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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 37

Verse 1

XXXVII.

(1) And Jacob . . . —This verse is not the beginning of a new section, but the conclusion of the Tôldôth Esau. In Genesis 36:6, we read that Esau went into a land away from Jacob. Upon this follows in Genesis 37:8, “And Esau dwelt in Mount Seir;” and now the necessary information concerning the other brother is given to us, “And Jacob dwelt in the land . . . of Canaan.” In the Hebrew the conjunctions are the same.

Verse 2

THE TÔLDÔTH JACOB. JOSEPH IS SOLD BY HIS BRETHREN INTO EGYPT.

(2) The generations of Jacob.—This Tôldôth, according to the undeviating rule, is the history of Jacob’s descendants, and specially of Joseph. So the Tôldôth of the heaven and earth (Genesis 2:4) gives the history of the creation and fall of man. So the Tôldôth Adam was the history of the flood; and, not to multiply instances, that of Terah was the history of Abraham. (See Note on Genesis 28:10.) This Tôldôth, therefore, extends to the end of Genesis, and is the history of the removal, through Joseph’s instrumentality, of the family of Jacob from Canaan into Egypt, as a step preparatory to its growth into a nation.

Joseph being seventeen years old.—He was born about seven years before Jacob left Haran, and as the journey home probably occupied two full years, he would have dwelt in Isaac’s neighbourhood for seven or eight years. Isaac’s life, as we have seen, was prolonged for about twelve years after the sale of Joseph by his brethren.

And the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah.—Heb., And he was lad with the sons of Bilhah, &c. The probable meaning of this is, that as the youngest son it was his duty to wait upon his brothers, just as David had to look after the sheep, while his brothers went to the festival; and was also sent to the camp to attend to them (1 Samuel 16:11; 1 Samuel 17:17-18). The sons of Jacob were dispersed in detachments over the large extent of country occupied by Jacob’s cattle, and Joseph probably after his mother’s death, when he was about nine years’ old, would be brought up in the tent of Bilhah, his mother’s handmaid. He would naturally, therefore, go with her sons, with whom were also the sons of the other handmaid. They do not seem to have taken any special part in Joseph’s sale.

Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.—Heb., Joseph brought an evil report of them unto their father.

Verse 3

(3) He was the son of his old age.—Jacob was ninety-one when Joseph was born; but at Benjamin’s birth he was eight or nine years older; and according to the common belief that Jacob was only twenty years in Padan-aram, the four sons of the handmaids must have been about Joseph’s age, and Leah’s last two sons even younger. But the epithet is intelligible if Jacob had waited twenty-seven years after his marriage with Rachel, before Joseph was born. There would then be a considerable interval between him and the other sons; and though Rachel had a second son some years afterwards, yet Joseph would continue to be the son long looked for, whose birth had given him so great happiness; whereas his joy at Benjamin’s coming was bought at the terrible price of the mother’s death.

A coat of many colours.—Two explanations are given of this phrase; the first, that it was a long garment with sleeves or fringes; the other, that it was composed of patchwork of various colours. The latter is the more probable interpretation; for from the tomb at Beni-Hassan we learn that such dresses were worn in Palestine, as a train of captive Jebusites is represented upon it clad in rich robes, the patterns of which seem to have been produced by sewing together small pieces of different colours. So also in India beautiful dresses are made by sewing together strips of crimson, purple, and other colours. (Roberts’ Oriental Illustrations, p. 43.) Some have thought that Jacob by this dress marked out Joseph as the future head of the family, in the place of Reuben, supposing it to indicate the priestly office borne by the firstborn; but this is doubtful, and it was Judah to whom Jacob gave the right of primogeniture.

Verse 5

(5) Joseph dreamed a dream.—Though dreams as a rule do but arise from the mind being wearied with overmuch business (Ecclesiastes 5:3), or other trivial causes; yet as being from time to time used by God for providential purposes, they are occasionally described as a lower kind of prophecy (Numbers 12:6-8; Deuteronomy 13:1; 1 Samuel 28:15). In the life of Joseph they form the turning point in his history, and it is to be noticed that while revelations were frequently made to Jacob, we have henceforward no record of any such direct communication from God to man until the time of Moses. The utmost granted to Joseph was to dream dreams; and after this the children of Israel in Egypt were left entirely to natural laws and influences. (Comp. Note on Genesis 26:2.)

Verse 7

(7) Stood upright.—Heb., took its station. It is the verb used in Genesis 24:13, where see Note. It implies that the sheaf took the position of chief. We gather from this dream that Jacob practised agriculture, not occasionally, as had been the case with Isaac (Genesis 26:12), but regularly, as seems to have been usual also at Haran (Genesis 30:14).

