Chapter 37 marks the beginning of an important change in the book of Genesis. You see, the last few chapters have mainly focused on Jacob and the events that God used to help shape his character. But we’re going to see something different beginning in chapter 37 because the main focus will now begin to shift towards one person- Jacob’s son Joseph. In fact, 12 of the last 14 chapters in Genesis will be about Joseph, and that means almost 25% of this entire book is dedicated to a study of his life.
Jacob’s son Joseph lived from approximately 1905 BC to about 1815 BC. He was Jacob’s 11th son and the first son born to his favorite wife Rachel. Joseph was born near the end of the time that Jacob had spent working for Laban and when we catch up to him in chapter 37, he is now 17 years old.
Regarding Joseph’s life, one person has said…
“He was loved and hated, favored and abused, tempted and trusted, exalted and abased. Yet at no point in the one hundred and ten year life of Joseph did he ever seem to get his eyes off God or cease to trust him. Adversity did not harden his character. Prosperity did not ruin him. He was the same in private as in public. He was a truly great man.” (1)
“Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. 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.
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. 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 (Genesis 37:1-4).
So like his brothers, Joseph also went to work in the family business. Since the family business was ranching and sheep herding, Joseph became a shepherd as well. While Joseph had many brothers, their ages were widely spread so it’s likely that Joseph spent a lot of his time with the guys who were in his approximate age group. That probably explains why Bilhah’s sons Dan and Naphtali and Zilpah’s sons Gad and Asher are mentioned here.
(1) James Montgomery Boice, quoted in Enduring Word Commentary On Genesis, David Guzik
Unfortunately for Joseph, the first hint of trouble starts right near the beginning of chapter 37…
“Joseph… was tending the flocks with his brothers… and he brought their father a bad report about them” (Genesis 37:2).
What was it that Joseph said about his brothers? Well, maybe they were acting irresponsibly or not treating the animals right. Perhaps they were saying bad things about their father Jacob. This is a possibility because Jacob’s sons will clearly demonstrate how little they care for their father later on in this chapter. Or it may just be that Joseph was just acting like an annoying little brother and said something that got them into trouble.
While there may be some question about what Joseph actually said, there’s no question about the way his brothers felt about him- but we’ll talk more about that in a little while. In any event, Joseph’s brothers probably weren’t very happy with what Joseph said about them but their father’s opinion was totally different…
“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” (Genesis 37:3).
Now when people think of Joseph in the Bible, the first thing that may come to mind is this “richly ornamented robe” that’s mentioned here in verse 3. Depending on which Bible version you are reading, this robe has also been described as “a brightly colored coat” (TLB), “a tunic of many colors” (NKJV), “a varicolored tunic” (NASU), “a coat of many colors” (ASV), or “a [distinctive] long tunic with sleeves” (AMP).
What most people probably don’t realize is that this robe (and what it represented) will eventually become a major problem for Joseph in his relationship with his brothers. But what was the big deal about this coat? If Joseph had a really nice coat, then so what? Why would this go on to cause such a problem within his family?
Well first, the verse quoted above tells us that Joseph’s father Jacob made this robe for him. OK, so why did Jacob make this elaborate coat for Joseph? Another look at verse three provides the answer: “Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons” (GNB).
So just as we’ve seen before, Jacob played favorites within his own family and it was clear to everyone else that Joseph was his best loved son. Each time Joseph wore that coat, it served as an unspoken reminder to his brothers that their father loved Joseph more than he loved them.
Jacob loved Joseph more than he did any of his other sons, because Joseph was born after Jacob was very old. Jacob had given Joseph a fancy coat” (Genesis 37:3 CEV).
Besides the fact that Joseph was born to Jacob in his old age, it helps to remember that Joseph was also the first born son of Jacob’s wife Rachel, the only woman that Jacob ever truly loved. In fact, Joseph probably even more special to Jacob now that Rachel had passed away.
However, Jacob still should have known better than to “play favorites” among his sons like this. That’s because Jacob was a victim of favoritism within his own family while he was young. For instance, you might remember that Jacob’s twin brother Esau was the favorite of his father Isaac when they were both growing up- and that favoritism eventually helped lead to a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, Jacob chose to repeat that same destructive pattern of behavior in his own life when he became a father.
One way that Jacob expressed his favoritism towards Joseph was by crafting a special robe or tunic for him. Now contrary to popular belief, Jacob did not give Joseph an amazing Technicolor dream coat. In reality, the original language used here implies that Jacob gave Joseph a kind of long sleeved tunic that extended to the wrists and ankles.
In those days, it was typical for an average working person to wear a short tunic without any sleeves. That was the kind of clothing that would allow someone to have the freedom to do the work of a laborer. But Jacob instead gave Joseph the clothing of someone with privilege, status, and honor. In other words, Jacob gave Joseph the type of clothing that might worn by someone like a manager, supervisor, or boss in those days.
So Joseph’s brothers were more like the type of workers who had to wear uniforms while Joseph was allowed to walk around in an expensive suit- and it was that “suit” that played a big part in the way that Joseph’s brothers felt towards him. And what made things even worse was that their own father had crafted Joseph’s clothing and given it to him.
The important thing to remember is that Joseph’s brothers hated what that coat represented. It was a constant reminder that their father loved Joseph more than any of them. This coat and what it represented will also help to explain (but not justify) the actions of Joseph’s brothers towards him later on.
When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than he loved them, they hated their brother so much that they would not speak to him in a friendly manner” (Genesis 37:4 GNB).
Even though these events took place over 4000 years ago, it’s still possible to see these same characteristics in people today. In fact, the attitude that Joseph’s brothers displayed towards him might be closer to you than you might think.
For instance, are you jealous of someone else right now? Are you resentful when other people are successful? Are you envious of someone who has something that you don’t? When you are involved in a competition, are you content to win or do you want to make someone else lose?
You see, each of the attitudes mentioned above are not characteristics of love- they’re really more characteristic of things like jealousy and envy. These attitudes involve a feeling of unhappiness or disapproval when someone else is favored or successful. That’s what Joseph’s brothers were experiencing. The New Testament book of James explains the problem with these attitudes like this…
“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:14-16).
Now before we continue, let’s be clear on something. We definitely can’t say that it was good or right for Jacob show favoritism towards Joseph. It’s also easy to understand how Jacob’s other sons would feel confused, sad, or regretful over their father’s attitude. However, Jacob’s attitude towards Joseph wasn’t Joseph’s fault- and it was wrong for his brothers to treat him coldly, rudely, or impolitely. While Joseph’s brothers had no control over their father’s feelings towards Joseph, they did have control over their own responses- and they way there responded to this situation was wrong.
The real problem with these attitudes is that they are in conflict with a God-honoring kind of life. That means that if you start to experience feelings of envy or selfishness, it’s an early warning sign that something is not right. Why? Because the Scripture quoted above tells us that those attitudes are unspiritual and actually come from the devil.
This is the road that Joseph’s brothers were traveling down- and we’ll soon see where that road is going. But first, Joseph’s relationship with his brothers is about to take a definite turn for the worse.
“Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.’
His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said” (Genesis 37:5-8).
If you are willing to pray and invest some time in reading the Scriptures, you are certain to find that God is also willing to communicate to you through His Word. For instance, God may provide a warning or an insight from the Scriptures regarding a situation in your life. He may bring a message of encouragement or confirmation through His Word. Or perhaps it may be some direction regarding a particular circumstance or decision you have to make.
Now someone may read this and say, “Well, how exactly does God ‘communicate’ to me out of His Word?” Well, Genesis 37:5 provides us with a good illustration of this idea in action. For instance, let’s take the example of someone who feels the need to talk about every detail of every bit of information that comes their way. Or let’s take someone who just can’t wait to share the news about someone or something else. If you’re like most people, you probably know someone who fits these categories as well.
One possible lesson that God may want to communicate to us through Joseph’s experience is that it may not always be a good idea to talk about everything we know. For example, Joseph could have chosen to keep quiet about his dream to see if it became anything more than just a dream. But instead, Joseph chose to tell his brothers something that was guaranteed to make them really mad.
Now we’ll speak more about this dream (and what it meant) a little later, but for now, here’s something to consider: just because we know something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should tell everybody else about it. This is not to say that we should keep quiet about things that are illegal, unethical, immoral, or potentially dangerous. But it does mean that we should think about the effect of the things we say before we say them.
The Bible actually has a lot to say on this particular subject and we’ll take a look at a few of those examples next.
“(Joseph) said, ‘Listen to the dream I had. We were all in the field tying up sheaves of wheat, when my sheaf got up and stood up straight. Yours formed a circle around mine and bowed down to it.’
‘Do you think you are going to be a king and rule over us?’ his brothers asked. So they hated him even more because of his dreams and because of what he said about them” (Genesis 37:6-8 GNB).
One way that God communicates with us through the Scriptures is by speaking through the experiences of various Biblical characters. For instance, Joseph’s example in Genesis chapter 37 tells us that it may not always be a good idea to talk about everything we know. Instead, we should first stop and think about the effect that our information may have in the lives of others before thoughtlessly speaking about it..
Besides Joseph’s example here in the book of Genesis, the Old Testament book of Proverbs has a lot to say about this subject as well…
“It’s stupid to say bad things about your neighbors. If you are sensible, you will keep quiet” (Proverbs 11:12 CEV).
“Smart people keep quiet about what they know, but stupid people advertise their ignorance” (Proverbs 12:23 GNB).
“Whoever controls his mouth protects his own life. Whoever has a big mouth comes to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3 GW).
So it doesn’t appear that Joseph thought very much about how this dream might affect his relationship with the other members of his family. Instead, he chose to speak freely about something that was guaranteed to infuriate his brothers. But unfortunately for Joseph, he decided to go ahead and do the exact same thing again…
“Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen, he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’
When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’ His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind” (Genesis 37:9-11).
Remember that Joseph was 17 years old at this time, and it’s possible that his youth and inexperience had something to do with his decision to openly discuss these dreams with his family. We’ll talk more about Joseph’s choice to share this information with his father and brothers (and how to avoid a similar response) next.
“He also told the dream to his father, and his father scolded him: ‘What kind of a dream is that? Do you think that your mother, your brothers, and I are going to come and bow down to you?'” (Genesis 37:10 GNB).
Remember that Joseph was a young, inexperienced, 17 year old guy at the time that he spoke with his family about his dreams. This youth and inexperience probably had something to do with his decision to speak openly about these dreams, a subject that Joseph should have known would be sure to anger the rest of his family. And unfortunately, what Joseph did was typical of the kind of mistake that anyone is likely to make at that stage of their lives.
There is a very famous commentator who lived in the 1700’s named Matthew Henry who explained the problem like this:
“Joseph dreamed of his preferment, but he did not dream of his imprisonment. Thus many young people, when setting out in the world, think of nothing but prosperity and pleasure, and never dream of trouble.”
In other words, Joseph dreamt about the great things that that were coming for him but not necessarily about the hardships and difficulties that would go along with them. You see, it’s great to have big dreams about the places that you’re going to go and the things that you’re going to do in life. But remember that big dreams often bring big challenges- and for Joseph, there would be many difficult times ahead before his dreams became an actual reality.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that there are often a lot of trials, hardships, difficulties, and potential mistakes involved in achieving everything that God has for you. The Bible talks about this balance in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes when it says…
“It is a wonderful thing to be alive! If a person lives to be very old, let him rejoice in every day of life, but let him also remember that eternity is far longer and that everything down here is futile in comparison.
Young man, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it! Do all you want to; take in everything, but realize that you must account to God for everything you do. So banish grief and pain, but remember that youth, with a whole life before it, can make serious mistakes.” (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 TLB).
Remember that big dreams often bring big challenges- and it pays to be ready for both.
Let’s take a closer look at Joseph’s dreams in Genesis chapter 34…
“…’Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.’ “
“…Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen, he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me'” (Genesis 37:6-7, 9).
Since many people don’t live in an agricultural society today, the images behind Joseph’s dream may be a little unfamiliar. For example, a “sheave” (like the one mentioned above) referred to some cut stalks of grain that had been tied up into a bundle. When a farmer reaped a grain field back in those days, the cut stalks would be gathered together into a group and tied into a sheaf. These sheaves would then be loaded onto a donkey and taken to the threshing area when the grain portion would be removed.
Joseph’s second dream involved the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing down to him. We’ll talk more about the meaning of this second dream later, but for now, let’s just say that bowing down to someone is not normal behavior for inanimate objects like sheaves or stars. So it was obvious that there was a symbolic meaning behind these elements- and that was something that Joseph’s family picked up on right away…
“…His brothers asked, ‘Do you really think you are going to be king and rule over us?'” (Genesis 37:8a CEV).
The idea of bowing down before someone or something else suggests the idea of superiority or rulership. So the obvious meaning behind each dream was that Joseph would eventually take a leadership role over the other members of his family. It’s also interesting that the symbolism in one of these dreams involved food, something that will become very important later on in Joseph’s relationship with his brothers.
In any event, Joseph’s brothers weren’t very happy with what they heard…
“And because of his dream and his words, their hate for him became greater than ever” (Genesis 37:8b BBE).
Now Joseph’s brothers could have laughed this off as just two silly dreams from their little brother- but they didn’t. Instead, they got really angry. The best explanation for this reaction seems to be that Joseph actually showed some real leadership potential- and his brothers didn’t appreciate hearing about how that leadership potential would eventually be exercised over them.
“Joseph later had another dream, and he told his brothers, ‘Listen to what else I dreamed. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to me'” Genesis 37:9 CEV).
Just as in Joseph’s first dream, the symbolism behind his second dream was what was really important. So what do the sun, moon, and stars represent in Joseph’s second dream? Well, the sun would be representative of Joseph’s father, the moon would be representative of his mother, and each of his eleven brothers would be represented by a star. And because each of these objects bowed down to Joseph in his dream, it meant that he was not only superior to his brothers- he was superior to his parents as well.
Now after seeing his brother’s reaction to his first dream, Joseph probably would have been better off keeping any further dreams to himself. Unfortunately, Joseph seemed to be so focused on what these dreams meant for him that he apparently never stopped to think about what they meant to others- including his father…
“He also told the dream to his father, and his father scolded him: ‘What kind of a dream is that? Do you think that your mother, your brothers, and I are going to come and bow down to you?'” (Genesis 37:10 GNB).
Now you may remember that Joseph’s mother Rachel had died earlier while giving birth to Joseph’s brother Benjamin. So what did Jacob mean when he said, “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” (GW). Well, Jacob may have simply been saying that it was ridiculous for Joseph to think that his entire family would bow down to him. Or he may have been referring to someone like Leah who had now become something of a “stepmother” to Joseph now that Rachel had passed away.
In any event, Jacob found Joseph’s second dream to be just as ridiculous as his brothers did, but Joseph’s brothers had an additional reaction: “…his brothers were jealous of him…” (ESV). This brings us to the real explanation for Joseph’s brothers’ attitude toward him: they were all jealous or envious of him.
It’s likely that Joseph’s brothers resented the position of importance that his father had given to him within their group and this was especially true since Joseph was the one of the youngest members of his family. These feelings of resentment became the spark that helped generate their attitude of jealousy, envy, and hatred towards Joseph.
So Joseph’s brothers were envious of him, but his father Jacob had a different response when he heard about Joseph’s second dream…
“His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind” (Genesis 37:11).
In other words, Joseph’s father wondered whether there might be something more to this dream. You see, Jacob knew from his own experience that God could communicate with people in this manner. Remember that God had spoken to Jacob in a dream many years earlier when he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And as we’ll see later, Jacob was definitely right to consider the possibility that this was something more than just a dream.
“Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 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. 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…” (Genesis 37:12-14a).
Shechem was located approximately 50 miles (80 km) away from where Jacob was staying at that time. Now you may remember that Jacob had purchased some property in Shechem earlier, so he may have sent his sons there to put that land to use. But it also took about two days of travel to reach Shechem in those days and that distance apparently caused Jacob to become concerned about the safety of his sons and property.
You might also remember that Shechem was the place where two of Jacob’s sons once wiped out the entire male population of the city. That meant that anyone with a long memory in that area may have seen the arrival of Jacob’s sons as an opportunity to take revenge on them for what they had done. So this may be another reason to explain why Jacob sent Joseph over to check things out.
However, Jacob probably should have considered this decision a little more carefully. While Joseph was certainly trustworthy and dependable, Jacob must have known about the hatred, jealousy, and envy that his other sons felt towards Joseph. Yet Jacob still decided to send Joseph by himself on a two day journey to check up on his brothers anyway.
Jacob probably didn’t make the best choice in this situation and unfortunately, this one decision will eventually come back to cause him years of sorrow and pain.
“When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He replied, ‘I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?’ ‘
They have moved on from here,’ the man answered. ‘I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan” (Genesis 37:14b-17).
So Jacob sent Joseph out to check up his brothers while they were tending to the family’s livestock. After looking around for a while, Joseph finally met up with someone who told him, “Yeah, your brothers were here earlier but I heard them say that they were going to the town of Dothan.” As it turns out, Dothan was located about 15-20 miles (24-32 km) further north so Joseph left to go and find them.
But what Joseph didn’t know was that he was being watched…
“But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. ‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams'” (Genesis 37:18-20).
Joseph’s coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3) must have stood out like brightly colored homing beacon because his brothers were clearly able to spot his approach long before he arrived. And since Joseph’s brothers were able to see him coming from so far away, it meant that they had some time to formulate a plan: “‘Come on now, let’s kill him and throw his body into one of the dry wells. We can say that a wild animal killed him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams'” (Genesis 37:20 GNB).
So all those feelings of hatred, anger, jealousy, and envy that Joseph’s brothers felt towards were now going to have an opportunity to be expressed- but fortunately, one of Joseph’s brothers decided to show some common sense…
“When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. ‘Let’s not take his life,’ he said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father” (Genesis 37:21-22).
Ruben’s alternate plan would allow his brothers to express their anger towards Joseph but still give him the opportunity to come back later and save Joseph’s life. But would this plan work?
“Come on, let’s kill (Joseph) and throw him into one of these cisterns. We can tell our father, ‘A wild animal has eaten him.’ Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!”
But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. ‘Let’s not kill him,’ he said. ‘Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty cistern here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him.’ Reuben was secretly planning to rescue Joseph and return him to his father” (Genesis 37:20-22 NLT).
As the eldest brother, Ruben carried the second-most authority in his family after his father. That meant that he could have simply told his brothers not to kill Joseph. But instead, Ruben suggested an alternate plan that would allow him to come back later and save Joseph’s life. But if Ruben felt that it was wrong to kill Joseph, then why didn’t he act more forcefully to save him when he had the ability to do so?
Well, remember that Ruben’s family included two guys (Simeon and Levi) who had once been responsible for brutally murdering the total male population of an entire city. It may be that Ruben was unwilling to openly oppose two men who were capable of doing something like that. So he came up with a substitute plan that would achieve the same purpose but still avoid a direct confrontation with his brothers.
Ruben’s plan must have sounded like a good idea because it meant that Joseph would still die, but at least they wouldn’t be directly responsible for killing him. And so, everyone decided to follow his suggestion…
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the richly ornamented robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it” (Genesis 37:23-24).
Now Joseph’s brothers could have tossed him into this empty well and then left him for dead. But they didn’t because there was one piece of business to take care of first: “…they stripped him of his special robe with long sleeves” (GW). So before anything else was done, notice that the very first thing that had to go was that coat.
You see. Joseph’s multicolored coat was a symbol of his father’s favoritism towards him and it had become the focal point for the jealousy and envy of his brothers. That’s why it had to be the first thing to go.
“Then they took him and threw him into the well, which was dry” (Genesis 37:24 GW).
So Joseph had now been left to die at the bottom of a waterless well. This meant that Joseph would have eventually perished from dehydration and/or starvation in a very short period of time. You see, an average human being can live for approximately 3 minutes without air, a few days without water, or about 3 weeks without food. At 90 degrees F (32 C) in a shaded area, the longest amount of time that someone could live without water is probably about 7 days. That’s the kind of death that Joseph’s brothers intended for him.
“As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt” (Genesis 37:25).
So Joseph was left to die at the bottom of a well and what did his brothers do? Well, Genesis 37:25 tells us that they sat down to have a meal. This meant that Joseph’s brothers got to enjoy a nice lunch while leaving him to starve to death. But here’s something to keep in mind for later- the next time these men sit down to have a meal with Joseph, the circumstances will be very, very different.
So Joseph’s brothers seemed happy to let him die, but then someone came up with an even better idea…
“Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.’
His brothers agreed. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt” (Genesis 37:26-28).
This was the perfect solution for Joseph’s brothers. First, it allowed them to get rid of their troublemaking little brother. Next, it saved them from the guilt of killing Joseph or leaving him to die. Besides, what if Joseph somehow escaped after they left? If that happened, then Joseph would surely tell their father about what they had done and then they’d really be in trouble.
Besides, these traders were actually willing to pay money for Joseph- a person they were planning to kill anyway. From a business standpoint, it was great deal- or so it seemed.
“When the Midianite merchants came by, Joseph’s brothers took him out of the well, and for twenty pieces of silver they sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt” (Genesis 37:28 CEV).
You may be wondering why these traders are referred to as both “Ishmaelites” and “Midianites” in the same verse as seen above.
Well, the answer is that these names were probably used interchangeably to identify the same group of people during that time. You see, the term “Ishmaelite” was used to generally identify the nomadic desert peoples who had originally descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. Then there was the name “Midianite.” This term was used to describe a more specific group who came from the area of Midian, a place that was located east of the Jordan River and Dead Sea. So it seems that Joseph’s brothers were using both general and specific terms to identify the same group of people.
So as these merchants approached, Joseph’s brothers hauled him up out of the well where he had been held prisoner. While Joseph certainly must have felt some relief at the knowledge that he was going to escape the possibility of a long, slow death at the bottom of an empty well, that relief was short-lived as he quickly came to the realization that the only reason they pulled him out was so they could sell him to a group of people who only wanted to use him as a slave.
The standard price to purchase a slave in those days was 30 pieces (or “shekels”) of silver (see Exodus 21:32). But notice that these merchants actually paid a discounted rate of 20 pieces of silver to purchase Joseph. There are two likely reasons for this. First, Joseph’s brothers were probably uninterested in holding out for a higher price in exchange for Joseph, a man who they were originally planning to kill anyway. In their view, any amount that they could obtain for Joseph was better than killing him for nothing.
Secondly, these merchants were professional businessmen and they had to consider how much profit they might make when the time came to sell Joseph to someone else. If we take this two factors together, it would help to explain why Joseph’s brothers decided to sell him at a discounted price.
So the deal was made. Joseph was exchanged for 20 pieces of silver and the merchants left to go on to the next stop on their route. But we’re about to find that one of Joseph’s brothers was definitely not happy about this decision.
“When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, ‘The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?'” (Genesis 37:29-30).
It seems that Ruben wasn’t around when the rest of his brothers made the decision to sell Joseph to a group of traveling merchants. So when Ruben found out that Joseph was gone, his response was to basically say, “Oh no- what’s going to happen to me now?” But why did Ruben react so negatively when the rest of his brothers were in agreement with the decision to sell Joseph as a slave?
Well, the answer is that while the rest of Joseph’s brothers didn’t seem to care if Joseph lived or died, Ruben’s situation was a little different. You see, Ruben was the oldest son in his family and because of this, he knew that his father Jacob would hold him most responsible if anything ever happened to Joseph.
So Ruben knew that he was going to be in big trouble over the fact that his little brother was gone. But there was still one way that Ruben could get out of this problem without telling his father the truth about what really happened. If Ruben could make up a good “cover story” to explain why Joseph was gone, then that would allow him to escape the responsibility for what had happened.
But what kind of story would be convincing enough to explain Joseph’s disappearance? Well, Joseph’s brothers had an idea, but a little preparation was needed first…
“Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood” (Genesis 37:31).
Joseph’s brothers’ decision to sell Joseph into slavery started a chain reaction of lies and deceit that ended with a plan to fool their father Jacob into believing that Joseph had actually died. The first step in this plan to fake Joseph’s death began with the creation of some “evidence” that would help support their cover story- that’s what the goat was for.
Now anyone who is familiar with the events of Jacob’s life might notice that his sons were following a path that was similar to an event in Jacob’s own life. You see, Jacob was once involved in a similar plan to deceive his own father. That plan required Jacob to kill a goat and use it to help trick his father into thinking that Jacob was really somebody else. Now Jacob’s sons were using a similar idea to deceive Jacob, just as he had earlier deceived his own father.
“So they took Joseph’s robe, killed a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood” (Genesis 37:31 GW).
So Joseph’s brothers’ took his coat of many colors and added one more color. That color was red, the color of the blood that came from his apparent death- or so their father was supposed to think…
“They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, ‘We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe'” (Genesis 37:32).
Remember that the distance between Jacob’s home and the place where Joseph’s brothers were tending their flock represented about a three day journey back in those days. That meant that Reuben, Simeon, Levi and the rest of Joseph’s brothers had plenty of time to think about how they were going to explain Joseph’s disappearance to their father.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the way that Joseph’s brothers explained the fact that he was gone. First, they took Joseph’s robe to Jacob and said, “We found this…” Notice that they never mentioned where they found Joseph’s robe, or how they found it, or the fact that the only reason that they had it in the first place is because they took it from him.
Next, they said, “Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” This was a heartless thing for Jacob’s sons to say to their father when you stop to think about it. After all, Jacob made that robe for Joseph himself (verse 3). He would have certainly recognized that it had once belonged to Joseph. This act of asking their father to examine the blood stained, hand made clothing that he personally created for his favorite son helps to demonstrate just how merciless, ruthless, and cruel Joseph’s brothers really were.
So Jacob was now in possession of the “evidence,” but instead of closely questioning his sons to make sure that they were telling the truth, Jacob immediately assumed the worst…
“‘It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces'” (Genesis 37:33).
Jacob fell right into the deceptive trap that was set for him by his sons. In fact, they didn’t even need to say anything other than, “We found this robe. Look it over carefully and see if it is your son’s robe” (NCV). Once Jacob saw the blood on Joseph’s robe, he immediately took it for granted that a wild animal had attacked and killed his favorite son.
“He recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has eaten him! Joseph must have been torn to pieces!’ Then, to show his grief, Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth around his waist, and mourned for his son a long time” (Genesis 37:33-34 GW).
Jacob did two things to demonstrate his sadness over Joseph’s apparent death. First, we’re told that he put on something called “sackcloth.” Sackcloth was a a rough, coarse, bag-like material that was just like what it’s name implied. In Biblical times, sackcloth was made out of camel or goat hair and the closest modern-day equivalent to this material would probably be something like a burlap bag or a coarse brown sack. Sackcloth was worn to demonstrate that someone was so sad that the normal comforts of life seemed unimportant.
We’re also told that Jacob tore his clothes in despair over Joseph’s supposed death. This action was recognized in those days as a culturally appropriate expression of deep personal distress or emotional pain.
“All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.’ So his father wept for him” (Genesis 37:35).
So Jacob went into deep mourning over Joseph’s loss and refused to be comforted, even by members of his family. But there is something really, really wrong about this scene if you stop to think about it. Notice that we’re told that all Jacob’s children came to comfort him. That, of course, would include those family members who knew the truth about Joseph’s supposed “death.” If Jacob’s sons really wanted to comfort him, then the first thing they could have done was tell him the truth about what really happened.
So while Joseph’s brothers really hated him (Genesis 37:8), it’s clear that they also had a deep dislike for their father Jacob as well. After all, you have to really, really dislike someone to knowingly let that person grieve so deeply over something that you know is a lie.
In any event, Jacob said, “…in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” In other words, Jacob was convinced that he would never see Joseph again for the rest of his life. However, this chapter contains one last verse that may not seem important now, but will be later…
“Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard” (Genesis 37:36).
This small detail will become very important for Joseph (and his brothers) when we pick up Joseph’s story again beginning in Genesis chapter 39.