Yosef’s Sale and Biblical Critics

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The idea that the Torah is composed of multiple competing and contradictory manuscripts dominates the academic landscape. However, sometimes the proof–as much as can ever be proven with the weak tools of literary analysis–is shakier than is commonly taught. At times, even some of the critics agree that there really is no proof to the deconstruction of the text.

One such case is the sale of Yosef (Gen. 37). Ostensibly, it is a classic case of multiple versions of the story woven together by an editor. There are two buyers of Yosef (Midianites and Ishmaelites), two brothers to blame (Reuven and Yehudah) and two names for Ya’akov/Yisrael. Surely the simplest resolution of these contradictions is different sources. Richard Elliot Friedman represents this approach, dividing the chapter into mainly two sources as follows (Who Wrote the Bible?, p. 249):

J: 37:2b, 3b, 5-11, 19-20, 23, 25b-27, 28b, 31-35
E: 37:3a, 4, 12-18, 21-22, 24, 25a, 28a, 29, 30, 36

However, beginning approximately 50 years ago, critics started objecting to this proposal. They argued that these doublets do not indicate separate sources. Indeed, the text reads better when a single source is assumed.

RN Whybray published an article in 1968 [1. “The Joseph Story and Pentateuchal Criticism” in Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968).] arguing that the narrative appears to be a single story, not the amalgamation of different versions. George W. Coats published a 1976 book [2. From Canaan to Egypt: Structural and Theological Context for the Joseph Story.] arguing similarly. Gordon Wenham (Word Biblical Commentary, Gen. vol. 2 pp. 349-350) summarizes the literature as follows:

According to traditional source critics, the sources J, E, and P are interwoven in this chapter. According to Gunkel (slightly simplified), the sources are as follows….

However, since Whybray and Coats argued for the intrinsic unity of the Joseph story, this analysis has been given up by most writers. They argue that the narrative is too powerful to be explained as the product of an amalgamation of sources, that the divisions are postulated in order to produce two sources, and that the differences within the narrative can be explained exegetically. Schmitt argued that the E source represent an expansion of the J material, but Westermann, Coats, White, Humphreys, and Longacre all suppose that vv 3-36 come from basically one source with possibly a few glosses or expansions.

Their approach is supported by the scenic analysis given above. Each scene consists of narrative and dialogue, but to split the material between two sources undermines the unity of the scenes….

Wenham’s final argument refers back to his breaking the chapter into eight distinct scenes:

  1. vv. 12-14: Yosef sent to find brothers
  2. vv. 15-17: Yosef at Shechem
  3. vv. 18-20: Brothers’ plot
  4. vv. 21-22: Reuven’s intervention
  5. vv. 23-28: Yosef sold
  6. vv. 29-30: Reuven’s return
  7. vv. 31-33: Coat brought to Yaakov
  8. vv. 34-35: Yaakov’s mourning

The clear narrative development, with each scene also containing a dialogue, is supporting evidence of a unified source. If any of these passages is broken into multiple sources, the careful parallelism breaks down. Importantly, the supposed contradictions are easily explained with commentary. The brothers’ attitudes to Yosef were complex. Both Reuven and Yehudah had conflicting feelings about him. That is evidence of a nuanced, not contradictory, narrative. The story’s suspenseful progression is brilliant, what Coats calls an”artistic masterpiece.” It is neither contradictory nor clumsy. And most contemporary secular and Christian commentators favor Ibn Ezra’s and Ramban’s view that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were one group.[3. See Judges 8:24 where Midianites are called Ishmaelites. Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p. 214 writes: “It is also possible that ‘Ishmaelite’ is here not used as an ethnic designation, but simply as an appellative for nomadic merchants.” Although see Nechama Leibowitz New Studies in Bereshit, p. 403ff. and E.S. Hartom, Bereishis 37:28 who both argue strongly for Rashbam’s view that Midianites removed Yosef from the pit and sold him to Ishmaelites.]

Of course, some critics still believe that the chapter can be broken into multiple, contradictory sources. As mentioned above, Friedman still follows that approach. My point here is that this piece of evidence, while convincing at first, is at best ambiguous. Even many critics who do not believe in a single author of the Pentateuch reject this passage as proof of multiple authorship. Whybray [4. The Making of the Pentateuch, pp. 89-90.] states that the logic of reading the story of Joseph’s sale as consisting of multiple versions is based on the assumption that multiple versions exist. This, he argues, is circular:

Even those critics who believed this to be so admitted that the case would not be convincing apart from the general presupposition of the Documentary Hypothesis that there must have been such a dual version…. There appears to be a circular argument here.

In other words, if you assume that the Pentateuch consists of different sources, then maybe you can read Joseph’s sale that way. But if you have no such assumption, if like Orthodox Jews you believe in single authorship of the Pentateuch, then no evidence to the contrary appears in this passage. As quoted above from Wenham, other scholars go farther and argue that it is difficult to read the narrative as consisting of multiple versions. But even without Wenham’s stronger claim, Whybray’s point is important. Indeed, it is crucial to studying Torah as an Orthodox Jew.

R. Jonathan Sacks makes this point:[5. “Fundamentalism Reconsidered” in The Jewish Action Reader, p. 258. This essay in its entirety is an argument against what R. Sacks called the Conservative view but what today might be called an Open Orthodox view.]

The late Professor Leo Strauss, in his Philosophy and Law, made the very telling point that the Enlightenment, in its assualt on religious traditions generally and Biblical faith specifically, never truly engaged with the concept of revelation. It merely took its non-existence as given, and proceeded to interpret the Bible accordingly, as if it had proved what in fact it had merely assumed. The traditional belief in revelation, meanwhile, was neither refuted nore refutable. ‘For that reason, Orthodoxy, unchanged in its essence, was able to outlast the attack of the Enlightenment and all later attacks and retreats.’

The case of Yosef’s sale serves as an example of this phenomenon. What begins as an assumption turns into a circular argument. If you read the Torah as if it must have been written by multiple authors, you can find much evidence for it like you can find in any text. But this evidence is not proof of anything because it assumes its conclusion. Whybray made this point over fifty years ago. Decades later, it deserves repeating.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Just to note that Benno Jacob argues very forcefully that Rashbam’s view is the pshat.

  2. In your last post, you said:

    “The challenge of linguistics, history or any other subject to Judaism assumes that Judaism must be explained within these external frameworks”

    It seems, now, in this post, you are using those that actually study Judaism from an academic approach to further your point. But, if you believe the Torah (the written part, not Revelation) can never be approached by any vigorous historical critic and that it exists independent of anything, than this post is pointless. All you need to say is, there are no doublets, there are no contradictions. Richard Friedman is approaching it from the wrong POV. You need never have to defend the Torah from outside attacks.

    But I believe you should pick one approach and stick with it.

  3. “most contemporary secular and Christian commentators favor Ibn Ezra’s and Ramban’s view that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were one group.”

    The Ibn Ezra writes that Midyanim and Yishmaelim are synonymous. The Rambam rejects this and argues that some Midianites hired a caravan of Arabs to carry their products and the narrative changes between the referring to those who made the order and those who carried it out.

    Which of these views is favoured by most contemporary Christian and secular commentators?

    I’ll admit that I find it very hard to understand the pasuk where Reuven returns to the pit. What is he surprised about? The DH doesn’t solve the problem, unless it assumes an incompetent editor. But it is a problem. Is it the case that if I were more Orthodox that I’d understand it better, or that I wouldn’t care that I don’t understand it?

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