Verse 9

(9) He dreamed yet another dream.—In Joseph’s history the dreams are always double, though in the case of those of the chief butler and baker, the interpretation was diverse.

Verse 10

(10) His father rebuked him.—In making the sun and moon bow down before him. Joseph’s dream seemed to violate the respect due to parents. As Jacob probably regarded his son’s dreams as the result of his letting his fancy dwell upon ideas of self-exaltation, he rightly rebuked him; while, nevertheless, “observing his saying.” (Comp. Luke 2:51.)

Thy mother.—Rachel was certainly dead, as Joseph had at this time eleven brethren. Nor did Leah ever bow down before him; for she died at Hebron (Genesis 49:31). The enumeration of “sun, moon, and stars,” means Jacob, his wives, and his children, that is, the whole family, elders and juniors, were to make obeisance to Joseph. It is a general phrase, like that in Genesis 35:26, and is not to be too literally interpreted. But as the handmaids were both of them younger than either Rachel or Leah, they may have gone down with Jacob into Egypt; and probably Bilhah had done a mother’s part by Joseph after Rachel’s death.

Verse 12

(12) Shechem.—Jacob’s sons seem to have retained Shechem, by right of their high-handed proceedings. related in Genesis 34:27-29. By seizing the “tafs” of the Shechemites, Simeon and Levi must have added. large numbers of grown men to the roll of their retainers; and after accustoming them to their service. they would have become powerful enough to resist any attacks of the natives. (See Genesis 34:29, and Note on Genesis 17:13). But it gives us a great idea of Jacob’s wealth and power, that while dwelling a little to the north of Hebron, he should send part of his. cattle so far away as to Shechem, a distance of sixty miles.

Verse 14

(14) Whether it be well with thy brethren.—Jacob might well fear lest the natives should form a confederacy against his sons, and take vengeance upon them for their cruelty. They were too fierce themselves to have any such alarm, but Jacob was of a far more timid disposition.

The vale of Hebron.—The flocks and herds which formed the portion of Jacob’s cattle which pastured nearest home, occupied the country immediately to the north of Hebron as far as the tower of Eder; but he would no doubt pitch his own tent as near as possible to that of his father

Verse 17

(17) Dothan.—This town was twelve miles north of Shechem, and is famous as being the place where Elisha struck the Syrian army with blindness (2 Kings 6:13-23) It is situated in a small but fertile valley, and Jacob’s sons, having exhausted the produce of the larger plain round Shechem, had moved northward thither. Not having found them at Shechem, Joseph did not know where to go, but wandered about “in the field”—the open downs—till he met some one who could give him information. Had he been a practised hunter, like Esau, he would have followed them by the tracks of the cattle.

Verse 19

(19) This dreamer.—Heb., this lord of dreams, a phrase expressive of contempt.

Verse 20

(20) Into some pit.—Heb., into one of the pits, that is, cisterns dug to catch and preserve the rain water. In summer they are dry, and a man thrown into one of them would have very little chance of escape, as they are not only deep, but narrow at the top. The Jewish interpreters accuse Simeon of being the prime mover in the plot, and say that this was the reason why Joseph cast him into prison (Genesis 42:24).

Verse 22

(22) Into this pit that is in the wilderness.—Reuben apparently pointed to some cistern in the desolate region which girds the little valley of Dothan around. We learn from Genesis 42:21 that Joseph begged hard for mercy, and to be spared so painful a death, but that his brothers would not hear.

Though never represented in the Scriptures as a type of Christ, yet the whole of the Old Testament is so full of events and histories, which reappear in the Gospel narrative, that the Fathers have never hesitated in regarding Joseph, the innocent delivered to death, but raised thence to glory, as especially typifying to us our Lord. Pascal (Pensées, 2:9. 2) sums up the points of resemblance—in his father’s love for him, his being sent to see after the peace of his brethren, their conspiring against him, his being sold for twenty pieces of silver, his rising from his humiliation to be the lord and saviour of those who had wronged him; and with them the saviour also of the world. As too, he was in prison with two malefactors, so was our Lord crucified between two thieves and as one of these was saved and one left to his condemnation, so Joseph gave deliverance to the chief butler, but to the chief baker punishment. It would be easy to point out other resemblances, but, leaving these, it is important also to notice that Joseph’s history is likewise a vindication of God’s providential dealings with men. He is innocent, and pure in life, but wronged again and again; yet every wrong was but a step in the pathway of his exaltation. And like the histories of all great lives, Joseph’s adventures do not begin and end in himself. Upon him depended a great future. Noble minds care little for personal suffering, if from their pain springs amelioration for the world. Now Joseph’s descent into Egypt was: not only for the good and preservation of the people there, but was also an essential condition for the formation of the Jewish Church. In Egypt alone could Israel have multiplied into a nation fit to be the depositaries of God’s law, and to grow into a church of prophets.

