Genesis 37: Joseph Dreams and is Sold as a Slave
In order to preserve the covenant line, God is going to send Joseph to Egypt. The background to this outcome reveals the ugliness of sin and the beauty of divine providence.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone’s hatred?
In Genesis 37 the record of God’s purpose through the covenant line continues with Joseph’s dreams, his brothers selling him into slavery, and the inconsolable grief of Jacob.
vv. 1–4 - Seventeen years have passed since the birth of Joseph in Genesis 30. v. 1 records that Jacob has now settled in Canaan, and is continuing life after the pattern of his father Isaac. As mentioned, we can calculate the fact that Isaac is still alive and dies while Joseph is in Egypt. Our attention is then turned to Joseph, We are told that he is shepherding with the children of the concubines. It would appear that the sons of Leah are elsewhere, perhaps because of the animosity between the children of Rachel and Leah. However, Joseph returns to Jacob with a report of their behavior. Whether this was something random, their treatment of him, or their neglect of the flocks, we’re not told. In vv. 3–4, Jacob favors him as a son of his old age. The way this reads makes you question, wouldn’t Benjamin be the son of his old age? I think the sense is that, as Jacob aged, Joseph was the son he could rely upon in his old age. This, the coat or tunic given to Joseph was not just a sign of favoritism, but was a symbol of authority.
vv. 5–11 - Adds more trouble for Joseph as he reveals the prophetic dreams God gave to him, indicate his future rule over his family. If the dreams were the empty ambitions and fantasies of a spoilt son, no one would have given any weight to them. It was the sense of prophetic authority that clothed the announcement which angered his brothers and drew out a rebuke from his father. The initial hearing sounds unseemly to Jacob, but this is a Word from God. v. 11 shows how Jacob, as a spiritual man, can see there may be something to this, while the brothers become even more envious.
vv. 12–36 - We are told that Joseph’s brothers journey to Shechem to feed their father’s flocks some 60 miles north. Was this because of the weather? Or a form of rotational grazing to preserve the quality of the land, we don’t know. Whatever the reason, Joseph is sent to bring a report on how his brothers and the flocks are doing, and after learning that they are a further 15 miles or so in Dothan, Joseph comes within view distance of his brothers. Recognizing the gait of his walk or the distinctive coat he wore, several brothers discuss killing Joseph. Overhearing this, the eldest, Reuben, suggests they simply through Joseph in a pit, hoping that he might prevent harm to Joseph and recover him when the brothers aren’t around. So they violently strip Joseph of his coat, throw him in a pit, and sit down to eat, ignoring any communication or prayers they may have overheard from Joseph. Passing that way was a group of merchant Midianites (note that Midianites and Ishmaelites are in some places used interchangeably, such as Judges 8). So at the request of Judah, Joseph’s brothers drag him out of the pit, sell him, and the Midianites sold Joseph to an Egyptian. Meanwhile, Reuben finds out, laments what his brothers have done, but ends up complicit in the plan to deceive Jacob by pretending that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
While all men are equal in human dignity, they are not equal in gift or station. Joseph often gets a hard time for reporting the behavior of his brothers, and for relating his dreams. However, there is no concrete wrongdoing. The circumstances of reporting the sins of his brothers may have required him to share it with Jacob, and the dreams were a prophetic revelation from God. The sin of this chapter is entirely in the hands of the brothers. Jacob favored Joseph with the coat, and God favored Joseph with the dreams. An old preacher once observed that sometimes the Father gives one of his children unusual gifting and preeminence. Like a coat of many colors, these gifts drive others to envy, but it is not the fault of the recipient. However, I would say to parents to navigate your awareness of gifted and honorable children better than Jacob. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves. And you young people, learn to celebrate the gifts of others before you become old and bitter.
The Word of God issuing from a holy life has a powerful influence upon the conscience. When a carnal man quotes the Bible, it rarely concerns people. The words seem to lack power and are easily ignored. So why is it that Joseph’s brothers are so offended by his dreams? Because combined with his upright life, it condemned them. People love to find fault with the messenger in order to discredit the message. By the grace of God, try to prevent that opportunity. Although you cannot preach the gospel without using words, yet those words carry much more weight when combined with a consistent Christian testimony. Remember, love not the world, and be holy as God is holy.
Unholy hatred is murder. The sins of Joseph’s brothers are considerable. In this chapter they hate him, envy him, abuse him, ignore his cries, and sell him. Selling a man like this, according to Exodus 21, is a capital offense worthy of death. But all of their feelings and actions make them guilty of various degrees of murder. “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Children, it is common to use the word “hate” in a careless and wicked way. Have you ever done that? God notes that language and it is very sinful.
While small personal hurts can be covered, ignoring great wickedness makes you complicit in injustice. We’re told in Proverbs that it is a man’s glory “to pass over a transgression” (Prov. 19:11). But this only applies to offenses against ourselves. When others are involved, and especially when someone else is in authority to make the final judgment, we owe it to those that maintain order to tell them of the events. Joseph reported to his father, whereas Reuben refused to reveal what his brothers did to Joseph. This makes him an accomplice to the crime.
The whole point of the book of Genesis is to show us how the promise of the Messiah will come to pass. Thus, we are about to embark on a journey through the life of Joseph, who becomes God’s instrument to physically preserve the sons of Jacob, and to restore them spiritually. In doing so, he presents a lot of messianic imagery. In Acts 7, as Stephen argues the case that the Jews had a habit of persecuting God’s servants ultimately culminating in their murder of Jesus, he refers to Joseph, saying, “the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him” (Acts 7:9). Thus, like Christ, Joseph came unto his own and his own received him not. As with Christ, the evidence of the father’s favor meant nothing to his brothers, and just as talk of Christ’s messianic kingship angered the Jews, so Joseph’s dreams of dominion almost got him killed.
“None of you can be the people of God without provoking envy, and the better you are, the more you will be hated. The ripest fruit is most pecked by the birds.” — Charles Spurgeon