Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 - Joseph and His Brothers
Genesis 37:1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The 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. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.
23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, 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 agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Background: These verses begin the last major section of the book of Genesis. The narrator refers to this as the story of Jacob and his family, even though the narrative will focus most on Jacob’s sons, especially Joseph and Judah. Chapters 37-50m form a unit that functions much as a small novella and makes the transition from the history of an individual family, Jacob’s (Israel’s) to the history of the people of God as the people of Israel. Today’s story sets up the decent of the Israelite people into Egypt. Specifically, today’s text begins the Joseph narratives. It is also the story of his brothers.
Joseph’s brothers have a deep animosity toward their younger brother, rooted at least in part in their father’s preference for him. Their jealousy and rage are intense and in this story they come to action.
The Brothers and their Mothers: Jacob (who, after his struggle with God at the Jabbok, is sometimes called by his new name, Israel) had twelve sons, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel (the nation). The sons of Leah were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issacher and Zebulun. The sons of Leah’s maid, Zilpah, were Gad and Asher. The sons of Rachel were Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Rachel’s maid were Dan and Naphtali. It is important to remember that there was no such thing as an “illegitimate son” in the Hebrew world at this time. A son was a son. Period. Likewise, the difference between a wife and a concubine was not marked and there was no social stigma attached. So the conflict between the brothers is not rooted in the kind of moral issues that surround “illegitimacy” in our day.
Vs. 2 – a bad report – Joseph tattles on his brothers. This word does not indicate whether the report is deserved or not.
Vs. 3 – long robe with sleeves – sometimes translated as “of many colors”. This was a dress coat, unusual in that it’s sleeves reached to the palms of the hands and its length to the soles of his feet.
Vs. 12 – Shechem- a beautiful grassy area for pasturing flocks, about 50 miles from Jacob’s home. The brothers would have pitched tents there. This was a good distance away from the home and protection of their father.
Vs. 14 – if it is well - the Hebrew word is shalom and it means peace, wholeness, wellness, health and prosperity. It is odd that Jacob would send the young Joseph on this dangerous journey, especially since he knows how much his brothers hate him. Joseph is not likely to find the shalom he is sent to find.
Vs. 17 – Dothan – another 15 miles from Shechem. Joseph only finds his brothers with the help of an unidentified stranger.
Vs. 19 – dreamer – this refers to verses 5-11 that are not included in our reading but are very important for understanding the text. Joseph has had several dreams that he has reported to his brothers and his father. These dreams, in symbolic form, show that he will have a position of authority over them. Dreams were not understood as simple imagination. They were the language of God and understood as direct prophecy. The phrase used here is both sarcastic and powerful. It is literally “a master of dreams”. The word for dreams empowered prophetic dreams.
Vs. 22 – Reuben – the brothers are not of one mind in how to treat Joseph. Reuben here, and later Judah (Vs. 26) intercede with the others for Joseph’s life. Neither acts particularly courageously, but they act nonetheless. Reuben, as the oldest son, was responsible to Jacob for Joseph’s well being. Judah has some understanding of the nature of guilt and the gravity of what they are suggesting. He knows that Joseph’s blood will cry out and will not be erased.
Pit – a large cistern dug to capture rainwater.
Vs. 23 – stripped of his robe – this was a symbolic stripping of his status as well.
Vs. 24 – Ishamaelites – together with the Midianites mentioned in verse 28, these were descendents of Isaac’s half brother Ishmael.
Gum, balm, resin – articles used in medicine, cosmetics and embalming. Large caravans were common in this area.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. Has there ever been a time when jealousy got the better of you? How did you respond? What did you learn about yourself?
2. Can you recall a time when you were caught up in something that a group wanted to do that you knew was wrong but you felt powerless to stop it? How did you respond? What did you learn about yourself.
3. Have you ever been betrayed by friends or family, thrown away so to speak? How did you respond? What did you learn about yourself?