Questions and Answers: Did the Midianites or the Ishmaelites Sell Joseph to Potiphar?
Did the Midianites or the Ishmaelites sell Joseph to Potiphar (Genesis 37:36; 39:1)?
After a thorough study of the Scriptures, one easily can see that the names “Ishmaelites” and “Midianites” are used interchangeably. The book of Judges records that after Gideon and his 300 mighty men defeated their enemy,
The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian....” Then Gideon said to them, “I would like to make a request of you, that each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder.” For they [those whom Gideon and his men had just conquered—EL] had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites. ...Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian (Judges 8:22,24,26, emp. added).
After Gideon had delivered the Israelites from the hand of Midian, he requested the golden earrings that the Israelites had plundered. Plundered from whom? From those whom Gideon and the Israelites had just conquered. And who were they? Like Moses, in his inspired historical narrative concerning Joseph, the inspired writer of Judges referred to the people of Midian as Ishmaelites.
The Midianites and Ishmaelites mentioned in Genesis chapters 37 and 39 were the same group of traders. This is not a contradiction. In ancient times, these tribes often were confounded, probably for two reasons: (1) both groups were descendants of Abraham (Genesis 16:15; 25:2); and (2) and both were similar in their mode of life and in their constant change of abode. Strangers hardly could distinguish them, especially when they appeared not as tribes, but as Arabian merchants, such as they are described in Genesis 37 and 39 (Keil and Delitzsch, 1996).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1996), Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft), new updated edition.