Vayeishev III: Sold or Stolen?
(כח) ויעברו אנשים מדיינים - בתוך שהיו יושבים לאכול לחם ורחוקים היו קצת מן הבור לבלתי אכול על הדם וממתינים היו לישמעאלים שראו, וקודם שבאו הישמעאלים עברו אנשים מדיינים אחרים דרך שם וראוהו בבור ומשכוהו ומכרוהו המדיינים לישמעאלים, ויש לומר שהאחים לא ידעו, ואעפ"י אשר כתב אשר מכרתם אותי מצרימה, י"ל שהגרמת מעשיהם סייעה במכירתו. זה נראה לי לפי עומק דרך פשוטו של מקרא. כי ויעברו אנשים מדיינים משמע על ידי מקרה והם מכרוהו לישמעאלים. ואף אם באתה לומר וימכרו [את] יוסף לישמעאלים כי אחיו מכרוהו, אף כן צריך לומר שהם ציוו למדייני' סוחרים למושכו מן הבור ואחר כן מכרוהו לישמעאלים:
(לו) והמדנים מכרו אותו אל מצרים - מדן ומדיין וישמעאלים אחים היו, ומדן וישמעאלים אחד הם לפי הפשט. לכך הוא אומ' כי מדנים מכרוהו וישמעאלים הורידוהו שמה, כי שניהם אחד הם לפי הפשט:
Many of the narrative portions of the Torah are notorious for the difficulty they present the reader who tries to read them through as one consistent, linear text. The narrative surrounding Yosef’s journey to Egypt in Bereishit 37 is one such text and it is instructive to watch Rashbam—who is so adamant about the possibility and importance of reading the Torah is a linear literary work—cope with this challenge.
First, a review of the difficulties in this story:
1) Do the brothers hate Yosef because of Ya’akov’s favoritism or because of Yosef’s presumptuousness and arrogance? Obviously these two factors can be complementary; nonetheless, it does seem that one element of the story has Ya’akov favoring Yosef and finding nothing wrong in his character and providing him with a coat that is at the center of the drama whereas another element focuses on Yosef’s dreams, to which Ya’akov himself objects.
2) Reuven begs the brothers not to kill Yosef after their initial threat to do so. His solution: throw him into a pit. The brothers assume he will die there—especially given the lack of water—but Reuven will be able to come back secretly and save him. But then Reuven seems to disappear, since the story moves on to Yehudah’s proposal to sell Yosef to the passing Ishmaelites. When Reuven returns to the pit, Yosef is already gone. Where was Reuven? And why, when he tells the brothers that Yosef is gone, do they not respond and tell him what happened? And how does the story proceed directly from Reuven’s confusion and despair to the ongoing plot of tricking Ya’akov with the bloody coat?
3) Who actually brings Yosef to Egypt? Yehudah’s proposal is to sell him to the Ishmaelites, and this seems to transpire, with the beginning of chapter 39 confirming that it was they who sold him to Potiphar. But it also seems that it was a band of Midianites that actually removed Yosef from the pit, possibly even without his brothers’ knowledge and that they bring him down to Egypt. In short, is Yosef sold by the brothers to the Ishamelites, or is he stolen by the Midianites as a result of his brothers’ abandonment of him in a pit?
The story, on its own, does not resolve any of these problems.
Rashbam, in the two comments above, seems to struggle with these issues and even to contradict himself as he attempts an answer. At first, he proposes that indeed the Midianites took him out of the pit and that they sold him to the Ishmaelites. The brothers’ involvement in the sale is thus only second-hand, and the plot by Yehudah gets fulfilled only indirectly and incompletely.
Needless to say, this is a somewhat unsatisfactory, and Rashbam, in the second comment above, seems to try to solve the problem by positing that Ishmaelites and Midianites (and Medanites, who are also mentioned in the story) are actually just different names for the same people, given that they are all clans that descend from Avraham.
I think this comment actually gets us at some of the limits of peshat in tackling the meaning of the Torah. The simpler approach here would simply acknowledge that the Torah’s messages here defy a simple linear, literary analysis. There are in fact two elements of Yosef’s journey. On the one hand, the brothers’ malice leads to his vulnerability and subsequent theft by the Midianites. Yosef himself describes this element when he tells Par’oh’s butler later in the parashah: כי גנב גנבתי מארץ העברים—I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews. On the other hand, we see a picture of the brothers actively selling him into slavery, which he confronts them with later in the story: אשר מכרתם אותי מצרימה—you sold me to Egypt. The meaning produced by each element is beyond the scope of this already overlong post, but embracing this complex meaning rather than stamping it out in the name of literary uniformity would seem to be truer to the Torah itself.
All this raises the interesting question of the proper role of peshat. Might the Torah do better being viewed through more of a cubist lens, whereby multiple messages and components make up a rich text that can fairly be described as a work with seventy faces? Or perhaps we might consider the genre of magical realism, which invites the reader to imagine the ways in which the deepest meaning of our lives and memories can sometimes most accurately be related through a composite, non-literary, almost non-sensical narrative?