When a lad of seventeen, Joseph was sent by his father to inquire after his brothers, who were pasturing the flocks in Shechem. He found them at Dothan, and when his brothers saw him approaching they planned to kill him. Reuben, however, took his part, and, in order to remove him from the fury of the others, advised them to throw Joseph into a pit (Gen. xxxvii. 13-24). He intended to rescue Joseph and return him to Jacob later.
Detailed accounts are given of the sale of Joseph, which immediately followed; according to one, the brothers, while eating at some distance from the pit, sighted a caravan of Ishmaelites, to whom they decided to sell Joseph. In the meantime some Midianite merchants passing the pit drew Joseph out and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt (Gen. xxxvii. 25 - 28 ). The last statement is repeated in Gen. xxxix. 1, while in Gen. xxxvii. 36 it is said that the Midianites (Hebr. "Medanites") sold him to Potiphar in Egypt. Midianites and Ishmaelites are interchangeable terms.
The evidence of Judges 8:24 is especially telling. The condition of being an Ishmaelites is associated with the wearing of a golden earring. This suggests that "Ishmaelites" was not a racial connotation, but a material one. It may be suggested that because Ishmael was a wanderer in the desert, the name was attached to those who were vagrant wanderers with no home base, as might attach themselves to trade caravans for protection.