The Beginning of the End

This lesson begins the story of Joseph, Jacob's son with Rachel, who will become the bridge for the family's travel to and 400-year settlement in Egypt.
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In the previous chapter we reviewed the incident where Dinah was raped and the ensuing events where Jacob's sons went in and killed the villagers where this took place. This led to their moving away from that area back to the land where Jacob's (now Israel's) father Isaac lived. It was a time of rededication for Jacob and his family as they purified themselves and headed back to his ancestral home.

We also looked briefly at Esau's family line and ended with Isaac's death and burial with the brothers Esau and Jacob reconciled.

Our next section will begin with the story of Joseph, Jacob's second youngest son by Rachel, and the bridge to their travel to Egypt where the book of Genesis will end.

A New Writer

1Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. 2aThese are the records of the generations of Jacob.
- Genesis 37:1-2a

The beginning of this chapter marks the end of Jacob's long record of events and the beginning of a new writer. The previous two chapters recording the death of Isaac and the summary of Esau's family end off Jacob's record and now a new writer (probably Joseph) with the editorial comments of Moses (who was familiar with these events) begins his record.

The first thing he says is that Jacob, like his father, did not see the fulfillment of the land promise and like his father and grandfather – lived as a stranger in the land that would eventually belong to his descendants.

Joseph and His Dreams

2bJoseph, 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. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. 4His 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.

Joseph was the first-born of Jacob's favorite wife, Rachel, born to him in his old age. He favored this child by giving him charge over the flock (feeding means not only giving food, but also being responsible for). As a sign of his authority and favor Jacob made him a special coat. The Hebrew word could mean color or long sleeves. Either way the coat symbolized favor.

Because of his apparent favoritism, the other brothers who had disappointed their father with much of their previous behavior were made to hate Joseph as well, to the point that their feelings were open and vocal.

The term "son of his old age" could also mean "wise son" which could suggest that Joseph was intelligent beyond his years (later we see he was a good organizer and administrator). So we have a young boy who is bright becoming a father's favorite and being given extra responsibility because of it and his brothers hating him for it.

5Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, "Please listen to this dream which I have had; 7for 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." 8Then 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 for his words.

The dream at this point can be simply a product of an overambitious mind. We find out later that it was from God and fulfilled in Egypt. For the moment, Joseph uses the dream and its significance to rise up above his older brothers, and gain their respect.

This of course has the opposite effect in that they resent his words and begin hating him even more deeply than before.

9Now 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." 10He 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?" 11His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Joseph's next dream is in the same form as the first but now the entire family is involved, including Leah and Jacob. Jacob, who had known God more intimately than any in his generation, rebuked Joseph for suggesting that he and the others would bow down to him. But the next verse says that with time Jacob began to consider the possibility of this.

  • God did work through dreams at that time.
  • He was the youngest and God had chosen him over his older brothers.
  • Joseph was obviously more spiritually minded and as his favorite he would like to see him blessed by God.

The brothers may have seen the change in Jacob's attitude because now they not only hated him, they began to envy him as well. This may have been because they suspected that what he dreamt may have been the truth and that God would bless him in some special way over them.

Joseph Sold into Slavery – vs.12-36

12Then his brothers went to pasture their father's flock in Shechem. 13Israel 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." 14Then 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.

For some reason the brothers returned to Shechem to feed their flock, the place where some of them had massacred the town in revenge for Dinah's rape. Jacob was concerned about them because they were in hostile territory so he sends Joseph to find out if they are safe.

15A man found him, and behold, he was wandering in the field; and the man asked him, "What are you looking for?" 16He said, "I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing the flock." 17Then 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.

Joseph does not find them at Shechem but learns that they have travelled 20 miles northward to a place called Dotham. They were upset and in no mood to be around their home so they wandered to pasture in further places. The word Dotham means "two cisterns or two wells". It was an area that had a good water supply. Apparently one of the wells was dry because this is where they eventually threw Joseph.

18When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death. 19They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer! 20Now 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!" 21But Reuben heard this and rescued him out of their hands and said, "Let us not take his life." 22Reuben 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.

Sin has no age or culture. At least 4000 years ago this scene is being played out. A younger brother's arrogance creates jealousy, resentments and hatred in his brothers' hearts. That hatred in the heart eventually turns to murderous intent. Jesus said that if you harbored anger in your heart you were already guilty in God's court of murdering your brother – because one naturally leads to the other if not checked.

They do not want to shed his blood because of God's warning against the shedding blood. They knew that if they did, God would require it of them. Note their legalistic attitude in thinking that the way they killed him would get them around God's command. Rationalization and denial were big in those days as well as today.

It is interesting that Reuben, who had acted so badly with his father's concubine, was now showing some leadership in trying to save his brother. He had a lot to gain by Joseph's death because it would guarantee that he held on to his position. However he was not a man of violence like Simeon and Levi.

So they decide to put him into one of the empty wells to die of starvation (Reuben of course thinking he could come back and save him).

23So it came about, when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the varicolored tunic that was on him; 24and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it.

25Then 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. 26Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27Come 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. 28Then 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.

For some reason Reuben is not present in the next scene as the brothers discuss Joseph's situation further. A caravan came through and now Judah, the fourth oldest, proposes a plan that will solve several problems at once – sell him as a slave to Egypt:

  • This would avoid killing him and having his blood on their hands.
  • This would guarantee no one could rescue him from the well.
  • This would also rid them of his influence and presence in the family.
  • They would also make some money from this deal.

Reuben is not there, Simeon and Levi are violent men, and it is left to Judah to plea for Joseph's life. He could not oppose the others by force so he devises a plan that will do the best considering the circumstances.

Later on in Genesis 42:21, it says that all the while these arguments were going on Joseph was pleading with his brothers with an anguished soul. Imagine, you are 17 years old and your brothers are debating whether to kill you, let you starve or sell you into slavery where you will never see your home again.

They finally sell him for 20 pieces of silver.

Later, the price for the dedication of a young boy will be fixed at 20 pieces of silver by the priests (Leviticus 27:5) and the price for a mature male slave will become 30 pieces of silver.

29Now Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he tore his garments. 30He returned to his brothers and said, "The boy is not there; as for me, where am I to go?" 31So they took Joseph's tunic, and slaughtered a male goat and dipped the tunic in the blood; 32and 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." 33Then he examined it and said, "It is my son's tunic. A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!"

Reuben returns to rescue Joseph and, when he sees that Joseph is missing, is terribly grieved. As the oldest he is responsible and now does not know what he is going to tell his father concerning Joseph.

The plan is to bring back Joseph's coat soaked in blood and allow Jacob to draw his own conclusions, which he does. He is shocked and does not question them, not even about the fact that the coat itself is not torn or there is no sign of the body.

34So Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35Then 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. 36Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh's officer, the captain of the bodyguard.

Jacob's response was total and inconsolable grief:

  • He had lost his beloved Rachel only a few years before.
  • Now Joseph his favorite son had been killed.
  • He also feared for the promise because without Joseph there seemed to be none of his sons who could carry on the spiritual leadership of the family.

His sons and daughters eventually became worried because he was intent on mourning until he died and could be with his dead son. This was hypocritical on their part considering what they had done.

Joseph is eventually sold to Potiphar. The term "officer" is the Hebrew word Saris which means eunuch. This may explain the motivation of his wife to have sex with Joseph later on. Potiphar was also captain of the guard. This entailed the gruesome job of being the king's official executioner.

The chapter ends with Joseph now beginning a new life in Egypt as God's plan begins to unfold.


1. Be careful how you use spiritual gifts

Joseph was obviously a favored son and had many talents. His dreams demonstrated that God wanted to use him in special ways. Because of his youth however, Joseph allowed these things to go to his head and became arrogant rather than being humbled by his gifts.

What he should have done was to go to God in prayer for greater understanding and direction. Or he should have sought his father's advice in private. Instead, he showed off and paid the price for his pride.

In the New Testament we see the same type of things happening in the Corinthian church where young Christians in the faith are blessed with great spiritual gifts but use them to show off or compete with each other for pre-eminence in the church.

We need to remember that whatever gifts you have in the church:

  • Romans 12: Preaching, teaching, serving in some way with a skill of some kind, leadership ability, counseling, benevolence or the ability to make and give money.

These gifts as well as the miraculous gifts given in the first century were given with two purposes in mind: to honor and serve God and to serve others in some way.

Sometimes our prayer is for God to reveal to us what our gift is; sometimes it is to help find a way to use our gifts but our gifts are never for our own glory or wealth. For example:

  • Mozart had a gift of musical genius but spent it on himself in a wasted life.
  • Beethoven also had the same genius but on every sheet of music he would inscribe – "to God be the glory".

2. We all need refinement

Joseph had the gift of prophecy in the ability to interpret dreams but God had to work on his character before he could become useful to Him. His suffering refined his spirit to where he trusted in God, humbled himself and eventually forgave and loved his brothers.

His experience is much like our own. Much of what happens to us is used by God to refine and purify our character and prepare us for service on earth or life in heaven.

If there was no God we could curse our luck for illness or adversity, but because there is a God who knows and acts and is in charge, we can trust that "God causes all things to work together for good..." Romans 8:28. God causes in that He eventually makes all good and bad things work for His good purposes.

3. Sometimes you have to stand up for right

Reuben's problem was that he was soft. Instead of finding his own wife, he took the woman closest to him, his father's concubine. Instead of standing up to his brothers and claiming his rightful authority as oldest and denounce the deed as wrong, he tried to devise a sneaky plan to save Joseph. His inability to stand up cost him his blessing and the chance to redeem himself with his father by saving Joseph.

Negotiating and compromising diplomatically is important and necessary, but sometimes, especially when it comes to what is right according to God, you have to draw the line and stand up for what is right. In your home, church and community.

If God's own people do not, who will?

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize the evidence of a new writer for the Geneses narrative and the significance of this.
  2. Summarize the dreams of Joseph from Genesis 37:2-11 and their impact on his relationship with his brothers.
  3. What is the relationship between Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery and our slavery into the bondage of sin?
  4. What can we learn about our heavenly Father's grief at the separation we cause and the grief Jacob experienced when he was separated from Joseph?
  5. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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