There is a story about a man who was the sole survivor of a ship which sank at sea. He was able to make a small raft of some of the ship’s cargo and eventually drift to a desert island. There he constructed a make‑shift shelter and lived on what little food he had been able to salvage from the wreckage. Time after time he had attempted unsuccessfully to attract the attention of a passing ship. Finally, he saw a ship approaching more closely and hurriedly set a signal fire ablaze. To his dismay, the ship passed by and was quickly fading from sight. Accidentally, sparks from the signal fire set the thatched roof of his shelter in flames, and the man watched hopelessly and helplessly as all of his provision burned to ashes.
All was lost, he reasoned, and life could not last much longer. Suddenly he noticed that the ship which had passed him by was turning around and approaching the island more closely than before. To his great relief, he was seen by the crew and rescued. Once on board, the grateful survivor went to the captain of the ship to express his thanks. “But what caused you to turn around after you had already passed by me?” he queried. “Why, we saw the signal fire you made by setting your shelter on fire,” the captain responded.
The very thing which seemed to seal the doom of this marooned man was the means of his delivery. What seemed to spell disaster for him became an instrument of his salvation. That is precisely the case with Joseph and Jacob in Genesis 37. A tragic and cruel event occurred which, to Jacob, brought his world to an end. Life was hardly worth living, he reasoned, because he had lost the one thing which meant the most to him. But in the end, the loss of Joseph for a period of years was the means God employed to save the nation from starvation and, worse yet, from a loss of purity by being absorbed into the culture and religion of the Canaanites.
The story of Joseph is one of the great dramas of the Bible. There is a tendency to regard the remaining chapters of Genesis as the “story of Joseph,” but this is not technically accurate. Moses referred to chapter 36 as the “records of the generations of Esau” (36:1,9). In Genesis 37:2 Moses entitled this section “the records of the generations of Jacob.” We must not forget that Jacob will not pass off the scene until Genesis 49, where we find the account of his death.
This last section, then, is an account of God’s working in the life of Jacob and of his sons through the instrumentality of Joseph. Joseph is certainly the central figure in these chapters, but he is not the only figure. God is forming a nation out of all the sons of Jacob. Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt and his ultimate elevation to the post of prime minister under Pharaoh makes possible the preservation of Jacob and his sons, as well as teaching all of them some valuable spiritual lessons.
The story of Joseph begins before Genesis 37. The twelve sons of Jacob were the offspring of four mothers. The rivalry between Jacob’s two wives and two concubines caused much dissention within the family. Joseph, along with his younger brother Benjamin, were the only children of Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife.
Eight of Joseph’s siblings were the sons of Jacob’s unloved wife, Leah, and her handmaid, Zilpah. It was all too apparent to these older brothers that Jacob loved Joseph — the “son of his old age” — more than all of them combined (37:3, 4), and for this reason they hated Joseph.
Genesis 37:1-4 (NIV) 1 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him.
4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
There were other contributing factors, which fueled the hatred of these older brothers for Joseph. Jacob (Israel) unwisely used this 17-year-old boy to spy on his other sons and had Joseph report to him privately.
Genesis 37:13-14 (NIV)
13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.” “Very well,” he replied.
14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron. When Joseph arrived at Shechem,
For some reason, Joseph was kept at home when his brothers took their father’s flock to graze near Shechem. Israel became somewhat uneasy about how things were going in Shechem, and his fears were not ill-founded. This is where Jacob had purchased some land (33:19). It is also the place where Jacob’s two sons, Simeon and Levi, killed Shechem (who had raped their sister, Dinah) and the men of the city, taking the women, children, and cattle of Shechem as spoil (Genesis 34). It could certainly be a dangerous place for these sons of Jacob to remain, and so Israel sent Joseph to Shechem to check on his brothers.
As it turns out, Joseph’s brothers had moved on to Dothan, nearly 20 miles further to the north and thus that much more distant from Jacob’s watchful eye. Providentially, a man saw Joseph wandering about in the fields around Shechem. He just happened to overhear Joseph’s brothers saying that they were moving on to Dothan, so Joseph set out to find them. When his brothers looked up and saw someone approaching from a distance, there was no question who it was. That distinctive multi-colored tunic, with sleeves, gave Joseph away. They had plenty of time to agree among themselves that this was their golden opportunity to be rid of him. At least some of the brothers wanted to kill Joseph and end it then and there.
