Jacob, Joseph, Jealousy, and a Journey to Egypt (Genesis 36:1-37:36)
There is a story (which I am certain is not true) about a man who was the sole survivor of a ship which sank at sea. He was able to make a small raft of some of the ship’s cargo and eventually drift to a desert island. There he constructed a make-shift shelter and lived on what little food he had been able to salvage from the wreckage. Time after time he had attempted unsuccessfully to attract the attention of a passing ship. Finally, he saw a ship approaching more closely and hurriedly set a signal fire ablaze. To his dismay, the ship passed by and was quickly fading from sight. Accidentally, sparks from the signal fire set the thatched roof of his shelter in flames, and the man watched hopelessly and helplessly as all of his provision burned to ashes.
All was lost, he reasoned, and life could not last much longer. Suddenly he noticed that the ship which had passed him by was turning around and approaching the island more closely than before. To his great relief, he was seen by the crew and rescued. Once on board, the grateful survivor went to the captain of the ship to express his thanks. “But what caused you to turn around after you had already passed by me?” he queried. “Why, we saw the signal fire you made by setting your shelter on fire,” the captain responded.
The very thing which seemed to seal the doom of this marooned man was the means of his delivery. What seemed to spell disaster for him became an instrument of his salvation. That is precisely the case with Joseph and Jacob in Genesis 37. A tragic and cruel event occurred which, to Jacob, brought his world to an end. Life was hardly worth living, he reasoned, because he had lost the one thing which meant the most to him. But in the end, the loss of Joseph for a period of years was the means God employed to save the nation from starvation and, worse yet, from a loss of purity by being absorbed into the culture and religion of the Canaanites.
The emotional intensity of the events of this episode in the life of Jacob and his sons is difficult for us to appreciate. We come to this 37th chapter of Genesis in much the same way as we would watch the video replay of a week-old football game. We know the outcome of the story. We know that Jacob was in error when he later cried out, “… all these things are against me” (Genesis 42:36). Only in the throes of crisis or tragedy can we fully appreciate what Jacob is experiencing in this chapter.
Genesis 36: A Few Observations
I have chosen to briefly pass over the details of Genesis 36 because the primary purpose of this chapter has already been realized. You see, the first readers of this chapter were the Israelites who were about to cross over the River Jordan to possess the land of Canaan and to annihilate the Canaanites (cf. Deuteronomy 1:8; 20:16-18). There were, however, some people who were not to be attacked or annihilated, among whom were the Edomites, the descendants of Esau:
And the LORD spoke to me, saying, “You have circled this mountain long enough. Now turn north, and command the people, saying, ‘You will pass through the territory of your brothers the sons of Esau who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful; do not provoke them, for I will not give you any of their land, even as little as a footstep because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession’” (Deuteronomy 2:2-5).
Lest this command be violated, it was most essential for those Israelites of Moses’ day to know who the Edomites were and to have a carefully documented record of the generations of Esau. That record is the substance of chapter 36. As you can see, this has no direct bearing upon Christians in our age, while it was indispensable for the first readers of this account.
Having said this, I do not wish to leave the impression that there is no value for us in these verses. I would like to suggest two avenues of consideration for us today. First, I am impressed with the fact that Esau was a very gracious man. While he had in the heat of anger threatened to kill his brother for his deception, he received him warmly (33:4ff.), and when prosperity necessitated it, he moved out of his brother’s way:
Then Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all his household, and his livestock and all his cattle and all his goods which he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land away from his brother Jacob. For their property had become too great for them to live together, and the land where they sojourned could not sustain them because of their livestock. So Esau lived in the hill country of Seir; Esau is Edom (Genesis 36:6-8).
I have maintained that had God elected one or the other of these twins on the basis of likeability He would probably have chosen Esau. At least that is who I would have chosen. While Esau had no regard for spiritual things (Genesis 25:34; Hebrews 12:16-17), he had many fine qualities. In verses 6-8 above, it was Esau who moved out of Jacob’s way just as Abraham gave way to Lot (13:5ff.). God’s elect are not necessarily more likeable people, nor are they any more gracious and kind. That is why election is apart from works, so that God’s free choice is really free (cf. Romans 9:10-13).
