#72. Who sells Joseph to the Ishmaelites: his brothers OR the Midianites? (Gen 37:27 vs Gen 37:28)
#73. Who sells Joseph to Potiphar: the Midianites OR the Ishmaelites? (Gen 37:36 vs Gen 39:1)


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.

E’s version

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.

J’s version


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.

34 thoughts on “#72. Who sells Joseph to the Ishmaelites: his brothers OR the Midianites? (Gen 37:27 vs Gen 37:28)
#73. Who sells Joseph to Potiphar: the Midianites OR the Ishmaelites? (Gen 37:36 vs Gen 39:1)

  1. and btw, there was a famine a few years later … but Joseph had access to silos of grain … and well, Joseph opened the doors of those silos to the public and fed the people, or so the Bible fable goes … (couldn’t that be an artificially enforced famine upon people so that the price of hoarded grain could now go up? n`aaaah! Joseph was such a handsome and sexy son of a god he’d never do that really! neither would his ugly brothers do such a nasty thing, would they?) 3:)

  2. the point of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter who sold who to who, but it does matter alot how after when Joseph became an important figure achieving a high seat in Egypt’s ruling system, then the very same brothers who had tried to get rid of him, entered Egypt (with their entire families and herds and stuff) and Joseph not only forgave them, he assigned the bastards to similarly high government and trade positions just as well!

    “And Joseph ordered everybody out of the room but for his brethren he was going to forgive for betraying him and he had the door closed and people outside could hear the entire clan laugh inside the room …” or something like that we read in some Bible tales … (why and who were they laughing @?) :D

  3. The established genealogy of the Ishmaelites and Midianites:

    Ishmaelites descend from Abraham through his slave Hagar (Genesis 16)

    Midianites descend from Midian, another son by Abraham from another wife named Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).

    So Genesis, which belongs to the Torah, clearly distinguished between the Ishmaelites and Midianites. Numbers belongs to the Torah also, so the same redactors who compiled the Torah most likely thought similarly: that Ishmaelites and Midianites were Semitic-people related to Judahites and Israelites and they all shared one legendary ancestor Abraham, yet they descend from different women (Judahites & israelites from Sarah, Ishmaelites from Hagar, Midianites from Keturah).

    Meanwhile, inerrantists wished to defend their reader-imposed “Biblical inerrancy” (against the contradiction on whether Potiphar bought Joseph directly from Midianites and not through Ishmaelite intermediaries, or Potiphar bought Joseph from Ishmaelites). So inerrantists cited Judges 8:22-28, part of the Deuteronomistic history, which seemingly identified Ishmaelites with midianites (because Ishmaelites wore golden earrings, and Gideon requested earrings from plundered Midianites).

    Yet when inerrantists relied on Deuteronomistic historians to “solve” the contradiction (whether Potiphar bought Joseph from Midianites or Ishmaelites), they never realize that Deuteronomistic historians actually contradicted Torah redactors:

    Were Ishmaelites and Midianites different Abrahamic people distinguished from each other by descending through two different women (Ishmaelites through hagar, midianites through Keturah)?

    Or Ishmaelites and Midianites were the same people? (Judges 8:22-28)

    Now don’t tell me that hagar and Keturah were the same woman: Hagar was a slave, Keturah was a legitmate wife; and Abraham married Keturah after he had drove Hagar away.

  4. There is a principle known as Occam’s razor, which basically states that you should avoid making unnecessary assumptions to explain something. The fact that this story can be separated into two stories that are complete, consistent, and independent from one another is quite extraordinary, in my opinion. In addition, the two stories have distinctive vocabulary and themes (only one of them mentions the coat, for example). The best explanation for this is that they were originally separate versions of the same story that were later edited together. And as I mentioned earlier, we know that similar texts got edited together in ancient times, because we have examples of them, such as the Diatesseron.

    Personally, I don’t like the use of the word “contradiction” here. I find it too confrontational. To me it is not about coming up with gotchas to prove or disprove a particular view of the text. My interest (as an amateur) is in discovering how the scriptures came to be — who wrote them, when, where, and why.

  5. Gary, the main problem lies in your use of the word “reasonable”. Who is to say that it’s more reasonable to resolve contradictions by reading between the lines than it is to conclude that the text is made up of two original texts that were interleaved? If this were the only account that seemed to be made up of conflicting versions, it would be another matter, but if you look around the site you’ll see that the Flood story, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Creation account, and many other texts all show signs of being composites. The constant duplication and variation of statements in different narratives paints a larger picture that tells us that the Hebrew Bible was compiled from older texts that the scribes were attempting to preserve and harmonize.

  6. If there is a reasonable explanation for the verses (particularly when they are almost right next to each other) then there is no longer a contradiction. Just because the Bible does not include an actual conversation between Potiphar and the Ishmaelites is immaterial. Furthermore, given the limited scope of the narrative (everything from Gen.37 and forward is either directly experienced by Joseph or by his brothers), such a conversation would fall outside of the narrative.


    1. This has nothing to do with the text Theodore; none of your comment actually grapples with the text, nor, therefore, the message and views of its author. Rather this comment reflects your interpretive attempt to make sense of this textual discrepancy. Please try reading the actual post which does indeed attempt to defend and clarify this text’s authors’ views and the story they were writing.

