The Backside of Betrayal | A Bible Class on Joseph and His Brothers (Genesis 37:1-36)
Joseph is one of the most intriguing sections of Scripture. Joseph’s brothers despise him and sell him into slavery. Yet, Joseph forgives his brothers.
Joseph fully surrendered his life to God at an early age. Therefore, God was able to use Joseph in a major way to advance His kingdom. Had Joseph and his brothers died in famine, God would not have been able to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The issues of faith that plagued Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not appear in Joseph’s life. Joseph arguably had a much harder life than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. Moses illustrates what a faith-full life would look like.
Joseph’s brothers hated him, because:
- He brings an evil report of his brothers Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher to his father (v 2).
- His father shows him partiality by giving him the infamous coat (vv 3-4).
- He has two dreams (of the eleven sheaves, and of the sun, moon, and eleven stars) which suggest that he is to be exalted above the rest of the family (vv 5-11).
How might Joseph have handled his brothers differently? Do we ever seriously hurt relationships over perceived arrogance? How might we keep from doing so?
Joseph, the Beloved of His Father, Genesis 37:1-7
“Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan” (v 1). Moses reminds us again that the patriarchs were aliens on the earth. Hebrews 11:8-16 and Philippians 3:17-21 connect this to the Christian life.
We, as the people of God, are strangers on this earth. How do we show we are aliens? Do we sometimes get too comfy with this world? How do we keep from getting too comfy?
Not only was Jacob a “stranger,” but he was an alien in Canaan. The mention of Canaan reminds us of the promise of God. Jacob’s descendants would inherit the land. How can we have confidence in God’s promises?
“This is the history of Jacob.” The rest of Genesis is the history of Jacob. Yes, the special emphasis throughout the text is on Joseph, but Jacob’s burial doesn’t occur until the end of the Book.
Why do you think that Moses, through the Spirit, spent so much space on Jacob? My opinion: The Jacob/Joseph narrative demonstrates how God providentially saved the nation of Israel and His scheme of redemption. If God had allowed this family to die in the famine, He could not fulfill His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, we see the lengths God goes through to fulfill His promise.
The lesson is two-fold:
- God is faithful!
- God may work in our lives in ways we do not understand.
At the age of 17, Joseph is feeding the flock with his brothers, and he brought back “a bad report of them [Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher]” to Jacob. Throughout the Old Testament, this Hebrew term refers to a message that is at best derogatory, and at worst deceitfully slanderous. God has commanded that we not speak in such a manner. “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Lev 19:16). “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets; Therefore do not associate with one who flatters with his lips” (Prov 20:19).
Why might Joseph have wanted to gossip against these four brothers? What might he have gained? Why might people today gossip? What might be gained through gossip? What might be lost through gossip?
Rabban Simon ben Gamaliel once ordered his servant to bring from the market the best thing to be found there. To the good rabbi’s surprise he brought a tongue. At another time the rabbi commanded him to bring the worst thing the market could offer. To his still greater surprise the servant again brought a tongue. “How is this?” the master asked. “When I bad thee bring the best thing the marked provided, thou didst bring a tongue. And now that I have ordered the worst thing, thou dost still bring a tongue?” “Good master,” answered the wise servant, “dost thou not know that a tongue may be either the best or the worst thing in the world accordingly as its owner uses it?”
It seems that Joseph’s tongue gets him into a good bit of trouble. There is the bad report he brought against four of his brothers. There is also the telling of the dreams. Joseph couldn’t help that He had these dreams. God gave Joseph the dreams. God, in His bountiful wisdom, gave Joseph these dreams. However, Joseph didn’t have to tell everything he knew.
The text doesn’t say so, but I can imagine that Joseph flaunted his favored position. The wearing of the coat to go visit his brothers seems to indicate that.
Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his children. Of course, Israel had seen that favoritism in his own parents. I think this should stand as a warning to all of us parents about what we’re passing on to our children.
Israel gave Joseph “a tunic of many colors.” That translation has been flatly rejected by most scholars. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew this way, and many English translations have followed suit. We see the multicolored coat in Sunday school curriculum.
The Hebrew almost certainly does not mean this, but the Hebrew is not precisely clear. The Hebrew might mean an ornamental robe. The idea would be that it was a special robe that separated Joseph from his brothers. However, most scholars today believe the Hebrew really means “a long robe with sleeves.”
