Joseph’s receiving of his “coat of many colors” is a well-known story, one commonly told to children (Genesis 37:1-11). Before the chapter concludes, however, a dark shadow is cast on this bright story as Joseph is sold into slavery (Genesis 37:18-28). Having reached a breaking point with the pampered seventeen year old, Joseph’s ten older brothers resolved to eliminate him (Genesis 37:18). Seeing him approaching from a distance, they plot to throw him into a cistern and leave him for dead (Genesis 37:19-24).
Inspired by the sight of a caravan of Ishmaelites and reminding his brothers that Joseph “is our brother, our own flesh”, Judah convinces them that they would be better served to sell Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:25-27 NASB).
John Goldingay (b. 1942) observes:
There is something mafia-like about the way the brothers throw Joseph into the empty cistern to die, then coolly settle down for dinner. It seems strange that Judah’s recognition that “he is our flesh and blood” does not extend to hesitation about selling him into slavery...And it seems strange that this recognition does not extend to hesitation over putting Jacob through his terrible grief, though perhaps the brothers were glad to get back at their father for making Joseph their favorite. The convenient coincidence is the fortuitous arrival of a camel caravan. (Goldingay, Genesis For Everyone, Part Two: Chapters 17-50, 132)The brothers callously exchange their brother for silver (Genesis 37:28).
So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. (Genesis 37:28 NASB)The sale price is twenty “shekels” (ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV) or “pieces” (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NLT, NRSV, RSV) of silver. There is actually no noun in the Hebrew text.
J.G. Vos (1903-1983) explains:
Note that the word “pieces” is in italics in the King James Version, indicating that it is not found in the Hebrew but was supplied by the translators. Coined money was not used at this period; the money was weighed. (Vos, Genesis, 457)
It has been suggested that the brothers charge an average slave price for the son that their father thought so exceptional. The Code of Hammurabi cites this same price (§§116, 214, 252).
Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) surveys:
Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver to these traders. This was the average price for a male slave in Old Babylonian times (early 2nd millennium B.C.). The price gradually goes higher. At Nuzi (mid-2nd millennium) it was thirty shekels (for both male and female). At Ugarit (mid- to late 2nd millennium) it was forty shekels. In Neo-Babylonian times (1st millennium) it was fifty shekels. In Persians times (late 1st millennium) the price was ninety to one hundred and twenty shekels. These are, of course, the generals standards from which there were many departures. Joseph’s sale for twenty shekels fits perfectly with the amount a man was to give to the sanctuary if he vows himself or one of his male relatives between the ages of five and twenty (Joseph is seventeen) to the Lord (Leviticus 27:5). (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 422)Donald B. Redford (b. 1934) counters:
The price of twenty shekels of silver paid for Joseph is simply the rate stipulated by Leviticus 27:5 for a minor above five years of age. It is unnecessary and misleading to adduce “average” slave prices from Mesopotamia (so K.A. Kitchen [b. 1932], Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, [London, 1966], 52f.). The locale of the story is Palestine, not the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Even so, it maybe pointed out that examples of the sale of sons of a family by other members of the same family in Neo-Babylonian times, range between sixteen and thirty shekels. (Redford, A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, Volume XX), 200)
In extrabiblical sources the fee for Joseph varies slightly. In the Qur’an, he is sold “for a reduced price - a few dirhams” (Qur’an 12:20). The noncanonical Testament of Gad reports that twenty is only the recorded sale price.
David A. deSilva (b. 1967) informs:
In Testament of Gad, Gad and Judah sell Joseph for thirty pieces of gold (Testament of Gad 5:6-11), whereas Joseph is sold for twenty silver coins in the original Hebrew text of Genesis 37:28. The change in value is not, however, the result of a Christian author’s or editor’s attempt to make of Joseph a precursor of Jesus, especially since Joseph is sold for thirty gold coins rather than thirty silver coins, as was Jesus. The change in currency from silver to gold coins is the result of the influence of the Septuagint version of Genesis 37:28, where Joseph was sold for twenty gold coins. The author of Testament of Gad increases this to thirty coins to allow for Judah and Gad’s embezzlement of ten coins before showing the twenty remaining coins (the official price in public knowledge, hence the Scriptural record, of the sale) to their brothers. (deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, 214)Joseph’s opportunistic brothers manage to profit from their jealousy. W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) evaluates:
If the twenty pieces of silver were shekels (Genesis 37:28), the brothers got a good average price for Joseph...By modern silver prices, this sale would have netted the brothers $130-$150—and who can say what purchasing power that amount of money had in the Late Bronze Age! The resale to the Egyptians no doubt was profitable to the traders. Egyptian documents of the second millennium B.C. reveal that at that time a brisk trade in slaves went on between Egypt and “Asia,” that is, Syria and Canaan. (Towner, Genesis (Westminster Bible Companion), 248)Gordon Wenham (b. 1943) compares:
For shepherds who might expect to earn, if employed by others, about eight shekels a year (cf. Laws of Hammurabi 261), the sale of Joseph represented a handy bonus! (Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Word Biblical Commentary), 356)The syntax demonstrates that the Bible does not take this incident lightly as in the Hebrew text Joseph’s name appears three times in the one verse (Genesis 37:28).