  8. I suspect it is almost always possible to come up with an explanation that resolves an apparent contradiction between two passages, particularly if you begin with the assumption that both passages are true and therefore an explanation exists. The question is whether the explanation is reasonable in addition to being possible. In this case the explanation requires a communication between Potiphar and Ishmaelites to be assumed which is nowhere mentioned in the text. If all of the text dealing with Joseph being sold into slavery and brought to Egypt were written by the same author, who describes both Midianites and Ishmaelites as being involved, why would he omit an important detail such as the Ishmaelites working for Potiphar? We know from the Diatessaron and other examples that religious texts get redacted together. Isn’t it more reasonable that such happened here?

    It is human nature to interpret information in a way that reinforces what we already believe to be true. In order to think critically it is necessary to examine and test our assumptions.

  9. In order to remove something from being a contradiction, all of the verses related to this narrative must make sense, reading them in the light of the explanation. The explanation is not necessarily what happened; but it is one explanation which eliminates the apparent contradiction.

    Potiphar contracted some Ishmaelite traders to purchase a slave (or slaves) for him. They meet up with the Midianites, purchase Joseph and deliver him to Potiphar. Note that they do not sell Joseph to Potiphar but they bring Joseph to Potiphar.

  10. people sometimes fail to realize, that it is most easiest thing for a world to open up for you in bible new passages, new meanings and new words in there that was not 5 minutes ago and change your life and happening based on that, also temporally. As it is ALIVE text, so if that helps Your soul, it can be done on instant if You desire to serve better and love Women

  11. Sure thing comments, made it so clear, that anyone who still wonders after that…
    these ones need to take deep rest and start to read bible from a believing point of view, eg, first You accept that all is higher level of truth then humans in normal mind are possible to hold,
    it would be like human on REALLY high dosages of LSD,
    to know just few levels of bible passages,

    this information and time flow that will rush from you will make you unable to move,
    only once you drop the knowledge and be on spirit, you would be able to function… and now to just keep all the time, one hair of a spirit, and how to get there… is more then needed to go in this life with full knowledge of all issues around you from politics to wars to food and wife

  12. Professor Gary A. Rendsburg (chair of Jewish History, Rutgers University) in Part II of his “The Book of Genesis” published by The Learning Company (aka The Great Courses) has stated —

    A crucial issue in our text is: Who brought Joseph down to Egypt? According to 37:28 (or at least one reading thereof), Midianites pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. It was presumably these latter people who took Joseph to Egypt. According to the 37:36, however, the Medanites sold Joseph to Potiphar (a courtier of Pharaoh) in Egypt, so they must be the people who transported him there. Note that Medanites and Midianites are two separate peoples (see 25:2). Most translations mask this by using the word Midianites in 37:36, but the Hebrew text reads “Medanites.”

    When we resume the story of Joseph in Egypt in 39:1, we read that the Ishmaelites brought Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar. The result is a very confused narrative. For most scholars, this is fodder for the JEDP theory—they explain the problem by assuming separate sources with conflicting information.

    I prefer a literary explanation, however. The confusion reflects the confusion in Joseph’s mind. The reader experiences the events as Joseph experienced them. Stuck at the bottom of a pit, Joseph is able to hear only muffled sounds and dialogue from above. He is pulled out and transported to Egypt, but because he himself is unsure about the chain of events, the narration presents the tale in confused terms.

    Later in the narrative, the confusion is reflected by two different statements from Joseph: Genesis 40:15, “I was stolen [kidnapped] from the land of the Hebrews,” and Genesis 45:4, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Confused language also appears in Genesis 37:30, where Reuben, upon discovering that the pit is empty, with Joseph not in sight, states: “And I, where am I to come?” This confused language reflects the confusion in Reuben’s mind, which is unable to produce clear syntax. This represents yet another literary device in the arsenal of the ancient Israelite writers.

  13. Dr. DiMattei’s objections hinge upon the English grammar of the verse 28 which seems to indicate to Dr. DiMattei that it is the Midianites that are meant by “they” and thus it is the Midianites that sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites.

    At the top of this page Dr. DiMattei’s unique translation and punctuation of the verse is different than any published English translation I have yet seen, and he has fashioned it in such a way as to favor his particular interpretations.

    The phrase about the Midianites passing by could be viewed simply as a parenthetical detail, and that the word “they” most naturally refers back to the brothers. This is apparently how 1st century Jews understood this Genesis passage as witnessed in the New Testament —

    And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him. [Act 7:9 KJV]

    According to Stephen, it was the motivated brothers that were directly responsible for the selling of Joseph. It was not a mere accident that some passersby so happened to find Joseph and luckily profited from his capture. I suppose that the meaning of the word “patriarchs” could be debated, but it is unlikely in the extreme that it could ever be construed to refer to a group of foreigners such as Midianites or Ishmaelites.

  14. I agree with Dr. DiMattei that there are multiple stories being told in Genesis 37. The overarching plot in this chapter is that the majority of Joseph’s brothers now intend him harm, but like most interesting stories there are several sub-plots as well: there is the presentation of Reuben’s agenda which is then foiled; and there is giving of the details of the cover-up attempt by using Joseph’s coat as the corroborating evidence. According to Dr. DiMattei, Reuben’s failed scheme is the E-version and the brothers’ construct of plausible deniability is represented by the J-version.

