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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 37

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Toledoth X (Genesis 37:2)

Here, in Genesis 37:2, begins the tenth and final division of Genesis, the same being the [~toledowth] of Jacob, following logically upon that of Esau just concluded. The narrative in this section is concerned chiefly with the story of Joseph; and, for that reason, liberal scholars often fail to see that the story of Joseph is secondary, absolutely, to the overall history of Israel, the posterity of Jacob, as they are removed to Egypt, rise to greatness as a nation, suffer enslavement, and are later delivered. It is the authority of the patriarch Jacob that continues throughout this section to the very end of it, especially as it pertained to the bringing in of the Messiah; and the authority of Joseph pertained only to the secular and temporal affairs of the chosen nation. The whole section, therefore, is accurately introduced as the [~toledowth] of Jacob.

One need not be surprised that critical commentators resist such a conclusion. It should be remembered that they are still preoccupied with trying to justify their inaccurate understanding of the use of [~toledowth] in the early chapters of Genesis. As Dummelow observed, "This section is the history of Jacob's descendants, especially of Joseph."[1] Although Joseph is a key factor in the development of the nation at this point, dominating the narrative almost completely. Nevertheless, "Jacob is still the dominant character."[2]

The entire last section of Genesis, beginning here, records eleven important events which were significant in the continued development of Israel. Willis, following Skinner, listed these as follows.[3]

  1. Joseph sold into Egypt by his brothers (Genesis 37).

  2. Judah continues the Messianic line through his daughter-in-law (Genesis 37).

  3. Joseph is cast into prison in Egypt (Genesis 39).

  4. Joseph interprets the dreams of the butler and the baker (Genesis 40).

  5. Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream (Genesis 41:1-52).

  6. When the predicted famine comes, Joseph's brothers come to Egypt (Genesis 41:53-44:34).

  7. On the second trip, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers (Genesis 45).

  8. Jacob and all his family move to Egypt (Genesis 46-47).

  9. Jacob blesses the sons of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48).

  10. Final blessing and prophecy of Jacob (Genesis 49).

  11. Death, burial, and mourning for Jacob, Joseph's reconcilation with his brothers, his death, embalming, and request concerning his bones, when at last the children of Israel should re-enter Canaan (Genesis 50).

The very summary of these dramatic events suggests the intense interest that has always centered in this part of Genesis. Scholars of all shades of belief have praised the unity, beauty, and effectiveness of this astounding narrative, in which the finger of God is so evident, overruling the sins and wickedness of men in order to achieve the divine purpose.

Furthermore, there is no need to question whether, or not, we are dealing here with history or legend. It is history, accurate and detailed history. As Richardson said, the onus of proof does not rest upon those receiving this account as history, "but on those who seek some other explanation."[4]

It is also of very great interest that Joseph appears in these chapters as somewhat of a type of Jesus Christ. We cannot affirm that he is indeed such a type, for the N.T. nowhere refers to him as such, and in the fact of his name being finally identified with the Northern Israel (Ephraim), their reprobacy, and final removal from the face of the earth, one is surely confronted with an insurmountable obstacle (in making him a type), as is also the case with his marriage to a pagan princess. Nevertheless, there are significant resemblances which have been pointed out by many:

  1. The brothers of Joseph were envious and hated him; just so it was with Jesus who was hated by his brethren ("For envy they delivered him" ... Matthew 27:18).

  2. Both Joseph and Jesus were sold for silver.

  3. The efforts of Joseph's brothers to destroy him actually elevated him; and the efforts of Satan to destroy Christ made him the Saviour of all the world.

  4. Joseph found himself "in a sense" between two malefactors, the butler and the baker; Christ was crucified between two thieves.

  5. One of those characters was forgiven and elevated, the other was not; just so the two thieves with Jesus - one was forgiven the other not.

  6. Joseph, beloved of the father, was sent with a mission to the brethren; Jesus was sent from the Father with a mission to Israel.

  7. Joseph begged of the chief butler that he would remember him when restored to his honor; and, in an interchange resembling this, but with marked differences, the forgiven thief requested that Jesus would "remember" him when he came into his kingdom.

  8. Joseph saved the whole Jewish nation from the famine and death by bringing them into the land of Goshen; Christ saves the new Israel by bringing them into his kingdom.

"Though these parallels are not stamped as typical in the N.T., there can hardly be any doubt as to their validity."[5] There is yet another oddity in that Joseph begged the body of the First Israel from Pharaoh, along with the privilege of burying it. And another Joseph, in time, begged the body of the New Israel from Pontius Pilate, along with the privilege of burying it!

Our attention is now directed to the first of these eleven great events that mark this final section of Genesis.

Verse 1


"And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan."

This is a connecting link between the generations of Esau, just related, and those of Jacob, next to follow.

Verse 2

"These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren. And he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought the evil report of them unto their father."

"These are the generations of Jacob ..." The word here is the great divisional marker in Genesis, [~toledowth], invariably denoting what follows, not that which precedes. This tenth and final division of Genesis "covers the period of Jacob's patriarchal authority, which began upon his return to Isaac in Canaan."[6] Despite the prominence of Joseph in this account, and his being elevated in order to preserve the chosen nation, he remained subordinate to Jacob within the covenant structure. Therefore, the following account is the [~toledowth], not of Joseph, but of Jacob.

"Was feeding the flock with his brethren ..." Joseph was not reared in a life of ease and idleness. Some have read that into the implications of the gift of the special garment (Genesis 37:4), but that appears to be an error.

"And Joseph brought the evil report of them to their father ..." We cannot accept the explanation of this offered by Friedman who wrote: "Joseph did not actually bear tales of the conduct of his brothers to his father. But by his own conspicuous righteousness, he caused Jacob to be displeased with the conduct of his other children."[7] The only thing wrong with such an interpretation is that it denies what the sacred text says. Such errors we believe to be due to the tendency of some scholars to see Joseph as a perfect hero, a paragon of virtue and righteousness. Even Skinner fell into that trap. He wrote:

"The hero is idealized as no other patriarchal personality is. Joseph is not (like Jacob) the embodiment of one particular virtue but is conceived as an ideal character in all the relationships in which he is placed: he is the ideal son, the ideal brother, the ideal servant, the ideal administrator."[8]

Such a view, of course, makes a tattletale brother an "ideal" that few brothers would gladly accept. Leupold, commenting on Skinner's words here, said that they are a case of "misplaced emphasis," and that in the inner spiritual things, "He does not come up to the level of his fathers."[9]

Verse 3

"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors."

Some of the later versions read "coat of many colors" as "a long sleeved coat," but it is admitted by all that the text here is difficult and that no one really knows what is meant, except, that is, the only important thing, namely, that it was a distinctive, special garment designed to endow the wearer with special attention and favor. That part is clear enough. The implications of Joseph's receiving it were that he was his father's special favorite, and that, in all likelihood, the birthright, forfeited by Reuben's adultery with one of Jacob's wives, would eventually pass to Joseph, which of course, it did. That such distinguished honor be emphasized in so conspicuous a manner was extremely foolish never seems to have entered Jacob's mind. Such action on his part was certain to foster egotism, arrogance, conceit, and pride on Joseph's part, and bitter envy and hatred on the part of his brothers.

How strange it is that Jacob, who himself had been brought up in a household of foolish parental preferences between their sons, and who thus had accurate knowledge of the foolishness of such parental preferences, should have, himself, foolishly indulged in the same wickedness.

"The son of his old age ..." This cannot be used to prove that Benjamin was not yet born, for the literal meaning of the phrase is, "a son of his old age."[10]

Verse 4

"And his brothers saw that his father loved him more than all his brethren; and they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him."

"It was the partiality of Jacob toward Joseph that made his brothers hate him."[11] The additional factor of Joseph's talebearing was not mentioned by Keil, but there is no way this could not have been an additional factor. The immaturity and lack of discernment on Joseph's part are also visible. He evidently enjoyed the distinction placed upon him, as evidenced at once in his foolishly relating those dreams to his family.

Verses 5-8

" And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said unto him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words."

The relation of such a dream by Joseph to his brothers poured additional fuel upon the smoldering embers of their jealous hatred, and one may only marvel at the naive, childish, immaturity of Joseph, who either was unaware of the effect his words would have on his brothers, or was egotistically pleased by it. Certainly he does not appear here as an "ideal brother."

These dreams (including the one next related) actually came true; and it may be assumed that they were of God. Thus, God was using the wicked partiality of Jacob, the foolish immaturity of Joseph, and the sadistic hatred of his hardened brothers to bring about the transfer of all Israel into Egypt. How wonderful are the ways of God! It was not until long afterward that God's people were able to see the hand of the Almighty in these events.

Verses 9-11

"And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed yet another dream; and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind."

Thus, Joseph's dream was doubled, and from this, it may be supposed that Joseph was enabled, at a later time, to recognize the meaning of Pharaoh's doubled dream regarding the cattle and the ears of grain. Whitelaw believed that this doubling of the dream "was designed to indicate its certainty."[12] "Even assuming that the dream came from the Lord, Joseph was foolish, and even arrogant, to tell it, not only to his brothers, but, this time, also to his father."[13] Morris also thought that Jacob probably had trouble accepting Joseph's dreams as anything except the product of Joseph's egocentric subconscious. Nevertheless, just as Mary treasured up all the things that the angel had revealed concerning the son Jesus, keeping them in her heart; so Jacob did here.

"And eleven stars ..." This has no impact whatever upon the question of whether or not Benjamin was yet born. The dream was prophetic; and, in no sense, was it limited to the literal circumstances of the moment.

The fantastic notion that the "twelve stars (counting Joseph also) were a mythical designation of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, as advocated by Jeremias and accepted by Skinner, "is too untenable to be regarded seriously."[14]

These dreams were literally fulfilled, first, when the brothers actually prostrated themselves before Joseph in Egypt. And, although it is not stated that Jacob prostrated himself before Joseph, he nevertheless accepted the support and protection provided by Joseph, endowments invariably coming from the greater to the lesser.

Verses 12-17

"And his brothers went to feed their father's flock in Shechem. And Israel said unto Joseph, Are not thy brethren feeding the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them. And he said unto him, Here am I. And he said to him, Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock; and bring me word again. So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field: and the man asked him, saying, What seekest thou? And he said, I am seeking my brethren: tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock. And the man said, They have departed hence; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan. And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan."

"So he sent him out to the vale of Hebron," Neither Jacob nor Joseph could have realized that this would be "forever" as far as Joseph's ever living in Hebron again was concerned. Such a simple thing it was, and yet what permanent and far-reaching results came of it.

Shechem was about two days' journey from Hebron, and Dothan was some fifteen miles farther north. Thus it was probably on the third day, or possibly, even the fourth morning that Joseph actually came to his brothers.

With the appearance of Joseph, the long germinating seeds of hatred in Joseph's brothers, would spring forth bearing fruit. As James said, "Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death" (James 1:15). Thus, our Lord equated hatred with murder, and thus it has ever been. All sinful thoughts and emotions are freighted with terrible and devastating potential, ever waiting for the right opportunity to reach the natural climax of evil.

Verses 18-24

"And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, An evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams. And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand, and said, Let us not take his life. And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him: that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father. And it came to pass, that when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it."

Some of the critical scholars, preoccupied with finding multiple sources anywhere they can, insist upon changing "Reuben" in this passage to "Judah," supposing that only Judah attempted to protect Joseph. To do this, of course, would require changing the text; and, as Speiser put it, "There is no encouragement (for such a change) in any of the ancient versions."[15]

One is shocked by the cold-blooded murder contemplated, and so narrowly averted, by these jealous and hate-filled brothers. The holiness expected of the people of God was a total stranger to those murderous sons of Jacob.

The good intention of Reuben is negated somewhat by the fact of his attempting to thwart evil by cunning, not by appealing to the Word of God.

Even Judah's successful effort, later, to prevent Joseph's murder, was grounded not upon what was right or wrong, but upon what was expedient and profitable! The sons of Jacob appear in a poor light indeed in this tragic chapter. We are indebted to Willis for this comment on "the pit" into which Joseph was cast. "A pit was a cistern that held water during the rainy season but went dry toward the end of the summer."[16] The actual sale of Joseph is related next.

Verses 25-28

"And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, and going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh. And his brethren hearkened unto him. And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt."

"And they sat down to eat bread ..." What a glimpse of unfeeling hardness is afforded here! Like the soldiers who sat and "watched him there," as the Lord suffered, these evil men, insensitive to the cries of their brother, which were probably heard by them, simply sat down to eat, apparently with no pangs of conscience whatever.

"Ishmaelites ... Midianites ... Ishmaelites ..." This is exactly the type of pseudocon so dear to the hearts of skeptics and unbelievers. Which were they? Ishmaelites or Midianites? Well, they were both! They were Ishmaelites by race, being descended from Ishmael, and they were Midianites by residence. It is said of Moses, that, "He fled from Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian" (Exodus 2:15). And any dweller in the land of Midian would have been, as to residence, a Midianite, just as, today, the Dallas-ites live in Dallas. All of the scholarly squabbles about this passage are simply "much ado about nothing." That this is clearly the meaning of these names in this passage appears in the second use of "Ishmaelites." In addition, it may be pointed out that these two names are actually used interchangeably in Judges 8:24,26. People who wish to hunt contradictions will have to find something besides this.

