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2. The Pit Of Slavery (Genesis 37:12-36)

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Some parents and grandparents leave wonderful legacies. We often hear that in testimonies at funerals. You can see in some people the impact of their godly and wise parents and other family members stamped on their lives. But such is not the case with Joseph. As the story of Joseph unfolds, the Spirit of God draws a picture of a family that you would never dream could give rise to such an amazing man as Joseph. In fact, by now you might even be asking, “Can any good thing come out of the house of Israel?”

So far, we have learned very little about Joseph. The focus has been on his father and brothers and the role they played in Joseph’s early years as they unwittingly fulfilled the sovereign purposes and plans of God in Joseph’s life. In fact, we learn little about Joseph until he reaches Egypt.

The subject in our passage is: “The Bitter Emotions of Resentment and Betrayal”. In this unfolding picture of Joseph’s father and brothers we see that uncontrolled negative emotions lead from one sin to another. But despite the hatred and resentment displayed by Joseph’s brothers and the irresponsibility displayed by his father, the overall principle in Joseph’s life is that God is sovereign – what others intend for evil, God can use for good to achieve his purposes.

Last time we began to see how Joseph’s family background of favoritism, lying, and scheming formed a most improbable foundation for Joseph’s later achievements and character. And yet, as we noted before, such behavior does not need to be repeated generation after generation – it can stop. And it did ultimately stop with Joseph, despite being surrounded by a clueless father (couldn’t relate to his sons, didn’t pick up on their feelings, couldn’t express his own emotions properly) and resentful brothers (with all of their deep psychological and emotional problems). Certainly Jacob’s background, character, and personality help us understand why his sons acted as they did. “Like father; like son” was certainly a true maxim in Jacob’s family.

Jacob was clueless as a father but wealthy as a farmer. His wealth is clearly visible in the size of the gift he gave to Esau to placate his lingering anger when he came back home from Uncle Laban’s after 20 years (Gen. 32:14-15). This is an extremely wealthy man and now he is so wealthy that he has farming operations in Shechem, 50 miles away from where he now lives in Hebron. When you have assets where you can’t see them it’s always good to have someone you can trust looking after them. Just ask the thousands of investors who discovered in late 2008 that they had been defrauded out of billions of dollars by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

Jacob employed his sons to look after his business operations in Shechem. After all, who better than your own flesh and blood to be trusted with your money? But evidently Jacob becomes concerned about what was happening when he wasn’t around. Perhaps he was concerned that “when the cat’s away the mice play!” Or, perhaps he thought that even his sons might be ripping him off when he wasn’t around. Knowing what we know about Jacob himself and his business ethics, he would have every reason to suspect that his sons had adopted the same practices that he had. Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they cheat and steal and lie and scheme? After all, they had several generations before them who had done it. It was a family tradition. So, it must surely have crossed his mind that they would have no compulsion about cheating their dear old dad. After all, he had done it once himself, hadn’t he (Gen. 25:29-34; 27:1-36)? Or, perhaps it was Joseph’s previous bad report about his brothers (Gen. 37:2) that caused Jacob to be concerned about what was going on over at the farm in Shechem. Or, to be charitable, perhaps Jacob was genuinely worried about his sons welfare. After all, working away from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it? There were long days and a hard commute and lots of distractions. Any father would want to know how his sons were getting along. Or, perhaps, Jacob couldn’t get out of his mind the sordid affair that took place in Shechem years before (Gen. 34) when his sons manifested…

I. The Overpowering Emotion Of Hate: The Shechem Atrocity (Gen. 34)

Jacob and his entourage were on their way back to Canaan from Uncle Laban’s and they came to Shechem (33:18-20). He must have liked the place, because he didn’t just pitch his tent there (he didn’t just get a motel room for the night), he actually bought the parcel of land where they camped from a man called Hamor. He even erected an altar there. This was going to be home, at least for a while.

One day, Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, went into the wrong part of town. It was innocent enough. She just wanted to get to know the other ladies of the area (34:1), albeit, they were idol-worshipping pagans - not the sort of women you’d really want your daughter hanging around with.

That’s when any father’s worst nightmare happened - his daughter, Dinah, was sexually violated by Shechem (34:2), Hamor’s son (after whom the city was named). Now it isn’t clear whether this means he had raped her or that he had defiled her sexual purity by having sex with her without being married to her. Actually, Shechem isn’t as bad a guy as at first you might think. We’re told that “He was more honorable than all the household of his father” (34:19). I hate to think what the rest were like!

Jacob’s reaction to this sordid affair was most bizarre. When he found out what had happened to Dinah, instead of exploding like a canon, guess what? He kept quiet until the boys came home from work that night (34:5). Can you believe that? He didn’t say a word! What kind of father was that?

In any event, Shechem professed to really love Dinah and wanted to marry her. So, according to the custom, his father, Hamor, tried to get Jacob’s approval for the marriage (34:6-11).

In contrast to their father, when the boys heard what had happened, they were like red hot pistols. They couldn’t see straight they were so mad. Hate overpowered them. And when someone is that angry, there’s no telling what they will do – reason, courtesy, honour, integrity all go out the window. Add to their anger the fact that they had a long history of dysfunctional role models in their family as to how to handle disputes and then you know there are going to be fireworks.

So, the boys took over the negotiations while Jacob is silent. Hamor must have thought his offer could not be refused. The terms of his offer were that (1) Jacob’s sons could marry the Shechemite women and (2) they could own property and run businesses there. In other words, Hamor is offering full residency status with the opportunity to become wealthy.

And Shechem’s offer was over the top (34:12). Shechem, the suitor, offered to pay any dowry that Jacob asked: “Just name your price! Money is no object!” So, now there is a lot of money on the table plus they could own land, buy and sell, and get wives there. They were made! But anger isn’t so easily assuaged. Revenge was smoldering in their hearts.

So, the boys made a counter offer. They told Shechem and his father that they couldn’t give their sister Dinah to Shechem because he was uncircumcised, but perhaps they could make a deal! If the men of Shechem underwent circumcision, then there could be intermarriage among them and they would become “one people” (34:16). Failing that, if they refused to be circumcised, then they would simply take their sister and leave. All offers were off. It was a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer.

Hamor and Shechem said, “Sounds good to us. You’ve got yourself a deal” (34:18). So they talked the other men of the city into it as well, reasoning that if Jacob’s family dwelled with them permanently, they would all benefit from their livestock, property, trading etc. Jacob’s business enterprise would increase their local economy and improve their standard of living. Little did they know that they had just been “had” by the master deceivers and schemers.

Thus, the men of Shechem were all circumcised. And while they were recovering and still in pain, on the third day Simeon and Levi took their swords and killed every man in the place, including Hamor and Shechem (34:25-26). Then, if that wasn’t enough, the rest of the brothers came and plundered the city, taking all their animals, their goods, their crops, and all their wealth, capturing their wives and children and all their household possessions as well (34:28-29)

Once again, Jacob’s reaction is bizarre to say the least. He didn’t care about the atrocity that they had committed. He only cared that his reputation had been marred and he had been put in danger: “You’ve troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land ... and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I” (34:30).

How self-focused can you get. The men have just been murdered by your sons and the city has been decimated by them. And all you care about is your reputation and safety! Self-focused people are like that. They don’t care about the morality of the circumstances. They don’t think about the atrocity just committed. They don’t worry about anyone else’s well-being. It’s all about them.

Well, perhaps this experience was on Jacob’s mind when he sent Joseph to check on his brothers in Shechem. If his sons could do that when he was right there, what might they be doing when he wasn’t looking? And what about the Shechemite people? They hadn’t forgotten the mass murder of their countrymen. Perhaps they would take revenge on his sons.

In any event, whatever the reason, back in our chapter 37, Jacob says to Joseph (the stay-at-home, favorite son), “Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them... Please go and see if it is well with your brothers and well with the flocks, and bring back word to me.” So he sent him out of the valley of Hebron and he went to Shechem (37:13-14).