    Dr. DiMattei makes the assertion that there is a textual conflict between Rueben and Judah each as Joseph’s protector. But selfish Rueben only seems to be motivated by a plan to emerge as a hero before his father, while at the same time capitalist Judah merely sees a convenient opportunity to make some quick cash. That there are some sub-plots which are compatible within the big story should not be surprising.

    How do the brothers later explain Joseph’s disappearance to their father in the E-version? How were the other brothers supposedly satisfied by merely throwing Joseph into the pit in the E-version? Why do the Midianites choose to take Joseph to Egypt rather than some other course of action in the E-version? Where are the other brothers (sans Rueben) when the Midianites suddenly appear in the E-version?

    It still seems that the primary incentive of JEPD deployment is relief from the alleged difficulty caused by the terms “Midianites” and “Ishmaelites”.

  15. For clarification, when I used the word “synonymous” I meant that those words can be interchanged for one another within the confines of this particular discussion (not that those words don’t independently have their own unique definitions).

    For examples, a Jewish-American could be singularly identified as either a Jew, or as an American. The terms “Jewish” and “American” could be used synonymously (interchangeably) to represent this person under some circumstances. That would not establish that the word “Jewish” and the word “American” have the same meaning. And just as all trees are not Oaks, “oak” could be used synonymously with “tree” within a certain contextual boundary.

    We should be able to recognize that words can be interchangeable without being strictly synonymous.

  16. Let look at the reason(s) Dr. DiMattei asserts in his reply above to mehmet aktürk that Judges 8:22-28 does not use Midianites and Ishmaelites interchangeably, and upon what basis does Dr. DiMattei accuses mehmet aktürk of being “careless”.

    Dr. DiMattei states that a “close reading” of the story of Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites in Judges chapters 6-8 reveals that the Hebrew for Midian/Midianites is used 30 times, while the term Ishmaelites occurs only once. Indeed, Dr. DiMattei has the correct frequency of the the words occurrences in those chapters. However, a close reading of mehmet aktürk’s post reveals that he solely mentions Judges Chapter 8 and then only verses 22-28. Notice that the word “Midian” occurs merely 3 times within those seven verses, and the word “Midianite(s)” does not appear at all. None! Judges Chapter 8 includes only 7 of Dr. DiMattei’s 30 references. Now allowing Dr. DiMattei his entire three chapters of “Midian/Midianites” he will assert that this ratio of 30:1 hardly demonstrates interchangeability. How would this kind of ratio demonstrate “the opposite” of interchangeability? Does the frequency ratio even matter?

    No, it does not. Words that are synonymous are still synonymous regardless of whether the antecedent word is used 30 times (or even 10,000 times) against the other word only being used once or a few times. The question is not the frequency with which words are used interchangeably but rather are the words actually synonymous. I realize that Dr. DiMattei does not believe that the “Midianite” and “Ishmaelite” are synonymous, but where is his evidence?

  17. It seems Dr. DiMattei is alive and active since he has replied to another poster recently (a John Kesler at contradiction #3 on October 20, 2014).

  18. I have been watching for a response for a couple of weeks. Where is Dr. DeMattei? Perviously he had responded to comments promptly even when they were posted months apart. For example, his response to the October 30, 2013 comment above came the next day; his response to March 2, 2014 also followed the next day; his response to July 20, 2014 was on the same day. Are you no longer monitoring your site, sir?

  19. Dr. DeMattei, your reply [above in the first paragraph] to the Judges passage question is not satisfying. You offer just two protests: 1) that the frequency/infrequency of occurrences influences or determines synonymity; and 2) that a singular reference is evidence of the impossibility of synonymity with the antecedent term. To which rules of language do you appeal?

  20. in Judges 8:22–28 were Ishmaelites is also used interchangeably for people of Midian there ishmaelites are Midianites Dr. Steven DiMattei how did you respond it?

    1. Judges 8:22-28 DOES NOT use Midianites and Ishmaelites interchangeably. You’re being careless. In fact, a close reading of the story of Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites in Judges 6-8 reveals that the Hebrew for Midian/Midianites is used 30 times, while the term Ishmaelites occurs 1 time!! This is hardly interchangeable—in fact quite the opposite! And where and how this 1 occurrence is used also suggests that this sentence might have been added as a gloss by a later scribe, which was then later copied into the text. Regardless, the text as it now stands does not support an interchangeability nor identity.

      That said, no biblical historian would deny the close proximity of these ethnicities; both were identified as people of the Negeb. Indeed, their closeness—but dissimilarity—is perhaps the central reason why when the Joseph story was told in one part of Israel it was told using Midianites; while when this story was told in another cultural context and geography it was recounted using Ishmaelites. Later, when these versions were written down, scribes consciously chose to preserve both versions of the story and in the manner that the text presently reveals.

