Genesis 37 – Joseph Is Sold into Slavery
A. Joseph’s dreams.
1. (1-4) Jacob favors Joseph.
Now Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. This is the history of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers. And the lad was with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to his father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic 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 peaceably to him.
a. Joseph, being seventeen years old: This begins one the remarkable life stories of the Bible and all literature.
· Enoch shows the walk of faith.
· Noah shows the perseverance of faith.
· Abraham shows the obedience of faith.
· Isaac shows the power of faith.
· Jacob shows the discipline of faith.
· Along these lines we could say that Joseph shows the triumph of faith. Joseph never complained and he never compromised.
i. “He was loved and hated, favored and abused, tempted and trusted, exalted and abased. Yet at no point in the one-hundred-and-ten-year life of Joseph did he ever seem to get his eyes off God or cease to trust him. Adversity did not harden his character. Prosperity did not ruin him. He was the same in private as in public. He was a truly great man.” (Boice)
ii. Best of all, Joseph is also a remarkably powerful picture of Jesus Christ.
b. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children: Jacob (Israel) was father over a troubled family. With sons from four different mothers, all living and working together, there was much rivalry and competition. Yet Jacob had a clear favorite – Joseph, who was the son of his old age.
i. We all have ideas and dreams about what a perfect family should be. By anyone’s measure, Joseph’s family had a lot of problems.
· As a young man, his father Jacob tried to trick his grandfather Isaac into giving him the family fortune instead of his older twin brother.
· It all fell apart and Joseph’s father Jacob had to run for his life when his twin brother vowed to murder him.
· Jacob went away, more than 200 miles on foot. He did not see his father Isaac for more than twenty years, when Isaac was almost dead. There is no record that he ever saw his mother again.
· Jacob found a place with his mother’s relatives, but his uncle cheated him and treated him like a slave.
· Jacob married two of his cousins, and took two more concubines (legal mistresses).
· Between them all, they had twelve sons and one daughter.
· There was constant competition and conflict among all the children and all the mothers.
· It was one great big messed-up family; still, it brought forth Joseph, and furthered God’s great plan of the ages.
ii. It can be helpful to remember that Jesus Himself came from difficult family circumstances.
·Unexpectedly and under strange circumstances, His mom became pregnant well before the wedding.
· His mom and dad were quickly married, far ahead of their announced wedding date.
· Things didn’t seem right with His dad’s side of the family down in Bethlehem.
· When Jesus was just a young child, they had to escape as refugees, fleeing for their lives.
· They made a home back in Nazareth, where everyone knew about the strange pregnancy and the shotgun wedding.
· Jesus never got married – unusual and maybe even scandalous for a 30-year-old rabbi.
· We don’t know what happened to Joseph, and His mom seemed a little pushy.
· His own brothers didn’t believe in Him and called Him crazy.
· Jesus said that being in God’s family was more important to Him than His biological family.
· Jesus put His mom into the care of one of His disciples, not one of His brothers.
iii. God’s word to everyone is this: Your messed-up family – past, present, or future – does not mean God has forsaken you or that some cloud has come over you that will never pass. God works in and through difficult and messed-up families.
c. Joseph brought a bad report of them to his father: Joseph reported the bad behavior of his brothers to his father. This naturally made him even more unpopular and disliked among his brothers.
d. Also he made him a tunic of many colors: Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph was plain to everyone, including Joseph himself. As an outward display of his favor, he gave Joseph a tunic of many colors. This signified a position of favor, princely standing, and birthright. It was a dramatic way of saying he was the son to receive the birthright.
i. According to Boice, the real idea behind the ancient Hebrew phrase for tunic of many colors is that it was a tunic extending all the way down to the wrists and ankles, as opposed to a shorter one. This was not what a workingman wore. It was a garment of privilege and status. The man who wore a tunic of many colors watched others as they did hard physical labor.
e. They hated him and could not speak peaceably to him: Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph was an obvious source of conflict in the family. The brothers naturally hated him, because the father favored him and Joseph also reported their bad behavior.
2. (5-8) Joseph’s first dream.
Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” And his brothers said to him, “Shall you indeed reign over us? Or shall you indeed have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
a. Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more: At best, Joseph showed a great lack of tact. Surely he knew how much his brothers hated to hear this dream, which set him above his brothers.
i. The Bible tells us that God may speak through dreams, but it doesn’t give us a guidebook for dream interpretation. Most of all, know the Bible to know the voice of God. We should expect that God speaks to us in the Bible, and if He were to speak in a dream, it would be unexpected.
b. Please hear this dream: Joseph dreamed of the brothers in a grain field at harvest, each with a bunch of wheat stalks (sheaves). The sheaves belonged to the brothers all bowed down to the sheaf belonging to Joseph.
c. Shall you indeed reign over us: The brothers understood perfectly the meaning of the dream – one day Joseph would reign over them and have dominion over them.
i. Also relevant to this dream was the fact that it involved sheaves of wheat. Joseph’s ultimate position of status over his brethren would be connected with grain and food.
