Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Genesis 37

Genesis 37: Joseph’s dreams; Joseph is sold by his brothers


Note: Remember that “Jacob” and “Israel” are two names for the same person. This entry switches back and forth between the two names occasionally, so don’t get confused.

Okay, so the last entry wasn’t too eventful. This one makes up for it.

In Chapter 30, with all of the babies Rachel and Leah—and their servants—bore for Jacob, the only baby born to Rachel was Joseph. Since Rachel was Jacob’s favourite wife, this made Joseph a bit of a favourite child with Jacob. This chapter makes that explicit, in verse 3, where it says that “…Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age…”. As is pretty much inevitable, when it comes to favourite children, Israel’s other sons resented Joseph for that.

Unfortunately, Joseph didn’t make things easier for himself, either. In verse 2, it mentions that he was out in the fields with his brothers, and brought back a “bad report” about them to his father. (The phrase that always comes to mind when I read this chapter is “tattle tale”—I don’t know if that’s supposed to be one word or two. Or hyphenated.)

Oh, but that’s not the worst of it. Joseph also had dreams, occasionally, where his brothers—and even his parents—were subjected to him:

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.

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.

(verses 5–11)

You have to wonder at Joseph’s mentality, when he told his brothers—and father—about these dreams.

In any event, Joseph’s brothers now have it in for him. One day Israel sends Joseph to join his brothers in the field, and when they see him approaching in the distance, they decide to kill him, and throw his body into a cistern. His dreams seem to be the main thing they resent him for:

“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.” (verses 19–20)

Reuben, however, tries to save Joseph. He talks the brothers out of killing Joseph, and they decide to throw him into the cistern and simply leave him for dead, instead of out-and-out killing him. Reuben’s plan was to go back and rescue Joseph later, and bring him back home.

However, once they’ve thrown Joseph into the well, a better plan presents itself: A caravan passes by, and the brothers decide to sell Joseph, instead of killing him. (At least that way they can get some money out of the deal.) Reuben, however, was apparently not part of the plan, because after the rest of the brothers have sold Joseph to the caravan, Reuben returns to the well and finds him gone.

In order to really sell the story to Israel, they take Joseph’s robe and dip it in some goat’s blood, and show it to him. He comes to the conclusion that some wild animal must have devoured him.

Israel mourned for Joseph for many days, and although his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, he “refused to be comforted” (verse 35).

The chapter ends by saying that the caravan which had bought Joseph sold him to an Egyptian, named Potiphar.


In some ways, the stories in the Old Testament—and especially in Genesis—are very over the top. But in other ways, they’re also very normal; family rivalries are all too common for most of us.

However, we do have to keep in mind the cultural parts of this story, as well. The brothers didn’t want to kill Joseph just because of his “tattle taling”, or because he had some dreams. In that day and age, dreams had much more of a significance; they took Joseph’s dreams to be prophecies, and when they got rid of him, it was because they were trying to prevent the prophecies from coming true. (We’ll see in coming chapters how that turns out.)

You have to wonder, when Israel’s sons are trying to comfort him, what’s going through their minds. Are they truly repenting of what they’ve done? Or are they biting their tongues, as they try to soothe their father? The text doesn’t say.

In an upcoming chapter, we’ll read about Joseph’s life with Potiphar. And, perhaps more importantly, with Potiphar’s wife.


Anonymous said...

What do you think, please, of Obadiah Shoher's interpretation of the story? (here: samsonblinded.org/blog/genesis-37.htm ) He takes the text literally to prove that the brothers played a practical joke on Yosef rather than intended to murder him or sell him into slavery. His argument seems fairly strong to me, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

David Hunter said...

I’m not sure how you can maintain a position that the brothers didn’t intend to kill Joseph, when verses 18–20 explicitly say that this was their plan. They later changed their mind, and decided to sell him instead, but their original, express intent was to kill him.

Any theory that tries to prove that they didn’t intend to kill him is not taking the text literally; you have to completely ignore these verses, which are pretty clear that the brothers intended to kill him, in order to come to this conclusion.