Reuben did not agree with this plan. He wanted to spare Joseph’s life, but it would seem that his motives were self-serving. He, after all, was the eldest of Israel’s sons, and he would be held responsible for not looking after Joseph. Because of this, he sought to spare Joseph’s life. He convinced his brothers to throw Joseph into a nearby cistern, thinking that he would return and free the lad later on. Providentially, the cistern was dry so that Joseph did not drown.
Reuben was gone – perhaps taking his turn watching the flock – when his brothers sat down to eat, somewhere near the cistern, probably well within hearing distance, so that as they ate they could hear his cries for help. Dothan was on the trading route to Egypt, and it “just so happened” that as they were eating, they looked up to see a caravan of Ishmaelites drawing near. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh, a detail that will be taken up later.
It was at this point Judah proposed a more profitable solution to their problem. Rather than killing Joseph, why not sell him as a slave? They would be rid of him, yet they would not be guilty of shedding his blood. And, to make this an even more tempting opportunity, they could make a little money for themselves at the same time.
This seemed to accomplish all of their objectives better than killing Joseph. Since Reuben was not there to object, Judah’s suggestion was adopted. They pulled Joseph out of the cistern and handed him over to the Ishmaelites, who paid them twenty pieces of silver (37:28).
Sometime later, Reuben returned to the cistern to release Joseph, only to find that he was gone. Reuben reported this to his brothers, and we are not told that they confessed what they had done. They all tore up Joseph’s tunic and dipped it in goat’s blood, to make it look as though Joseph had been killed and eaten by a wild animal.
Coldly, the brothers thrust the blood-drenched tunic into their father’s hands, asking him if it was Joseph’s garment. They let their father draw his own false conclusion – that Joseph had been killed and devoured by a wild animal. I wonder if there was a certain satisfaction for these sons of Israel when they saw their father mourning the loss of his favorite son. They attempted to console him, but he was unwilling to be comforted.
One of the great disservices we do to this text is to fail to grasp the fundamental cause of the animosity of Joseph’s brothers toward him. Generally we tend to think of Joseph as a small lad 8‑10 years of age who is a tattletale on his big brothers. That is hardly a crime which deserves death, and it does not fit the details of the account. Joseph is 17 years old (37:2).
It is my contention that Joseph was rejected by his brothers because of the authority he exercised over them, even though he was their younger brother. Seventeen was not necessarily young for such authority, but it was younger than his older brothers, and this was indeed a bitter pill for them to swallow. Several convincing lines of evidence converge to document this assertion:
(1) Grammatically, Joseph’s authority is not only permissible, but it is preferable. George Bush, author of the classic commentary on the book of Genesis, strongly holds to the most literal and normal rendering of verse 2, of which he writes,
… literally was tending, or acting the shepherd over, his brethren in the flock. However uncouth to our ears the phraseology, this is undoubtedly the exact rendering and the import of the words we take to be that Joseph was charged with the superintendence of his brethren, particularly the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.
(2) After the sin of Reuben, Joseph was given the rights of the firstborn:
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph), 2 and though Judah was the strongest of his brothers and a ruler came from him, the rights of the firstborn belonged to Joseph)– … (1 Chronicles 5:1-2 (NIV)
While it is not until chapter 49 that this transfer is formally stated by Jacob, the sin which precipitated it has already been recorded in Genesis 35:22. It is not unlikely that Jacob expressed his intentions much sooner than this to his sons and even began to give Joseph preeminence over his brothers by this time.
(3) Joseph’s coat was a symbol of the authority he was granted over his brothers. Jacob’s preference for Joseph was no secret (37:2,3). The coat his father gave him was regarded as evidence of Jacob’s greater love for Joseph above his other sons. Furthermore, this coat indicated more than preference; it symbolized preeminence and superiority of rank.
In the context of our passage I believe that Joseph’s coat was considered to be symbolic of his authority. Joseph’s brothers hated this garment and what it symbolized, for their first act of violence was to strip his coat from him (37:23).
(4) The greatest antagonism toward Joseph was from the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (verse 2), while the two brothers who attempted to release him (Reuben and Judah) were sons of Leah (37:21,26). In verse 2 Joseph was said to have pastured the flocks of Jacob “along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah.” Reuben, and later Judah, sons of Leah, attempted to prevent or at least to modify the plan of the others to kill Joseph. There is little doubt that both Bilhah and Zilpah would be on a socially lower plane than Leah and Rachel since the former were mere concubines, while the latter were full‑fledged wives. This social stratification would naturally be reflected in the sons of these women, and so it is not difficult to believe that Jacob would have put Joseph in charge of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.
(5) Joseph’s report to his father would be a logical and necessary part of his function and authority as a supervisor. Joseph at 17 was no tattletale. This can hardly be the case. Surely this kind of sibling rivalry would be expected but undeserving of such harsh counter‑measures by Joseph’s brothers. If Joseph had been placed in a position of authority (a “white collar” job) by his father, then what could be more logical than a report to Jacob on the performance, efficiency, and reliability of those under him?
When Jacob asked Joseph to go to Shechem to check up on his sons and on his flocks (verses 12‑14), he was not sending Joseph around the corner to spy upon and then tattle on his brothers. It was 50 miles or more to Shechem and about 70 miles to Dothan! Since Shechem had been the scene of the slaughter of the men of that city years before (34:25ff.), Jacob would not have taken such an assignment lightly. It was the kind of responsibility that he would give only to one who had proven his capabilities as a leader. A sensitive and potentially dangerous mission would not be given to a son without reliability and authority.
(6) The intensity of Joseph’s brothers’ reaction to his dreams indicates that there must have been some substance to their fears of Joseph assuming such great power and prominence. Joseph’s brothers were deeply distressed by his two dreams (verses 8, 11). And when the plot to kill him is first conceived, the dreams are a prominent part of their hostility and motivation:
And they said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:19‑20).
Idle or fanciful dreams provide an occasion only for laughter. Under most circumstances the worst that might be considered would be that Joseph needed to be put into a padded cell for his own protection. But if there were already evidence of Joseph’s authority, leadership, and capabilities, fear of even greater status and power would be acted upon with grim determination and zeal.
An Evil Plot, An Empty Pit, and an Egyptian Purchase (37:12‑36)
Animosity toward Joseph had continued to build up until the situation was explosive. Now it was only a matter of time and opportunity. That opportunity finally arrived when Jacob sent Joseph to Shechem.
Jacob’s concern for the welfare of his family and his flocks was not unfounded. Shechem was the city where Dinah had been taken by force and where Jacob’s sons, especially Simeon and Levi (34:30), had slaughtered all of the men. Since Jacob had purchased land there (33:19), it would not be unusual for him to make use of it by sending his flocks there to feed on its rich pastureland under the care of his sons. But there was always the danger of some angry relative of one of those Shechemites who were killed or captured seeking vengeance. This seems to be what Joseph was sent to look into. Only a man with proven skill and wisdom would ever be sent to handle a task as sensitive and volatile as this.
Joseph wandered about the fields of Shechem in search of his brothers. It just so happened that a man found him who had further happened to see Joseph’s brothers and overhear them saying they were going on to Dothan. Not willing to give up his search and return to his father without completing his task, Joseph went on to Dothan.
While at a considerable distance Joseph was recognized by his brothers. They immediately conspired in a violent and daring plot which would rid them once and for all of their brother. (Genesis 37:18‑24).
It was probably Joseph’s coat that made it possible to identify him so quickly from such a distance. It may also have been that coat which triggered the pent‑up feelings of jealousy and hostility toward the beloved son of their father. They saw the great distance from their father and the remoteness of this spot as the ideal opportunity to do away with the threat which Joseph posed. The opportunity for a perfect alibi was also at hand, for wild animals were a threat to life and limb in the open field. They need not even produce a body if they blame Joseph’s absence on his being devoured by a wild beast. Only a bloody robe need be presented to Jacob. His imagination would take care of the rest.
Reuben had good reason to hate his brother, for it was Joseph who would obtain the birthright that could have belonged to him. But it seems that Reuben feared facing his father more than he hated Joseph. He was still the oldest of the family. Whether or not he had the rights of the first‑born, he was still saddled with the responsibilities. This may be the explanation for Reuben’s suggestion and his intention to spare the life of Joseph.
Reuben’s actions were hardly heroic. I must admit, however, that I would not have wanted to stand up against these fellows either. They were mean, really mean. These men would make the “nickel defense” of the Dallas Cowboys look like a Boy Scout troop. The slaughter of the Shechemites was only one evidence of their brutal natures. Reuben therefore suggests that they kill Joseph without the shedding of blood. Throw the boy in a cistern and let nature do him in. The idea had some definite advantages, and so the plan was agreed to.
When Joseph arrived, his reception was far from friendly. They tore off his coat, the symbol of all that they rejected, and threw the defenseless young man into a pit. It is significant that this pit was empty, for normally it would have contained water. If this had been the case, Joseph would have drowned before the Ishmaelite caravan had arrived. Even the empty pit was a part of God’s providential care of Joseph and his brothers.
The callousness and cruelty of Joseph’s brothers is almost unbelievable (Genesis 37:25‑32).
Having thrown Joseph into the pit, they sat down to eat a meal. There is no loss of appetite, no sense of guilt or remorse. And there is no pity, for they eat their meal probably well within hearing of the cries that were continuing to come from the bottom of the pit. I can almost hear one of the brothers raise his voice over the petitions of Joseph and say to one of the others, “Want to trade a mutton sandwich for a cheese?” Only later would these cries haunt the sons of Jacob:
Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21).
While they were eating, a caravan of Ishmaelites approached them on their way to Egypt from Gilead (verse 25). This gave Judah an idea which would prevent the shedding of Joseph’s blood altogether. Rather than leaving Joseph to die of starvation and exposure, why not sell him into slavery to these traders? This would dispose of their problem, avoid the messy matter of murder, and get rid of any evidence of wrongdoing. Perhaps most appealing, it would provide them with a profit.
I do not see any virtue in Judah’s proposal to his brothers. While Reuben sought to return Joseph to his father, Judah is not said to have any such intention. He did not question the ethics or desirability of Joseph’s murder, only the benefits. Profit was the one word which best summarizes Judah’s motivation. While slavery may seem to be a more humane fate than death, some who lived in such a state of slavery might challenge this fact. Selling a brother as a slave was hardly more commendable than putting him to death. In the end, Joseph was sold to the Midianite traders for twenty shekels of silver, the price which Moses later fixed for a young slave boy (Leviticus 27:5).
Reuben had been gone during the time his brothers sold Joseph to the traders. Very likely this was to distract their attention from Joseph in the hope of their leaving him quickly, so that he could return to rescue Joseph. What a shock it must have been for him to return to the dry cistern and find Joseph gone. Reuben, as the oldest son, is the one who must face his father, and that to him is not a very pleasant thought.
Not only were Joseph’s brothers completely aloof to his suffering, but also they almost seemed to delight in the suffering that their report would bring to Jacob. There is no gentle approach, no careful preparation for the tragic news, only the crude act of sending the bloody coat to him and letting him draw the desired conclusion. It was a heartless deed, but one that accurately depicted their spiritual condition at the time.
Like most of us, Jacob jumped to a conclusion, assuming the very worst had happened (Genesis 37:33‑35).
It was, of course, his son’s tunic, for there was none other like it. And it was covered with blood. Such a blood‑stained garment without a body led Jacob to the conclusion his sons desired: Joseph must have been attacked and devoured by a wild animal. Perhaps the brothers of Joseph prided themselves in the fact that they never said Joseph was dead. They simply “deceived” their father into believing this. Isn’t it ironic that this deception involved the killing of a goat, just as the deception of Isaac had (cf. 27:9,16‑17,19).
Jacob seemed to have handled the death of Deborah (35:8) and Rachel (35:16-19) with a fair degree of composure, but the death of Joseph simply overcame him. There was no way that his children could comfort him. How hypocritical these efforts must have been anyway. Life for Jacob seemed hardly worth living any longer. The only thing Jacob could look forward to was the grave. For many years Jacob would live with the lie that his son was dead.
In one sense believing this was a gracious thing. Can you imagine the mental torment it would have been for Jacob to know what was actually happening to his son? We know something of the agony of the relatives and friends of these Iranian captives (part of our country’s history), but Jacob would have had to endure such suffering and anguish for over twenty years.
How his soul would have been troubled by the knowledge of Potiphar’s wife pursuing Joseph day after day (cf. 39:10). What heartache would have been Jacob’s had he known of Joseph’s imprisonment (cf. 39:19ff.). Ignorance, in this case, was not bliss, but it was better than a blow-by‑blow account of Joseph’s status.
While Jacob was crying, “Woe is me,” God was working all things together for the good of Jacob, Joseph, and his wayward brothers: “Meanwhile, the Midionites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard” (Genesis 37:36).
