Chapter 35 ended with the birth of Benjamin, the death of Rachel, the sexual treachery of Reuben, and the death of Isaac, “an old man of ripe age.” Chapter 36 traces the movement and the generations of Esau, their settlement and development of an orderly political society. Chapter 37 continues with the story of Jacob, now seen largely through the activities of his sons and the manner in which God provided for the fulfillment of his covenantal purpose through the nation that came from Jacob. There is a great contrast between the transparent naivety and conscientious behavior of Joseph and the deceitful vengefulness of his brothers. The unseen and strikingly surprising common denominator in these two contrasting and severely conflicting personal relations is the surpassing wisdom of divine providence.
I. Joseph makes himself an offense to his family.
A. He expected others to share his conscientious work ethic and sense of familial duty. He was working the sheep with Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, Jacob’s sons by Bilhah and Zilpah. Something about their attention to the sheep made Joseph conclude that they were not as conscientious as they should have been and probably were doing harm by their lack of industry in the task of shepherding. Joseph, therefore, for the sake of the sheep and in the interest of the entire family’s well-being, as it was dependent on the health of the herds of various sorts, reported their lack of attention to Jacob.
B. Jacob showed undisguised favoritism toward Joseph. No doubt in their day by day living, Jacob made it known by certain favors and in his manner of speaking that Joseph was his favorite child. He was the first-born of Rachel, after her struggle with an inability to conceive, and clearly showed respect and honesty toward his father.
- The “son of his old age” (3) means that Jacob depended on Joseph and even confided in him. Joseph would go with Jacob when Jacob needed to travel, or if he needed to negotiate in some manner with the heads of other families in the area. He learned maturity quickly and learned many things about the complexity of seeking to live harmoniously in a raw society.
- Perhaps because of Joseph’s being with him in formal situations, Jacob had a special coat made for him. Apparently, it was the product of a greatly skilled worker—maybe more than one—and went to the ankles in length and its sleeves went to the palms of his hands. It was embroidered skillfully and delicately with different colors and perhaps different patterns. It went far beyond the quality of any of the clothing of the brothers and showed, not only the dependence Jacob had on Joseph for attending him in business and society, but indicated a special affection he had for him.
- This love of Jacob for Joseph was not hidden but obvious to the other brothers—at least the older ten—and they hated him all the more as a result. They could not speak to him even with civility. Their inability to do so came because their words floated on an ocean of bitterness and corrupted affections. “Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they practice deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Romans 3:13, 14). This is a moral inability and is the essence of the bondage of the human will to sin. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
C. Joseph shared his dreams with perfect transparency. Perhaps this was unwise, like casting pearls before swine, for he knew that they resented him. Joseph’s openness, however, does not seem to arise from spite, for he told a dream that also involved his father. As we all love to tell unusual dreams to others before we have forgotten them, so Joseph told his brothers with some sense of wonder and amusement at the unusual occurrence.
- The first dream involved the brothers’ common labor. As they gathered corn or wheat and bound their gatherings in sheaves, their sheaves bowed down while his stood erect. They interpreted this narrative as arrogance on his part and concluded that it meant he considered himself as superior to them and worthy to be their ruler. Their hatred for him increased.
- “For his dreams” – It could be that this was not the first dream, but that Joseph had shared others with his brothers. It could be that Moses conflates both dreams and the effect they had on his brothers.
- “for his words” – This could mean that they hated him for telling these dreams as if they did not already have enough reason to resent him and feel his level of confidence. It could mean that they hated him for the report that he gave to Jacob about their lackluster manner of tending to business.
- A second dream was of a similar nature but involved the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and eleven stars. All of these bowed down to Joseph. His father rebuked him for his telling of this dream, not with a mean spirit, but in order to deflect even further resentment from his brothers. His immediate sense of the meaning was remarkable—father, mother (probably Leah) and all brothers would bow down–, and, that it had some divinely revealed futurity, Jacob completely understood from his own encounter with God in a dream. Verse 11 says that Jacob “kept the saying” that is, pondered it and tucked it away in his mind for future contemplation. This is similar to Mary when she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2: 19, 51).
- He had not manufactured the dreams, but they came to him involuntarily, prophecies from God of his eventual position of leadership and authority in which his brothers and his entire family would be beholden to his authority. Like many prophecies, the general outline of the prophesied event creates an expectation, but the details of the manner of its fulfillment only unfold in the actual event. The meaning of the prophecy can be discerned with greater clarity and its accuracy becomes all the more remarkable.
II. Joseph dutifully fulfills an errand. (verses 12-17)
A. Jacob sent Joseph on a challenging journey to see how his brothers were faring in their care of the sheep. They had gone to a place where Jacob owned land (33:19), but it was also a place (Shechem) where they could have been hated for the action of Simeon and Levi in the execution of the men of Shechem (34:25, 26) and the looting of the city by the other brothers (34:27). The journey itself of 60 miles would have been difficult and sending Joseph alone to brothers who hated him would have been at least unpleasant, if not dangerous. It does not seem that Jacob suspected that the hatred of the brothers was as deep and indelible as it was. Joseph, nevertheless, responded, “I will go.”
