The last act in the drama of Genesis begins in the second verse of Chapter 37. We read there:
These are the generations of Jacob.
This is the story of God’s dealings with the sons of Jacob. We often think of it as “the Joseph Story”, because Joseph is so central to it, but it’s really the story of all twelve of Jacob’s sons. In the past “generations” we’ve seen God narrow his redemptive focus onto one man in each family. Ishmael left, leaving God to work out his covenant through Isaac. Esau left, leaving Jacob. But this new generation is different. We might have wondered how God was ever going to fulfil his promise to Abraham that he would make his descendants into a great nation if he were to keep winnowing things down to one man in each generation. Finally, in Jacob’s sons, God has the fathers of that nation. And so this time the story isn’t narrowed to just one man. Joseph and Judah certainly take centre stage, but the story is about all twelve brothers. And as we’ve seen all along, the story is about God overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of his covenant promises.
This time it’s the character of these men and the conflicts between them that put God’s covenant in jeopardy. What we’ve seen so far of Jacob’s sons has not been good. Simeon and Levi murdered the men of Shechem. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine. Chapter 37 simply continues this theme. The other seven sons of Leah, Bihah, and Zilpah are all just as bad as Simeon, Levi, and Judah. We even see Joseph’s character flaws here. And we see how these character flaws might make us doubt that the covenant family will survive intact. God has providentially brought these fathers of the twelve tribes in the world, but will all twelve of them survive so that God can fulfil his covenant promises through them?
The story begins by painting a portrait of the young Joseph:
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Genesis 37:3-4)
In one of his comedy routines, Bill Cosby talks about his youngest child. He dubs her “The Informer”. She’s the child his wife sends with him whenever he goes out. Her favourite words are, “Guess what”. Joseph seems to be his father’s “Informer”. He was out assisting his older brothers as they pastured the flocks and something happened. The storyteller doesn’t say what it was, but Joseph returned home with a “bad report” of it. “Hey, Dad! Guess what…” Judging from the past history of Joseph’s brothers, I don’t see any reason to think that Joseph was telling lies about them, but the Hebrew word for “report” is not positive. It’s a word that in other places refers to slander, but at the very least it suggests that Joseph gave the report deliberately to cast his brothers in a bad light. He wanted to get them into trouble. He’s being a tattletale. And this didn’t ingratiate Joseph to his brothers.
To make matters worse, we’re told how Jacob favoured Joseph. We’ve already seen the effects of Jacob’s favouritism. His favouring of Rachel over Leah led to rivalry between his wives and that rivalry between his wives quickly spilled over into the lives of their sons. We’ve already seen that Jacob seems to have shown little interest in or care for Leah’s children. When Dinah was raped he did nothing and left it to Simeon and Levi to take matters into their own hands. He only acted like a father to them—and then only to rebuke them—when they damaged his reputation. And here we see more of the same.
Jacob escalates the problem by giving Joseph a new coat. Traditionally, the Hebrew has been translated as “many coloured”, but since the word is extremely rare, it’s hard to know exactly what it means. “Coat with long sleeves” is probably closer to the mark. In the one other instance where the word is used in the Old Testament, it describes the royal robe of a princess. The idea is that there’s more to this robe than simply being an emblem of Jacob’s love or his favouritism. It’s an emblem of royalty that the brother’s took as showing their father’s intent to pass his headship over the family to Joseph. It was also an impractical piece of clothing for a working man. The long sleeves would get in the way and it was hardly the sort of thing Joseph would want to get dirty doing manual labour. The coat became a symbol of Jacob’s special treatment of Joseph.
The placement of Jacob’s giving the robe in the story suggests that it may have been—or at least was perceived by the brothers to have been—a reward for ratting them out to their father. And so, we read, Joseph’s brothers chafed at this. They hated their brother so much that they couldn’t “speak peacefully to him”—they couldn’t so much as give him a civil greeting when they saw him.
To top it all off, Joseph starts having dreams. The dreams themselves aren’t the problem, but the fact that Joseph chooses to share them is. Joseph now starts to come off as something of a goody-two-shoes on top of being a tattletale. “Hey, brothers! Guess what I dreamed last night.”
Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. (Genesis 37:5-8)
But it doesn’t stop there. Look at verses 9-11:
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
Joseph’s dreams are a reminder to us that even though God never openly manifests himself in the story of Jacob’s sons, he’s providentially working behind the scenes to fulfil his promises. For Joseph’s brothers, the dreams are just more reason to hate him. They already despited Joseph, but he only makes matter worse by proudly telling them about his dreams, not once, but twice. The assumption in that culture was that dreams were given by the gods, but the brothers aren’t willing to accept the idea of Joseph as their lord even if God has revealed it to him. They simply take it as Joseph being full of himself thanks to their father’s doting on him.
Even Jacob has his doubts about the dreams. He rebukes Joseph for antagonising his brothers and asks him, “Son, Do you really think that even I and your mother will one day bow before you? I love you, but you need to learn your place.” That said, even after rebuking Joseph, we’re told that Jacob remembered Joseph’s dreams. They gave him pause. Jacob, more than anyone else, certainly had reason to believe that God’s plans and priorities aren’t the same as the plans and priorities of humans.
The first half of the chapter shows us the conflict that’s ready to explode in Jacob’s family. In the second half we see the conflict play out and realise that the problem was even worse than we thought.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. (Genesis 37:12-16)
Joseph’s brothers are off tending their sheep, supposedly at Shechem, and Jacob sends Joseph to check on them. They had made enemies when they destroyed Shechem and Jacob may have been feared for their safety as they pastured the flocks near that place. But it’s also possible that Jacob was afraid that his sons were up to no good again. Either way, he sends Joseph—the Informer to “see if it is well with [them]…and bring me word.” Neither Jacob nor Joseph realises how much the brothers hate him. Joseph is putting his head into the lion’s mouth and doesn’t even realise it. And so, knowing the danger, we might be relieved when he arrives at Shechem and his brothers are nowhere to be found. Joseph can turn around and go home. He can be spared the wrath of his brothers. That would be providential, wouldn’t it? But that’s not what God has in mind. And so as he looks for his brothers in the fields outside Shechem, Joseph meets a stranger who just happens to know where they are and off Joseph goes to Dothan. The stranger is another reminder that God is in control.
And, of course, as he goes off to look for his brothers, Joseph is wearing his fancy coat that represents everything his brother resent about him. Seeing his coat on the horizon tips them off that he’s on his way. This is the last straw for Joseph’s brothers.
They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Genesis 37:18-24)
“Let us kill the dreamer and see what becomes of his dreams.” We saw how violent Jacob’s sons were when they murdered the men of Shechem, but those were men connected with a prince who had raped and kidnapped their sister. This is their own brother that they’re now plotting to murder. They illustrate very dramatically the danger of letting resentment and bitterness fester in our souls. Even if we never commit the physical act of murder, Jesus reminds us that to hate a fellow human being the way these brother hated Joseph is to be just as guilty before God as if we’d acted on our hatred.
Reuben intervenes. “Don’t kill him! Throw him into the pit and we’ll deal with him later.” He planned to come back later, rescue Joseph, and send him home. Reuben probably thought that he could earn back some favour with his father after having slept with his concubine. But Reuben’s plan doesn’t work out. Jacob would later describe him as “unstable as water” (Genesis 49:4) and here Reuben seems to disappear when Joseph needs him most.
So the brothers strip him of his fancy coat—his pride and joy—and throw him in a pit. It was a cistern used to catch and store water, bottle shaped, and anywhere from two to six metres deep. He was stuck there, crying out for help, as the brothers sat down to their dinner—maybe enjoying delicacies from home that Joseph had brought. In the distance they see a caravan and Judah hatches a new plan.
Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:25-29)
Why just kill their brother when they can make a little money by selling him to merchants? Dothan just happens to be on the main trade route that cuts across from the Sea of Galilee and then runs down the coast to Egypt. And yet in Holy Scripture, nothing ever “just happens”. Again, God is at work. Even as his rebellious creatures sin, God is still drawing his plans together. Even as human beings sin, God is working to ultimately deliver what is good. As Joseph will tell his brothers years later: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). And so Joseph’s brothers sell him to their cousins, these Ishmaelite or Midianite traders, for the equivalent of about two year’s wages. It’s not much for your own flesh and blood and even less when you divide it up ten ways. But, nevertheless, Joseph is carried off by the caravan to be sold as a slave in Egypt.
Meanwhile Reuben returns. He goes to the pit to check on Joseph and finds him gone. He’s understandably upset, but probably not for the right reasons. He was already in hot water with Jacob. Rescuing Joseph might have put him back in his father’s good graces and restored his chance at inheriting the birthright. Now he’s lost that chance. He tears his clothes in grief—again, probably no so much because of Joseph’s fate, but because of his own—and sits down with is brothers to help figure out what they’ll tell their father.