“Long robe with sleeves.” The robe with long sleeves could refer to a royal robe. The only other occurrence of this expression is in the narrative of Amnon’s rape of Tamar (2 Sam 13:18-19). Tamar “had a robe of many colors, for the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel” (2 Sam 13:18).
The sleeves might indicate that Joseph was not expected to work in the fields like his brothers. Workers wore short garments with short sleeves so that their arms could be free to work. Joseph worked with his brothers (v 2) at one point, but when the brothers went to Shechem Joseph stayed behind (vv 12ff).
Joseph’s brothers hated him and could not speak peaceably to him. We sometimes talk very casually about hating things (e.g., certain teams or foods). “Hate” in Hebrew refers to a deed or the inception of a deed. Just like we might talk about love as action, hate, in this manner, is also action. Thus, when we find that Joseph’s brothers hated him, we should expect to find a corresponding action.
Is there a great deal of hatred in the world today? What are some examples of hate that we find? How can we get rid of hate in this world? Obviously, following Jesus is absolutely the only way that we can get rid of hate. What are some things that He taught us that are the antidote to hate?
Joseph had a dream, told it to his brothers, and they hated him even more. The dreams indicate that God is directing Joseph’s life. There can be little doubt but that these dreams are a divine message. I further believe that Joseph understood the dreams to be a divine message. Even Joseph’s brothers understood the meaning of the dreams: “Shall you indeed reign over us?” (v 8).
However, what did Joseph gain by telling his brothers these dreams? Are there ever times that the wise thing is to keep our mouths shut?
The dreams indicated a unique position for Joseph. “Your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” “The sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.”
In other words, this was not a case where the meaning of the dreams could be in anyway ambiguous. Notice that twice the narrative tells us that the brothers hated Joseph even more (v 5, 8) because of the dreams.
The dreams, the telling of them, and the hatred of the brothers all work for the unfolding purpose of God. This serves as a reminder that the will of God cannot be thwarted even by sin. In the case of Joseph (as with Jesus), sin helps move God’s purpose along.
- The brothers’ hatred was clearly wrong.
- Their selling Joseph into Egyptian bondage was wrong.
- The advances of Potiphar’s wife were wrong.
- The lying of Potiphar’s wife that led to Joseph’s being wrongly imprisoned was wrong.
However, through all that sin, the purpose of a God who cannot be touched with sin was fulfilled. I cannot even begin to fathom how God could do that. Yet, I believe He can do that because He is a “BIG” God. He has all power, He has infinite wisdom, He has a perfect will, etc.
This should leave us with an unshakeable calmness as we rest in the will of God. The world is very chaotic as we meet tonight. Yet through all of that, God is moving everything to be subdued in Christ (1 Cor 15:25-28; Eph 1:10; Phil 2:9-11).
Joseph Hated and Rejected by His Brothers, Genesis 37:8-19
The mention of eleven stars in verse 9 indicates that Benjamin had been born when Joseph was sold into slavery. Joseph also asked a leading question about Benjamin (Gen 43:7).
Some scholars have suggested that Benjamin was not born until after Joseph was sold into slavery. Jacob’s mention of “your mother” at v 10 is difficult to understand. Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (35:16-21). Because of the traveling sequence given, it seems very unlikely that this is out of chronological order. Some have suggested that Leah or Rachel’s maid Bilhah was regarded as Joseph’s mother after the death of Rachel.
Jacob rebuked Joseph for the dreams (v 10). It could be that Jacob rebuked Joseph for the telling of the dreams. However, the wording of verse 10—“What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?”—really makes me think that Jacob was rebuking him for the dreams themselves. Why would Jacob rebuke Joseph for something over which Joseph had no control?
Are there ever times that we rebuke when we shouldn’t? How might we know when to rebuke and when not to rebuke? Are there appropriate ways to rebuke?
Joseph’s brothers envied him. What is the difference between hatred and envy? Why might Joseph’s brothers have been envious of him? Why is envy harmful to the Christian? Proverbs 14:30. 1 Corinthians 13:4. Galatians 5:26.
Joseph’s father “kept the matter in mind.” Why might Jacob have “kept the matter in mind”? Can you think of anyone else who kept matters in mind?
Joseph’s brothers go to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. Shechem is about 50 miles north of Hebron. This journey could have taken 2½ days if they were able to walk 20 miles a day which was common. I would imagine, however, that the sheep would have slowed them down a good bit.
Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers. Isn’t this a case where a cell phone would have come in handy? Even if this journey had gone as Jacob expected, the journey there and back would have taken at least a week.
It is quite possible that Jacob wants Joseph to check on his brothers because of the massacre Simeon and Levi carried out in Shechem because their sister Dinah was violated (Gen 34). Jacob was concerned when that massacre occurred that the Canaanites and Perizzites would carry out retribution (Gen 34:30). If Jacob is worried, it would be difficult seeing him sending Joseph. That Simeon, Levi, and the other eight might carry out more vengeance, it would be easy to see Jacob sending Joseph. We know of his willingness to bring a bad report to his father (v 2).
When Joseph gets to Shechem, he discovers that his brothers are in Dothan, fifteen miles farther north.
The brothers could see Joseph coming “even before he came near them.” Obviously, the coat he was wearing allowed them to see him. When they see Joseph, they say, “Look, this dreamer is coming!” The phrase in Hebrew literally means “master of dreams.” The Hebrew phrase was commonly used with many traits and means “to represent a person (poetically even a thing) as possessing some object or quality, or being in some condition.”) For example, “masters of arrows” (Gen 49:23) are archers, “a master of the lending of the hand” (Deut 15:2) is a creditor, “a master of the tongue” (Eccl 10:11) is a charmer, “a master of two wings” (Eccl 10:20) is a bird, etc.
While the coat and their father’s favoritism caused the ten brothers to hate Joseph, it appears as though the dreams were the final straw.
The dreams could have been the “final straw” for a couple reasons.
- They may generally hate the idea that this bratty kid is going to have any power of them. They may not have believed the dreams, but the implication of the dreams was quite obvious.
- They may have generally hated the idea that God would elevate Joseph to such a position. They may have believed the dreams and been angry that God would elevate Joseph.
Are there any times when we get angry at God because He (seemingly) blesses others better than He blesses us? Does God bless us equally? There are many who see God’s hand in every single thing that happens (“Everything happens for a reason”). I would flatly deny that is the case. However, does God need to justify to me what He does?
Joseph Cast into the Pit, Genesis 37:20-27
When the brothers saw the master of dreams, they conspired against him to kill him. The same Hebrew word is used here as was used in the case of Cain and Abel. They did not intend simply to kill him, but they planned to do so in a gruesome, grizzly manner. This demonstrates to us how much sin was in their hearts.
They would say that a wild beast had devoured their brother. The Hebrew word for “wild” can mean “sinful” or “wicked” in some contexts and “harmful” or “punishing” in others. The idea then would be a harmful, wild, unrestrained beast.
What does it take for a person to plot murder? In this case, it’s not just that one person plots murder, but nine do. Only Reuben was opposed to the murder. He may have still had some love for his younger brother; maybe Joseph occupied a “warm place” in Reuben’s heart. It may have been to get back in his father’s good graces because of his earlier indiscretion (35:22). Some have also said that while Reuben hated his brother, he may have felt that murder was simply wrong.
After committing Joseph’s murder, the ten brothers plan to throw Joseph into a pit. What is a pit? A pit at this time in the Middle East was 6-24 feet in depth. The purpose was to collect rain water during the rainy season. The rest of the year these cisterns would be quite dry.
Joseph’s brothers stripped him of his tunic “of many colors” before casting him into the pit. That symbol that the brothers hated so badly was stripped away from Joseph. Are there “symbols” that we might have that it would be wise to strip from ourselves?
After stripping him of his garment, nine (Reuben has left for some reason) brothers “cast him into a pit.” The Hebrew word for “cast” or “throw” says more than it first appears. This verb with a person as the direct object “almost always refers to the placing of a dead body in a grave” (2 Sam 18:17; 2 Ki 13:21; Jer 41:9), “or to the placing of a living body into what is assumed will be its grave” (21:15; Jer 38:6). Therefore, it seems extremely likely that the brothers hoped Joseph would soon be dead. The idea that they hoped Joseph would die in the pit is exemplified in the fact the brothers sat down to eat a meal (v 25).
The nine brothers sat down to eat a meal. This is absolutely incredulous! They are so callous that that they are able to eat after what they had done to Joseph.
I don’t know, but…
- Is Joseph injured in some way? Is he, therefore, screaming in agony? The fact that he is sold as a slave to Potiphar indicates that any injury is fairly superficial.
- Is Joseph pleading with them?
- Is Joseph very uncomfortable (cold, wet, etc.) because he is nearly naked?
I cannot escape the irony. The brothers sit down to eat. A few years later, Joseph would be the reason they ate.
Why would Moses record the fact that they ate while Joseph was in the pit? One: I think it shows the hardness of the brothers’ hearts. Two: I think it is purposefully mentioned to be ironic/foreshadowing of things yet to come.
The nine brothers lifted their eyes and there was a coming a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead. There is a fairly serious “problem” with the text at this point. The company is identified in two different ways: They are Ishmaelites (37:25), then Midianites (37:28), Ishmaelites (37:28), Midianites (37:36), and then Ishmaelites (39:1) again. Midian was descended from Abraham through Keturah, and Ishmael through Hagar. Which were they? There are two serious attempts to solve this issue.
The first idea is that the author of Genesis used sources and that the sources differed on the ethnicity of the caravan. The idea of sources in Genesis became popular shortly after the American Civil War (although there was some support for this idea going back to the 1650’s). The idea is that Moses did not write any of the Pentateuch, but that someone (a redactor) put the five books together from four different sources. There are some issues with that theory. The most serious issue is that other Old Testament authors, Jesus, and the apostles all attribute the Law to Moses and declare that Moses wrote the Law.
There is nothing in Scripture which says specifically says that Moses wrote Genesis. John 7:22 might, but Jesus could also be referring to Leviticus 12:3. However, there are reasons to believe that Moses wrote Genesis.
- The language of Genesis is very similar to Exodus-Deuteronomy.
- The author new Egyptian customs very well.
- Exodus begins in Hebrew with the word “and,” which indicates a previous book.
However, I have no problem with the idea that Moses used sources. Luke strongly implies that he used source material in writing his Gospel (Lk 1:1-4). I personally believe that the Holy Spirit guided Moses in using sources for Genesis.
Yet, it seems to me a very far stretch to suggest that within a couple sentences Moses switches back and forth because he wasn’t certain the ethnicity of the caravan. Some of these scholars treat the biblical authors as though they were stupid hicks who couldn’t have found their way out of a paper sack.
The second suggestion as to the identity of the caravan is that Ishmaelite and Midianite were synonyms. We don’t know how these two names became merged (they descended from Abraham through different women, one mistress and one wife). The two terms are synonymous in Judges 8:22-26.
Joseph Sold into Egypt, Genesis 37:26-36
Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.” Judah here talks about concealing Joseph’s blood. Could they have concealed Joseph’s blood from God? What are some examples of sins people believe they can hide from God and others? Why do people continue to think they can do this?
It might seem that Judah is being very humane in suggesting that Joseph be sold instead of being killed. Moses and his contemporaries might not have agreed. In the 13th and 14th centuries BC, people in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were commonly sold into Egyptian slavery as punishment for various crimes, including defaulting on debts. Because the demand for slaves became so high, people began kidnapping others for sale as slaves (isn’t that kinda what’s happening in this passage?). Legislation was developed to keep that from happening. The Code of Hammurabi prevented this. Under the Law of Moses, this was a capital offense (Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7). Therefore, Judah is encouraging something that would result in death under the Law.
Dothan sat on a major trade route—the Via Maris—that ran all the way to Egypt. Therefore, there’s nothing surprising that these travelers on the road headed to Egypt. However, it seems without any doubt that Moses wants to make clear that this is not a coincidence. God is orchestrating every little part of Joseph’s life (the dreams, the anonymous tipster, the caravan). Nothing is happening by chance, but God is moving Joseph to become a major player in the divine epic.
I believe that God providentially works in our lives, too. “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Lk 12:6-7). I don’t know all that God does providentially. We do not have a prophet to tell us what is and is not providential. However, the Scriptures certainly teach that God cares for us and helps us.
There are examples of God’s providential care throughout the Testaments. For example,:
- The Messiah’s birth. “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). How was this the fullness of time?
- Messianic expectation.
- Roman peace (Pax Romana).
- Common language throughout the world.
- Roman system of roads.
What other examples would you add?
Joseph is sold for twenty shekels of silver. This was the going rate at this time for slaves during this period according to the Code of Hammurabi. This was also the going rate under the Law of Moses to redeem a male between the ages of 5 and 20 who had consecrated himself to the Lord (Lev 27:5).
Ten shekels was the annual salary for a laborer during this period of history. Therefore, the brothers stood to make considerable money. In my opinion, the money was probably divided nine ways. Joseph would not have received any money; I can’t see Benjamin getting any. I doubt that Reuben would have received any.
