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Is there any difference in meaning between "Ishmeelites" and "Midianites"? In the following passage these two words seem to be used interchangeably:

And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels ...

And Judah said unto his brethren ...

"Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites ..."

Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt (Genesis 37:25, 26, 27, 28, KJV)

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin wrote an article on this.

Approaches:

A.

Rashi maintains the classical position that Yosef ’s brothers actively sold him into slavery. Commenting on the phrase “and they drew…,” Rashi simply states, “The sons of Yaakov (drew) Yosef from the pit.”

Rashi further explains that the appearance of the Midianites reflects the fact that Yosef was sold numerous times: “The brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites who sold him to the Midianites, and the Midianites sold him to Egypt.”

Yosef ’s grievous treatment at the hand of his brothers is further exacerbated when he is treated like chattel and sold from one hand to the next.

B.

Numerous other scholars, while agreeing with Rashi’s basic premise that the brothers sold Yosef into slavery, offer their own solutions to the mention of Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites.

The Ramban and the Sforno both simplify the scene by suggesting that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were operating in partnership within one caravan, with the Ishmaelites serving as camel drivers for the Midianite merchants. Yosef was, therefore, only sold twice: first by the brothers to the passing caravan and then by the merchants of the caravan to Potiphar. The Ramban further explains that the references in the text to the Ishmaelites underscore their role as the ones who physically brought Yosef to Egypt, while the Midianites are highlighted as the merchants who actually bought and sold him. The Sforno, for his part, suggests that the brothers were unwilling to speak directly to the Midianites for fear that they might be recognized. For this reason, he says, they negotiated with the Ishmaelites.

The Ibn Ezra goes a step further and claims that there was only one group of merchants, at times referred to by the text as Ishmaelites and at times as Midianites. To prove his position he quotes a passage from the book of Shoftim which identifies Midianite kings as Ishmaelites.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Chizkuni suggests that Yosef was actually sold four times. The brothers sold Yosef to the Midianites while he was still in the pit. The Midianites then drew Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites who in turn then sold him again to the Midianites (Medanites). Finally, the Medanites sold Yosef, for the last time, to Potiphar.

C.

An entirely different, revolutionary approach to the sale of Yosef is first suggested by the Rashbam and then echoed by a number of subsequent commentaries including Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and the Malbim. Remaining true to his pashut pshat approach to text, the Rashbam maintains that Yosef ’s brothers were not actually involved in his sale. He literally interprets the passage “and Midianite men passed by, merchants, and they drew Yosef up out of the pit; and they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver…” as follows:

“The brothers were eating at a distance from the pit…and waiting for the arrival of the Ishmaelites whom they had observed approaching. Before the Ishmaelites arrived, however, others, Midianites, passed by, saw [Yosef] in the pit, drew him up out of the pit – and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites. It is even possible that the brothers were unaware of these events.”

This approach, closer to the text, changes our entire conception of the events surrounding Yosef ’s sale: Yosef ’s brothers fully intended to sell him but never actually got the chance to carry out their plans.

D.

The most important question, however, yet remains. Why is the Torah, at this critical and dramatic moment in the story of our people, so deliberately vague? Why doesn’t the text tell us clearly whether or not Yosef ’s brothers were actively involved in his sale? Why allow for conflicting interpretations?

Perhaps the text is deliberately vague to teach us that it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the brothers actually pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him or whether they simply set the stage for others to do so. Their guilt, in either case, remains constant.

Centuries later the Torah text will proclaim: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your friend” – If you witness danger to another, you are obligated to act. We are responsible for the pain we cause or allow to occur to others even when it is not inflicted directly by our hands.

~Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, < https://www.ou.org/torah/parsha/rabbi-goldin-on-parsha/who_sold_yosef/ >

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The Masoretic Text of Genesis complicates the issue further because its last verse of Ch. 37 says that it was Medanites (meḏānîm), not Midianites, who sold Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt. This version is not at all popular for English translation (nor, from what I've seen so far, for French, Spanish or most other languages either). The only translations that I've encountered which render the word unabashedly as "Medanites" are The Scriptures (ISR) 1998, and Young's Literal Translation. The New King James Version mentions the Masoretic Textual variant in its footnote of the verse in question. At any rate the MT, so it would seem, is introducing a third group of people into the narrative, just before the story transitions to a different setting.

There are some noteworthy ancestral details provided earlier in the same book, which may present a certain kind of solution to the issue. On the broader face of it there is the crime of a sort of violence inflicted upon a kinsman in view here. The names of these groups (including even the Medanites, who are never again mentioned in the Bible) should by this point be familiar to the reader of Genesis because each of them is descended from a son of Abraham. Joseph and his brothers are grandsons of Isaac while the Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites would trace themselves, respectively, to Isaac's half-brothers Ishmael, Midian and Medan, each of whom appears together with Isaac in the first 13 verses of Ch. 25.