3. (9-11) Joseph’s second dream.
Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” So he told it to his father and his brothers; and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
a. Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers: If Joseph was unwise to tell the first dream (knowing how irritating it was to his brothers), then it was worse to share this second dream. The second dream was likely to cause even more resentment, because it set him not only above his brothers, but also set him above his father and mother.
i. Joseph had the sort of pride common in the favored and blessed. He was so focused on how great his dreams were for him, he didn’t begin to consider how the dreams would sound in the ears of others.
ii. At this point, Joseph was a contrast to Jesus. Jesus wants us to be as He was on this earth – an others-centered person. Joseph seems to have fallen short in this area.
iii. Though Joseph was wrong to tell these dreams, they certainly did come true. One may receive a wonderful message from God that He does not intend them to publish to others. Joseph showed a lack of wisdom here, perhaps rooted in pride.
b. Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you: At this point, even Jacob was a bit offended. He couldn’t understand how Joseph could be exalted higher than his own father and mother.
i. This portion of Genesis possibly isn’t in strict chronological order. Back in Genesis 35:16-20, Joseph’s mother Rachel died. This portion of Genesis seems to backtrack somewhat.
ii. Probably, the transition point is in Genesis 37:2: This is the genealogy of Jacob. This likely ends the record preserved by Jacob himself (who recounted the death of Rachel), and the next line begins the record preserved by Joseph himself. These same kinds of transitions are found in Genesis 5:1, 6:9 and 25:19.
c. The sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me: The idea of the stars, moon, and sun representing the family of Israel is repeated in Revelation 12:1. That passage speaks of Jesus coming from the nation of Israel.
B. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery.
1. (12-17) Jacob sends Joseph to find his brothers keeping the sheep.
Then his brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” So he said to him, “Here I am.” Then he said to him, “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. Now a certain man found him, and there he was, wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying, “What are you seeking?” So he said, “I am seeking my brothers. Please tell me where they are feeding their flocks.” And the man said, “They have departed from here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.
a. His brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem: Joseph’s brothers had to do the hard and uncomfortable work of tending the roaming flocks of their father’s sheep. Joseph stayed home and slept in his own bed, except when Jacob sent him to check on his brothers.
i. There seems nothing strange about this errand, except Joseph’s brothers were in Shechem, a place where this family was influenced and harmed by worldly influences (Genesis 34).
b. Please, go and see if it is well with your brothers and well with the flocks: Here is Joseph with the coat of many colors, with long sleeves and doing no hard work. Joseph was the supervisor and his brothers were the workers.
i. In the New King James Version, when Jacob sent him, he even said please!
c. Found them in Dothan: It took some persistence, but Joseph found his brothers in Dothan. It was perhaps a 10- to 15-mile walk (16 to 24 kilometers), mostly west of Shechem.
i. Much later in Israel’s history, Dothan was where Elisha saw angelic armies surrounding him, protecting him even when the Syrians came to arrest him (2 Kings 6:13-17).
2. (18) The conspiracy to kill Joseph.
Now when they saw him afar off, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to kill him.
a. When they saw him afar off: We can picture the brothers dreading Joseph’s arrival. He came to inspect their work, and he would not hesitate to report to their father whatever they did wrong.
b. They conspired against him to kill him: This is shocking, and we shouldn’t lose our sense of shock about it. They didn’t conspire to mock or tease or bully Joseph a little bit; they conspired against him to kill him.
i. The sin was in their heart before it was ever acted out. Our sin problem begins in our heart and must be dealt with on a heart level. Our goal is not only changing our behavior, but especially to let God change our heart. Christian transformation works from the inside out.
3. (19-20) The plan to kill the dreamer.
Then they said to one another, “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!”
a. Look, this dreamer is coming: Joseph’s brothers mocked him as the dreamer. In a sense, Joseph brought this upon himself by the foolish way he spoke of his God-given dreams before his brothers.
b. Some wild beast has devoured him: Their plan to kill Joseph developed. They were so serious about it that they plotted the excuse they would make to their father, knowing well how it would devastate Jacob.
c. We shall see what will become of his dreams: They didn’t oppose Joseph’s plans, hopes, and dreams for the future. They opposed the dreams that came as a revelation from God. They wanted to see if they could defeat God’s Word, God’s announced purpose.
i. Joseph’s life doesn’t really tell us anything about fulfilling life dreams.
