Somebody Got There First
With this background, we now return to the story of "mechirat Yosef." Let's take a careful look at the next pasuk, noting its grammar:
"And a group of Midyanite traders passed by, and they pulled, and they lifted Yosef out of the pit, and they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelim for twenty pieces of silver, and brought Yosef to Egypt." (37:28)[Read this pasuk again carefully to note the difference between the Midyanim and Yishmaelim. Note also that in this entire pasuk, the brothers are never mentioned!]
Now, simple "pshat" is that the Midyanim and the Yishmaelim are two different groups of people! The Midyanim are local 'traders' ("so'cha'rim"), while the Yishmaelim are international 'movers' (transport caravans). This pasuk states explicitly that a group of Midyanite traders happened to pass by the pit (they most probably heard Yosef screaming), pulled him out, and (later) sold him to the Yishmaelim. In other words, the Midyanim themselves sold Yosef, and not his brothers, for they are never mentioned in this pasuk!
[This interpretation also explains why the Torah needs to tell us about both the Midyanim and Yishmaelim, for understanding that these are two different groups is a critical factor in the story.]
So where were the brothers during all of this? Most probably, still eating! Recall our explanation above, the brothers threw Yosef into a pit out in the "midbar" and returned to their grazing area to eat. It seems that they are so far away that they did not see or hear what transpired between Yosef and the Midyanim!
And where was Reuven? Again, as we explained above, he was eating with his brothers. However, as soon as he heard Yehuda's new plan to sell Yosef, he quickly excused himself and ran to the pit to get there first, before his brothers, just as the next pasuk explains:
"And Reuven returned ('va'yashov') to the pit, and behold, Yosef was no longer in the pit; then, he tore his clothes." (37:29)Reuven is not the last brother to find out that Yosef was sold, as commonly assumed. Rather, he is the first brother to recognize that Yosef is missing!
[Note: The commentaries that explain differently, i.e. that Reuven was not eating with his brothers, are troubled by the word "va'yashov" in 37:29; they need to explain where Reuven had gone. Rashi, for example, claims that it was Reuven's turn to learn with his father; see "Further Iyun" section.]
What can Reuven do? Shocked, he immediately returns to his brothers [probably by now eating dessert] with the terrible news:
"And he returned ('va'yashov') to his brothers and said, 'The boy is gone! And for myself, what am I going to do?'" (see 37:30)Note the word "va'yashov" [and Reuven returned] in both 37:29 and 37:30. This verb proves that the brothers could not have been eating by the pit, for if so, Reuven would not need to 'return' to them. However, based on our explanation above, "va'yashov" in both psukim makes perfect sense. Since Reuven and his brothers are eating away from the pit, Reuven must first return to the pit, and then he must return back to his brothers to tell them the news - hence twice the verb "va'yashov!"