      More problematic however is that you’re neglecting the text of Genesis 37-45 in its entirety and on its own terms. An interpretive apologetic which claims that the Midianites and Ishmaelites were used interchangeably here, and which is aimed at soothing a modern reader’s angst, nonetheless fails to listen to the text, and quite frankly consistently neglects the text on its own terms and in its own historical and literary contexts! Look at the post above. Not only can the text of Genesis 37 be separated out to reveal its once two independent versions of the Joseph story—each complete on its own terms, containing no gaps in the narrative, no inconsistencies or contradictions, and emphasizing different narrative elements as well as geo-political tribe who attempts to aid Joseph!—but the same can be said of the entire composite narrative from Gen 37-45.

      This is scholarship that has been well grounded in the text and repeatedly and continuously reaffirmed, confirmed, verified, etc. for over 100 years now! I highly encourage buying and reading the latest book on this and other duplicate stories in the Bible—Joel Baden’s The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (2012). He spends an entire chapter on Genesis 37, reviewing more thoroughly than myself what the biblical literature elsewhere says and does not say about Midianites and Ishmaelites, the rabbinic commentary tradition, etc., and above all does a thorough close reading of the text itself, which once again reveals that it is a composite of two once independent tellings of the Joseph story. And this does not just happen here in the biblical corpus, but literally hundreds and hundreds of other places (our contradictions), and we not only possess textual evidence of this sort of compositional technique from the Bible, but from other ancient Near Eastern texts as well! Additionally there is ample evidence from the ancient world itself that stories were variously told, often with minor variations or in some cases dramatic theological or ideological disagreements. The Bible as an anthology of 70+ texts written over a 1,000 year period bears witness to this! Read Stories from the north and south.

      The question that modern readers should be asking—those debated by scholars as well—is not whether there were competing traditions and versions of Israel’s stories; there were, period; the textual data is overwhelming; but why would later scribes preserve both versions, or blatantly contradictory versions of the same story or “historical” event? And why did they preserve them in the manner they did? Etc. At present there are some good thoughtful responses to these questions. Take a look at the “stitching” together by later scribes of the Crossing of the Reed Sea stories for example in Contradiction #120-22. I let the text itself reveal its composite nature, and then grapple with questions concerning what this scribe thought he was doing in stitching these two contradictory versions together in the manner he chose.

      #120. How is the Red sea dried up: Moses divides it with his rod OR Yahweh with the wind OR Yahweh with his own breath OR with a shout? (Ex 14:16 vs Ex 14:21 vs Ex 15:10 vs Ps 106:9)
      #121. Do the Israelites advance through the sea bed followed by the Egyptians OR do they remain on the shore and only the Egyptians enter the dried sea bed? (Ex 14:23 vs Ex 14:13-14, 25, 27)
      #122. Do the Egyptians get washed up dead on the sea shore OR do they sink to the bottom? (Ex 14:30 vs Ex 15:5)

  21. Nice reply. Too bad it’s from a western perspective, and from what you’ve been taught. You might want to share your thoughts with Rabbinical Theologians to get a better understanding.

    1. You’re merely adding error upon error. Western perspective? The texts and their analysis are presented from the perspective of the authors who produced them, and the ancient Near East, its culture, literary genres, worldviews, etc. If you had read the post you might have seen that. Second, you’re still choosing an interpretive approach that favors a later reading community, their beliefs, views, assumptions, over and against the text itself, its authors, the intended meaning of the text per its author and original audience, the text’s historical and literary contexts, culture, etc. Third, studying texts and their many and divergent reading communities leads inexorably to the conclusion that any interpretation by a reading community will inevitably tell us more about the reading community’s ideas, assumptions, meaning, etc., and not those of the text and its original contexts. This goes for later rabbinical readings of the Torah as well. Likewise, understanding the Torah through the interpretations of Philo of Alexandria will inform us more about Philo’s assumptions about the text rather than clarify the meaning of the text itself, ditto for all later reading communities. This is basic textual tradition 101 material. Karen Armstrong’s book on the Bible, which is really about the Bible’s different and varied reading communities might help you in understanding this. Biblical scholars, or biblical historians such as myself, attempt to understand a text and a texts meaning, especially an ancient text, by entering into the culture and literary world that produced the text, not the minds of readers living centuries later who know nothing about these matters and had their own well-defined interpretive and theological agendas.

      Again, our goal here are the text, the authors that produced the texts, their audiences, the historical circumstances that prompted the text’s composition, its literary context, etc., etc., etc. I don’t understand why people of your persuasion are always denying the text, its author, its audience, its historical and literary context, etc., etc., or simply placing it, and these, a distant second after what a later reading community, be it Christian, rabbinic, Islamic, says about the texts or believes the texts to be or say. “Anything but the text” seems to be your motto — quite contrary to what we’re doing here.

  22. sinner
    So, that means that Midianites merchantmen took Joseph first and sold him to Ishmeelites that were going to Egypt, and then Potiphar bought Joseph from Ishmeelites (39:1).

    How do you reconcile 37:36 with 39:1, sinner?

    Genesis 37:36:
    36Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

    Genesis 39:1
    Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.