Finally, while Esau was rejected on a spiritual plane, he was nonetheless a recipient of the common grace of God. Abraham begged God to bless his son by Hagar, Ishmael, which He did (Genesis 17:18-20; 25:16). But apart from any recorded request by Isaac on Esau’s behalf, God greatly blessed and prospered Esau. This even extended to God’s command to Israel not to attack the Edomites nor to take any of their territory (Deuteronomy 2:1-7; 23:7; Numbers 20:14ff.).
The Generations of Jacob and the Jealousy of His Sons
Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the records of the generations of Jacob. Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms. Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. And he said to them, ‘Please listen to this dream which I have had; for behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Then his brothers said to him, “Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and his words. Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, “Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And he related it to his father and to his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind (Genesis 37:1-11).
There is a tendency to regard the remaining chapters of Genesis as the “story of Joseph,” but this is not technically accurate. Moses referred to chapter 36 as the “records of the generations of Esau” (36:1,9). In Genesis 37:2 Moses entitled this section “the records of the generations of Jacob.” We must not forget that Jacob will not pass off the scene until Genesis 49, where we find the account of his death. This last section, then, is an account of God’s working in the life of Jacob and of his sons through the instrumentality of Joseph. Joseph is certainly the central figure in these chapters, but he is not the only figure. God is forming a nation out of all the sons of Jacob. Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt and his ultimate elevation to the post of prime minister under Pharaoh makes possible the preservation of Jacob and his sons, as well as teaching all of them some valuable spiritual lessons.
One of the great disservices we do to this text is to fail to grasp the fundamental cause of the animosity of Joseph’s brothers toward him. Generally we tend to think of Joseph as a small lad 8-10 years of age who is a tattletale on his big brothers. That is hardly a crime which deserves death, and it does not fit the details of the account. Joseph is not 7 years old, but 17 (37:2). Now in some senses this is young, but in the Ancient Near East girls of this age were often already married (for example, Dinah 34:lff.), and young men were not infrequently kings at this age (cf. II Kings 11:21).
It is my contention that Joseph was rejected by his brothers because of the authority he exercised over them, even though he was their younger brother. Seventeen was not necessarily young for such authority, but it was younger than his older brothers, and this was indeed a bitter pill for them to swallow. Several convincing lines of evidence converge to document this assertion:
(1) Grammatically, Joseph’s authority is not only permissible, but it is preferable. George Bush, author of the classic commentary on the book of Genesis, strongly holds to the most literal and normal rendering of verse 2, of which he writes,
… literally was tending, or acting the shepherd over, his brethren in the flock. However uncouth to our ears the phraseology, this is undoubtedly the exact rendering and the import of the words we take to be that Joseph was charged with the superintendence of his brethren, particularly the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.24
Bush goes into considerable grammatical detail to establish his point,25 and I must say that he has convinced me.
(2) After the sin of Reuben, Joseph was given the rights of the firstborn:
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph), … (I Chronicles 5:1-2).
While it is not until chapter 49 that this transfer is formally stated by Jacob, the sin which precipitated it has already been recorded in Genesis 35:22. It is not unlikely that Jacob expressed his intentions much sooner than this to his sons and even began to give Joseph preeminence over his brothers by this time. Further details seem to demonstrate this.
(3) Joseph’s coat was a symbol of the authority he was granted over his brothers. Jacob’s preference for Joseph was no secret (37:2,3). The coat his father gave him was regarded as evidence of Jacob’s greater love for Joseph above his other sons. Furthermore, this coat indicated more than preference; it symbolized preeminence and superiority of rank.
No one really knows exactly what this coat looked like. Some have suggested that it differed from the coats of Joseph’s brethren in that it had long sleeves,26 in which case it would mark out Joseph as a “white collar worker” while his brothers were mere “blue collar workers.” Just as supervisors are marked out today by the fact that they wear suits, so, we are told, Joseph was set apart by his long-sleeved coat.
While there is considerable conjecture on this matter of the coat, one thing is certain. The term which is used for Joseph’s coat in this chapter occurs elsewhere only in II Samuel 13:18-19. There it is employed for the coat which was worn by Tamar, the daughter of David. While other things may have been symbolized by this garment (such as virginity), the coat was an evidence of royalty.
In the context of our passage I believe that Joseph’s coat was considered to be symbolic of his authority in the same manner as stripes on the sleeve of a military uniform. Joseph’s brothers hated this garment and what it symbolized, for their first act of violence was to strip his coat from him (37:23).
(4) The greatest antagonism toward Joseph was from the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (verse 2), while the two brothers who attempted to release him (Reuben and Judah) were sons of Leah (37:21,26). In verse 2 Joseph was said to have pastured the flocks of Jacob “along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah.” Reuben, and later Judah, sons of Leah, attempted to prevent or at least to modify the plan of the others to kill Joseph. A footnote on verse 2 in the margin of the Berkeley Version27 suggests that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah would be less disciplined since they were the sons of pagan mothers, while Leah and Rachel would reflect the relatively more godly training of Laban.
There is little doubt that both Bilhah and Zilpah would be on a socially lower plane than Leah and Rachel since the former were mere concubines, while the latter were full-fledged wives. This social stratification would naturally be reflected in the sons of these women, and so it is not difficult to believe that Jacob would have put Joseph in charge of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.
(5) Joseph’s report to his father would be a logical and necessary part of his function and authority as a supervisor. Joseph at 17 was no tattletale. This can hardly be the case. Surely this kind of sibling rivalry would be expected but undeserving of such harsh counter-measures by Joseph’s brothers. If Joseph had been placed in a position of authority (a “white collar” job) by his father, then what could be more logical than a report to Jacob on the performance, efficiency, and reliability of those under him?
When Jacob asked Joseph to go to Shechem to check up on his sons and on his flocks (verses 12-14), he was not sending Joseph around the corner to spy upon and then tattle on his brothers. It was 50 miles or more to Shechem and about 70 miles to Dothan! Since Shechem had been the scene of the slaughter of the men of that city years before (34:25ff.), Jacob would not have taken such an assignment lightly. It was the kind of responsibility that he would give only to one who had proven his capabilities as a leader. A sensitive and potentially dangerous mission would not be given to a son without reliability and authority.
(6) The intensity of Joseph’s brothers’ reaction to his dreams indicates that there must have been some substance to their fears of Joseph assuming such great power and prominence. Joseph’s brothers were deeply distressed by his two dreams (verses 8, 11). And when the plot to kill him is first conceived, the dreams are a prominent part of their hostility and motivation:
And they said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:19-20).
Idle or fanciful dreams provide an occasion only for laughter. Under most circumstances the worst that might be considered would be that Joseph needed to be put into a padded cell for his own protection. But if there were already evidence of Joseph’s authority, leadership, and capabilities, fear of even greater status and power would be acted upon with grim determination and zeal.
(7) As a type of Christ, the cause of Joseph’s rejection would most accurately be a refusal to submit to the authority of one who threatened personal power and prestige. Joseph, I have maintained, was rejected by his brethren because they deeply resented the authority his father had granted him over them, especially when they reasoned that it should be theirs. Was this not the very root reason for the rejection of Jesus by the religious leaders of His day? When Jesus taught the people, the response of the masses was significant:
The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).
What a blow this must have been to the pride of Israel’s leaders. This is the reason why they resisted the Master with the challenge, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).
All of these lines of evidence lead me to the same conclusion: Joseph was rejected by his brethren because he, the youngest of these men (save Benjamin, of course), was placed in a position of authority over them. This rejection of Joseph’s authority, coupled with the specter of even greater preeminence as foreshadowed by his dreams, led them to conclude that they must do away with him in order to protect their own position.
An Evil Plot, An Empty Pit, and an Egyptian Purchase
Animosity toward Joseph had continued to build up until the situation was explosive. Now it was only a matter of time and opportunity. That opportunity finally arrived when Jacob sent Joseph to Shechem.
Then his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “I will go.” Then he said to him, “Go now and see about the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a man found him, and behold, he was wandering in the field; and the man asked him, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock.” Then the man said, “They have moved from here; for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan (Genesis 37:12-17).
