in the narrative, but the ultimate hero is God himself.

Homiletical malpractice

Sorry to have more cartoons than Bible studies on this page, but they take less time to write! (If you run out of things to read, though, there’s a huge number of Bible studies in the archives pulldown [“posts by books of the Bible or topic”] on my home page.) But once in awhile even the cartoons have a message …

Homiletical malpractice

Nonspeculative redactional analysis

Recently, in 2311, archaeologists discovered this ancient letter from the early 21st century. Happily, our ingenious biblical scholars have been able to isolate the various redactional layers of this letter.

Jan. 14, 2018


Dear Harry, { This name is currently unattested in the 21st century and should be understood allegorically with reference to the recipient’s hair length}


I regret {inconsistent with the narratorial voice, this was added by the 2nd redactor} that we cannot {polite addition by 2nd redactor} grant your requested extension {21st-century writers applied “extension” to added fake hair, obviously the original subject of this correspondence}. You should be aware {3rd redactional layer} that you should apply {allusion to a hair-cutting appliance} for extensions before the deadline {note etymological root “dead,” subtly threatening penalties if hair is not cut}, as clearly {3rd redactor, wrongly thinking hair color at issue} specified both in the syllabus and in the student handbook {2nd redactor; no original author would include two prepositional phrases}. If I may step aside from the usual professional language for a moment, applying for an extension six weeks after the close of the semester is irresponsible behavior characteristic only of immature, preadolescent {2nd redactor, who thinks the recipient too young to grow hair}, whining brats. Are you aware that our institution {3rd redactor envisions here a barbershop} provides basic counseling services at no cost to the student? I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity, and also, if your counselor so advises, to check yourself into a psychiatric institution. {3rd redactor, wrongly thinking barber scissors cause brain damage}


Your Advisor {3rd redactor, alluding to helmet visors, which can prevent brain damage}


Life is the Pits

Thrown into a pit by his brothers—Genesis 37:18-24

How did Joseph’s have time to plot against him once they realized that he was approaching them (37:18-20)? Joseph’s brothers saw him from far away and (37:18); he was coming across a level area and his special coat reaching to the feet (37:3, 23) made his identity conspicuous. For narrative purposes, it may sound as if all of Joseph’s brothers conspired against him (37:19), but that the narrator explicitly excludes Reuben, who is not part of the conversation but overhears (37:21), suggests that the narrator might be emphasizing the participation of all more than did any more detailed story he may have been condensing. Reuben was not with these brothers all the time (37:29-30); probably some brothers had been watching flocks that were spread out.

Ironically, the hostile brothers’ plan to throw Joseph into a pit and then “see what will become of his dreams” (37:20) ultimately serves God’s plan to bring fulfillment to those very dreams (50:20). That Reuben, now perhaps about twenty-four years old, seeks to protect Joseph (37:21), probably reflects him being older and more mature than his siblings. Still, Joseph’s other brothers are not young adolescents. Most are probably in their twenties; only Benjamin was younger than he (30:23-24). (Joseph was probably six when they entered Canaan, and Reuben thirteen; see 30:25-26; 31:41.) Reuben might also hope to win back some of his father’s favor by delivering Joseph safely to him, acting more faithfully than his younger brothers (37:22).

When Joseph arrived, suspecting nothing, his brothers tore his special robe from him (37:23). As is typical for victims of stress, this scene probably reenacted itself repeatedly in Joseph’s mind in months to come. Not only in Joseph’s mind, however, but in his actual experience of life, God will allow subsequent scenes to again evoke this one. Potiphar’s wife later seizes his garment (39:12-13); by contrast, when God exalts Joseph, Pharaoh provides him the best garments (41:42).

And these are only the scenes that Joseph experiences directly. When Jacob sees his beloved son’s torn robe, he tears his own clothes in mourning (37:34; cf. also Reuben in 37:29), as do his sons later when they suppose that slavery awaits Benjamin (44:13). That is, Joseph’s suffering brings grief to his father, and the fear of Benjamin’s suffering and their father’s further grief grieves his brothers. They have long regretted their hasty and hate-filled choice to betray a brother. Yet in Joseph’s forgiveness he later gives each of them changes of clothes (45:22). (Recall that earlier in Genesis God also showed his mercy by making tunics for Adam and his wife, after their fall into sin, in 3:21.)

After ripping off his garment, Joseph’s brothers hurl him into a pit (Gen 37:22-29). This circumstance, too, Joseph would face again; the same Hebrew term also appears more than once for the prison house where he was thrown after being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife (40:15; 41:14). The Psalmist often praised God for not letting him perish in the pit, sometimes a metaphor in the Psalms for death (Ps 28:1; 30:3; 40:2; 88:4, 6; 143:7).

The narrator might mention that the pit into which Joseph’s brothers threw him lacked water (Gen 37:24) to note that he would not drown there (cf. Jer 38:6), but more likely he narrates this lack of water to suggest that he would die of thirst if left there. (The text might also qualify this because the Hebrew term used here could also refer to a cistern or sometimes to a well; the text thus specifies that no water is involved in this case.) They threw him into a pit in the “wilderness,” presumably so that he would die there without his brothers having to directly shed his blood (Gen 37:22).

The callousness of his brothers is underlined by their activity after stripping him and throwing him into the waterless wilderness pit: they sat down to eat bread (37:25). All this while Joseph was certainly crying out, pleading with them, but they refused to listen (42:21). Eating bread together was an act of bonding and unity (14:18; 18:5; 31:54), though it also was the context of their father’s betrayal of his brother (25:34; 27:17). More ironically still, their survival will someday depend on bread supplied by Joseph himself (41:54-55; 47:12).

We cannot possibly imagine how God could build his chosen people from these brothers, later forgiven by Joseph, without understanding that God is a God of grace. He forgives the guilty and changes them. Their story is also our story, because all of us need forgiveness. And just as Joseph’s forgiveness was a costly act, so it cost God much to forgive those who offended against him so deeply by how we have treated lightly his own Son’s sacrifice for us. Yet because of that sacrifice, his forgiveness is free to all who ask him.