1. The original post
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Israel, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes... (Amos 2:6)
It is commonly assumed that the Vayeshev haftarah (previously discussed here) is chosen because of this verse, which is taken to refer to the sale of Yosef.
Just today I thought of a compelling reason why Yosef’s sale CANNOT be what Amos had in mind when he said this prophecy. That does not mean the haftarah is a bad choice: Yosef WAS a righteous person (at least after the sale, from what we see), who WAS sold for silver, and it WAS a transgression, and it is fitting to recall this after reading the story of what happened to Yosef. But at the same time, if we want to understand Amos, we should be aware that this is not what Amos had in mind.
To see why, let us look at a selection of the verses
in Amos preceding the haftarah:
"For thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Damascus, yea, for four, I will not reverse it...
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Gaza, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Tyre, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Edom, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of the children of Ammon, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Moab, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Judah, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…"
This is a list of lots of different ancient Middle Eastern nations. After each one, it lists a few "war crimes" or other various sins that the nations are known to have committed, and then describes the punishment God will visit upon them as a result.
The last two nations in this list are Judah and Israel. Amos lived in the period of the divided kingdom, when "Judah" consisted of the tribes of Judah, Binyamin, Shimon, and perhaps part of Dan.
Meanwhile "Israel" consisted of the remaining tribes in the north. This meant the tribes of Gad and Reuven near the Dead Sea; the tribes of Zevulun, Yissachar, Naftali, Dan, and Asher in the Galilee; and Efraim and Menashe taking up the whole coastal plain, Shomron, and almost all of Transjordan. The Galilee tribes generally did an incomplete job of conquering the Canaanites, while Gad and Reuven were small and peripheral. Efraim and Menashe took up about half the area of the whole kingdom – moreover, the more central, secure, and powerful half of the kingdom. It is no surprise that the entire northern kingdom is sometimes referred to poetically as "Efraim" (as in "Haben yakir li efraim"), or as "Yosef" (Yechezkel 37) – Yosef of course being the father of both Efraim and Menasheh.
When the prophet Amos, in our haftarah, criticized the nation of "Israel" for selling the righteous, we may assume he was foremost referring to Efraim and Menasheh, who dominated the kingdom of Israel. But it would be quite strange to blame the sale of Yosef on the tribes of Efraim and Menasheh, who were themselves descendants of Yosef. That would mean blaming the victim (or his descendants) rather than the perpetrators, which I think is unreasonable, so Amos must be talking about a crime or crimes involving someone else.
2. An addition, made two years later (November 2013)
As you might expect, I end up discussing this idea at the same time each year. This time it was with my Friday night host - AS. But afterwards I felt something was incomplete. The verse says that Israelites "sell the righteous for silver". Why specify that they sell the righteous (of whom Yosef HaTzadik would be a great example)? Isn't it wrong to sell any human being, righteous or not?
The answer is no. Selling an evil person into (temporary) slavery was pretty common and entirely justified - if they were a thief (Shemot 22:2). The verse uses the word "tzadik" to indicate that they also sold innocent people into slavery, which is a very serious crime (Shemot 21:16). The word "tzadik" here means "innocent" (as in Devarim 25:1) - not "righteous" in the sense of necessarily being morally near-perfect.
Thanks to AS for helping clarify the linguistic aspects of this.