Jacob’s concern for the welfare of his family and his flocks was not unfounded. Shechem was the city where Dinah had been taken by force and where Jacob’s sons, especially Simeon and Levi (34:30), had slaughtered all of the men. Since Jacob had purchased land there (33:19), it would not be unusual for him to make use of it by sending his flocks there to feed on its rich pastureland under the care of his sons. But there was always the danger of some angry relative of one of those Shechemites who were killed or captured seeking vengeance. This seems to be what Joseph was sent to look into. Only a man with proven skill and wisdom would ever be sent to handle a task as sensitive and volatile as this.
Joseph wandered about the fields of Shechem in search of his brothers. It just so happened28 that a man found him who had further happened to see Joseph’s brothers and overhear them saying they were going on to Dothan. Not willing to give up his search and return to his father without completing his task, Joseph went on to Dothan.
While at a considerable distance Joseph was recognized by his brothers. They immediately conspired in a violent and daring plot which would rid them once and for all of their brother:
When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death. And they said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” But Reuben heard this and rescued him out of their hands and said, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben further said to them, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay hands on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hands, to restore him to his father. So it came about, when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the varicolored tunic that was on him; and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it (Genesis 37:18-24).
It was probably Joseph’s coat that made it possible to identify him so quickly from such a distance. It may also have been that coat which triggered the pent-up feelings of jealousy and hostility toward the beloved son of their father. They saw the great distance from their father and the remoteness of this spot as the ideal opportunity to do away with the threat which Joseph posed. The opportunity for a perfect alibi was also at hand, for wild animals were a threat to life and limb in the open field. They need not even produce a body if they blame Joseph’s absence on his being devoured by a wild beast. Only a bloody robe need be presented to Jacob. His imagination would take care of the rest.
Reuben had good reason to hate his brother, for it was Joseph who would obtain the birthright that could have belonged to him. But it seems that Reuben feared facing his father more than he hated Joseph. He was still the oldest of the family. Whether or not he had the rights of the first-born, he was still saddled with the responsibilities. This may be the explanation for Reuben’s suggestion and his intention to spare the life of Joseph.
Reuben’s actions were hardly heroic. I must admit, however, that I would not have wanted to stand up against these fellows either. They were mean, really mean. These men would make the “nickel defense” of the Dallas Cowboys look like a Boy Scout troop. The slaughter of the Shechemites was only one evidence of their brutal natures. Reuben therefore suggests that they kill Joseph without the shedding of blood. Throw the boy in a cistern and let nature do him in. The idea had some definite advantages, and so the plan was agreed to.
When Joseph arrived, his reception was far from friendly. They tore off his coat, the symbol of all that they rejected, and threw the defenseless young man into a pit. It is significant that this pit was empty, for normally it would have contained water.29 If this had been the case, Joseph would have drowned before the Ishmaelite caravan had arrived. Even the empty pit was a part of God’s providential care of Joseph and his brothers.
The callousness and cruelty of Joseph’s brothers is almost unbelievable.
Then they sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt. Now Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he tore his garments. And he returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is not there, as for me, where am I to go?” So they took Joseph’s tunic, and slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood; and they sent the varicolored tunic and brought it to their father and said, “We found this; please examine it to see whether it is your son’s tunic or not” (Genesis 37:25-32).
Having thrown Joseph into the pit, they sat down to eat a meal. There is no loss of appetite, no sense of guilt or remorse. And there is no pity, for they eat their meal probably well within hearing of the cries that were continuing to come from the bottom of the pit. I can almost hear one of the brothers raise his voice over the petitions of Joseph and say to one of the others, “Want to trade a mutton sandwich for a cheese?” Only later would these cries haunt the sons of Jacob:
Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21).
While they were eating, a caravan of Ishmaelites approached them on their way to Egypt from Gilead (verse 25). This gave Judah an idea which would prevent the shedding of Joseph’s blood altogether. Rather than leaving Joseph to die of starvation and exposure, why not sell him into slavery to these traders? This would dispose of their problem, avoid the messy matter of murder, and get rid of any evidence of wrongdoing. Perhaps most appealing, it would provide them with a profit.