· Joseph never dreamed of being a slave.
· Joseph never dreamed of being falsely accused of rape.
· Joseph never dreamed of being forgotten in prison.
· Joseph never dreamed of being the second most powerful man in Egypt.
· Joseph never dreamed of saving the world from famine.
· God’s dream for Joseph was better and greater than any dream Joseph could come up with.
ii. A focus on our life dreams can be dangerous, because we make the fulfillment of our dream the most important thing – we make it an idol. We think of Jesus as a way to accomplish our dream; we make Him an actor in our life story. Instead, we want play our part in God’s unfolding story.
ii. Joseph’s life tells us a lot about how God fulfills His word. The brothers were determined to defeat God’s revealed word. God’s Word never fails.
· What God said about Joseph is true and would come to pass.
· What God says about Jesus is true and will come to pass.
4. (21-22) Reuben’s plan to rescue Joseph.
But Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands, and said, “Let us not kill him.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand on him”—that he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father.
a. But Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands: We think of all ten brothers (leaving little Benjamin out), and wonder how they could all be so evil. There was one good among the ten. They wanted to kill Joseph first and then throw him into the pit; Reuben suggested they throw him in the pit first instead, and he got the brothers to agree to it.
i. There is something wonderful in seeing this from Reuben, because earlier (Genesis 35) he did a terrible thing – he had sex with one of this father’s wives/concubines (Bilhah). Reuben wouldn’t be defined only by the worst thing that he did.
b. That he might deliver him out of their hands, and bring him back to his father: The other brothers had their plan and Reuben had his plan. Reuben didn’t try to stop his brothers; he tried to out-smart them.
i. Reuben could have simply rose up and said, “This is wrong! We can’t do this!” Reuben wanted to be merciful to Joseph, but he also wanted to please the other brothers who hated Joseph. This failure to do the right thing meant that the good Reuben wanted to do (bring him back to his father) would not happen.
5. (23-25a) Joseph is cast into a pit.
So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that 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. And they sat down to eat a meal.
a. They stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him: With cruel pleasure, they bullied Joseph and ripped from him the sign of his father’s favor, the coat of many colors.
i. We picture this scene and think of how Jesus was stripped of everything before He was crucified. Jesus went up on a cross and Joseph went down in a pit, but each was stripped, declared cursed, and put into a place they could seemingly never rescue themselves from.
ii. We think first of Jesus, but we also think of the righteousness of God that clothes every believer, and how the enemy of our soul wishes us to feel naked, cursed, and helpless. None of that was true for Joseph, Jesus, or for the believer today.
b. And they sat down to eat a meal: The heartless character of the brothers was evident—they could eat a meal with Joseph nearby in the pit. They could sit down and enjoy their food before completing the murder of Joseph.
i. Later, Genesis 42:21 described the conviction of sin they ignored at that moment. In that passage the brothers said: We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear. When Joseph was cast into the pit, he pled with his brothers, and they ignored his cries as they ate their meal.
ii. “A physicist could compute the exact time required for his cries to go twenty-five yards to the eardrums of the brothers. But it took twenty-two years for that cry to go from the eardrums to their hearts.” (Barnhouse)
6. (25b-27) The plan to sell Joseph.
Then they lifted their eyes and looked, and there was a company of Ishmaelites, coming from Gilead with their camels, bearing spices, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry them down to Egypt. So Judah said to his brothers, “What profit isthere 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.” And his brothers listened.
a. There was a company of Ishmaelites: We would call these Arab traders, the family that came from their great-uncle Ishmael, the other son of Abraham.
b. What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood: The only way to describe the brothers is cruel and cold. They were heartless to Joseph, to their father, and set themselves against God’s plan. They decided that if they were going to ruin so many lives, they might as well make some money off of it.
i. This came from Judah, who of all the brothers became the ancestor of the Messiah. As the story of Joseph develops, Judah will be the brother most changed in heart and character.
c. For he is our brother and our flesh: “He’s our brother, so let’s only sell him into a life of slavery and tell dad that he’s dead.” What brothers!
7. (28) Joseph is sold into slavery.
Then Midianite traders passed by; so the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
a. The brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit: As they brought him out of the pit, perhaps Joseph felt that this was a big and cruel practical joke. Perhaps he told his brothers how sorry he was, and that he had learned his lesson and wouldn’t act so superior and privileged around them anymore.
i. We don’t know if we should think more highly of Joseph’s brothers because they decided to spare his life or less highly of them because they figured they could get rid of him and make a little money at the same time. Apparently, they considered that their brother was only worth twenty shekels of silver.
b. Sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver: If Joseph was hopeful as he was pulled out of the pit, all hope vanished when he saw the Ishmaelites and the exchange of money.
i. The brothers probably laughed as the Ishmaelites went their way to Egypt, feeling good that they didn’t kill Joseph and that they made a little money in the process. Best of all, they thought they had defeated the dream, the revelation from God.
· God’s word about Joseph was proved true – no matter what his brothers did to Him.
· God’s word about Jesus was proved true – no matter what others did to Him.
· God’s word about you will be proved true – no matter what others do or have done.
8. (29-32) The brothers cover their sin and lie to Jacob concerning Joseph’s fate.
Then Reuben returned to the pit, and indeed Joseph was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes. And he returned to his brothers and said, “The lad is no more; and I, where shall I go?” So they took Joseph’s tunic, killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the tunic in the blood. Then they sent the tunic of many colors, and they brought it to their father and said, “We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not?”
a. Then Reuben returned to the pit, and indeed Joseph was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes: Reuben tore his clothes as an expression of utter horror and mourning, because his weak stand for righteousness accomplished nothing. Joseph might as well be dead, because his father who loved him so would never see him again.
b. We have found this. Do you know whether it is your son’s tunic or not: This showed the cruelty of the sons of Israel was not directed only towards the favored son, but also towards the father who favored him. This was both a heartless way to bring the news and an evil lie.
9. (33-35) Jacob’s grief.
And he recognized it and said, “It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him. Without doubt Joseph is torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.
a. It is my son’s tunic: We can only imagine the pain of the father losing his beloved son, and the strange pleasure the brothers had in concealing the crime. Joseph’s brothers decided to live the rest of their lives with this terrible secret.
b. Jacob tore his clothes: This was an expression of utter horror and mourning because his beloved son was gone. His grief was understandable, but his failure to see the truth of eternal life was not.
i. This is also a powerful illustration of the principle that if we believe something to be so, it may as well be. Joseph was not dead, but as long as Jacob believed he was, as far as Jacob was concerned, Joseph was dead. In the same way, the Christian has in truth been set free from sin, but if Satan can persuade us we are under the tyranny of sin, we may as well be.
c. All his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him: Pretended comfort from those who both did the crime and covered it up was of no help to Jacob.
10. (36) Joseph ends up in the court of a high Egyptian official.
Now the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard.
a. Now the Midianites had sold him in Egypt: Egypt was a large and thriving kingdom for at least a thousand years before Joseph came. The Egyptians were wealthy and had massive natural resources. They were educated and had no real enemies at the time. When Joseph came to Egypt, some of the pyramids already looked old and the Sphinx was already carved.
i. Yet in God’s eyes, the most impressive thing about Egypt was that Joseph was now there. “Though stripped of his coat, he had not been stripped of his character” (Meyer).
ii. “This delicate child of an indulgent father, who had been clothed with a princely garment of many colors, must now wear the garb, of a slave, and march in the hot sun across the burning sand; but never was captive more submissive under cruel treatment, he endured as seeing him who is invisible; his heart was sustained by a deep confidence in the God of his father Jacob, for ‘Jehovah was with him.’” (Spurgeon)
b. Sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard: Even in the midst of this horror, God did not depart from Joseph. In some ways the story will get worse, and when it does, God will still be with Joseph. God is working not only for Joseph himself, but also for the larger purposes of His redemptive plan.
i. We can thank God for His great plan.
· If Joseph’s family wasn’t messed up and weird, his brothers would never have sold him as a slave.
· If Joseph’s brothers never sold him as a slave, then Joseph would never have gone to Egypt.
· If Joseph never went to Egypt, he would never have been sold to Potiphar.
· If Joseph was never sold to Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife would never have falsely accused him of rape.
· If Potiphar’s wife never falsely accused Joseph of rape, then Joseph would never have been put in prison.
· If Joseph was never put in prison, he would have never met the baker and butler of Pharaoh.
· If Joseph never met the baker and butler of Pharaoh, he would have never interpreted their dreams.
· If Joseph never interpreted their dreams, he would have never interpreted Pharaoh’s dream.
·If Joseph never interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, he never would have become prime minister, second in Egypt only to Pharaoh.
· If Joseph never became prime minister, he never would have wisely prepared for the terrible famine to come.
· If Joseph never wisely prepared for the terrible famine, then his family back in Canaan would have died in the famine.
· If Joseph’s family back in Canaan died in the famine, then the Messiah could not have come from a dead family.
· If the Messiah did not come forth, then Jesus never came.
· If Jesus never came, then we are all dead in our sins and without hope in this world.
· We are grateful for God’s great and wise plan.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission