Genesis 37


‘Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.’ Genesis 37:1-4

The disunity and animosity in Jacob’s family

We must remember that the ‘Jacob’ we read about here is completely different in character from the Jacob we read about in his younger days, Jacob ‘the deceiver’, a name which accurately defined his character. Jacob was ‘the supplanter’, a man who took the place of others by deceit. No one could out-smart him and get away with it! His uncle Laban discovered, this to his cost! Genesis 31.

But he is now an old man. The years are weighing heavily on him, and his mind isn’t as sharp as it was when he left his father’s encampment in haste to escape the anger of his, slightly older brother Esau, from whom he stole the patriarchal blessing. Even in those early days, there were differences in his family.

His father’s favourite was Esau, a rugged ‘man’s man’, a man of the open-air, who was a hunter, who kept his aged father Isaac, provided with the venison which he loved! I believe we might say that Esau was the kind of man that his father, the mild-mannered, gentle Isaac, never was.

The consequences of ‘concubinage’, polygamy

He had four wives, two of whom, were described, legally as ‘half-wives’, concubines. He had ten sons, two borne by his wife Rachael, the other eight, by his wife Leah, and the two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. And an old father who made it plain for all to see that he loves one of his sons far more than the others! No wonder there was rivalry, jealousy, anger, envy, and even hatred in the family!

Once again, we’re reminded that God can use the ungodly behaviour of those who surround a godly man in order to bring about His will. Sometimes amidst the chaos of our surroundings, we often forget that God is working on a plan. God was going to use Jacob’s family and their circumstances to get them to Egypt in order for them to become a great nation.

Joseph’s problems appear to begin because his father loved him more than his brothers, this was the same difficulty that Jacob himself faced when he was younger, Genesis 25:28, and sadly he’s making the same mistake. His mistake was emphasising just how much he loved Joseph by giving him ‘an ornate robe’, no wonder Joseph’s brothers hated him.

The Ornate Robe

In the days of the Patriarchs, the usual dress of a shepherd was both plain and simple. It consisted of a short, shirt-like garment, which was tied at the waist by a leather girdle. On top of this, he wore a long cloak of camel hair or tanned sheepskin.

Opinions about the ‘coat of many colours’ have varied greatly, but it’s probably correct to say that it’s unlikely that it was, as is commonly imagined, made of many coloured pieces of cloth because of the range of colours with which we are familiar with today didn’t exist in those days. In the days of the Patriarchs, they knew only shades of white, grey and black.

Only when purple was accidentally discovered by a man who was walking his dog along a seashore, were garments made of purple cloth, but it was so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford it, and, at one time, only royalty and other powerful people were allowed to wear it.

It’s claimed that the dog crushed a snail, or sea mollusc, which is found on the seashore and a gland from this creature stained the dog’s mouth purple. The purple dye was extremely expensive to buy, because, to create it required the crushing of thousands of the tiny snails from which the precious glands had to be extracted and processed This has been established by the discovery of piles of crushed snail shells.

However, purple was certainly known in the days of Moses, as is proved by Exodus 39:8, but, bear in mind that this refers to events more than 400 years after the time of Jacob.

Joseph’s coat was probably made of fine linen, or even silk bought in Egypt, and longer than any garment that a common shepherd ever wore! It would have been a garment with pendant sleeves, such as was worn by wealthy Arab farmers and Sheiks. In fact, Jewish writers describe the garment as ‘Passim’, which means, ‘reaching to the palms’, of the hands.

When he received this expensive gift, Joseph was only 17 years old, and the sight of a teenager wearing such a luxurious garment would not go unnoticed! It would have had long sleeves and the robe would have reached the ground which meant you were excused from work. The brothers would have had short robes which means they would have room to work.

Joseph’s First Dream

‘Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it. His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.’ Genesis 37:5-8

In the Old and New Testaments, we see God sometimes spoke to people through dreams, Genesis 20:1-7 / Genesis 28:10ff / Matthew 1:20-21, but we must remember that He doesn’t reveal His will using dreams today, Hebrews 1:1- 2.

Joseph’s first dream about the sheaves of grain and a later famine was clearly understood by his brothers, he would eventually rule over them. Although his brothers understood the dream, they hated him all the more because of its implications.

Joseph’s Second Dream

‘Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’ His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.’ Genesis 37:9-11

Joseph’s second dream simply emphasises the point of his first dream, he will rule over his brothers. In this dream he sees the sun, moon and stars bowing before him, they represent his whole family, Revelation 12:1. His first dream caused a lot of hatred from his brothers and his second dream caused his father to rebuke him.

If we were to just read these verses and the rest of the chapter, it would be easy to think, why did God allow this to happen? Remember Jacob and his family didn’t know God’s plans, they didn’t know the final story, but because we know what God’s plans are, we know the end of the story, He wants His people to go to Egypt so that He can make them into a great nation.