B. When he discovered that they had moved the location of their pasture, he conscientiously found out where they had gone and continued his journey (verses 15-17). He “went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.” Concerned to fulfill his father’s request, concerned for the safety of his brothers, and concerned for the well-being of the flock, Joseph continued his travel until his destination was reached. He was sent on a mission of concern and mercy, but would be received with murderous hatred.
III. Joseph’s brothers maliciously plot against him.
A. When they saw Joseph, they immediately conspired to kill him. Verse 18 gives a stark summary of the conversation of verse 19 and 20. It is clear that they still boiled over the implications of Joseph’s dreams, calling him “the dreamer,” and surmising that if he were dead certainly there could be no fulfillment of such dreams. “Then let us see what will become of his dreams.”
B. Reuben Intervened with a purpose of restoration. The one who violated Bilhah now convinced the brothers to think more rationally about this wildly vicious scheme. Murder a brother! For a Dream! How irrational and unbalanced sin makes us. Though Reuben had committed adultery, he would not commit murder. In fact, he desired to restore Joseph to Jacob.
C. Joseph is attacked and thrown into a pit. Following the alternative plan of Reuben, they attacked Joseph immediately upon his arrival. They wanted no opportunity for him to inquire about them and give a message from their father. This would make their actions have even more severe incongruity. They did not want words of concern, or words of greeting from the father to be the prompt for their actions, but they wanted to act immediately upon their remembrance of Joseph’s supposed arrogance in giving any publicity to his silly and demeaning dreams.
D. The brothers, without Reuben, sold Joseph to Ishmaelite traders.
- With Joseph in the pit, perhaps pleading for his life and freedom, they sat down to eat. The narrative presents a callousness of action that shows they had no remorse even for the actions in killing all the adult males of Shechem.“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known” (Romans 3:15-17).
- It seems that in their lunch talk they considered again the possibility of killing him. This time Judah intervened, because an opportunity of ridding themselves of Joseph without shedding his blood presented itself. Midianite traders, descendants of Ishmael passed by their way and they sold Joseph to them for twenty pieces of silver, two for each of them. Moses is insistent on the readers knowing that these traders were going down to Egypt (25, 28, 36). Another Joseph would be told by God to take his son to Egypt for the safety of his Son (Matthew 2:13-15). This Joseph is sold into Egypt for the safety, preservation, and multiplication of the children of Israel.
E. The brothers, with Reuben, conspire to deceive their father.
- Reuben, having gone away for some errand, returned to find the pit empty and his responsibility as the eldest brother ripped to shreds. In genuine perplexity, having his plans of restoration foiled and his authority as the eldest ignored, he cried “As for me, where am I to go?” How can I escape the wrath of my father? What will we say now to escape his knowledge of our deed?
- Their plan return to the original deceit, but without having actually killed Joseph. They took his tunic which had been stripped from him upon his arrival, dipped it in the blood of a male goat, and fabricated the story of his having fallen prey to a wild animal. As far as they knew, that would settle it; they would never have to face Joseph again, and the story would sink in as the cause of his disappearance.
F. Jacob falls into the trap and is inconsolable in his grief. The brothers do not come and say, “Joseph was killed by a wild animal and here is his cloak to prove it.” They present the tunic to Jacob, saying that they found it. They ask him to identify it (as if they did not know it well enough themselves), which he does and concludes that he has been killed, ripped to pieces and devoured by a wild animal. It came from his own mouth; he is not presented with a story, but merely with circumstantial evidence, and he fills in the gaps. The matter is settled and certain on the basis of his own rational conclusion. The deceit worked perfectly and Jacob is inconsolable. The brothers bought freedom from Joseph by an interminable assault on their own consciences and the invincible remorse of their father.
IV. Meanwhile, God still rules. Verse 36 brings us back to the real story. The buyer of Joseph works for the Pharaoh, and is the most trusted person of the ruler of Egypt. While the brothers fabricate the story and rest in the success of their ruse, Israel weeps for his dead son, and the providence of God moves ahead undaunted and undeterred in pursuit of the plan of redemption.
A. The end for which God created the world is his own glory. We may see this as the display of every perfection resident within and capable of manifestation in God’s infinitely transcendent excellence and beauty.
B. The most sublime aspect of the manifestation of these perfections in the most complex combination is in the purpose of the redemption of sinners. This is most on God’s heart to show his perfect wisdom as he gives the most inexhaustible display of his justice, holiness, and immutability on the one hand, and his mercy, grace, and lovingkindness on the other in the single display of righteousness in the cross.
C. The pursuit of that end, however, involves all the history by which his law is made known, the people through whom that law will be given and the human nature of the Redeemer will arise. The Messiah will be recognized and demonstrate his perfect fulfillment of the divine requirements for redemption only in light of the revealed stipulations that will satisfy the character of God.
D. The purity of sovereign grace by which Abraham was chosen, and the children of Israel would provide the context from which the Messiah would arise, and the wise sovereignty by which these things would occur are resident within the dizzying diversities and unlikely resolutions of this story. “Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him.”