Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 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 let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard. – Genesis 37:25-36 ESV
After having thrown Joseph into an empty cistern, his brothers sit down and share a meal together. They weren’t exactly distraught over their actions or showing any signs of remorse. The only one to speak up and interrupt their meal was Judah, who offered an alternative plan that entailed selling their brother to Ishmaelite traders, rather than leaving him to die in an empty cistern. They could be rid of their brother, make some money, and not have his blood on their hands. It was a win-win proposition. So all the brothers agreed, except for Reuben, who had earlier convinced them to throw Joseph into the pit so he could sneak in and rescue him later. For whatever reason, he was not there when this decision was made. But everyone else was fully complicit and on board with this latest plan.
So they sold their younger brother to Ishmaelite traders for 20 shekels of silver. The Ishmaelites were descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah. When Sarah realized that she was unable to provide a son to Abraham, she convinced him to impregnate her maidservant so that they might fulfill the promise of God. But once the child was born, Sarah changed her mind and demanded that Abraham get rid of the boy and his mother. And God told Abraham to do as Sarah commanded, saying, “ I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:13 ESV). So Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, providing them with water, but little else. When the water ran out, Hagar laid her son under a bush to die and then she cried out to God. Moses records, “…and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt” (Genesis 21:17-21 ESV).
This is an important detail in the story of Joseph, because of the connection between Ishmael and Egypt. His wife would be Egyptian and while his descendants would become Bedouins, they would develop an ongoing trading relationship with the Egyptians. So when the brothers of Joseph decided to sell him, they chose to do business with Ishmaelites, who just so happen to take Joseph to Egypt.
When Reuben returned and found Joseph no longer in the pit, he panicked. His brothers shared with him what they had done and took the news poorly. But yet another decision was made to concoct a story to tell to their father, Jacob. They took Joseph’s multicolored tunic, tore it and covered it in goat’s blood. And then they carried it the 70 miles back home and told their father that his favorite son had been killed by a wild beast. This news was devastating to Jacob. He was distraught and refused to be comforted. Perhaps he couldn’t stop thinking about Joseph’s dreams and wondering that had happened. Had the dreams not been of God? Had God’s plan somehow been thwarted by a random act of violence perpetrated by a wild animal? His favored son was dead and the dreams of Joseph had died along with him.
But there is something Jacob does not know. While his world had seemingly caved in on him, Moses reminds us that the story of Joseph is far from over. “Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:36 ESV). Joseph was not dead. Neither were his dreams. Because God was not done. The brothers of Joseph thought they had gotten rid of him once and for all. Any chance of them ever having to bow down to their younger brother had been completely eliminated. Or so they thought. Little did they know that they had actually facilitated the very thing they dreaded. They had helped set in motion a chain of events that would result in the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams and the realization of their worst nightmare. Years earlier, when Sarah decided to give her handmaiden to Abraham, she had no way of knowing the outcome. She had initially hoped that Hagar would give birth to a son who would become the father of a great nation, and that is exactly what had happened. But not according to Sarah’s original plan. God had another plan in mind. The descendants of Ishmael would play a role in the future of the people of Israel. They would facilitate the sale of Joseph into slavery in Egypt. None of this was blind luck or the result of fate. The sovereign, providential hand of God was at work behind the scenes, orchestrating His plan and preparing the descendants of Abraham to receive the fulfillment of the promises He had made to him years earlier. He was going to make of them a great nation. The question was, “How?” And the answer was, “According to His providential plan.