Genesis 37: The Story of Joseph
Today we find ourselves in Genesis Chapter 37 where we meet for the first time Joseph the favoured son of his father, born of the beloved Rachel and in the later stages of his father’s life. We now enter into the final section of the Book of Genesis. As verse two informs us we are about to hear of the line of Jacob through whom God’s blessing and covenant will be carried.
Joseph, like Isaac and Jacob before him, is introduced as a specially chosen member of his family – the one through whom God will act and fulfil the promises that he made to Abraham. Like the rest of the stories and their characters we have looked at, one thing is for sure: This is not a book about human success, this is not a story about the triumph of Jacob in adversity, this is a book about Yahweh the God of Israel who reigns and works through sinful people.
This is also one of the longest character narratives in the whole Bible, and it is an epic story. The German Novelist and Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann considered it such a great storyline that he created a three-volume work that would be described as the “greatest creative work of the 20th Century”
However this is no mere work of fiction, this is not just a great story. This is a true historical account of Joseph who was favoured by his father and God. It is a story with Christological implications: Throughout the narrative, we see glimpses of Jesus in Joseph. Joseph is a typological Jesus.
The Worst Family Line
Before we move to the main body of the text, it is important to remind ourselves of the background and family context so we understand more of who Joseph is. In the previous chapter Esau, his uncle has just moved off the Promised Land, in essence recognising Jacobs rights to it as the receiver and live out the blessing his father gave him.
There are three stories that show us Joseph’s family situation:
1. Genesis 34 shows us Simenon and Levi two brothers who are deceptive and violent: Shechem the son of Hamor had taken their sister Dinah against her will and then fallen in love with her, after assaulting her. He decided he wanted her hand in marriage. The brothers rightly angered by this action, want to right this wrong, however they go about it in the wrong way. They seek revenge through deception and murder.
2. We see in Genesis 35 Ruben had sexual relations with Bilhah – his father’s concubine; he brought disgrace on his family through his sexual indulgence. Yet, it would not cost him until some 40 years later (Genesis 49) when Jacob is on his deathbed and declares that because of his actions he will not be treated as the firstborn. 1 Chronicles 5 also adds weight to this. So we see that another brother lacks self-control and will indulge himself in whatever way he wants. So some say that Jacob acted within his right to then grant such privilege to the Firstborn Joseph Should this not be Joseph? of his beloved Rachel. Joseph receives the blessing of his father because Ruben has forfeited it.
3. Finally, in Genesis 38 we are introduced to Judah, another older brother, who is also sexually deviant. He sleeps with Tamar.
So, here is a new generation of a family line, that seems no different to what has gone before them, they have all learned from their father and taken his traits. Deceitful, Sinful, Violent: trying to make their own way in the world, without placing any trust in Yahweh. In the midst of all this Chaos, there is one who is favoured by his father perhaps because he is different and stands out in this. Jacob looks on Joseph and sees a hope for a better future, someone in and through whom God can work.
A ROBE GIVEN IN LOVE: Tales, Favour and Rejection (1-4)
In the first four verses, we jump into the story of this mad family and from this first section we learn something about Joseph. He is 17 years old (a number that will be significant in the story), he has spent the first 17 years of his life living with and being loved by his father. In those years together the father has seen something different about him: He is not like the other sons. At the start of this tale he is out with some of his half-brothers tending the flock, something happens and upon his return, he informs his father of the wrong actions of his brothers. It is an action that will alienate him from his brothers (no-one likes a tell-tale), however, it is also an action that shows us something of the future man Joseph will be. He does not live in the same way and he has a different ethic.
Interestingly, there are no recorded sins of Joseph in the whole tale, unlike his father and those around him – it is not that he is without sin, but he is different; A 17 year old man who is living in a culture and family context where violence and sexual immorality reign, where favouritism is shown and jealousy and hatred boil and somehow by the grace of God he is different.
We see more of why Joseph is so loved by his father, not only is he the firstborn of Jacob’s beloved wife, he was also born in the latter stages of the life of Jacob. Maybe the father sees a future for the family through the line of Joseph, However, it does not excuse the actions of the father who shows too much favouritism to one son and never seems to realise it himself. The brothers see the preferential treatment of their youngest brother, the one who has yet to even work the fields and anger boil inside of them to the point where if we were to bump into them in the streets we would think Joseph was a scumbag. They would have no kind word to say about him because all they could see in him was their rejection.
