The Word Made Fresh
1Jacob settled in the land of Canaan where his father had lived, and this is the story of his family:
2Joseph, now a young man of seventeen, was watching his father’s sheep with his half-brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. He brought their father an unflattering report about them. 3Joseph was his father Israel’s favorite because he was born in his old age. He made an elaborate colorful robe for Joseph. 4When his brothers saw that he was their father’s favorite they detested him and couldn’t say anything nice about him.
5On one occasion Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they disliked him even more. 6He said, “Listen to this dream I had: 7we were out in the grain field tying sheaves of grain. All of a sudden my sheaf stood up, and your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to it.”
8His brothers were indignant. “So,” they said, “you’re going to rule over us? You’re going to tell us what to do?” And they hated him even more because of his dream.
9Then he had another dream. He told his brothers about that one, too. He said, “I had another dream! The sun and the moon and eleven stars were all bowing down to me!” 10But when he told his father and his brothers about this dream, his father was rankled, and said, “What kind of dream is this? Do you think your mother and I and your brothers are all going to come and bow down to you?” His brothers were becoming ever more jealous him, but his father mulled over the incident.
12His brothers went to Shechem to find pasturage for their father’s flocks. 13Israel summoned Joseph and said, “Your brothers are with the flocks at Shechem, aren’t they? I want you to go check on them.”
“Whatever you say, father,” Joseph answered.
14Jacob said, “Go and see how your brothers are doing with the flocks, and report back to me.” So, he sent Joseph from the valley of Hebron.
Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15and a man saw him wandering in the countryside. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16I’m looking for my brothers,” said Joseph. “Can you tell me where they are pasturing the flocks?”
17“They have moved on from here,” the man told him. “I heard them say they were going to Dothan.”
So, Joseph followed his brothers to Dothan. 18They saw him approaching a long way off, and while they watched him approach, they made plans to kill him. 19They said, “Here comes that dreamer. 20Let’s kill him and throw him into a pit. We can say that a wild animal killed him and ate him. Then we’ll see what will become of his dreams!”
21But Reuben came to his rescue. He said, “Let’s not kill him.” 22He said, “We need not shed any blood. Throw him into this pit here in the middle of nowhere, but don’t commit murder by your own hands.” He said that, thinking to rescue Joseph later and send him back to their father. 23So, when Joseph got to them, they grabbed him and took off his colorful robe, the one his father had made him, 24and they threw him into an empty, dry pit.
25Then they sat down to eat and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites approaching from the direction of Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices and balm and resins. They were on their way to carry their goods to Egypt. 26Judah said, “If we kill our brother and hide his body, it won’t get us anything. Instead of killing him with our own hands, 27why don’t we sell him to the Ishmaelites? After all, he is our own brother, our own flesh and blood.”
They all agreed to that plan, 28and when some Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. They got twenty pieces of silver for him, and Joseph was taken to Egypt.
29When Reuben returned to the pit and discovered Joseph missing, he tore his robe. 30He went to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone! Now what will I do?” 31They took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the animal’s blood. 32They took the colorful robe to their father. They said, “We found this. Can you tell if this is your son’s robe?”
33Jacob recognized it. He said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has torn him apart and devoured him!” 34Then Jacob tore his clothes and put sackcloth around his middle and mourned for his son for many days. 35His sons and daughters tried to console him but could not. He said, “I will still be grieving when I go down to Sheol to be with my son,” and he wept for him.
36Meanwhile the Midianites had sold Joseph in Egypt to a man named Potiphar, the captain of the guard in Pharaoh’s service.
1-2: After the brief excursion into Edom, we return now to Canaan and the story of the covenant people, Jacob and his descendants.
2-4: We are introduced to Joseph. Joseph is the oldest son of Jacob and Rachel. His mother Rachel died giving birth to his little brother, Benjamin. This introduction paints Joseph as Jacob’s favorite because he was born in Jacob’s old age, but that doesn’t track with the story of Jacob’s stay in Haran working for his father-in-law Laban, where 11 of his 12 sons were born, including Joseph. Nevertheless, we get the picture. Jacob loves him best and gives him a special coat to mark his favored status: a “coat of many colors,” in older translations; a “long robe with sleeves” in others. The Hebrew words cannot yet be accurately translated. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite and therefore his brothers hate him. It is interesting that Jacob assigns him to help the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, and not the sons of Leah.
5-8: As his father’s favorite, Joseph apparently leaves no opportunity lost to lord it over his brothers. He has a dream in which they are all tying sheaves of grain in the field, and their sheaves bow down to his. Telling them the dream only serves to make him even more loathsome in their eyes. He is a spoiled brat and a braggart to boot.
9-11: Joseph has another dream and can’t keep this one quiet either. He dreams that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars all bow down to him. This dream irks even his father who interprets it to mean that his parents (although Leah is not his actual mother) will be beneath him. This makes his brothers even more jealous, but it causes Jacob to ponder. Jacob takes dreams seriously, you know.
12-14: Shechem is quite a distance from Hebron; some 45 miles to the north. Joseph’s brothers (probably not including Benjamin) are there with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph to find out how they are faring.
15-24: Joseph has no luck finding his brothers when he arrives at Shechem. He has a “chance” encounter in the grazing lands with a man who tells him that his brothers have gone another 15 miles further north, to Dothan. We might wonder how it was so easy for Joseph to find someone who would know his brothers’ whereabouts (most commentators think the man in the fields is intended to be an angelic messenger), but don’t forget that Jacob and his sons are well known around Shechem (see chapter 34), although probably not very welcome there. His brothers see him coming and plot to kill him. They’re 60 miles from home, they’re in a locale where they have killed before, and they hate Joseph. But Reuben, the oldest, counsels them not to kill him but only to throw him into a pit. They think Reuben means for Joseph to die there rather than by their hands, but he really means to rescue Joseph later and send him back home. They take his cherished robe away from him and throw him into the pit.
25-28: Now the story gets a little confusing. The brothers see a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants (that would be Esau’s people) on their way to Egypt with a load of goods to sell. Judah comes up with the idea of selling Joseph to them, and they agree. But they must be some distance from the pit where they left Joseph, because before they can carry out their plan some Midianite traders capture Joseph and sell him to the Ishmaelites. So Joseph’s brothers, although culpable, are not actually the ones who sell him into slavery.
29-35: Now Reuben comes to the pit to rescue Joseph, but Joseph isn’t there. He returns to his brothers and tells them Joseph is missing. It would be easy enough for them to simply tell their father that Joseph never found them, but instead they decide to smear his cherished robe with blood and cook up a story about finding it. The robe is delivered to Jacob, who immediately identifies it as the one he gave to Joseph, and he assumes that his favorite son has been torn apart by some wild beast. He tears his clothes and dons sackcloth as a sign of mourning and grieves terribly for a long time, causing no small concern on the part of his sons. At this point they have no idea what really happened to Joseph.
36: We are told that Joseph is sold by the Midianites in Egypt to one of Pharaoh’s officials named Potiphar. How he got back into the hands of the Midianites is not explained. Either they bought him back from the Ishmaelites or perhaps the teller of the tale is himself a bit confused at this point and meant to say the Ishmaelites, and not the Midianites, sold him to Potiphar.
Family squabbles are certainly not unfamiliar to us today. And spoiled children are still among us. In this case, however, God uses Joseph’s self-importance as a way to get him to Egypt where the people of Israel (don’t forget that Israel is Jacob) will soon become God’s people. God takes the long view, which often drives us to despair. We need to remember that in every time of trouble, God has a plan for us.