These two contradictions, like those of the flood narrative (#14-18), are also used as a classic example to demonstrate the Documentary Hypothesis. Genesis 37:28 provides us with our first clue.
And Midianite merchants passed, and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit. And they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty weights of silver and they brought Joseph to Egypt.
As the grammar of the sentence now stands, verse 28 claims that the Midianites, they, sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, who then bring him to Egypt. But this claim is not supported anywhere else in the narrative. In fact, it is contradicted twice. Verse 36 claims that the Midinaites sell Joseph to the Egyptian Potiphar, not to the Ishmaelites. And Genesis 39:1 claims that Potiphar bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites, not the Midianites. So the actual contradictory claims that the text makes are: 1) that the Midianites sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites AND to Potiphar; and 2) that Potiphar buys Joseph from the Ishmaelites AND the Midianites. What’s going on?
“And they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty weights of silver. And they brought Joseph to Egypt.” The vexing issue of this verse is the referent of the pronoun ‘they.’ In its current form, the antecedent is ‘the Midianites’ of the previous verse, yielding ‘the Midianites sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites.’ But as we shall see below, neither the Elohist version of the story nor the Yahwist version of the story confirm this. In E, the Midianites sell Joseph to Potiphar (37:36), and in J the brothers sell Joseph to the Ishamelites (37:27). The claim that verse 28 is making was produced by the hand of the redactor who stitched the Elohist and Yahwist version together at exactly this point!
Following other indicators in the Joseph story (differences in style, themes, emphases, vocabularies), biblical scholars have been able to separate the two once independent stories as they most likely originally stood before they were redacted together (see also #69, #71, and #74 & #75). As can be seen below, in the once separate J account, the antecedent of the ‘they’ in verse 28 was actually ‘the brothers’ of the previous verse; both verses are from J. The brothers, they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites is J’s story. However, when the later redactor inserts the E phrase “And Midianite merchants passed and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit” (v. 28a) into the middle of the J story at exactly this point, we get a misplaced antecedent which yields a totally new narrative element created by the redactor himself: “The Midianites, they, sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites.” Separated, however, the two textual traditions would look as follows. Each are independent and whole narratives on their own terms.
17bAnd Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan. 18And they saw him from a distance, and before he came close to them they conspired against him, to kill him.
21And Reuben heard, and he saved him from their hand. And he said: “Let’s not take his life.” 22And Reuben said to them: “Don’t spill blood. Throw him into this pit that’s in the wilderness, and don’t put out a hand against him”—in order to save him from their hand, to bring him back to his father.
24And they took him and threw him into the pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it.
28aAnd Midianite people, merchants, passed and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit.
29And they brought Joseph to Egypt. And Reuben came back to the pit, and here: Joseph was not in the pit. 30And he tore his clothes. And he went back to his brothers and said: “The boy’s gone! And I, where can I go?
36And the Midianites sold him to Egypt, to Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh, chief of the guards.
19And the brothers said to one another: “Here comes the dream-master, that one there! 20And now come on and let’s kill him and throw him in one of the pits, and we’ll say a wild animal ate him and we’ll see what his dreams will be!
23And it was when Joseph came to his brothers that they took off Joseph’s coat, the coat of many colors which he had on.
25And they sat down to eat bread. And they raised their eyes and saw, and here was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices and balsam and myrrh, going to bring them down to Egypt. 26And Judah said to his brothers: “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover his blood? 27Come on and let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hands not be on him, because he’s our brother, our flesh.” And his brothers listened.
28bAnd they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty weights of silver.
31And they took Joseph’s coat and slaughtered a he-goat and dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the coat of many colors and brought it to their father and he said: “We found this. Recognize: is it your sons coat or not?
39:1And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt. And an Egyptian man, Potiphar, chief of the guards, bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.
When separated, our two sources yield two complete, independent, and internally coherent stories—as we have seen elsewhere throughout this survey of the contradictions in the book of Genesis. That there are similar themes in these two versions of this story is unmistakable: the plot to kill Joseph, the pit, being sold into Egyptian slavery, and one brother’s opposition to the plan to kill Joseph. However, before this ancient story was committed to pen, there must have been enough flexibility in the oral tradition to produce two divergent accounts.
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that J chooses Judah as the exemplary figure who voices disapproval toward the plan to kill Joseph, and who steps up later in the story to offer security for Benjamin (43:8-10). Judah, both a southern tribe and the southern kingdom, is J’s place of origin. Additionally, in the Yahwist narrative Judah’s older brothers have already been eliminated from receiving the inheritance of their father: Simeon and Levi are disqualified because of their treacherous handling of the Shechemite affair (Gen 34), and Reuben for sleeping with his father’s concubine (35:21-22). J’s replacement of Reuben with Judah is just another way to legitimate Judah’s reign over the other tribes (brothers) of the southern kingdom (see also Gen 38).
We might speculate a bit about what happened in the redaction of these two versions. It seems that the editor felt free to arrange and stitch together the two textual traditions in the manner he saw fit. Yet, it must be the case as well that he did not feel free to, or could not, suppress material from either source. This must have been a more important criterion than that of having a narrative without contradictions—although the redactor does a great job at minimizing them or making them practically unperceivable. In the end, what the redactor has ingeniously done, now visible in verse 28, is to reconcile J’s problematic incident of Joseph’s brothers selling their brother into slavery by inserting the E story of the Midianites here. So in the redacted text, the brothers are no longer guilty of selling their brother into slavery, which is against E’s covenant code. Rather, now the “they” of the Yahwist text refers to the Midianites of the Elohist text.