This section reminds us that if we live for Christ and we live differently to those around us, we may be hated for it. Not only that, that there will be some in the same family who cannot fathom the blessing that the father gives us. Like the Pharisees to Jesus. We must be like Joseph and live differently in the world today that is not too dissimilar to what we have heard about so far.
PREACH JOSEPH (5-11)
In these next few verses, we see God appear to Joseph and speak directly in a dream:- two dreams that were so simple that even his brothers could understand. Both painted the picture that one day his family would bow the knee to him, we know the story and know that this was eventually to be true. However, imagine being the brothers who witnessed the favour lavished on the youngest son by the father when he had barely done any work and then listen to him as he spoke so boldly.
Some commentators have said that it shows the immaturity of Joseph because he spoke these dreams out. Although it is not specified here, in Genesis dreams are normally associated with Divine revelation, this is how God speaks and communicates especially, with his chosen ones. As Hebrews 1:1 reminds us these dreams carry the authority of divine revelation, in the same sense that I am duty-bound to preach God’s word to you, Joseph had to speak to his family what God was speaking to him because it concerned their future: The reality was that God was not just speaking to Joseph about his own future or the role he would fulfil, he was revealing to a family how he would bring about their survival and redemption.
Additionally, if we were reading it in the original Hebrew we would get the sense of poetry, This was not some faint memory that Joseph recalled a few days later and decided to tell his brothers in passing, the dream and revelation from God was so powerful that it compelled him to speak.
Throughout the entire Josephine narrative, all the dreams come in pairs. Indicating to the reader that the events being dreamed about are a certainty. Joseph has two dreams in quick succession. The second grander in image and power. The stars, the sun and the moon will bow down to him. The two-dream sequence demonstrates to us that God would sovereignly bring to pass the fulfilment of Joseph’s dreams: This certitude may be the reason that Joseph had the audacity to inform his family of its content.
Joseph received God’s word and spoke it, in doing so he faced rejection and increased hate. The lesson for us today who speak God’s word and live by it is that we will face the same rejection and hate that he faced from his brothers and we must be ready for it. Yet, we must also trust God who brought about this double dream and know that our future is not a maybe it’s a certainty. We speak God’s word, even knowing people will react like the brothers because there may be one like the father (8) who hears and keeps the matter in mind and we trust that God still sits on his throne.
A ROBE TORN IN HATE: REJECTED AND DESPISED (12-24)
The next section of the passage begins with a concerned father. The older brothers are herding their flocks about 50 miles away somewhere near Shechem: Given the recent massacre, you can understand the concern of Jacob. He wants to know they are okay so he decides to send the only son in the house – actions that show great naivety by both him and Joseph. It’s amazing to think that they have never once noticed the hate held by the 11 towards the 1 and especially going wearing his fancy coat that only rubs salt into the wounds of his brothers. His brothers are not where he expects to find them. However God is with Joseph, and a random character appears and directs him to Dothan about 12 miles on where nine of his brothers are resting.
You can picture the scene of them sitting chatting about one thing, Joseph and how his father treats him: They cannot figure out how their father cannot see him for what he is; they tell stories that reinforce their hate and prejudice, they talk about the fact that they are glad to get away from him. Suddenly the mood changes as someone brings up the coat. How they never got one so why should he? Then at that point, the flowing and ornate coat appear on a distant hill with Joseph in it! They grunt to each other: “here comes the dreamer! And 65 miles away from home they come up with a solution to their problems: Let’s just kill him!
Yet again we see (22-23) the sovereign God of heaven working out his plan through Ruben to protect his chosen one. God uses Ruben to turn their hatred from seeking Joseph’s death to simply putting him into the hole and leaving him there. No sooner does Joseph arrive in innocence, when he is set upon by his older brothers who strip him of his ornate robe and beat him before throwing him into a deep empty pit. This is not simply a brotherly prank. The verbs used here suggest a sense of brutality, with the brothers behaving like a pack of wild animals and beat him close to death. The favoured one of the father is beaten and rejected and descends into the darkest pit. Sound familiar? In these few verses, we see a shadow of what would come; we see that salvation would come through the rejection of the chosen one.