"For twenty pieces of silver ..." This would have been two pieces each for the ten remaining brothers. How cheaply they held the life of their brother! Sure they sold him, but one only needs to turn a few pages until all of the posterity of these heartless brothers is suffering under the whips of the taskmasters in Egypt. What a horrible price to pay for the sale of a brother. Thus history, in which God's finger always writes, has a way of executing retribution upon the wrongdoers. After a full investigation of this, Keil concluded that, "The different names given to the traders here do not show that the account is derived from different legends,"[17] as alleged by critics. Interpretations like that of Skinner who read into the passage a kidnapping story in which the Midianites stole Joseph out of the pit, and later sold him to the Ishmaelites, were commented upon by Willis thus:

"Genesis 37:28-36 and Judges 8:22-26 show that Midianites and Ishmaelites are overlapping terms often used for the same people. The idea suggested by the New English Bible that Midianite merchants came by the pit, now abandoned by Joseph's brothers, drew Joseph out of it, and sold him to Ishmaelite merchants does not make any sense in the light of Genesis 37:36."[18]

Verses 29-30

"And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?"

Reuben's sorrow was apparently real. As the firstborn, he realized what a terrible crime had been injected into the heart of the chosen nation. Long centuries of slavery for all of them would result.

Verses 31-34

"And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood, and they brought it to their father, and he said, This we have found: know now whether it is thy son's coat or not? And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces. And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned his son many days."

Willis called attention to the manner of the sons' calling Joseph "your son" when addressing their father, instead of "our brother," suggesting that this is after the manner of the older brother of the parable of Jesus who said, "When this thy son is come, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf."

Today, the blood could be analyzed, and the he-goat's blood could not have been mistaken for human blood, but in that age, the stratagem was perfectly successful. Jacob was completely deceived. We cannot leave this without remembering that Jacob himself was the deceiver of his father Isaac, in the matter of procuring the blessing. And now, the deceiver is deceived. Sin always works out its tragic retributions upon the head of sinners. What a life of grief and sorrow descended at this point upon the mourning patriarch! Only the merciful providence of God could have woven all of the shameful threads of this chapter into a pattern that would conform absolutely to the divine will.

Verse 35

"And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down to Sheol to my son mourning. And his father wept for him."

"And all his sons and daughters ..." The name of only one of Jacob's daughters, that of Dinah, is given in the O.T., but this passage seems to indicate that there were others whose names were not given. None of the names of Jesus' sisters were given (Matthew 13:56), and this could be a similar thing here. Willis commented that "daughters" here "is a generic term and can mean one person or several, depending on the passage."[19] Leupold thought it means "daughters-in-law, and daughters born after Dinah."[20] The question, however, has more interest than importance.

Verse 36

"And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, the captain of the guard."

This verse verifies our interpretation of Ishmaelites and Midianites as the same people, for, otherwise, the passage would say that the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites, and then the Ishmaelites sold him back to the Midianites, and then that the Midianites again sold him finally into Egypt. As Willis commented, "That makes no sense."[21]

Some scholars make a point out of the fact that the basic meaning of Potiphar's name is "eunuch," but, since he was married, the term evidently cannot have that meaning here. In the course of languages, many words change their meaning from their basic denotation to other meanings quite foreign to the root meaning of the words. For example. "Steward" is a highly regarded English word, but it is derived from "stig-ward," meaning keeper of the sty, an old Anglo-Saxon term. But later George Washington's "Chief Steward" was a man of impeccable social standing and of great authority.

Here, then, is the conclusion of the events of this chapter, leaving Reuben filled with remorse, Jacob in perpetual mourning, and Joseph (the future savior of the nation) a slave to one of Pharaoh's officers in Egypt! The fortunes of Israel appear very low at this point. What about the brothers? There is no hint here of their guilty consciences, but later, when Judah rose to a spiritual eminence rarely equaled in his unselfish offering of himself in the place of Benjamin when they all stood before Joseph in Egypt, it indicated that during the long interval then beginning God would be working on the hearts of the sinful brothers also.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 37". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-37.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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