Who Really Sold Joseph?
The Rashbam’s Theory Of Joseph’s Sale
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Although we grow up learning that the brothers sold Joseph, a closer look at the text, and at the accompanying Rashbam, complicates that understanding.
In this week's parsha course, we unravel the sale of Joseph and discuss the implications of such a theory: what is blame? Where does responsibility begin? And most importantly, how do I make moral decisions?
Dig deeper with this in-depth course by Rabbi Fohrman: The Joseph Story
This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to the Parshat Vayeishev. This week's parsha Parsha includes one of the most astounding events in the entire Torah: the sale of Yosef at the hands of his brothers. But today I want to explore with you the Rashbam's theory of this sale.
Who Really Sold Joseph into Slavery?
He argues that the sale of Yosef was the greatest crime that never happened. The brothers never actually sold Yosef at all. It flies in the face of everything we have learned, but if you look carefully at the verses, the verses actually seem to support this.
In another course on Yosef which you can find at Aleph Beta, I treated the Rashbam's theory in detail, but the general outline of his theory is this: the brothers, after placing Yosef in the pit, sit down to break bread and at that meal Yehuda comes up with a plan. He sees "orchot Yishmaelim ba'a mi'Gil'ad," he sees an Ishmaelite caravan coming from afar and he says, "ma betza ki naharog et-achinu v'chisinu et-damo," what do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Let's just sell him to the Yishmaelim.
This plan that Yehuda proposes is, in fact, sort of the third plan that the brothers have. Their initial plan when they first see Yosef coming is, let's kill him and we will throw his body in the pit. Reuven, though, disposes off that plan, he tells the brothers, "al-tishpachu dam," let’s not kill him. Instead let’s cast him into the pit alive and we'll let him expire there, that way we won't touch him, our hands won't be guilty of actually directly killing him. The Torah attests that Reuven was actually surreptitiously planning on saving Yosef. But now Yehuda has plan number three, Yehuda of course is not aware of that Reuven wants to save Yosef. And therefore he says why should we allow him to die, here there's Ishmaelite traders in the distance, let's just sell him. And the brothers agreed to do that. If you look carefully at the text the next thing that happens, Midianite traders come first: "va'ya'avru anashim Midyanim socharim." Midianite traders came - and now listen - "vayimsh'chu v'ya'alu et-Yosef min-ha-bor," and they pulled Yosef up out of the pit, "vayimkru et-Yosef l'Yishmaelim," they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelim.
Who's they? ”They,” the Rashbam argues, it's not the brothers. “They” are the Midianites.
Was Joseph Sold into Egypt by His Brothers – or Not?
The Brothers saw the Yishmaelim, the Ishmaelite traders in the distance, they didn't see the Midianites were closer, the Rashbam argues. The Midianites arrived at the pit first and had the same idea the brothers did. They pulled him up out of the pit and they sold him to the Yishmaelim. And now the question that's left for us to ponder is: what are the implications of this Rashbam? If you accept Rashbam's theory, what does that do for our understanding of the story? What do we take away from this? But I want to pull back the zoom lens now and sort of ask why does that actually sort of make a difference to us, here and now, and how does that affect our lives?
And when we think of Biblical text that way, it's here where we don't really have the evidence; its speculation. So why, as to what it means, is more of a personal question, a subjective question and so, implication number one: Do you have to actually do something to be responsible for it?
In the Yom Kippur service that Ashkenazim say, for example, there are sections there that ascribe some of the terrible suffering that occurred later on in Jewish history—specifically with ten martyrs that were killed by the Romans much, much later in Jewish history than Biblical times, they ascribe that, actually, to—in some way—a heavenly "din" a judgment, as it were, for the sale of Joseph. According to the Rashbam, does that even make sense? The brothers didn't do it, they were guiltless. But the question is, were they really guiltless?
Who Was to Blame for Joseph Being Sold?
There's a fascinating statement that the sages make in the Gemara to the effect that "grama b'nizakin patur me'dinei adam v'chayev b'dinei shamayim," which is that there are different levels of responsibility. When I cause something directly, let's say, someone causes some kind of damage, so if they do it directly, they're "chayev b'dinei adam" which means that a human court can actually require the perpetrator to pay for the damage that he committed. But, the Gemara says, if the damage that you caused was a 'grama,' if it was indirect, if I didn't do it, but I created the conditions that allowed someone else to do it, then "patur dinei adam," then a human court actually doesn't have the ability to make the perpetrator pay anything for the crime.