I do not see any virtue in Judah’s proposal to his brothers. While Reuben sought to return Joseph to his father, Judah is not said to have any such intention. He did not question the ethics or desirability of Joseph’s murder, only the benefits. Profit was the one word which best summarizes Judah’s motivation. While slavery may seem to be a more humane fate than death, some who lived in such a state of slavery might challenge this fact. Selling a brother as a slave was hardly more commendable than putting him to death. In the end, Joseph was sold to the Midianite30 traders for twenty shekels of silver, the price which Moses later fixed for a young slave boy (Leviticus 27:5).
Reuben had been gone during the time his brothers sold Joseph to the traders. Very likely this was to distract their attention from Joseph in the hope of their leaving him quickly, so that he could return to rescue Joseph. What a shock it must have been for him to return to the dry cistern and find Joseph gone. Reuben, as the oldest son, is the one who must face his father, and that to him is not a very pleasant thought.
Not only were Joseph’s brothers completely aloof to his suffering, but also they almost seemed to delight in the suffering that their report would bring to Jacob. There is no gentle approach, no careful preparation for the tragic news, only the crude act of sending the bloody coat to him and letting him draw the desired conclusion. It was a heartless deed, but one that accurately depicted their spiritual condition at the time.
Like most of us, Jacob jumped to a conclusion, assuming the very worst had happened:
Then he examined it and said, “It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” So Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. And he said, “Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” So his father wept for him (Genesis 37:33-35).
It was, of course, his son’s tunic, for there was none other like it. And it was covered with blood. Such a blood-stained garment without a body led Jacob to the conclusion his sons desired: Joseph must have been attacked and devoured by a wild animal. Perhaps the brothers of Joseph prided themselves in the fact that they never said Joseph was dead. They simply “deceived” their father into believing this. Isn’t it ironic that this deception involved the killing of a goat, just as the deception of Isaac had (cf. 27:9,16-17,19).
Jacob seemed to have handled the death of Deborah (35:8) and Rachel (35:16-19) with a fair degree of composure, but the death of Joseph simply overcame him. There was no way that his children could comfort him. How hypocritical these efforts must have been anyway. Life for Jacob seemed hardly worth living any longer. The only thing Jacob could look forward to was the grave. For many years Jacob would live with the lie that his son was dead.
In one sense believing this was a gracious thing. Can you imagine the mental torment it would have been for Jacob to know what was actually happening to his son? We have just seen the dramatic conclusion to the hostage crisis in Iran, which lasted less than two years. We know something of the agony of the relatives and friends of these captives, but Jacob would have had to endure such suffering and anguish for over twenty years.31 How his soul would have been troubled by the knowledge of Potiphar’s wife pursuing Joseph day after day (cf. 39:10). What heartache would have been Jacob’s had he known of Joseph’s imprisonment (cf. 39:19ff.). Ignorance, in this case, was not bliss, but it was better than a blow-by-blow account of Joseph’s status.
While Jacob was crying, “Woe is me,” God was working all things together for the good of Jacob, Joseph, and his wayward brothers: “Meanwhile, the Midionites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard” (Genesis 37:36).
Joseph, in fact, was not dead, nor was he outside of the providential care of God. By no accident Joseph ended up in the home of one of the most responsible officers of Pharaoh’s administration. While years would pass by before God’s purposes would become known, the process was under way.
Contextually and historically the sale of Joseph into slavery explains how Joseph (and ultimately the entire nation of Israel) ended up in Egypt, from whence the exodus commenced. More importantly, this chapter tells us a good part of the reason why it was necessary for the 400 years of bondage to occur. The fact that this bondage would take place was no mystery, for God had revealed it to Abraham:
And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions” (Genesis 15:13-14).
Spiritually, the state of the sons of Israel was at an all-time low. Nowhere have we yet seen any kind of relationship with God such as that of their forefathers. Internally, there was no unity among these brothers. They were simply the sons of four different mothers perpetuating the strife which existed between them (cf. 29:21-30:24). There was no brotherly love, only the seeking of self-interest. There is no better way to stimulate unity than through persecution. A brotherly quarrel is quickly forgotten and family unity is intensified when outside opposition is introduced. Four hundred years spent among Egyptians, who despised Hebrews (46:34), developed and strengthened the cohesiveness of these tribes of Israel.
