Someone at church recently asked me about who actually sold Joseph into slavery. He had been reading Genesis 37 and noted that the text is not as clear on the answer to that question as many would assume. The ambiguity in the account has resulted in three basic interpretations.
1. If one assumes a documentary approach to the composition of the Pentateuch then one might explain the ambiguity and confusion due to the inclusion of two different accounts of the same event (what is called a doublet).
2. Joseph’s brothers put him into the pit, but the Midianites found him and sold him to the Ishmaelites. This view assumes that the Ishmaelites are distinct from the Midianites and that all of Joseph’s brothers, not just Reuben was absent when this occurred. This view assumes that the “they” of v. 28 refers to Midianites (e.g., HCSB, NAB, NRSV, REB). This seems to be supported by the fact that Reuben reported to his brothers that Joseph was gone (v. 30). Presumably, the brothers would not need to (1) have Reuben return to them if they were in fact present at the pit, and (2) it appears that Reuben made a solo trip to the pit (v. 29). Also, later in Genesis 40:15, Joseph states that he had been “stolen.”
3. Joseph’s brothers sold him to the Midianites/Ishmaelites. This view understands the designations Midianite and Ishmaelite to be overlapping, or more technically Ishmaelite is more generic and Ishmaelite more geographically specific (Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18–50, NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 423). So from a distance Joseph’s brothers could only tell that it was a, Ishmaelite caravan, but when they got closer they discovered that they were in fact Midianites. This shared identity seems to be supported by v. 36. If the Midianites had stolen Joseph and then sold him to the Ishmaelites, how do they again have him to sell him to the Egyptians? So this view assumes that the “they” of v. 28 refers to Joseph’s brothers, minus Reuben (e.g., NKJV, NET, NLT, NIV, TEV). This view finds support in (1) the likelihood that Midianites and Ishmaelites refer to the same group, and (2) Joseph’s statement in Genesis 45:4: “So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they [Joseph’s brothers’ came near. And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt’” (ESV).
In sum, if one decides that the Midianites and Ishmaelites refer to the same group, then view 3 seems practically certain. On the other hand, if the Midianites and Ishmaelites refer to different groups then there are good reasons to support view 2. But neither view changes the fact that Joseph was mistreated by his brothers.