Verses 1-11: Joseph’s incipient greatness
After the completion of Israel’s (formerly Jacob) homecoming, Esau’s departure and the deaths of Isaac and Rachel, the world of God delves into the lives and occurrences to follow, with a unique and deserved concentration on Joseph.
Joseph starts out as unique among his brothers as he was the firstborn of only two sons born to Rachel, Isaac’s true love (the other being Benjamin). The other sons (and one daughter Dinah) that were not born to Rachel were were born of Leah or one of the two handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah.
As chapter 37 opens, Joseph is with his many brothers and they are all feeding their flock. Joseph, who will eventually be shown in the Bible to be a righteous individual and a man of great integrity, gives a bad report of his brothers to his father Israel. His bothers will, for their part, shortly be shown to be envious and spiteful. Granted, the brothers (or anyone, for that matter), would resent Joseph for “telling” on them – but given the known respective characters of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s report was very likely justified.
Compounding the brothers’ resentment, Israel made and gifted to Joseph a coat of many colors, a sure symbol of favoritism among the siblings. Joseph also had two dreams around this time that painted him as one day reigning over his brothers and parents as a great leader. These were prophetic dreams and Joseph interpreted them that way. We get the sense that Joseph shares these dreams with his family as a way to reveal the prophecy of his future rather than with a condescending attitude. Because of jealousy and resentment, his brothers were sadly unprepared to share in the full meaning of these dreams. But Israel had a different understanding. He must have seen the goodness and righteousness in Joseph for he did not completely discount these dreams as his sons did: “And his brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” Genesis 37:11
Verses 12-36: Joseph sold to Potiphar
All of Israel’s sons except for Joseph take took the flocks to Shechem, presumably to find good grazing land. Israel trusted Joseph’s judgment and sent him to find his brothers, so that he could report on their behavior again as he had before. When Joseph goes to Shechem, he seeks but does not find his brothers, and he is told that they have gone to Dothan. Joseph goes to Dothan and finds them there. This change in the plan is the first subtle sign that things will go wrong for Joseph on this seemingly simple journey. After this, Israel would have little to no way of knowing where Joseph had gone. Joseph’s brothers’ resentment is alive and well because they purpose to kill him as they see him approaching. Calling him a dreamer and deriding his dreams, they plan to kill him, cast him into a pit and blame it on a wild animal.
However, Reuben intercedes and proposes that they merely cast him into a pit. Reuben’s plan is to ultimately save Joseph and return him to their father. It is fitting that Reuben would make this intercession because he was the firstborn of all the brothers, holding a place of prominence and respect.
When Joseph reaches them, they strip off his coat of many colors and cast him into a pit. Then, unashamedly, the brothers sit down to eat, not far from the pit. During the meal and in a conversation hastened by Judah, the brothers decide to sell Joseph to traders descended from Ishmael that are headed to Egypt (You may remember Ishmael as the one born of Hagar to Abraham in Genesis 16). Judah is another voice of semi-reason in the madness as he says, “let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.” Thus Joseph was sold to the Midianites for twenty shekels of silver.
Reuben later returned to the pit and Joseph was not there. When Reuben asked the brothers about Joseph, the brothers then collectively devised the plan of soaking Joseph’s coat of many colors in blood in an effort to show Israel that he had been ripped apart by a wild animal. When they took the blood-soaked garment to Israel, he accepted the lie and mourned for many days.
But as it would happen, and as we know, Joseph is not dead. He is merely a slave and is sold by the Midianites to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard. What will happen to him? As a slave in Egypt, we will see that Joseph is capable of much.