Later on in the story of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph will test them in this matter of family unity, for he will offer them the opportunity of gaining their freedom for the expedient sacrifice of their youngest brother (chapters 42-44). Then they showed a change of heart which greatly encouraged and touched Joseph.
Doctrinally, we gain insight into several key biblical truths. First, we are reminded of the teaching of Scripture on the matter of election. We almost have to pinch ourselves to be reminded that the roots of Israel’s race and religion go back to men such as these brothers, who have conspired to do away with their own flesh and blood. In the ninth chapter of Romans Paul taught that election is not based upon the works which a person has done or will do in the future (9:6-13). Surely the choice of these sons of Israel illustrates this principle of election. Nearly anyone else in the land of Canaan would have been as qualified or more so than these cruel and wicked men. Most pagans have a deeper sense of family loyalty than this.
Furthermore, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is easily seen in this chapter. In Romans it is summarized by these words:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
In the book of Ephesians Paul has written:
… also we have obtained on inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, … (Ephesians 1:11).
God had purposed and promised to bring about the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through these sons (35:10-12). Neither Jacob nor Joseph nor Jacob’s other sons nor even Pharaoh himself could prevent or even delay the sovereign purposes of the God of Israel.
The means which God employed to accomplish His will is seen in the doctrine of the providence of God. No one has defined the providence of God better than George Bush:
While the recital flows on with all the charm of a highly-wrought tale of fiction, we are still assured of the truth and reality of every incident, and feel that we are contemplating an epitome of the dispensations of that overruling Power which is “wonderful in counsel and mighty in operation”—which controls the free and voluntary action of intelligent creatures, even when prompted by a spirit of malevolence and rebellion, so as to render them subservient to the accomplishment of those very plans which they are intent upon defeating, while the guilt of the agents remains resting upon them in all its unabated aggravations.32
In its simplest terms, the providential rule of God is the working out of His plan through sinful and willful men, even when they are actively striving to resist Him and His purposes. All the while, God remains sovereign and in full control. He assumes none of the guilt or responsibility for man’s sins; man must bear the full weight of responsibility for his actions.
The providence of God is not His preferred plan of action, but a back-up system which assures the fulfillment of His eternal purposes. Ideally, God works through believing men and women who will do His will as expressed through His Word. When believers or unbelievers choose to resist the will and Word of God, He resorts to this secondary system. It is decidedly less desirable to willful obedience and submission, for the wayward one always faces the consequences of disobedience and fails to find the joy and fulfillment which comes from obedience. The joy of actively and joyfully participating in the plan and program of God is lost. God’s work goes on, but we are unaware of it, just as Jacob and the brothers of Joseph were ignorant to the hand of God in what was taking place. God is never handicapped by man’s sin and disobedience, but we are always hurt by it.
Few have failed to note the typical significance of the life of Joseph, who in many ways foreshadows the life and work of our Lord.33 While this is a profitable avenue of study, we must point out that nowhere do the Scriptures specifically refer to Joseph as a type of Christ. So long as such study is viewed as supplementary and secondary in importance, it can be profitably pursued.
The practical applications of the principles found in this passage are many. First, there is a lesson in the matter of divine guidance. Since we have already dealt with the subject of God’s providence, we shall not do any more than to relate this doctrine to the matter of guidance.
God’s revealed will is given to us in His Word. In this sense it was surely not God’s revealed will that brothers should sell one of their own into slavery. Thus, the actions of Joseph’s brothers were sin. God never guides by circumstances alone, but by the Scriptures, His revealed Word. They did find themselves at a secluded spot, far from the scrutiny of their father. There was a pit near at hand, but it was not the revealed will of God that Joseph be cast into it. There was a band of traders conveniently passing by, but selling Joseph into slavery was wrong.