When Reuben discovers that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. The tearing of clothes in the Ancient Near East indicated deep grief. I understand that Jews today continue this practice.
Why would Reuben be so distraught? It would be extremely easy to judge his motives for his grief. Maybe he wanted to get back in his dad’s good graces after his indiscretion with Bilhah (Gen 35:22). Perhaps Reuben really cared about his brother. Maybe he simply did not believe it appropriate to take a life.
What problems occasionally develop because we judge someone’s motives?
Reuben goes to his brothers and says, “The lad is no more; and I, where shall I go?” Why was Reuben concerned about where he would go? He may have been concerned that his father would not welcome him back. I wonder, though, if he isn’t a little concerned about what happened with Cain. God to Cain: “A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth” (Gen 4:12). Maybe Reuben fears that YHWH will consign the ten of them to that same fate.
The brothers take Joseph’s tunic and dip it in goat’s blood; they then present the coat to Jacob. There is a bit of horrible irony here. Jacob had deceived his father with his brother’s coat and a goat (Gen 27:15-16). There is certainly much to be said about the seed that Jacob had sown. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 2:23). “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal 6:7).
If God has forgiven us, why are there still consequences to sin? What are some consequences that people face because of sin?
When the brothers present the cloak to Jacob, they say, “We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?” They do not refer to Joseph by name or as their brother—they refer to him as “your son.” The lawyer at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan did much the same: “He who showed mercy on him” (Lk 10:37). The elder brother did much the same: “As soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him” (Lk 15:30). It certainly seems that their hatred for Joseph prevented the brothers from using Joseph’s name. Do you think such hatred is common? How might we rise above that type of hatred?
I find it interesting that in this narrative the brothers don’t exactly “lie” with their mouths about Joseph’s fate. The closest the brothers come to verbal lying is when they say, “We have found this” (v 32). It would depend on the definition of “found.” Also, what I’m saying about lying would only apply to what Moses recorded; we have no idea what else they might/might not have said.
This should really serve as a warning to us. Lying does not need to be verbal. What are some ways that we might lie through our actions? How can we keep from lying through actions?
Jacob recognized his son’s tunic and said, “A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces.” The brothers allow Jacob to reach his own conclusion (a conclusion they have carefully orchestrated). It would be difficult to think about the pain your child would go through in such a death.
Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for Joseph many days. Sackcloth was made of goat or camel hair and was coarse and uncomfortable. Think burlap. Sackcloth was commonly worn as only a loin covering.
The official period of mourning was often 30 days. However, the mourning period could continue as long as the mourner chose to grieve. It certainly seems that Jacob intended to go to his grave mourning Joseph (v 35).
All his sons and daughters tried to comfort Jacob. We only know of one daughter, Dinah. Some think that Jacob had other daughters. This doesn’t seem likely. Some think that daughters means daughters-in-law. Possible, but not probable. Some believe “sons and daughters” is simply an idiom that means “children.” However, it is likely that the Hebrew “daughters” can be used generically to refer to one daughter or several daughters. The plural is used at Genesis 46:15 where Dinah is clearly the only daughter intended.
Jacob refused to be comforted. He took the “death” of his son quite hard. Everyone mourns in his/her own way. But is there a right way and a wrong way to mourn? “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). If we have hope, how would our grief be different?
I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion about how much the patriarchs knew of the afterlife. This is before God reveals Himself as the God of the living and the dead (Ex 3:6; Matt 22:32), yet the patriarchs “waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:8-10). I would imagine that the more the patriarchs knew of the afterlife, the easier the grieving process.
This is the first time in Scripture that we have mention of the afterlife. “I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning” (v 35, NKJV/KJV). “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (ESV).
Every time “Sheol” is mentioned in Scripture the English Standard Version (with only one exception in the Song of Songs) leaves the word untranslated. The translators chose just to put the Hebrew “Sheol” in the text; the term seems to have different meanings depending on the context. In many ways, that is preferable, because it allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.
Sheol can mean:
- Death (Prov 5:5);
- The grave (1 Sam 2:6);
- The realm of the departed (Job 7:9);
- The state of being in extreme danger (2 Sam 22:6).
It appears that both the righteous and unrighteous go to Sheol. In this way, Sheol would be quite akin to Hades in the New Testament. But Sheol seems to have a much broader meaning.