An Interpretation of Verse 19 of the Chapter of Joseph

This article is taken from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History 

  وَجَاءَتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُوا وَارِدَهُمْ فَأَدْلَى دَلْوَهُ قَالَ يَا بُشْرَى هَذَا غُلاَمٌ وَأَسَرُّوهُ بِضَاعَةً وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ (19)

And there came a caravan.1 They [the caravanners] sent someone to draw some water, and he let down his bucket; he said: “O good news! Here is a young boy”; and they concealed him as an article of merchandise, and Allah was aware of what they were doing (19).
In the verse above, the Qur’an takes us back to the place where Jacob’s sons left their brother hoping that some travelers would help him out of the well and take him to a far land: “One of them said: ‘Do not kill Joseph, but cast him down into the bottom of the well where some caravanners will pick him up, if you would do something [to him]’” (12.10). Verse 12.19 tells us that this was exactly what happened. A caravan of travelers arrived to the area and sent someone to get them water from the well in which Joseph was thrown. When that traveler sent the bucket down the well, he was surprised to see Joseph, something that he considered to be “good news.” His words “here is a young boy” show that Joseph was a little child then, as we have seen implied by the Qur’an earlier on.
While it is unclear how long Joseph stayed in the well, he was probably found shortly after he was cast there. As I explained in my interpretation of verse 12.10, Joseph’s brothers would have chosen a well that is on a travel route to ensure that their brother gets rescued and does not die at the bottom of the well.
The verb أسرّasarra” means “to make something a secret” or “to treat it as a secret,” hence I have translated the clause وَأَسَرُّوهُ بِضَاعَةً as “and they concealed him as an article of merchandise,” i.e. the travelers hid Joseph with their goods. Exegetes have disagreed about the identity of the plural pronoun implied in the verb وَأَسَرُّوهُand they concealed him.” Some agree with the old exegete Mujahid that it refers to the caravanners. The others accept Ibn ‘Abbas’ view that it refers to Joseph’s brothers.
The latter group of exegetes, who represent the majority, think that Joseph’s brothers threatened to kill him if he revealed the truth, and forced him to pretend that he was their slave in order to sell him to the caravan. The Qur’anic verse, however, contains absolutely nothing to support this view. In fact, this interpretation reflects the exegetes’ influence by the Biblical narrative which claims that Joseph’s brothers sold him to caravanners.
I think that this interpretation is completely wrong. I am inclined toward the apparent meaning of the verse that the implied plural pronoun in وَأَسَرُّوهُand they concealed him” refers to travelers in the caravan. It is clear that the conjunction وَand” links this verb to the plural verb أَرْسَلُواْ[they] sent” which precedes it in the same verse and which definitely refers to the caravanners, not to Joseph’s brothers. Additionally, the clause “and they concealed him as an article of merchandise” makes it clear that the reference is to the travelers not to Joseph’s brothers.2
Allah’s words “and Allah was aware of what they were doing” are a reminder that He was present and watching when the travelers took Joseph away from his father’s land, that He was aware of everything they were doing, and that they were not able to do anything that He would not allow to happen. This reminder brings to mind what Allah said in a previous verse when Joseph’s brothers put him in the well: “and We revealed to him: ‘You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware’.” In verse 12.19 Allah gives a reminder that He was present, witnessing everything that was taking place, and that none of those events would have taken place had He not wanted them to happen for subtle goals that subsequent events would unveil.


1 The word سَيَّارَةٌsayyara” is derived from سَيْرsayr” which means “movement,” “travel” …etc. Some exegetes have suggested that the word “sayyara” means pedestrian travelers. This opinion could be supported by the fact that the Qur’an uses the word عِيرُir” for traveling caravans of camels in three verses of the sura of Joseph (70, 82, and 94).

The word “sayyara” occurs in the sura of Joseph in verse 12.10 as a masculine noun and in verse 12.19 as both masculine and feminine. The reason for this is that this word has two slightly different meanings: the masculine “caravanners” and the feminine “caravan.” In verse 12.10, where “sayyara” is treated as masculine, it is translated as “caravanners.” In verse 12.19, in the sentence وَجَاءَتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُوا وَارِدَهُمْand there came a caravan. They sent someone to draw some water,” the same word is used as feminine and masculine, hence it is translated as “caravan” and “caravanners.” The latter is referred to with the pronoun “they.”
The Qur’an’s use of “sayyara” in two meanings is identical to its use of the word عِيرُir,” which is very close in meaning to “sayyara,” as pointed out above. In the following two verses, the word “ir” has the feminine meaning of “caravan” of camels:

وَاسْأَلْ الْقَرْيَةَ الَّتِي كُنَّا فِيهَا وَالْعِيرَ الَّتِي أَقْبَلْنَا فِيهَا (يوسف: 82)

And ask in the town in which we were and the caravan with which we came (from 12.84).

وَلَمَّا فَصَلَتْ الْعِيرُ (يوسف: 94)

And when the caravan had departed (from 12.94).

Then there is the verse أَيَّتُهَا الْعِيرُ إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَO caravanners! You are certainly thieves” (from 12.70). The word عِيرُir” is first used as meaning the feminine “caravan,” as obvious from the attached, feminine pronoun in أَيَّتُهَاO you!“. It is then used to mean “caravanners” in إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَyou are certainly thieves.”

Thus, the two sentences وَجَاءَتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُوا وَارِدَهُمْand there came a caravan and they sent their water drawer” and أَيَّتُهَا الْعِيرُ إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَO caravanners! You are certainly thieves” have exactly the same structure as far as the use of the two words سَيَّارَةٌsayyara” and عِيرُir” is concerned.

2 It is possible that this verse refers to one particular group of the caravanners, not all of them, who sent one of them to get water for them. In other words, the caravan consisted of more than one group of travelers. It was common for different groups of travelers with the same route to travel as one caravan for a number of reasons, such as safety. Perhaps, those travelers hid Joseph with their goods so that no other travelers would claim to have a share in him. It is also possible that the group who found Joseph would have to pay extra fees for any additional traveler; this explains why they hid him as “an article of merchandise.” Another possible reason for the travelers hiding Joseph is so that his family would not find him, if they were looking for him, so they can sell him later on as an article of merchandise. The reason could also be none of these, as it is not possible to verify any of these hypotheses.

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *