The narrative now turns to Jacob’s sons as the main characters. Chapter 37 begins the story of Joseph that will take much of the rest of the book. Joseph is the oldest son of Jacob’s beloved – and now dead – wife, Rachel. Benjamin – the younger son of Rachel – is presumably still very young. Thus Joseph – at the age of seventeen – is Jacob’s favorite, a fact that Jacob doesn’t try to hide. Joseph’s status as the apple of his father’s eye doesn’t endear him to his brothers and their resentment proves to be his downfall. Chapter 37 shows how pettiness, bitterness, lack of self-awareness, and resentment can change the destiny of an entire nation and lead to perhaps the second most important event in world history. A sovereign God uses the selfish sinfulness of men to affect the next four centuries and lay the groundwork for His most glorious act.
Verse 2 marks a change in the narrative. These are the records of the generations of Jacob is the author’s way of beginning a new section. He’s showing that Jacob’s story is no longer at the forefront and it’s now time to move to another main character.
Joseph is seventeen as the story begins. He is his father’s favorite as the son of Rachel (the son of his old age is a difficult comment to understand – see earlier discussion of Jacob’s age and the birth years of the sons for more explanation [notes to 29:1-30]). Jacob doesn’t hide his feelings about Joseph, and actually has a coat made for him to mark him as special. It’s not entirely clear if the coat is varicolored or ornamented or simply full-length (or an amazing technicolor dream coat). Whatever it is, it’s special and likely expensive and something no other son receives.
Around this same time, Joseph goes into the field with his brothers while they’re pasturing the flock. The text doesn’t say what happens, but Joseph brings back a bad report about them to Jacob. This obviously endears him to his brothers. On top of being the favorite son who gets special treatment, he’s also a nark. So between the coat and the snitching and the fact that their father clearly loves him more than the rest of them, the brothers grow to hate him. They hate him to the point that they can’t hide it when they’re around him. They get to where they can’t speak a kind word to him. [Notice that the text says they hate him three different times. Vs 4 – they hated him. Vs 5 – they hated him even more. Vs 8 – they hated him even more. Their feelings are intense, irrational and seemingly unanimous.]
Presumably still during his seventeenth year, Joseph has a dream that seems to imply that he will rule over his brothers (the dream is of him and his brothers binding sheaves in the field and their sheaves bow down to his sheaf). Showing that he perhaps doesn’t read his brothers very well, he tells them about it. The dream makes them hate him even more and they respond in exasperation, “Are you actually going to reign over us?”
Joseph has another dream that seems to signal even more strongly that he will rule over his entire family (this time the dream figuratively shows not just his brothers but his parents also bowing down to him). He again tells his brothers. At this point we have to wonder if he does this intentionally to boast or get under their skin. It seems hard to believe that he innocently tells them after their reaction to the first dream and after surely understanding that they can’t even speak to him without showing their hatred. Even at his young age, it doesn’t make sense that he tells them about the dream without anticipating their disgust. Perhaps he’s reached a point where he’s written them off and wants to antagonize them. Maybe in his youthful immaturity he wants to lord over them that God has him marked for greatness and that he’ll apparently rule over them.
Interestingly, even Jacob responds negatively to Joseph’s second dream. If Joseph doesn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut, Jacob does. He rebukes Joseph and says to him, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” Jacob reacts to the dream with disdain (“What is this dream…?”). He then makes sure Joseph realizes the arrogance implicit in its message. “You actually expect all of us – including your mother and me – to someday bow down before you?” He realizes how this sounds and is annoyed with Joseph that he’s telling about it.
Notice that Jacob says, “…I and your mother.” Assuming this story happens after Rachel’s death in Chapter 35, it’s difficult to understand what he means. Either this story is not chronologically after the events of Chapter 35, or he simply means one of the other women – probably Leah – is the matriarch of the family and thus representative of Joseph’s mother.
For all his frustration with Joseph, Jacob doesn’t totally write off the dream. He doesn’t like how Joseph has handled things, but he’s not going to forget this. A dream can be a sign from God, so Jacob keeps the event in mind and perhaps stores it away to consider later.
Sometime after the dreams, the sons of Jacob take their father’s flock to look for pastureland. It could be that there is a drought in the land as they apparently have to hunt for good ground. Interestingly, they go to Shechem. The text reports this without comment, but the locale is obviously loaded with meaning for the brothers. This is where they wiped out an entire city to avenge their sister’s disgrace (34:1-31). That they are comfortable going back apparently means enough time has passed that there’s no danger. Or perhaps the residents of that area remember the terror they felt when Jacob and his family passed through (35:5), so it’s now safe.
After the men have been gone for a time, Jacob decides to send Joseph to check on them. He wants a report about the sons and the flock. This again could point to a drought, as he wants to see how the flock is faring. That he decides to send Joseph and that Joseph willingly goes may mean that both underestimate the brothers’ hatred of Joseph. They both likely realize his brothers don’t like him, but neither apparently understands the depths of the resentment.
Joseph goes to Shechem but finds his brothers have moved on (perhaps after exhausting the good pasture – remember that Jacob’s flocks are likely enormous). While in Shechem he runs into a man who tells him his brothers have moved on to Dothan. Notice God’s hand here. Joseph wanders in a field and ‘just happens’ to run into a man who ‘just happened’ to overhear the brothers say where they were going. Some commentators think this is perhaps an angel. Regardless of who he is, he’s clearly where he is because God wants him there. There are no coincidences. God wants Joseph to find his brothers and wants him to find them in Dothan (which also means He superintended the brothers going there in the first place).
In Dothan, the brothers see Joseph coming from a distance. It could be that they recognize him because of the coat (ironic that perhaps Jacob’s gift plays a role in Joseph’s demise). When they see him, their true feelings come out. They plot together to kill him (and it’s not hard to imagine that they feed off each other to plan something none of them likely would venture on his own). They decide to kill him and throw him in a pit, then tell Jacob a wild beast killed him. This is where we see just how embedded their hatred is. They don’t just dislike him – they want him dead. And they’re willing to kill him themselves. They also directly reference his dreams (“Here comes this dreamer!”, “Then let us see what will become of his dreams!”), showing once again the lack of wisdom on Joseph’s part in relating them.
Reuben – who apparently wasn’t in on the plan – hears what they want to do and intercedes. He tells them they don’t want to kill him. He suggests they simply throw him in a pit and leave him there presumably to die. That way they don’t directly shed blood. What he doesn’t tell them is that he plans to rescue Joseph later and return him to Jacob. Reuben shows he’s able to rise above his resentment and that his feelings haven’t made him as irrational as the rest. [And it’s interesting to consider if his earlier encounter with Bilhah – 35:22 – plays a role in him wanting to work himself again into his father’s good graces.]
The group listens to Reuben. When Joseph gets to them, they strip off his coat and throw him in a pit. Later we’ll find out that Joseph pleads with them (42:21), but his pleas go unanswered as they throw him in (that the text notes the pit has no water is another sign that a drought plays a role in this story) and leave him to die.
They show their complete disregard for Joseph’s well-being by going to eat a meal after getting rid of him. While they eat, they see a caravan of Ishmaelites coming toward them (a caravan that ‘just happens’ to come by right after they dispose of Joseph). The Ishmaelites – also referred to as Midianites – are traders carrying aromatic gum and balm and myrrh to Egypt.
When Judah sees them he has an idea. He tells his brothers that they shouldn’t kill their brother. They should instead sell Joseph to the traders. That way they get rid of Joseph and profit from it. It’s a win-win-win. Joseph is gone and they make some money and they don’t kill their own flesh and blood.
What’s interesting here is that we know Jacob is extremely wealthy. It would seem that the brothers share in that wealth – or at least benefit from it. That means it’s somewhat odd that Judah’s plan is so attractive to them. Perhaps his comment about profiting is not meant to attract them with riches as much as show that there’s a better way than killing Joseph. Why kill him when they can make a little money and not have to actually murder someone? It’s also notable that some time has passed since they first saw Joseph coming. Perhaps the thought of killing him isn’t quite as attractive now that the emotions have settled down.
The group agrees to Judah’s plan. When the traders get close, they bring Joseph out of the pit and sell him to them. This scene is brutal to imagine. A teenage boy gets sold like property to foreign traders by his brothers. The boy likely cries out to them for mercy and begs them not to do it. They callously ignore his cries and let the traders take him away. They’ve just sold their brother into slavery and sent him hundreds of miles away to a foreign land. It’s a better alternative than murder, but not by much.
Reuben apparently was not with the group when Judah had his idea. He goes to the pit where Joseph was, perhaps with the intent of freeing him. When he finds the pit empty, he panics. He tears his garments and goes straight to his brothers. He likely assumes they’ve killed Joseph. He says to them, “The boy is not there; as for me where am I to go?” He seems to assume his father will hold him responsible for Joseph’s death. If his brothers have in fact killed him, Reuben probably thinks he’ll have to answer for it to Jacob. And he’s already in enough trouble with his father.
The brothers apparently tell Reuben what they’ve done. They then take Joseph’s multi-colored coat and dip it in the blood of a goat they slaughter. When they return to Jacob, they show the coat to him and tell him they found it. They ask Jacob if it is in fact the coat he made for Joseph. Note their words – “…please examine it to see whether it is YOUR SON’S tunic or not.” He’s not “our brother.” He’s “your son.” [It is sadly ironic that they use Joseph’s coat to deceive Jacob just as Jacob used Esau’s clothes to deceive Isaac.]
Jacob sees that it’s Joseph’s coat. He cries out that Joseph is obviously dead and a wild beast has torn him to pieces. It’s exactly what the brothers want him to think. Jacob then goes into mourning and refuses to be comforted. He says he will mourn Joseph the rest of his life. “Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.”
The callousness of the brothers throughout this story is incredible. To do this to Jacob is truly heartless. They know this will effectively kill him. They know how much he loves Joseph. And yet they stand by and let him think Joseph is dead. It’s probably another sign of their resentment that they’re willing to put Jacob through this. In their bitterness they may even enjoy watching Jacob deal with Joseph’s death (and obviously it’s better to watch him go through this than tell him they’ve sold his favorite son into slavery).
The chapter ends by switching the scene back to Joseph. The Midianite traders reach Egypt and sell Joseph as a slave to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard. We have no idea if this is good news for Joseph or not. We just know that his new life is in Egypt – hundreds of miles from where he thought he would live and worlds away from his old life.
This story is loaded with examples of God sovereignly manipulating events to further His plan. If we just read this story without knowing any more about the Old Testament, we’d never guess that God’s making sure that 400 years from now He can deliver thousands of His people from Egypt in a preview for when He’ll redeem the world. He’s used the bitterness of 10 angry men to begin His plan and change the destiny of an entire nation and really, the world. He’s begun what will culminate in the Passover – the most important event in the Old Testament. And He’s done it by bringing a drought (perhaps) into Canaan, having the drought force the brothers to travel to find pastureland and then move to a second location, by having a man overhear where they go and tell Joseph, by having the brothers come to an area that is on a trade route between Canaan and Egypt, and by having traders come by just as the brothers try to figure out what to do with Joseph. He oversees everything and does it with an eye on events WAY beyond what anyone in the story could comprehend.
And that leads us to consider two other oddities about this story. What has God promised repeatedly to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? He’s promised that their descendants will multiply and inhabit Canaan. And what has He just done? He’s made sure that Jacob’s descendants will become innumerable in…Egypt. And they’ll live there for the next 400 years. And what has He done to Joseph after sending him two dreams that seemingly predict he’ll rule over his family? He’s made him a slave in a foreign land with absolutely no hope and no prospects.
Do you see what this story tells us about God? His ways truly are unfathomable. Is Jacob happy right now? He’s horribly miserable and thinks his life is effectively over. Is Joseph happy? He likely thinks in similar fashion to his father. And probably wonders what the point of the dreams was. Would anyone witnessing what has just happened think God is doing a good job of fulfilling His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? They’d wonder how any of this helps move the story forward. And they’d probably be discouraged that the only people who seem to be in good shape are the men who just sold their brother into slavery and then convinced their father that his beloved son is dead.
And yet through everyone’s pain and suffering and through the seeming triumph of evil God is working His plan, and His plan will ultimately ensure both His glory and the best for all involved. NO ONE can see how anything good can come from what’s just happened. But God sees beyond what everyone else sees. And God knows beyond what anyone else knows. Ultimately it is stories like this that show us how much we have to trust God even and especially when circumstances seem to scream that nothing is going right and God is nowhere around. God is sovereign. God is good. God loves us. Armed with those truths we trust and we obey. No matter what the world and our lives look like.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Rom 11:33-34