Robert E. Longacre (b. 1922) advances:
Certainly three occurrences of the name are hardly needed for participant identification; the repetition has some further function. Here it marks an extremely important and providential event in the family of Jacob and the history of the embryonic nation. (Longacre, Joseph, A Story of Divine Providence: A Text Theoretical and Textlinguistic Analysis of Genesis 37, 29)As horrific as slavery is, Judah’s cruel proposal beats the alternative: death. In retrospect, Joyce G. Baldwin (1921-1995) recognizes:
Though he could not know it, Joseph was going through an experience which was to become a major theme of the Bible. The godly Servant was despised and rejected, only to become the rescuer of those who abused him (Isaiah 53:3-6); the Lord’s shepherd was underrated (Zechariah 11:12-13), was struck down and his sheep scattered, but the ‘sheep’ found they were the Lord’s people (Zechariah 13:7-9); the way of the cross involved for Jesus betrayal by a friend, as well as agony and death, but it was the way to life for all believers. (Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12-50 (Bible Speaks Today), 160)At the end of the day, Joseph is still alive. And as such, there is hope.
What motivates the brothers to sell Joseph? Is this transaction primarily about money? Why is this particular currency (silver) employed? How much money would it take for you to sell a family member into slavery? What is a life worth? What do Joseph’s brothers do with the silver?
Though Joseph will eventually land in Egypt (Genesis 39:1), there is debate as to the chain of events that transports him there. The trouble arises as Genesis attributes the sale to both Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:28, 39:1) and Midianites (Genesis 37:28, 36). Some scholars see this as clear evidence of the book’s multiple sources.
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) asks:
To whom did the brothers sell Joseph, the Ishmaelites or the Midianites? At first the passage, if read closely, is quite jarring. Those who believe that the book of Genesis is the construction of originally separate sources take this alternating between names as evidence that there were at least two stories of Joseph’s sale, one with the Ishmaelites and another with Midianites. (Longman, How to Read Genesis, 48)Others see no discrepancy, claiming that Genesis simply uses the terms “Ishmaelite” and “Midianite” interchangeably. Still others pose that the Bible subtly hints that Joseph’s brothers get rooked.
Paul Borgman (b. 1940) posits:
“And they raised their eyes,” the text moves on, “and [they] saw and, look, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead...on their way to take down [goods] to Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). But then “Midianite merchantmen passed by and pulled Joseph up out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:27-28). If we accept the discordant mix of Midianite and Ishmaelite here, the outcome is a pointed irony: Judah’s plans for monetary gain are foiled by the Midianites, who manage to beat the avaricious brothers to the pit. (Borgman, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard, 181-82)Regardless of how the transactions played out, Joseph later attributes his sale to his brothers (Genesis 45:4). Jewish tradition asserts that the brothers receive and spend the money. Though Joseph’s brothers will later pay him for grain in Egypt (Genesis 42:5), this is not where tradition records that the silver is spent: They use the silver to buy shoes (Targum Yonatan to Genesis 37:28)!
David Stern (b. 1949) documents:
While Genesis 37:28 states merely that Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, the legend that the money was used to buy shoes is an ancient one, attested to both in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the Palestinian Aramaic translation of the Bible, ad Genesis 37:28, and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Zebulun 4, in both apparently on the basis of a traditional association of Amos 2:6, and possibly Amos 8:6, with the Joseph story. (Stern and Mark J. Mirsky [b. 1939], Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature, 161)Regardless of what was gained from the silver involved in the sale of Joseph, the cost was far too high.
Judas regretted selling Jesus for silver (Matthew 27:3-5), do you think that Joseph’s brothers ever regretted pawning their baby sibling? What did selling Joseph cost the brothers? What has your sin cost you?
“Money often costs too much.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), The Conduct of Life, p. 107