What we see unfold now is ...

II. The Lingering Influence Of Resentment (Gen. 37:18-36)

When Joseph was still in the distance, his brothers’ hatred was rekindled and they “conspired against him to kill him” (37:18). Resentment is a powerful emotion. It is often accompanied by revenge. Resentment is that insidious emotion that hides behind our thoughts and actions. It’s never usually out in the open but it whispers in our heart: “Remember what he / she did to you when ...? Remember what he / she said about you ...?” That’s the subtle power of an unforgiving memory.

The sight of his multicolored coat probably set them off. They were dressed in work clothes suited to shepherding sheep but Joseph was dressed in a robe suited to a king’s palace. And all their previous feelings of resentment against daddy’s favorite son were aroused again. “Look this dreamer is coming. Come, therefore, let us now kill him and cast him into some pit; and we shall say, ‘Some wild beast has devoured him.’ We shall see what will become of his dreams” (37:19-20).

The memory of his dreams and his previous “bad report” still obviously were a sore point with them. They resented him and desperately wanted revenge. The last people who had crossed them were all brutally murdered. Jacob’s sons aren’t exactly angels. They are thugs, who will stop at nothing to get revenge.

So, the plan is to kill Joseph. This would be an ideal place to do it without anyone seeing them. They would dump the body into a pit and then they would report to Jacob that a wild beast had devoured him. That’s the scheme – a cold blooded murder and a water tight lie. “Then let’s see what will become of his dreams,” they said. In other words, “We’ll make sure that his dreams don’t come true!”

But into this murderous plan comes a voice of moderation. Reuben, the oldest son, wants to change the plan just a bit. Reuben said, “‘Let us not kill him ... Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand upon him’ – that he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father” (37:21-22). Among the 11 brothers it seems that Reuben was the only one with any conscience at all. But he is still Jacob’s son with the family genes. He’s still a schemer. Now he is scheming against his brothers, but with good intentions. At least he wants to save Joseph’s life.

So, that’s what they did. “They stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it” (37:23-24). This wasn’t exactly a happy family reunion. His dreams certainly didn’t look like they would come true – quite the opposite. Though it does not say so here, we know later that Joseph was scared to death and pleaded with his brothers for his life, but they would not listen (42:21).

But now they have a dilemma: What do they do with Joseph? They can’t leave him in the pit forever. Reuben, the one who had proposed the present course of action, is absent now and the rest of the brothers evidently don’t know how to move forward. So, now what?

Do you see how complicated sin is? Do you see how uncontrolled emotions lead from one sin to another? Hatred, resentment, and revenge make a tangled web that leads from one problem to another. You tell one lie and then you have to tell another to cover up that one and on and on it goes. If they weren’t going to take Joseph’s life, what were they to do with him? And what would they tell their father anyway? These were callous, cold-blooded killers. While their brother is in the pit wondering how this would all end, they “sat down to eat a meal” (37:25). When they looked up from eating, lo and behold, a caravan of Ishmaelite traders was coming from Gilead on their way to Egypt (37:25).

You can just see the wheels turning in Judah’s head. He was evidently a “profit-oriented” guy, the businessman of the bunch, a “bottom line” thinker. He sees an immediate solution to their dilemma: “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” (37:26-27). Judah’s reasoning is, “Look, it’s all well and good to kill Joseph, but that wouldn’t make us any money, would it? Much better that we sell him to these traders rather than kill him. And, listen, don’t forget he is our brother after all. Yes, it would be so much better to sell our brother rather than kill him. Killing him is a bit extreme and we wouldn’t gain anything by it. We might as well make money while we’re at it.”

Clearly, the idea of killing Joseph wasn’t dead yet. As they ate their lunch, they must have still been debating whether to go through with it, especially if Reuben, the moralizer, the voice of conscience, wasn’t around. So, this is a perfect way out of the dilemma, a great compromise. We won’t kill him, we’ll sell him. “So, the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites for 20 shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt” (37:28).

Hardly has the ink has dried on the contract, than Reuben returns for Joseph. No one is around, and when he looks into the pit – no Joseph! Deeply distressed, Reuben returns to his brothers and says, “The lad is no more; and I, where shall I go?” (37:30). It seems that Reuben’s concern is not so much for Joseph as it is for himself: “What am I going to do?” I wonder where he learned that from? Good old Dad, of course. “Poor me, what am I going to do?” Not, poor Joseph, what’s he going to do? No, it’s all about self.

The problem is that Reuben is the oldest son and as such would have to give account to Jacob for Joseph’s disappearance. Compared to his brothers, Reuben may not seem so bad. You know, he at least talked some sense into his brothers so that they did not kill Joseph, and he at least seemed to have a sense of accountability to his father. But, remember, Reuben is no angel either. He has a history. In fact, Reuben has a shocking past.

Some time previously, he had committed incest with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid servant and one of Jacob’s concubines (35:22), the mother of his two brothers, Dan and Naphtali. This is an extreme example of what can happen in blended, multiple-wife families. Again, as with the Dinah incident, Jacob remained silent again. We’re certainly getting a clear picture of Jacob and his philosophy of parenting. He seems to have the same kind of policy on parenting as the U.S. armed forces have on homosexuals: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” At the time of Reuben’s incest, Jacob did nothing and said nothing but he evidently had a long memory, because, on his death bed, his last words to Reuben were, “Reuben, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, “you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellence of dignity and the excellence of power.” But the bad news is, “unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it” (49:3-4).

This isn’t exactly what you want to hear from your father on his death bed, is it? Isn’t it sad that Jacob waited until that moment to get it off his chest and disapprove of Reuben’s behavior.

Anyway, Reuben is caught between a rock and a hard place. He has his brothers to deal with on one hand and his father on the other. He thought he would return and rescue Joseph from the pit, take him home, and all would be well; Joseph would be safe and Jacob wouldn’t know the difference. But now Joseph is missing and he needs another way out.

The web of deceit gets more and more complicated. Now they have to cook up another scheme (37:31). So, they dipped Joseph’s coat into blood and said to Jacob, “We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?” (37:32). Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths! “We found this! How gross. What could have happened? Is it your son’s, by any chance?” Notice they don’t say, “Is this our brother Joseph’s?” But, “Is it your son’s, by chance?”

Of course Jacob recognized it right away. It was unique. And he drew the exact conclusion that they wanted him to, “A wild beast has devoured him” (37:33). Jacob immediately went into an extended period of deep mourning. He “tore his garments and put sackcloth on his waist and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, ‘No, I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning’” (37:34-35). It reminds us of David’s mourning for Absalom with such deep grief that he wished he had died in Absalom’s place. Probably Jacob kicked himself a hundred times for having sent Joseph out to check on his brothers.

Jacob doesn’t seem to have grasped the character of his sons. He evidently was not a reflective person. He didn’t sit around thinking much about life and morality and his family. He didn’t put 2 + 2 together – i.e. his sons were murderers + they hated Joseph = they will kill him. There is no evidence that Jacob suspected his boys at all. Their butchery, deceit, incest hadn’t registered in Jacob’s thinking that perhaps they had perpetrated this crime.

It’s amazing how blind we can be as parents. We don’t see the real character and behavior of our children. We can see it in other people’s children but not our own. The biblical truth is that we reap what we sow. This was certainly true in Jacob’s life. The law of the harvest is a universal principle and nowhere more so than in the family. If we do not train up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, we will reap the consequences. If we do not spend time with our children, figuring out what makes them tick, where they are, who their friends are etc., we may be in for a nasty shock one day.

The chapter ends with a note of dramatic irony. While Jacob is mourning, we know the truth - Joseph is alive and has been sold by Midianite slave traders to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers (37:36). That statement sets us up for the rest of the story in which, despite all its twists and turns, God is sovereignly working out his purposes in Joseph’s life

In these stories about O.T. characters we learn so many lessons for our lives today. In this passage about Joseph and his family, the behavioral principles we have noticed is that…

1. Uncontrolled emotions lead from one sin to another. Joseph’s brothers suffered from the uncontrolled emotions of hate and resentment. Jacob resented what Reuben had done to Bilhah. Joseph’s brothers hated the men of Shechem because of what they had done to their sister, Dinah. And they resented Joseph because of his favored position, bad reports of them etc. Other negative emotions that often rage uncontrolled in people’s lives are envy and jealousy, bitterness and grudge, fear and worry, guilt and blame, shame and rejection.

Uncontrolled emotions all stem from a depraved heart. Jesus said, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). “Hate” is the emotion which, when uncontrolled, leads to murder, whether psychological murder or physical. That’s how powerful emotions are.

Remember: Whoever hates his brother is a murderer: and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn. 3:15). And, Eph. 4:31-32 says, Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”

This is the contrast between a redeemed heart and an unredeemed heart. Christians should live in the reality of who we are in Christ. We are his redeemed people. We are God’s children – His sons and daughters. We are precious to God. We are no longer dominated by sin but by righteousness (Rom. 6:11-14). We are members of Christ’s body. We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. We are holy and beloved.

So, the first behavioral principle we notice in our passage is that uncontrolled emotions lead from one sin to another. The second behavioral principle is that…

2. Self-absorption is irresponsible and immature. Jacob is an example of a father who is totally absorbed with himself and totally disconnected from his kids. He has no sensitivity to what’s going on in their lives, nor does he care until it’s too late on his death bed. When he should have spoken up and disciplined his kids he remained silent, even in the face of the most egregious crimes like the sexual violation of his daughter, murder, and incest! But in the meantime, he has modelled a lifestyle that they have followed perfectly. His character, values, ethics, lifestyle, self-focus are all adopted by his sons. Only Joseph broke out of that mold and how he ever turned out as he did is only attributable to God’s sovereign grace.

But you see, for example, in Reuben, the exact duplicate of his father’s self-absorbed thinking, “What about me. Poor me.” And you see in the others, their father’s ethics and character duplicated exactly.

Like Jacob, so many parents are more absorbed with themselves than their kids. They don’t spend time with them because they would rather be doing what they want to do - watching sports or socializing or earning more money or building a bigger house. So, the kids are shipped off to baby-sitters or sent to summer camp just to be rid of them for a while. Like Jacob, the only thing they care about is that their children don’t embarrass them or in any way negatively affect them.

Like Jacob, so many parents do not discipline their children. Why? Because they are absorbed with themselves and shirk their parental responsibility. Yet, discipline and order and standards are what children want. That’s the environment in which they thrive and become strong, responsible adults. They like teachers who keep order in the class room and they want parents who mean what they say because that gives them security and consistency and order. Children whose fathers don’t exercise discipline are often insecure and angry because they never knew where they stand. No one ever taught them the boundaries, so they are lost, trying to make their own way in life.

3. Whatever your values are will be passed on to your children. They are watching you every step of the way. Parents are their primary role models. How you handle your money will be passed on to them. How you spend your time will be passed on to them. Your standard of sexual morality will be passed on to them. Your commitment to the Lord will be passed on to them. Of course, God is sovereign, as in Joseph’s life, and He can and does change the pattern, but that does not let us off the hook.

All of this background serves to emphasize the amazing life of Joseph, who suddenly comes into focus when he reaches Egypt. And in Joseph we suddenly find not someone who harbors resentment (as you might expect), not someone who is irresponsible and immature, not someone who has uncontrolled emotions in his life, but someone who is clearly a beautiful picture of Christ - though he was reviled, he did not revile others in return; though he suffered, he did not threaten in return (2 Pet. 2:21-24).

Written across the entire story of Joseph’s life is this motto: God is sovereign – what others intend for evil, God can use for good to achieve his purposes.

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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