WITH NO ROBE: TO EGYPT HE GOES (25-28)
The next section has a very dark beginning painting the brothers as psychopaths; having just beaten their brother and thrown him into a dark pit: now, they sit listening to his whimpers and cries for help and calmly eat their meal clearly feeling satisfied and smug with themselves. But again we see God at work – as they gaze into the distance they see a travelling caravan of merchants.
Immediately the Hebrew reader would know that these people are the distant relative of the brothers; sons of Abraham through Keturah (25:1) who had intermarried. However the point was simple, these were a people outside the Covenant. Judah the fourth born bypasses the blood thirst of his two older brothers (Simeon and Levi) and suggests selling the brother. The motive is unclear yet the reality is simple: that such action saved the life of his brother. God was working out his plan as Joseph, now the rejected one was carried off into a foreign land. He who had started the day as a prince now walked away bruised, beaten and a slave. What does this section say to you and me? I see a challenge to our circumstance! Consider how easy it would have been for the hatred that festered in his brothers to now fester in Joseph, he would have every right to scheme revenge on the actions of his brothers and plan their death. Yet, we see as the story progresses he does not. Moreover, he would save them because Joseph was a man of Faith and trusts that God was at work. When all else failed around him he knew he could still trust Yahweh. He did not hate his brothers because he knew God was working even when he did not understand it fully as he was carried away he trusted God’s plan for his life.
A ROBE STAINED FOR DECEPTION: AN EARTHLY FATHER IS DECEIVED A HEAVENLY FATHER WORKS (29-36)
The last section begins with Ruben returning from other flocks to find an empty pit. The oldest son who has just lost his birthright returns to find that his brother has gone and with him the plan – Ruben’s plan of salvation. Interestingly we see that he actually does care: he assumes that Joseph is dead and tears his clothes in mourning. He seeks the other brothers and says to them: How can I escape this? Yet his righteousness was short-lived, he does not seek his brother to return the silver and rescue him instead he joins in the cover-up as they seek to deceive their earthly father.
They take the robe that Joseph had received in love from his father, that they had torn in deep hate and they now use it as a tool of deception. One more time Jacob the deceiver will receive something of his own medicine. The brothers who had deceived the Shechemites now deceive their father to cover up their sin. There is also some amount of irony here as Jacob who had once deceived his own father using a goat and clothing is now deceived by his own sons in the same way. Jacob sins have come full circle.
In response to the news of the apparent death of his favourite son, Jacob is overcome by relentless grief. He declares that he will mourn his son until his dying day, and rejects the shallow and heartless offer of comfort from his children who would sleep every night knowing the part they had played.
So the chapter closes with a small side note, Joseph has been sold in Egypt to one of Pharaoh’s officials. While an earthly father was being deceived and mourns the apparent loss of his son, a Heavenly Father is working His purpose out. Joseph at 17 years old would find himself in one of the most powerful houses in the land. This was not a random accident; Yahweh was working a bigger plan and bigger picture. Israel’s human saviour was in place. God had planned it all. The awesome God of the Bible and of all history was at work. In the darkest of moments, all hope was not lost. These are verses that remind us of the cross. The moment when all hope seemed to have been lost as the Son of God died a gruesome death, yet we know he would rise again. We know that salvation can only come in this way and that when all hope seems lost there is one hope that stands – Jesus!
CONCLUSION & APPLICATION
What a power passage this is, a passage where we see the mighty hand of God at work in the worst of human acts. This is a passage where we see glorious shadows of the Messiah who was to come and a passage where we have someone to model our lives and faith upon, even in the darkest of situations.
Firstly, let us be like Joseph the 17-year-old boy who lived differently to the world around him, when it would have been easier to fit it – a boy who seeks to live to the Glory of God. Let us be like him and speak the word of God even knowing what it may cost us our friends and families.
Secondly, Let us see the shadows of Christ in this story and give thanks for the beauty of our Saviour who knew no sin and gave his life for us. Let us see the God who works all things to his purpose, who is at work in the midst of situations where there is no hope and let us trust that no matter what we are facing God is working.