  23. No, there is no contradiction at all.Read carefully.
    All his brethen wanted to kill him (37:20) except Reuben (37:21) who suggest them to cast him into pit (because he wanted to save Joseph’s life and to brought him to his father (37:22)).Then Judah said it is better to sell him to Ishmeelites (37:26-27) and they wanted that (except Reuben).But Midianites merchantmen passed there before Joseph’s brethren and took him and sold him unto Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver (37:28).When Reuben returned to save him, Joseph wasn’t in pit(37:29).Then they dipped his coat into blood of the kid and give it to Jacob (37:31-32) to remove their guilt.So, that means that Midianites merchantmen took Joseph first and sold him to Ishmeelites that were going to Egypt, and then Potiphar bought Joseph from Ishmeelites (39:1).

    1. So, that means that Midianites merchantmen took Joseph first and sold him to Ishmeelites that were going to Egypt, and then Potiphar bought Joseph from Ishmeelites (39:1).

      Anything else you wish to add to the text so that it can be manipulated to say what you want or belief it to say? Furthermore, your imposed interpretive equation above is refuted, twice, by what the text actually says, and conversely, twice more, by what it doesn’t say. You should be doing the careful reading, laying your own assumptions aside.

      But more so, there are hundreds of textual traditions that went into the making of what later generations of readers labeled as the Bible. This is fact, substantiated by the Bible itself, on several occasions by the authors themselves, and furthermore substantiated by our knowledge of how scrolls were written, expanded, amended, and rewritten in the ancient Near Eastern world in general. The two ways in which the Joseph story was told in ancient Israel, both of which were eventually copied down and then redacted together extends well beyond Genesis 37. If you cared about the texts enough, you would have read them more critically, objectively, and from within their own cultural perspectives and norms, rather than impose those of your own. You also should read my post more carefully, which contrary to your imposing exterior identifiers and equations, attempts to defend the text on its own terms, and does so quite successfully. If you care to notice, each of the two tellings of the Joseph story separated above by means of the textual clues in the composite story itself are complete, whole, independent stories, exhibiting no gaps, no inconsistencies, no need for imposing exterior meanings, etc. They both make complete sense each on their own terms, with their own themes, language, heroes, etc. What, do you think that story telling in the ancient world didn’t exhibit variations? This is really not a question that I should be asking you for what you think; for we, those of us who study ancient texts, ancient civilizations, the Bible, etc., know that stories were told variously throughout the centuries of time that these very texts represent. Ancient Israelites most likely of two different geographies and two different time periods told the Joseph story with slight variation. These two versions were later recorded down, and then preserved, both of them (because that’s what ancient scribes did), through a later editorial endeavor that left us with the composite story in Genesis 35-45. How do we know this? The biblical text—an anthology of texts written over a 1,000 year period (can you fathom that number?)—tells us this, here and literally in hundreds and hundreds of other places (for example, have a go at the two (2) crossing of the Red Sea stories in #120-122, where I let the texts do the talking). The culture that produced these texts and text production in general also tell us this. But I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about this, yet ironically, and most disingenuously, feel as though you can propound what these texts are and are not.

      Please, if you’re serious about the Bible, then get educated. Rather than choosing to defend your beliefs about the texts—your quote above—I encourage you to learn about the texts themselves on their own terms, who produced them, how texts were produced in the ancient world, how stories and their variations were told in the ancient world, why storytellers and later scribes changed the stories they inherited, who wrote them down, why, to whom, prompted by what historical circumstances, etc. There are a number of good resources out there, this site being a most excellent one.

  24. Let’s take a look from a traditional Rabbinic point of view. I quote Rabbi Reinman on the Documentary Hypothesis:

    (The bold type is used to identify the text the critics claim to be part of an alleged J document, while the regular type is used for the text they consider part of an alleged E document.)

    [GENESIS CH. 37] (25) And they sat down to eat bread, and they raised their eyes and they saw, and here was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices, balsam and myrrh, going to bring them down to Egypt. (26) And Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover his blood? (27) Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be on him, because he is our brother, our flesh. And his brothers listened. (28) And Midianite people, 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 … (36) And the Medanites sold him to Egypt to Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh, chief of the guards. [CH. 38] (1) And it was at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned to an Adullamite man, and his name was Hirah. … [CH. 39] (1) And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt. And an Egyptian man, Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh, chief of the guards, bought him from the hand of the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.
    At first glance, there is obviously much confusion in the text. Let us assume that the Medanites and the Midianites are one and the same, but who purchased Joseph and from whom? And who sold him to the Egyptians? The text starts out with a decision to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Midianites suddenly appear, but they still sell him to the Ishmaelites. And then the Midianites sell him to the Egyptians. But when did the Midianites take possession of him? As we read further, we see that the Egyptians had indeed bought him from the Ishmaelites. So who sold Joseph to the Egyptians? Was it the Midianites or the Ishmaelites?

    The critics attempt to resolve these problems by dividing the text between J and E documents. They claim that a hypothetical Redactor (RJE) spliced in a few lines from E into a J document to give the impression that Midianites arrived on the scene and pulled Joseph from the pit. Then “they,” meaning the Midianites, sold him to the Ishmaelites, who then sold him to the Egyptians, as stated in 39:1. But that still leaves unresolved the contradiction with 37:36, which states that the Midianites sold him to the Egyptians.

    It is, of course, difficult to understand why the hypothetical Redactor would introduce two E verses which create such havoc in the passage and leave an unresolved contradiction.

    Now let us approach the same passage from the perspective of traditional rabbinic scholarship. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, author of the 18th-century Ohr Ha-Chaim commentary on the Pentateuch, comments that wealthy people do not necessarily have business acumen. The Ishmaelites were indeed rich in expensive spices, but they were not shrewd negotiators and dealmakers. The Midianites served as their brokers and bankers. The Ha-Maor edition of the Pentateuch cites an unpublished manuscript of Rashi, the eminent medieval commentator, that supports this view: “The Ishmaelites and Midianites in this passage are one and the same,” he writes. “There were some Midianites living in the land of the Ishmaelites.” It stands to reason, therefore, that when a major shipment of spices was being transported to Egypt, a few Midianites would accompany the caravan to strike the deal.

    When the brothers called out to the Ishmaelites that they wanted to do business, the logical next step would be for the Midianite brokers–who are pointedly described as merchants while the Ishmaelites are not–to come forward. After the deal was negotiated with the Midianites, the brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites, who were coming up with the purchase price. When the caravan reached Egypt, the Midianites “sold him to Egypt,” meaning that they were once again the ones who struck the deal. Later, however, we are told that the Egyptians bought Joseph “from the hands of the Ishmaelites,” meaning that the acquisition was from the possession of the Ishmaelites, as indeed it was.

    1. Jambro, thanks for your contribution. I am familiar with some of the Rabbinic traditions on this passage and others, but point of fact is that when it comes to talking about rabbinic interpretations, or any interpretative tradition be it Christian, the early church’s, the Alexandrian’s school, Origin’s, Philo of Alexandria, modern fundamentalist, Protestants, the Middle Ages, etc. what we’re really talking about is reader-oriented perspectives, beliefs, and interpretations that are actually imposed onto the text, or the point of departure from which these texts are read. Indeed, it is the phenomenon of interpretive traditions in general that they reveal more about the beliefs of the interpretive communities than those of the texts they purport to interpret! This is just plain true of all interpretive traditions. That is why the goal here is to get back to the texts, their authors, and in their own historical contexts, before the interpretive whims of later reading communities, centuries later, that knew nothing about these texts’ authors and the historical circumstances in which they were written. Our knowledge of these texts, and the compositional, editorial, and redactional procedures scribes put them through, is considerably greater than any previous time in history.

      For instance, the stance taken in this rabbinic tradition, and there are others which offer different interpretations and which are contradictory to this one, on this same passage (see Joel Baden’s recent The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis, where he treats this passage and discusses the problems and inherent fallacies in this and other rabbinic interpretations of this passage), is to attempt to respond to the text’s contradictions or anomalies by first setting up non-textual premises and assumptions which then guide the reader in his interpretation. You highlight this non-textual speculation yourself. Again this has nothing to do with the texts, nor their authors, nor the historical circumstances within which they wrote; it has, on the other hand, everything to do with this particular rabbinic school’s perceptions, beliefs, etc. In other words, in this example the rabbinic interpretation starts from a non-biblical point of departure—pure speculation it might be added—and then takes this as the “given” and applies it to the understanding of the “problem” passage—typical rabbinic procedure.

      But more problematic is that the biblical traditions themselves claim that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were two different peoples. Furthermore, this fanciful rabbinic attempt to resolve the textual discrepancy, as well as others, doesn’t actually resolve anything, and indeed creates further problems. And lastly, and most significantly, this interpretation fails to address the text itself and neglects to take into account the narrative—or narratives as the case may be—as a whole (see #71, #72-73, #74, #75). Again, see Joel Baden’s book cited above. Unfortunately I don’t have it with me right now or I would quote him on this since he is much more knowledgeable about these maters than myself. I recommend reading his book.

      Additionally, biblical scholars and historians do not “divide the text” in whimsical fashion. Rather we study the text, its language, stylistics, themes, rhetorical devices, historical referents, ideologies and theologies, and in some cases explicit editorial markings left by scribes! From this study it is the text itself which reveals its compositional nature. Indeed many of the Bible’s scribes tell us explicitly that they used sources in their composition

      For example, the author of (parts of) the book of Numbers uses material from a source which he identifies as “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh” (Num 21:14). We also hear of “the scroll of Jashar” which was used as a source for the author of Joshua 10:13. Whoever wrote much of the genealogical lists in Genesis identifies his source as “the scroll of the genealogy of Adam” (Gen 5:1). The authors of the books—scrolls—of Kings frequently reference a couple of their sources, “the chronicles of the kings of Israel” and “the chronicles of the kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19, 14:29, 15:7, 15:23, etc.). The author of the books of Chronicles, which is a later, and as we shall see, divergent historical narrative covering the same period depicted in the books of Samuel and Kings, not only uses these books as sources, but mentions others as well: “the chronicles of David” (1 Chr 27:24), “the chronicles of Samuel the seer” (1 Chr 29:29), “the scroll of Gad” (1 Chr 29:29), “the scroll of Jehu” (2 Chr 20:34), etc. “The scroll of the records of your fathers” is mentioned by the author of Ezra (Ezra 4:15), and so on. That the biblical writers—or perhaps seen in this perspective, transmitters of tradition—used sources is evident from the biblical texts themselves. In actuality these are merely but a few of the sources that we know of. We now know that the various authors of the biblical scrolls used a variety of other sources, textual traditions, oral stories, and political archives to compose their writings. Seen in this context, it should hardly be surprising to find divergent, even contradictory, archives and traditions throughout this, more appropriately, anthology of ancient scrolls and codices. [Excerpted from some of my other writing]

      When these sources have survived, such as in the case of the books of Kings for the composition of Chronicles, or Exodus traditions for Deuteronomy, we explicitly see that the later author has diverted from what was written in his earlier source, and often times even modified and contradicted his source. It’s our task to acknowledge this, and then try to understand it, not on our terms, not from our cultural “givens,” but from those of the author, and ask why he modified or altered the tradition he inherited. What was he attempting to do, and why?