‘Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, ‘As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.’ ‘Very well,’ he replied. So, he said to him, ‘Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks and bring word back to me.’ Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron. When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He replied, ‘I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?’ ‘They have moved on from here,’ the man answered. ‘I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ So, Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan.’ Genesis 37:12-17

Remember, Shechem was the place where Simeon and Levi killed all the men of that city, Genesis 34:24-29, and so, it’s not surprising that Jacob is a little concerned about his sons being in this area, which is why he sent Joseph to them to find out if they’re doing alright. Unfortunately, by the time he gets there, he discovers his brothers had already moved on to Dothan.

‘But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. ‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.’ When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. ‘Let’s not take his life,’ he said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.’ Genesis 37:18-22

Joseph’s brothers planned to kill him, they were basically thinking they could defeat Joseph’s dreams by killing him. With the exception of Ruben who was the eldest brother, the other brothers wanted to murder Joseph, because by doing so, they thought that if he was dead, then he couldn’t rule over them.

Reuben being the wiser older brother, clearly wanted to save Joseph’s life and came up with the idea of throwing him into a cistern instead of murdering him. He wanted to go back at a later time to save him from the cistern.

These cisterns would have been empty water holes, which would only be filled with water in the rainy season. The would have had a small opening which would be covered with a large stone to stop the water from evaporating, and it would have a much larger space inside to store a lot of water for travellers to water their flocks and have some drinking water for themselves.

‘So, when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing—and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it. As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.’ His brothers agreed. So, when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.’ Genesis 37:23-28

The first thing Joseph’s brothers did was strip him of that precious robe which reminded them of how much their father loved him more than they were loved. Although Rueben wanted to come back later to save Joseph, it appears as though Rueben had gone somewhere at this point, as the other brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, also known as the Midianites, Judges 8:22 / Judges 8:24, who were travelling merchants on their way to Egypt to sell or trade their goods.

Notice they sold Joseph for ‘twenty shekels of silver’, Leviticus 27:3-7, the common price of a slave during the time of Moses was thirty pieces of silver, Exodus 21:32 / Zechariah 11:12 / Matthew 26:15. Joseph’s brothers were heartless.

‘When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, ‘The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?’ Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, ‘We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.’ He recognized it and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.’ So, his father wept for him. Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.’ Genesis 37:29-36

We can only imagine the heartache which Ruben must have experienced when he returned to the cistern to rescue his brother, Joseph, only to find him gone. He was deeply grieved, to the point of tearing his clothes, which was a sign of deep grief.

The brother’s deceit went from bad to worse, as they plot to take Joseph’s robe and cover it in animal blood to give the impression he had been killed by a wild animal. They return to Jacob and took the robe with blood on it back to Jacob. We have to wonder what kind of person would bring this much needless stress on their father!

No wonder Jacob tore his clothes and put on sackcloth, this was a cloth made of black goat’s hair, it was coarse, rough, and thick, used for sacks, and was also worn by mourners, Genesis 37:34 / Genesis 42:25 / 2 Samuel 3:31 / Esther 4:1-2 Esther 4:2 / Psalms 30:11.

We can only imagine the impact of Jacob weeping for the loss of his favourite son, must have had on Joseph’s brothers. They must have been good actors because, despite all the lies, they try to comfort their father but fail to do so. Maybe if they had only told the truth, things would have been so much different, maybe they’re afraid to tell their father the truth at this point because they would know that Jacob would send them directly to Egypt to bring their brother back.

If this shows us anything, it shows us that the relationship they had with Joseph wasn’t great, but neither was their relationship with their father.

We are told that Joseph was 17 years old, Genesis 37:2, when he was taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, a high ranking officer in the service of Pharaoh. And he was 30 years old when he stood before Pharaoh. Genesis 41:14.

He spent 2 years in prison, Genesis 41:1, which means that he was in the service of Potiphar for about 11 years, during which time he rose to become the most important man in the official’s household. In fact, he was placed in charge of everything that Potiphar possessed. The Egyptian form of, ‘Potiphar, is ‘Pa di Pa Ra’, and means ‘Gift of the god Ra’.

Joseph, a powerful picture of Jesus

Joseph Jesus

Genesis 37:3 Their fathers loved them dearly. Matthew 3:17

Genesis 36:2 Shepherds of their father’s sheep. John 10:11 / John 10:27

Genesis 37:13-14 Sent by father to brothers. Hebrews 2:11

Genesis 37:4 Hated by brothers. John 7:5

Genesis 37:20 Others plotted to harm them. John 11:53

Genesis 39:7 Tempted. Matthew 4:1

Genesis 37:25 Taken to Egypt. Matthew 2:14-15

Genesis 37:23 Robes taken from them. John 19:23

Genesis 37:28 Sold for the price of a slave. Matthew 26:15

Genesis 39:20 Bound in chains. Matthew 27:2

Genesis 39:16-18 Falsely accused. Matthew 26:59-60

Genesis 40:2-3 Placed with two other prisoners, one who was saved and the other lost. Luke 23:32

Genesis 41:46 Both are 30 years old at the beginning of public recognition. Luke 3:23

Genesis 41:41 Exalted after suffering. Philippians 2:9-11

Genesis 45:1-15 Forgave those who wronged them. Luke 23:34

Genesis 45:7 Saved their nation. Matthew 1:21

Genesis 50:20 What men did to hurt them, God turned to good. 1 Corinthians 2:7-8

Go To Genesis 38