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins 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 to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (Genesis 37:29-35)
Again, we get a sense of the callous evil in the hearts of these men. There’s no remorse whatsoever for what they’ve done. First they were plotting murder, then when the opportunity for a little profit came they opted to sell Joseph into a living death, and now they cover his fancy coat in blood and send it to Jacob: “Hey, Dad. We found this coat. It’s torn and has a lot of blood on it, but it looks a little familiar. What do you think?”
Of course Jacob recognised the coat. There wasn’t another coat like that anywhere in the world. And so Jacob mourned. And again, we see the callousness of his sons in their hypocrisy. They sold their brother into slavery; they led Jacob to believe he was dead; now they try to console him, but there’s no consoling Jacob. He weeps, saying that he will mourn for his son even as he goes down to Sheol, down to the place of the dead. And yet in the last verse of the chapter we have a hint that the storyteller isn’t finished with Joseph. The Midianites took him down to Egypt, but that’s not the end of his story. In verse 36 we’re told:
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
The next chapter will leave Joseph in Egypt while it puts our attention on his brother, Judah. But Joseph isn’t lost. In fact, God is at work and has been all along. That’s the major overarching theme of this last act of Genesis: God’s providence.
Joseph’s dreams at the beginning of the story pointed to the fact that God has plans for this family and that Joseph will play a major part in them. The rest of story then goes on to show us God bringing those plans about and we know that ultimately, it’s God’s will that Joseph be in Egypt. And so he works through Jacob’s favouritism; he works through Joseph’s pride; he even works through the brother’s hatred and anger. Jacob sends Joseph to meet his brothers who want to kill him. They aren’t there when Joseph arrives at Shechem, but providentially there “just happens” to be a stranger there to direct Joseph to their new camp. Providentially, their camp “just happens” to lie on the trade route to Egypt and Joseph’s timing “just happens” to coincide with the arrival of the caravan. Reuben “just happens” to persuade his brothers not to kill Joseph quite yet and then “just happens” to be gone when they sell him to the caravan. It’s a series of events that show God, the master planner, at work behind the scenes. Joseph’s brothers meant it for evil, but God will save the covenant family through their actions.
And through all these events, God is also working to make his people holy. At this point it’s hard to imagine a group of more evil men. They’ve murdered in the past and they were ready to murder again even though it was their own brother. They even lied to their own father, leading him to believe that Joseph was dead and then offered their phoney condolences. And yet, brothers and sisters, consider where these men stand in the history of redemption. Consider the vision St. John had of the New Jerusalem:
[He] showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed. (Revelation 21:10-12)
Consider that. The names of these callous, savage, and sinful brothers are the very names inscribed on the gates through which the saints of God will enter his eternal city. These angry men, transformed and made holy, are the foundation on which God builds his people, his kingdom, his Church. But then we see God doing this throughout Scripture. Consider the apostles—whose names happen be inscribed on the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem: rough-and-tumble fishermen, a tax collector, and even a man who had spent his life dragging Christians before the Jewish officials to be tried and executed. It’s a reminder that God is in the business of redeeming sinners. Jesus came not to those who are healthy, but to heal those who are sick. He came not to call the righteous, but to restore sinners to God. The fact that the foundation and gates of his kingdom are inscribed with the names of some of the worst sinners, gives us some idea of the depth of his love and the power of his grace. It should give us hope as we consider our own sins and it should it should move us to worship and obedience out of gratitude for what God has done for us through Jesus at the Cross.
Brothers and sisters, consider that this morning as you come to the Lord’s Table. Consider the love that God has shown to us sinners in giving his Son to die for us, and consider the amazing power of the blood that poured forth from the head, the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus. Think of that as you drink from the chalice this morning. Jesus didn’t institute this Sacrament with grape juice; he instituted it with wine. And, friends, wine is powerful. It can heal; the alcohol in it can be used to cleanse and sterilise; and as the Psalmist says, it makes the heart glad—all things accomplished for us when the Saviour shed his blood. His blood heals; his blood cleanses; and his blood makes glad the heart of those who were once sinners and are now called saints.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you are perfectly wise and you have promised always to give what is good; teach us trust you as Joseph learned to trust you, even as he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery. Let us remember that what the world, the flesh, and the devil so often mean for evil, you will use for the good of all those who love you and whom you have called. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.