“Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels. And they took Joseph to Egypt” (Genesis 37:26-28).
How could Joseph’s brothers sell their own brother to the Egyptians? Their own flesh and blood? But, because they hated Joseph, his brothers sold him to be a slave in Egypt.
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son because he was the son of Rachel, the woman he loved (Genesis 29:18) and because “he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3). Jacob’s favoritism is seen in the special garment he made for Joseph, “a long robe with sleeves” (Genesis 37:3).
Joseph’s brothers hated him because they knew that their father loved him more than them and because Joseph told his father the bad things his brothers were doing (Genesis 37:2). Because of their hatred for Joseph, the brothers were not on friendly terms with him and they could not speak with him without expressing their anger.
One day when Joseph’s brothers were taking care of Jacob’s flock in Dothan, Joseph came to where his brothers were, but as he approached them, the brothers saw Joseph from a distance. They said, “Here comes that dreamer” (Genesis 37:19). So, the brothers plotted to kill him.
The brothers grabbed Joseph, stripped him of his special robe, put him into an empty cistern to die a slow death. His older brother Reuben intervened and said to his brothers, “Let’s not kill him.” As they sat down to eat, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead on their way to Egypt. So, Judah, Joseph’s brother, said to his brothers, “Let us not hurt him, because he is our brother, our own flesh and blood” (Genesis 37:27). His brothers agreed with Judah’s proposition. They took Joseph out of the cistern and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver (Genesis 37:28). The Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt to be sold as a slave.
Joseph went to Egypt not by his own will. He was sold to the Ishmaelites by his brothers for twenty shekels of silver. The Ishmaelites then sold Joseph to Potiphar to be a slave in his house.
In his article, “How Can Someone Sell His Own Fellow to the Egyptians?” Ignacio Márquez Rowe writes that there are few documents concerning the sale of people to be slaves in Egypt. He says that in time of famine in the ancient Near East men, women and children sold themselves as slaves in order to survive the famine (Rowe 2004:337). This is seen in Egypt, at the time of the great famine in the days of Joseph. Joseph helped the people of Egypt survive the great famine. In return the people said to Joseph, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (Genesis 47:25).
Rowe says that selling slaves to Egypt “finds many parallels in the cuneiform documentation” even though the documentation for “the way in which slaves were acquired in Egypt” is very limited. Rowe cites a legal text from Ugarit (Rowe 2004:338), written in alphabetic cuneiform which says that debtors who fail to pay their obligation will be sold as slaves to Egypt:
“If they (the debtors) leave for [another] country, they (the sureties) will pay 1,000 shekels of silver; and if they do not pay the 1,000 (shekels of silver), they will be sold to Egypt.”
The person who fails to pay a debt (in this case the sureties) is held responsible for the debt. As a result, the penalty for failing to pay the debt meant that the individual would be sold as a slave to Egypt.
Rowe mentions an Akkadian letter in which “the sender requests from the governor of Ugarit to intervene on his behalf concerning the redemption of his own slaves ‘from the hands of Hehea the Egyptian.’” The reason why these people were sold to be slaves in Egypt is not given in the letter. Rowe surmises that the people were sold as “the result of a legal transaction” or because they were captured after escaping from their master’s house (Rowe 2004:338).
Rowe mentions another document which details the fate of a man from Ugarit who had been wrongfully sold to be a slave in Egypt (Rowe 2004:340). The governor of Ugarit wrote a letter to the king of Siyannu requesting the immediate release of the man. The document contains an answer to the request “in which the responsible king reports the observant release and delivery of the man of Ugarit into the hands of the person who would bring him back to his original condition or place.” The document contains the reply of the governor of Ugarit in which he mentions “the mutual duty to observe their agreement concerning misappropriation and sale of their subjects.” Rowe translates the governor’s reply as follows:
“Now, as for you, should (some day) a subject of mine be sold there (i.e. in Ugarit) to the Egyptians, seize him and send him back to me (too)! Otherwise, you will set unseemly things between us. Indeed, how can someone sell his own fellow to the Egyptians?”
In light of the governor’s response, Rowe writes, “The rhetorical question addressed by the ruler of Siyannu, ‘How can a man sell his own fellow to the Egyptians?’, eloquently shows that the ideal or ethical rules of behavior were far from being followed by his, or his neighbor’s, subjects. As a matter of fact, who has not asked himself over and over again in reading the story of Joseph, ‘How could the sons of Jacob sell their own brother to Egypt?’” (Rowe 2004:342).
Rowe concludes, “This small group of cuneiform texts we have presented here is not a random sample but all that is so far available attesting to the sale of Levantine people, namely Ugaritians, to the Egyptians. We must admit, however, that despite the limited character of the evidence the general historical and social picture it reveals, including some important details, is undoubtedly significant when we come to compare it to the description of Joseph’s sale in the book of Genesis. The first general remark that can be made is that by the thirteenth and twelfth centuries before our era there was a considerable demand of slaves in Egypt and a relatively important transfer of them from the Levant” (Rowe 2004:341).
In light of the parallels cited above, we ask again, “how could Joseph’s brothers sell their own flesh and blood to the Egyptians? The text provides us with several hints why Joseph’s brothers sold him to Egypt.
First, it was because of family dysfunction within Jacob’s household. Jacob favored Joseph above his brothers, as a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sought to kill him. Because of their hate for Joseph, they had no compulsion in selling him as a slave to Egypt.
Second, it was for money. Joseph’s brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels. According to Leviticus 27:5, twenty shekels was the price for a male slave between the ages of five and twenty years. According to Exodus 21:32, the price of an adult slave was thirty shekels. Since Joseph was only seventeen years old when he was sold to the Egyptians, (Genesis 37:2), Joseph was sold as a minor, thus, he was worth only twenty shekels. Jacob’s brother got rid of the one they hated and made some profit in the process of getting rid of their brother. As Wenham writes, “For shepherds who might expect to earn, if employed by others, about eight shekels a year, the sale of Joseph represented a handy bonus” (Wenham 1994: 429).
Third, it was because there was a great need for slaves in Egypt. It is not known when Joseph was sold to Egypt. If the exodus is dated in the 13th century BCE, then, it is possible that Joseph came to Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (1802-1550 BCE), at a time when the Thirteenth Dynasty ruled Egypt. And it is possible that Merneferre was the pharaoh at that time. Merneferre was the longest reigning pharaoh of the Thirteenth Dynasty and he was a pyramid builder. Pyramid building required slave labor.
Israel spent four hundred years in Egypt. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites built two supply cities for pharaoh, Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). Egypt was known as “the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2) and “the iron furnace” (Deuteronomy 4:20). The Egyptians “were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed” on their slaves” (Exodus 1:14). Rowe says that “to have been sentenced to slavery in Egypt in the Late Bronze Age stood for one of the most, if not the most, severe punishment, possibly comparable to, or worse than, imprisonment. It meant, therefore, forced and extremely dull and heavy labor” (Rowe 2004:343).
Fourth, Joseph’s brother sold him as a slave to Egypt because the invisible hand of God’s providence was working to save the very ones who sold Joseph into slavery. During the days of the severe famine that had come to Egypt and Canaan, Joseph’s brother came to Egypt to buy food. Joseph helped his brothers, brought his father to Egypt, and fed the family throughout the years of famine.
After Jacob died, Joseph told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him but eventually sold him to be a slave in Egypt. Their intentions were evil, but God meant it for good. Divine providence brought good out of evil. Why did Joseph’s brothers sell him to the Egyptians? So that Joseph could save his father, those who sold him to be a slave, and those who enslaved him.
It is hard to understand divine providence, but Paul puts it best, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 ESV).
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Rowe, Ignacio Márquez. “How Can Someone Sell His Own Fellow to the Egyptians?” Vetus Testamentum 54 no 3 (2004): 335-343.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.