Therefore, familially speaking, whether we equate these three groups of traders with one another or not, they would all be Joseph's own second cousins, who are buying and selling him into slavery. Ch. 37 makes no mention of familial recognition between Joseph's brothers and the merchants, so it is not possible to say whether the sellers and the buyers acknowledged each other as close relatives or not, but it doesn't rule it out. (Thematic consideration could be made for the fact that towards the beginning of the book [Ch. 4], still in the same family, Cain, the first man to ever have a brother, kills his own brother.)

Additionally, there is narrative symmetry in the connections to Egypt and slavery:

Ishmael's mother Hagar is an Egyptian who is a slave of Isaac's mother Sarah. How Hagar comes to be in Sarah's possession is not mentioned but presumably she is acquired in Ch. 12 during the Negev famine from which Sarah and her husband Abraham seek refuge in Egypt.

In Ch. 16 Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham for him to sire a son upon her, and from their union Ishmael is born. From then on there is friction and conflict between Sarah on the one hand, and Hagar and Ishmael on the other.

And now in Ch. 37 Sarah's great-grandson Joseph is bought into slavery by Ishmael's offspring, who sell him into the same land that their mother Hagar came from, and from which she herself may have been bought.

Following the lines of ancestry along gives perspective to the fact that distinctions between ethnic groups are extremely porous social artifices with ultimately no objectively clear boundaries. Indeed some pains are evidently taken to indicate as much even in the preceding chapter (#36), which begins by mentioning that Joseph's uncle Esau, the ancestor of the Edomites, is married to his own cousin, the daughter of Ishmael. Their son Reuel becomes the father of an Edomite tribe which therefore is part Ishmaelite.

So far in the family tree there has been a history of other cousins marrying each other too, as well as uncles marrying nieces. Similar relations may have occurred among the children and grandchildren of Ishmael, Midian and Medan such that it rendered them at least partly indistinguishable. Indeed, it may even be a good place to look for where the wives of Joseph's brothers came from. It would be well in stride with the family culture for them to have married the other descendants of Abraham. (Judah's Canaanite wife and Joseph's Egyptian wife are the only ones specified and perhaps only because they are anomalous.)

The Pulpit Commentary on Genesis 37 has a handful of scholarly attempts at solving the apparent puzzle of who is supposed be who among the buyers of Joseph, one of which is that they were part of a caravan composed of men from various nations working together or

that the Midianites, Ishmaelites, and Medanites were often confounded from their common parentage and closely similar habits (Keil); that the narrator did not intend to lay stress upon the nationality, but upon the occupation, of the travelers (Havernick); that the proprietors of the caravan were Ishmaelites, and the company attending it Midianites or Medanites (Lange); that the Ishmaelites were the genus, and the Midianites and Medanites the species, of the same nation (Rosenmüller, Quarry); that the Midianites or Medanites were the actual purchasers of Joseph, while the caravan took its name from the Ishmaelites, who formed the larger portion of it (Murphy).

  • You are most welcome! – Adinkra Sep 5 '16 at 15:48
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Leon R. Kass has examined this text and sees the Ishmaelites and Midianites as quite separate ethnic groups, as do most other commentators. In The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis at page 523, Kass says that Verse 28 is somewhat ambiguous and that later verses seem to disagree on who – the Midianites or the Ishmaelites – actually sold Joseph into Egypt:

37:36: And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard

39:1: And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmeelites, which had brought him down thither.

Kass looks at three alternatives:

  1. The brothers took Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Midianites, who in turn sold him to the Ishmaelites. This is the traditional reading.
  2. There were originally two textual versions, now intermixed: in one, the Midianites sold Joseph, and in the other, the Ishmaelites did it. Kass says this is the modern scholarly reading. Indeed, there are other examples in Genesis (the Flood) and Numbers (the spies story), where two somewhat different versions are intermixed by later redactors.
  3. The Midianites drew Joseph out of the pit and sold him into Egypt via the intermediacy of the Ishmaelites, but without the knowledge or participation of the brothers. In other words, the Midianites had the same idea that Judah had had, but beat him to it.
  • Thank you. Could you, please, elaborate on the third point (in the very end of your answer) - I don't fully understand it. Does that reading suggest then that the brothers never listened to Judah's suggestion? – brilliant Jul 19 '15 at 4:16
  • @brilliant No, this is not necessarily the case. As Kass explains, "the Midianites had the same idea that Judah had had, but beat him to it." Had they not done so, option 1 would become the outcome. – Dick Harfield Jul 19 '15 at 4:33

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