God’s eternal purpose, as stated to Abraham years before (Genesis 15:13-15), was a period of bondage. Joseph’s brothers had no intention of carrying out God’s purpose—they sought only to get rid of Joseph. The plan of God was for the Israelites to sojourn in Egypt but this was not known to the sons of Jacob at this time. (In fact, God had carefully avoided telling Abram where this sojourn was to be or how it would come about.) Seldom is guidance a matter of not knowing the general principles and precepts that should govern our conduct. Most often we “miss” the will of God by deliberately choosing to disobey what we know to be right. But even when we deliberately step out of the revealed will of God, His purposes will continue through His providential guidance. In this sense, we cannot miss the will of God. And, be assured, God will make us aware of our sin and bring us back to the place of willful obedience, though through the hard knocks of experience.
What a commentary this event is on the matter of suffering. I think an excellent title for the entire episode might be “A Severe Mercy,” picking up on the title of a current and popular book. The two terms “severe” and “mercy” seem to be contradictory, but this is never the case for the Christian. That is why the Apostle James wrote centuries later:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
The writer to the Hebrews has said nearly the same thing in more extensive terms (Hebrews 12:1-13 and, indeed, the entire epistle).
On the one hand, the suffering which we observe in the lives of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers is needless, the result of sin. Yet it is a part of the gracious dealings and discipline of God to bring these men to Himself and to maturity. In the midst of our suffering this is most often not seen because the truth is veiled by our tears. But the end result of suffering is to be faith, maturity, and joy. So it was for Jacob and his sons. So it will be for every child of God.
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
The life of Joseph provides excellent material for a study on rejection. We know, of course, that Joseph was not sinless. His sins are not recorded, I believe, in order to provide a more accurate type of Christ and also to illustrate the matter of innocent suffering. Moses, then, portrays an incident where the rejection of Joseph is without good cause. That informs me, as other passages suggest (e.g., I Peter 2:20-25; 3:17; 4:4-5,12-19), that rejection and persecution may come completely without cause. The Christian must be prepared for rejection in this life. It is the badge of discipleship:
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also (John 15:18-20).
And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (II Timothy 3:12).
Hence let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach (Hebrews 13:13).
Persecution is never to be sought, but it is to be expected and accepted. One part of this persecution is rejection. Few have faced the kind of rejection that Joseph did. He was rejected by his brothers, by Potiphar and his wife (eventually), and by Egyptians in general, who disliked Hebrews. His rejection, and ours, need not indicate any defect on our part, however. It can be an evidence of godliness and purity. Since this is true, our self-image (not self-love) need not suffer self-inflicted pangs of guilt and abuse.
In this chapter God prepared Joseph for the rejection which he was to experience. The two dreams he had were much more for his benefit than for his brothers. They strongly impressed Joseph with the important role he was to play in the outworking of God’s program. In the sight of his brothers and the Egyptians (at least for a time), Joseph was a detriment, an obstacle, and a problem to be removed if possible. To God, Joseph was a key figure for the salvation (in a physical sense) and spiritual instruction of his brethren.
Rejection is an unavoidable part of life for every Christian. If we are living as God desires, we will be rejected of men. Righteous rejection, if I may so label it, is cause for encouragement, not despair. Rejection can best be handled by an awareness that God has a significant role for us to play in His work. Is this not a part of what the New Testament teaching of the body of Christ and the gifts and calling of individual members is all about?
But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our unseemly members come to have more abundant seemliness, whereas our seemly members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (I Corinthians 12:20-27).
The life of Joseph is a wonderful encouragement to parents, who will someday have to turn loose of their children, allowing them to move out from under their control and protection. It may be in the form of sending a child off to a college campus, removed from the supervision of the parents. It may be by a marriage or a job change. All of us as parents will have to face the time when we cannot control the environment in which our children will live. (Perhaps that is more true, even now, than we would like to admit.)
Joseph was abruptly torn from his father and friends and family. He was removed from any godly influences and encouragement. He was placed among a people who did not believe in his God or his convictions. In Egypt he was subject to the strongest temptations. And yet, apart from any Christian friends or fellowship, Joseph not only survived, but he was strengthened. His father could not save Joseph from this, but Joseph would eventually save his father and brothers from starvation.
God knows how to care for His people. No one is on more dangerous ground than the one who is complacent and smugly secure. No one is safer, regardless of their environment, than he or she who is looking only to God for protection and provision for the need of the moment. When our children have left the security of our nest, they will be secure in the hands of the God who created them and cares for them.
There is an interesting analogy between Abraham and Jacob. Both of them were called upon to give up their beloved sons. Abraham did so voluntarily and actively, Jacob unknowingly and begrudgingly. Both sons were given back to them. It was through these sons, whom these fathers gave up, that the future of the fathers was secured.
Throughout the Scriptures, salvation is never secured without great sacrifice. As it was with Abraham, so it was with Jacob also. These two instances only prepare us for the greatest sacrifice of all when God the Father gave up His Son, Jesus Christ, for our salvation. As Joseph was rejected by his brethren and humiliated by slavery and imprisonment, so Jesus Christ was rejected by the Jewish leaders and His brethren and crucified on a Roman cross among criminals. Through the suffering of Joseph, Jacob and his sons were spared from the ravages of a severe famine. Through the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, those who trust in Him are spared from the eternal wrath of God.
The Word of God declares you to be a sinner, my friend, deserving of the eternal wrath of a holy and righteous God (cf. Romans 3:10-18,23; 6:23). But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has come to take the place of the sinner, paying the penalty for his sins and providing the righteousness which God requires for eternal life (II Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:21-22). You may experience the forgiveness of sins and the peace of God by simply acknowledging your guilt and trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, for, “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
26 “The gift of a coat of many ‘pieces’ (not ‘colors’), or rather ‘the tunic with sleeves,’ was about the most significant act that Jacob could have shown to Joseph. It was a mark of distinction that carried its own meaning, for it implied that exemption from labor which was the peculiar privilege of the heir or prince of the Eastern clan. Instead of the ordinary work-a-day vestment which had no sleeves, and which, by coming down to the knees only, enabled men to set about their work--this tunic with sleeves clearly marked out its wearer as a person of special distinction, who was not required to do ordinary work.” V. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 356.
“The outward distinction which the father bestows upon this son is ‘a long-sleeved cloak,’ kethoneth passim. The kethoneth is the undergarment or tunic, which usually was sleeveless--a thing of about knee-length. But passim means ‘ankles’ or ‘wrists.’ Consequently, this tunic was sleeved and extended to the ankles. It was not, therefore, a garment adapted to work but suitable to distinguish a superior, or an overseer. By this very garment the father expressed his thought that this son should have pre-eminence over the rest.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 955.
Not all agree with statements such as these by Thomas and Leupold, Stigers challenges, “There is nothing in any of the texts where the term is used to indicate that the tunic had long sleeves or was of many colors. The AV ‘coat of many colors’ becomes only an attempt to give a meaning to the total term.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 271.
29 “The original word is sometimes rendered ‘cistern,’ a term applied to hollow reservoirs excavated out of the solid rock for the purpose of holding rain water, or to natural cavities containing fountains, which were often walled up with stone to prevent the water from escaping.” Bush, Genesis, II, p. 231.
30 “The alternation of the names Ishmaelites and Midianites in verses 25, 27, 28, 36, and chapter 39:1 would suggest that they were synonymous or overlapping terms, even if no evidence confirmed it. It is in fact settled by Judges 8:24, which says of the Midianites ‘they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.”’ Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), pp. 182-183.
31 Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold into slavery (37:2). He was raised to a position of power under Pharaoh at age 30 (41:46). The seven years of plenty had already passed and two years of famine had gone by before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers (45:6-9). Joseph was therefore 39 when he revealed his identity to his brothers, and so 22 years had elapsed since his brothers sold him into slavery.
33 “Hence the appearance, in our history, of individual types representing the New Testament history of Jesus, such as the jealousy and hatred of Joseph’s brethren, the fact of his being sold, the fulfillment of Joseph’s prophetic dreams in the very efforts intended to prevent his exaltation, the turning of his brothers’ wicked plot to the salvation of many, even of themselves, and of the house of Jacob, the spiritual sentence pronounced on the treachery of the brethren, the victory of pardoning love, Judah’s suretyship for Benjamin, his emulating Joseph in a spirit of redeeming resignation, Jacob’s joyful reviving on hearing of the life and glory of his favorite son, whom he had believed to be dead.” John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), I, p. 581.