      In fact, all of the contradictions on this website are the result of different textual traditions having been redacted together at a later date—in other words, this is the observable data. Period! Our task is to try to understand it, but not by imposing our ideas or any reader-oriented ideas of text, authorship, narrative, etc. Furthermore, ancient editors even used explicit rhetorical techniques to indicate to other scribes where they added material—the resumptive repetition is one such example [e.g., Ex 24:1 & 24:9—the scribe repeats the material of what later becomes Ex 24:1 at Ex 24:9 to indicate to other scribes that he has inserted other material in between this resumptive repetition], but varying tenses in Hebrew verbs was another. Why the redactor preserved two versions of this story in a cut-and-paste manner, as he did also with the Flood Stories (#14-18) and the Crossing of the Red Sea (#120-122) is certainly a speculative question. I’d advise taking a look at the Crossing of the Red Sea stories because I walk the reader through the text, or I let the text reveal itself to us its readers, while starting from the assumption that the text is a unified whole; but the text itself negates that reader-oriented assumption. Give it a look.

      But most scholars attempt to answer questions concerning what the redactor thought he was doing by not imposing our own ideas about texts and authorship and our own uncomfortableness with textual inconsistencies as dictated by our presuppositions about texts. As one theologian put it, maybe the goal of the redactor was to preserve Israel’s various traditions as some sort of repository. In this case, eliminating contradictions would not have been a priority. Also, many of these texts in their own historical contexts were not read as public books. Indeed they were not meant for the public at all; there was no public readership in the ancient Near East! They were scribal traditions, used by scribes, storytellers, elite priests, etc. Again, understanding these ancient texts starts with the texts themselves in their own historical and literary contexts, not with the assumptions and beliefs of later reading communities and interpretive traditions.

  25. No, I do not think the author(s) was claiming that Ishmaelites and Midianites were the same. These Ishmaelites were from Midian making them Midianites. This is evident in the biblical texts; not just in these verses but also in Judges 8:22–28 were Ishmaelites is also used interchangeably for people of Midian. A modern equivalent of this would be how black people in the US were (now politically incorrect) called African-Americans. Just as you can be an American without being an African-American, so too, could one be a Midianite and not be an Ishmaelite-Midianite. The title Ishmaelites described a person’s family; Midianite described where they were from.

    The only way I can see accepting your proposed contradiction here is if I were to believe the redactors were idiots. Give me one single, logical explanation why, if the scribes were indeed combining separate documents here, they would intentionally leave such an obvious error. They didn’t see it as a contradiction because, in fact, they knew it was not a contradiction.

    Please correct me – all of your work here is based on the indivdual authors (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly) but there are no actual sources. There are no separate, extra-biblical documents that supports your theories. Essentially someone took the biblical manuscripts and dissected the text where they thought it differed from the other text. This is all built off from present-day preconceptions. I wholeheartedly agree the biblical texts were not created in a “vacuum”. But, neither were you educated in one. I don’t understand how you can say that you are defending the texts while, at the same time, you are calling the authors idiots.

  26. Ishmaelites were Midianites. Hagar and Ishmael settled in Midian after they were sent away by Abraham, were they lived along with Esau’s decedents. There was a lot of bad blood as both of these families felt cheated out of their birthrights. This is why Joseph’s brothers, who also felt cheated, saw their cousins as allies. How else did Joseph’s brothers know that these merchants could be trusted and wouldn’t betray them? Imagine that 500 kilometer trek these Ishmaelties took from Dothan to Egypt with this bratty teenager. Their route would have taken them right past Jacob. How vehemently do you think Joseph would have been pleading with his captors? “Look, my dad lives right over that hill! He’ll pay you ten times what you gave my brothers!” And yet they weren’t swayed. To the Ishmaelite-Midianites, revenge was worth far more to them than any possible financial gain.

    These verses that you believe are contradictions really are not. These contradictions arise from nothing more than a “non-reader” oriented bias. Somehow you imagine that you know more than the actual writers. Do you know why these “contradictions” exist in the texts? It is because the writers didn’t see them as contradictions! Being closer to the origins of these stories, they had intimate understanding of things that you can only imagine – no matter how much you try to study.

    1. Once again, your claim that the Ishmaelites were Midianites is not only inaccurate, but it underscores the biblical texts, since they make no such claim, neither here nor elsewhere. Nor are there any extra-biblical records that indicate likewise. These are your preconceived notions and premises that actually inhibit you from engaging with the text, and the text alone in its historical and literary contexts. Your quick-fix approach actually neglects what the text is saying, and not saying, and is disingenuous towards its authors and why each one said what they said. In the end I don’t care what you call it, a difference, discrepancy, anomaly, a tautology!—you still haven’t addressed the text, and what is going on at the textual level. Everything in your response, especially “Ishmaelites were Midiantes” is non-textual speculation and theologizing.

      Read s l o w l y the verse itself. You think its author(s) was claiming that Ishmaelites and Midianites were the same? Read where and how these two ethnic names appear in the context of the narrative, and look carefully and critically at how the Documentary Hypothesis responds naturally to the textual data, here and in over thousands of other places. An honest study of the text is noting the textual data, and putting forth a hypothesis, a textual hypothesis, that best explains the textual data, not just here, but over and over again in countless other places.

      Anyway, I’m through arguing here. Your debate is with the texts. I’ll let my other readers weigh in on whether the Documentary Hypothesis (some form of it) explains the textual data we have been examining here for almost 3 months now (mainly contradictions, but also anachronisms, repeated uses of the same vocabulary in what have been identified as the same sources, repeated theological emphasis and themes consistently reappearing in what have been identified as unique sources, differences in Hebrew style and tone, etc.). Certainly there’s room for debate; and certainly there’s room for tweaking parts of the DH and throwing out other parts. But it is the best and only hypothesis that explains the textual data AND is honest toward the text and its authors on their own terms and in their own historical and literary contexts. The Documentary Hypothesis is not the premise, but the conclusion drawn from the very texts themselves. You can read how and why scholars, clergy, and regular folk read the Bible carefully enough that the biblical texts themselves revealed this to them! How the Bible was discovered to be a collection of competing texts and traditions.

      In your lengthy previous posts (!), you asked if I had an agenda here. Yes, I do—to defend the biblical texts and their authors the best I can, and that includes understanding who wrote these texts (as best we can), to whom, why, and as a response to what historical (religious/political) circumstances. If I were a scholar of Plato or of Shakespeare, the same would hold true. My goal would be to present the best most accurate portrait of Plato that I could, regardless of whether I believed what he wrote or not (a subjective response). This would require not only knowledge of Plato’s texts in their original language, why he wrote them, and to whom, but also knowledge of both the historical and literary worlds Plato lived in and most likely responded to through his writing. People go to school fulltime for 7+ years to acquire this kind of knowldge alone!

      The Bible, on the other hand, is a much more complex issue. And that in itself is a huge understatement. We are dealing with some 70+ different texts, 70+ different authors, all of which were written over a 1,000 year period and under diverse political and religious convictions, and historical circumstances. Imagine the knowledge necessary to objectively study this massive corpus of literature—the historical world of Israel from roughly the 9th c. BC to the 2nd c. AD, the Greco-Roman world from the 3rd c. BC to the 2nd c. AD, knowledge of the archaeological landscape of both, and the literary worlds of both the Hebrew and Christian canon, i.e., ancient Near Eastern texts (all of them!) and Greco-Roman literature. The texts of the Bible were not created in a vacuum. I think we can both appreciate that. And many if not all of its texts were prompted by their historical worlds and often influenced by their literary worlds and crafted in the literary genres of those worlds as well. This is a HUGE endeavor. I myself feel competent with merely pockets of time intervals within this 1,000 year spectrum.

      I choose my words cautiously, well most of the time: As a biblical scholar I said that I saw my task as defending “the biblical texts” and then went on to enumerate how daunting that project is given 70+ texts, 70+ authors, 70+ historical circumstances and literary worlds—all over a span of 1,000 years. Note: I did not say I defended “the Bible.” What’s the difference? Why do I make such a distinction? Is it a valid distinction and if so what is at stake? You can read about that in my post entitled What is the Bible? The first 2 sections are a string of questions attempting to ride us of our presuppositions. I daunting task in and of itself.

      The thinking behind this distinction is perhaps my main central interest behind this whole project and many of the books I’m currently, or will be, working on. It is here that I hope to actually have an honest and sincere discussion about the Bible…. err, I mean the biblical texts, or both! I outline what I mean by this and what’s at stake in my rather lengthy What is the Bible? I encourage you to give that a read and move our discussion over there if you’d like. To goad you a bit, I might ask: do you think there is a differnce in reading all these 70+ texts in their own historical and literary contexts (i.e., who, what, when, why were they written) AND reading them through a later interpretive framework which goes by the name “the Book”? If yes (and the response is obviously yes — i.e., we all have been pre-programed to read these texts through a centuries-later interpretive framework), then there’s the discussion.

      Much can also be learned by reading about these indivdual authors (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly) and their historical worlds too

      You may also be interested in How we know that the biblical writers were not writing history, and having a discussion over there—nothing but a list of textual (biblical, extra-biblical) and archaeological data over there. Or read Finkelstein’s book that you site, especially chapter 2 where Finkelstein also concludes, from the biblical, extra-biblical, and archaeological data that the exodus narrative is not/was not historical. See also the work of William Dever, Thomas Tompson, Niels Lemche, William Propp, etc. Note we, or most of us, are not saying there is no historical references in the biblical texts. My post presents this in a thorough manner.

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