Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Common English Bible (CEB)
37 Jacob lived in the land of Canaan where his father was an immigrant. 2 This is the account of Jacob’s descendants. Joseph was 17 years old and tended the flock with his brothers. While he was helping the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, Joseph told their father unflattering things about them. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was born when Jacob was old. Jacob had made for him a long robe. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.
12 Joseph’s brothers went to tend their father’s flocks near Shechem. 13 Israel said to Joseph, “Aren’t your brothers tending the sheep near Shechem? Come, I’ll send you to them.”
And he said, “I’m ready.”
14 Jacob said to him, “Go! Find out how your brothers are and how the flock is, and report back to me.”
So Jacob sent him from the Hebron Valley. When he approached Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering in the field and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 Joseph said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Tell me, where are they tending the sheep?”
17 The man said, “They left here. I heard them saying, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.
18 They saw Joseph in the distance before he got close to them, and they plotted to kill him. 19 The brothers said to each other, “Here comes the big dreamer. 20 Come on now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns, and we’ll say a wild animal devoured him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”
21 When Reuben heard what they said, he saved him from them, telling them, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Don’t spill his blood! Throw him into this desert cistern, but don’t lay a hand on him.” He intended to save Joseph from them and take him back to his father.
23 When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s long robe, 24 took him, and threw him into the cistern, an empty cistern with no water in it. 25 When they sat down to eat, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with camels carrying sweet resin, medicinal resin, and fragrant resin on their way down to Egypt. 26 Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and hide his blood? 27 Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let’s not harm him because he’s our brother; he’s family.” His brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the cistern. They sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt.
During this Pentecost season, as we have explored the readings from Genesis, we have seen how the covenant is being passed on from generation to generation. It’s rather messy. Abraham had two sons, but it was the second son whom God chose to be the carrier of the covenant. That son was Isaac, the son of Sarah. Then Isaac had two sons, the younger of whom ended up as the carrier of the covenant. Now we arrive at the sons of Jacob. In the end, there will be twelve sons, but at this moment there are but eleven, with Joseph being the youngest. Joseph, like his father, could be obnoxious, but his father loved him more than the others (in part because he was the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, the one whom Jacob loved more than Rachel’s older sister).
Sibling rivalry is the name of the game here, as is family dysfunction. Joseph worked with his older brothers tending his father’s flocks, and served as a snitch, informing his father on his brothers’ shortcomings. At the same time, Jacob decided to give his son a special coat. The Common English Bible speaks of a long robe, while Eugene Peterson’s The Message speaks of “an elaborately embroidered coat.” What we have come to know as the “Coat of Many Colors,” derives from the Septuagint (Greek translation). You can take your pick of style, but whatever kind of coat it was, it signified the father’s preference for Joseph, which proved galling to his older brothers, who came to hate Joseph as a result. Some of the fault goes to Jacob, and some to Joseph, but blame also goes to our own penchant for jealousy. You must admit that if you were in the position of the ten older brothers, you wouldn’t have had much use for Joseph. Yet, as is often true in the biblical story, it is the youngest and most insignificant person in the family who gets the call.
While the story that follows is intriguing, the writers of Genesis aren’t merely telling us a story of family dysfunction. With this chapter, the writer of Genesis introduces us to the story of Joseph, who becomes a central figure in the story of the people of Israel. It will be through him, that Israel is saved, but also ends up moving from Canaan to Egypt. Note the use of the word immigrant to describe Jacob (Israel). Jacob and his family live in Canaan, but at least, to this point, this is not their land. They will find themselves in Egypt, and again, they will have immigrant status. As the story progresses, this doesn’t bode well for the people, except that God once again will intervene.
The first four verses of chapter 37 are provided here to set the story context. Our story, however, really gets moving in verse 12, when Joseph, dressed in his fancy coat (whether or not it was a “Technicolor Dreamcoat” is beyond the scope of this reflection), goes looking for his brothers who are tending sheep near the town of Shechem.
Joseph went looking for his brothers, so he could join them in the family business. He also carried a charge from his father to spy on the brothers and then report back on their activities. Joseph was an annoyance. His brothers knew that their father favored him. They may have even known that he spied on them. Besides that, he was known to speak of his grandiose dreams, in which they always seemed to end up as his servants (his dream is described in verses 5-11, which we are invited to skip over). In other words, despite his long-term reputation, he was a brat.
When the brothers saw him walking toward them, they began to plot his demise. The first suggestion was fratricide, repeating the Cain and Abel story. They could kill Joseph and then blame his death on wild animals. As they discussed possible plans, Reuben, the oldest offered up his own plan. Being the oldest, Reuben had a special responsibility for his siblings. He offered a modified plan, which included throwing Joseph into a dry cistern until they figured out a plan. The narrator lets us in on the real plan, and that was to return Joseph to his father. In the meantime, they stripped him of his coat, threw him into the cistern, and then sat down to eat their meal.
It was then, with Joseph in the cistern and them eating their meal that they noticed a caravan of Ishmaelites on the horizon. Remember that the Ishmaelites are relatives. They would be the descendants of their great uncle, Ishmael, the one whom Abraham banished in favor of Isaac. Judah, who was the fourth son of Leah, suggested that they could sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and then tell the tale of his death. Sure, their father would be sad, but they would be free of their bothersome brother, and not have blood on their hands. This seemed good to everyone, including (apparently) Reuben.
So, they sold their brother into slavery for twenty pieces of silver (not quite thirty, but close). With this, the story moves to Egypt, to the place where Joseph would be sold into slavery. But, we know the rest of the story. What the brothers do as a sign of frustration, will be their salvation. The story moves on. In time, Joseph will gain the favor of Pharaoh, preparations for famine are made, and the family will be reunited. But all that is still in the future. In the meantime, the cowardly acts of brothers enable God’s plan to move forward.
In the grand scheme of things, the story of brothers’ sale of Joseph to traders heading to Egypt, traders who were descendants of outcastes, who ultimately serve to rescue an outcaste. is understood to be a sign of divine providence. Despite its messiness, this is the way things are supposed to be. Such things are not easy to understand. They’re not the same as God making lemonade out of life’s lemons. What it does suggest, however, is that God’s purpose can be resisted but not stopped. Not even family dysfunction can stop it.
Picture attribution: Mohammed Nadir Samarkandi. Joseph in the Pit and Sold, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55909 [retrieved August 8, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jusuf_zuleykha_005.jpg.