And then it says "v'chayev b'dinei shamayim": but although you are not liable in the earthly courts, you are liable in the heavenly court. What does it mean that you are liable in the heavenly court? So people often think well, it means I have some sort of moral responsibility to you. But that's actually not what the words mean, that's not what :chayev b'dinei shamayim" means, that you are liable in the heavenly court. It means, from God's perspective, you actually have to repay the money, even though a court cannot impose those upon you. In the Rashbam's picture the brothers did exactly that - they created the conditions, in the end, that allowed for Joseph to be sold. They didn't actually sell him, the Midianites did that, the Ishmaelites did that.
But the question is, does that really lessens their responsibility? Maybe in earthly courts but not in the heavenly court. From God's perspective you are still responsible and, to me, that's a chilling thing. Here the brothers are, when they come back to their father, what they said was really kind of like a white lie: “we don't know what happened to him.” It's really true, they don't know what happened to him. Yes it's true they make this alibi, they put the blood on the coat. They don't know what happened to him and yet at some deep level they are responsible for whatever happened to him. They created the conditions for this, they indirectly set in motion the chain of events. Earthly courts may not hold them liable, but God would.
Why Was Joseph Sold into Slavery?
Here is one other personal reflection that I want to leave you with, about the Rashbam's way of looking at things. In the end the brothers never sold Yosef and therefore one of the questions I think that the text leaves you with is not about what happened, but about what might have happened had Yosef not, in fact, been found by the Midianite traders who sold him off to the Ishmaelites?
Look how many different plans there were. What was plan A that the brothers had? Plan A was, let's kill Yosef and throw his corpse into one of these pits. That's what they were saying as they saw Yosef come to them. So that was Plan A. Plan A actually never came to be an actuality. Reuven stopped Plan A. He said, “we are not going to kill anybody. Instead let's take him and let's throw him in the pit alive.” And the implication is, let him just die in the pit. Reuven, of course, as the text tells us, was trying to save him. But even as far as what the brothers thought Reuven was saying, it was a less extreme plan than Plan A. Plan A was, let's kill him outright.
Plan B is, well no, let's not really do that, let's just throw him in the pit and let him expire there. Already the plan is evolving, it's becoming less severe. And then they take Yosef and they throw him into the pit and he is alive, and then they are kind of thinking about it over lunch. At that point Yehuda comes up with a plan C, and the plan C is, “you know we really shouldn't let him die at all, why don't we just sell him? Get rid of the problem that way. Why don't we sell him to that band of traders over there?”
But if you think about it, what is happening to create Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C? Aside from the people who are creating those plans, time is creating those plans. Time is elapsing, and as time elapses you get to think about it more, you get to ruminate about it more, your initial impulse to just get rid of him gets less and less severe. And the great question is, what would have happened had the Midianite traders not gotten there before the brothers? If the brothers really did have the time, thought about it more over lunch,The Ishmaelite trades are off in the distance, they'll eventually get here, ould there have been a plan D? What would have a plan D been like? Would a plan D have been that when they finally got to the pit, you know, and the Ishmaelite traders are there and the brothers are there, would they in fact have gone through with selling him?Or just as Plan A got replaced by Plan B and just as Plan B got replaced by plan C, would Plan C have gotten replaced by Plan D? Would it have been, you know, we'll haul Yosef out of the pit and give him a tongue-lashing and tell him, you know, this is ridiculous what happened here and we'd have to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Commentary on the Sale of Joseph
Would that had been the case and maybe there never would have been a sale of Joseph at all. But there was… because the brothers ran out of time. Time can sometimes be your friend, especially when you are about to do something impetuous. And so what do we take out of that? You know, what I take out of that is that you got to be really, really careful when you are angry, not to do something irrevocable, because plans change when you are angry. The Gemara famously talks about a certain kind of "get," a bill of divorce, which would be written for a Cohen. It had to be tied up in all sorts of arcane and difficult ways. It took a long time to prepare and the whole point of it was it needed to be very cumbersome because a Cohen in particular, according to Torah law, can't remarry his wife once he divorces her. Other men could. A Cohen can't do anything impetuous. And the Sages, in creating a special 'get' for the Cohen, tried to engineer time into the document. Give him time, because there will be a plan B, there will be a plan C, there will be a plan D.
The idea behind the time is that the document is going to become superfluous. He will change his mind, he won't go through with it. The brothers also might have changed their mind, might have not gone through with it. But you don't always get the luxury of time. Sometimes life gives it to you and sometimes life doesn't give it to you. The Midianite traders come and they are out of your control and at that point you are left with the bitter consequences of your decision, you just have to live with what happened. Yosef is gone. You put him in the pit. That's something that the brothers can never get away from. That, to me, is the really chilling lesson of the Rashbam. Time can heal a lot of wounds but you don't always get time. So you’ve got to be really careful about what actions you are going to take in the heat of the moment, what wounds you will create. You don't always get to take them back.