Joseph, in fact, was not dead, nor was he outside of the providential care of God. By no accident Joseph ended up in the home of one of the most responsible officers of Pharaoh’s administration. While years would pass by before God’s purposes would become known, the process was under way.
Contextually and historically the sale of Joseph into slavery explains how Joseph (and ultimately the entire nation of Israel) ended up in Egypt, from whence the exodus commenced. More importantly, this chapter tells us a good part of the reason why it was necessary for the 400 years of bondage to occur. The fact that this bondage would take place was no mystery, for God had revealed it to Abraham: And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions” (Genesis 15:13‑14).
Spiritually, the state of the sons of Israel was at an all‑time low. Nowhere have we yet seen any kind of relationship with God such as that of their forefathers. Internally, there was no unity among these brothers. They were simply the sons of four different mothers perpetuating the strife which existed between them (cf. 29:21‑30:24). There was no brotherly love, only the seeking of self‑interest. There is no better way to stimulate unity than through persecution. A brotherly quarrel is quickly forgotten and family unity is intensified when outside opposition is introduced. Four hundred years spent among Egyptians, who despised Hebrews (46:34), developed and strengthened the cohesiveness of these tribes of Israel.
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is easily seen in this chapter. In Romans it is summarized by these words:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
In the book of Ephesians Paul has written: … also we have obtained on inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, … (Ephesians 1:11).
God had purposed and promised to bring about the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through these sons (35:10‑12). Neither Jacob nor Joseph nor Jacob’s other sons nor even Pharaoh himself could prevent or even delay the sovereign purposes of the God of Israel.
In its simplest terms, the providential rule of God is the working out of His plan through sinful and willful men, even when they are actively striving to resist Him and His purposes. All the while, God remains sovereign and in full control. He assumes none of the guilt or responsibility for man’s sins; man must bear the full weight of responsibility for his actions.
The practical applications of the principles found in this passage are many. First, there is a lesson in the matter of divine guidance. Since we have already dealt with the subject of God’s providence, we shall not do any more than to relate this doctrine to the matter of guidance.
God’s revealed will is given to us in His Word. In this sense it was surely not God’s revealed will that brothers should sell one of their own into slavery. Thus, the actions of Joseph’s brothers were sin. God never guides by circumstances alone, but by the Scriptures, His revealed Word. They did find themselves at a secluded spot, far from the scrutiny of their father. There was a pit near at hand, but it was not the revealed will of God that Joseph be cast into it. There was a band of traders conveniently passing by, but selling Joseph into slavery was wrong.
God’s eternal purpose, as stated to Abraham years before (Genesis 15:13‑15), was a period of bondage. Joseph’s brothers had no intention of carrying out God’s purpose—they sought only to get rid of Joseph. The plan of God was for the Israelites to sojourn in Egypt but this was not known to the sons of Jacob at this time. (In fact, God had carefully avoided telling Abram where this sojourn was to be or how it would come about.) Seldom is guidance a matter of not knowing the general principles and precepts that should govern our conduct. Most often we “miss” the will of God by deliberately choosing to disobey what we know to be right. But even when we deliberately step out of the revealed will of God, His purposes will continue through His providential guidance. In this sense, we cannot miss the will of God. And, be assured, God will make us aware of our sin and bring us back to the place of willful obedience, though through the hard knocks of experience.
The life of Joseph is a wonderful encouragement to parents, who will someday have to turn loose of their children, allowing them to move out from under their control and protection. It may be in the form of sending a child off to a college campus, removed from the supervision of the parents. It may be by a marriage or a job change. All of us as parents will have to face the time when we cannot control the environment in which our children will live. (Perhaps that is more true, even now, than we would like to admit.)
Joseph was abruptly torn from his father and friends and family. He was removed from any godly influences and encouragement. He was placed among a people who did not believe in his God or his convictions. In Egypt he was subject to the strongest temptations. And yet, apart from any Christian friends or fellowship, Joseph not only survived, but he was strengthened. His father could not save Joseph from this, but Joseph would eventually save his father and brothers from starvation.
God knows how to care for His people. No one is on more dangerous ground than the one who is complacent and smugly secure. No one is safer, regardless of their environment, than he or she who is looking only to God for protection and provision for the need of the moment. When our children have left the security of our nest, they will be secure in the hands of the God who created them and cares for them.