Verse 25

(25) A company of Ishmeelites.—Dothan was situated on the great caravan line by which the products of India and Western Asia were brought to Egypt. As the eastern side of Canaan is covered by the great Arabian desert, the caravans had to travel in a north-westernly direction until, having forded the Euphrates, they could strike across from Tadmor to Gilead. The route thence led them over the Jordan at Beisan, and so southward to Egypt. For “Ishmeelites,” we have “Midianites,” Heb., Medyanim, in Genesis 37:28, and Medanites, Heb., Medanim, in Genesis 37:36; but the Targum and the Syriac, instead of Ishmeelites, read Arabs. Midian was a son of Abraham by Keturah, and Ishmael was his son by Hagar. But probably these merchants were descended from neither by blood, but belonged to some branch of the Canaanites, who were the great traders of ancient times, and which Ishmael and Midian had compelled to submit to their sway. (But see Note on Genesis 25:2.) The Jewish interpreters are reduced to great straits in reconciling these names, and even assert that Joseph was sold three times. Really Ishmeelites, Midianites, and Medanites are all one and the same, if we regard them as bearing the names only politically.

It is remarkable that the Egyptians never took part in the carrying trade. Even the navigation of the Red Sea they left to the Phœnicians, Israelites, and Syrians, though Psammetichus, Pharaoh-Necho, and Apries tried to induce the Egyptians to take to maritime pursuits. Their products were corn, stuffs of byssus and other materials, and carpets; but the exportation of these goods they left to foreign traders.

Spicery, and balm, and myrrh.—The first was probably gum tragacanth, though some think that it was storax, the gum of the styrax tree (see Genesis 30:37). “Balm,” that·is, balsam, was probably the resin of the balsamodendron Gileadense, a tree which grows abundantly in Gilead, and of which the gum was greatly in use for healing wounds. “Myrrh” was certainly ladanum, the gum of the cistus rose (cistus creticus). As all these were products of Palestine valued in Egypt, Jacob included them in his present to the governor there (Genesis 43:11).

Verse 28

(28) Twenty pieces of silver.—Twenty shekels of silver were computed, in Leviticus 27:5, as the average worth of a male slave under twenty. It would be about £2 10s. of our money, but silver was of far greater value then than it is now.

Verse 29

(29) Reuben returned.—Evidently he was not present when Joseph was sold to the Midianites. This has been made into a difficulty, but really it confirms the truth of the narrative. For the difficulty arises solely from the supposition that Joseph’s brethren immediately after casting him into the pit “sat down to eat bread,” an act well described as most cold-blooded. But they were not actually guilty of it; for what the narrative says is that they were having their evening meal when the caravan came in sight. Reuben, between the casting of Joseph into the pit and the evening meal, had apparently gone a long round to fetch in the more distant cattle, and probably had remained away as long as possible, in order to feel sure that his brethren would on his return be at their dinner. He hoped thus to be able to go alone to the cistern, and rescue Joseph, and send him away home before the rest could interfere. Thus rightly understood, it is a proof of the trustworthiness of the history.

Verse 31

(31) A kid of the goats.—Heb., a full grown he-goat. Maimonides thinks that the reason why he-goats were so often used as sin-offerings under the Levitical law was to remind the Israelites of this great sin committed by their patriarchs.

Verse 32

(32) They brought it.—Heb., they caused it to go, that is, sent it by the hand of a messenger. They were unwilling to see the first burst of their father’s agony.

And said.—These were the words that were to be spoken by the messenger who was charged to bear the coat to Jacob.

Verse 34

(34) Many days.—Jacob mourned for Joseph not merely during the usual period, but so long as to move even the hearts of those who had wronged him. For not only his daughters, but “all his sons rose up to comfort him.” Probably he had several daughters by Leah and the two handmaidens, Dinah alone having been mentioned by name, because two of her brothers forfeited the birthright by the cruelty with which they avenged her wrong. We learn how long and intense Jacob’s sorrow was from Genesis 45:26-28. His daughters are mentioned also in Genesis 46:7.

Verse 35

(35) Into the grave.—Heb., Sheol, which, like Hades in Greek, means the place of departed spirits. Jacob supposed that Joseph had been devoured by wild beasts, and as he was not buried, the father could not have “gone down into the grave unto his son.” (Comp. Note on Genesis 15:15.)

Verse 36

(36) Midianites.—Heb., Medanites. (See Note on Genesis 37:25.)

Potiphar.—Three chief interpretations are given of this name The first explains it by two Coptic words, according to which it would signify “father of the king.” This would make it an official name equivalent to prime minister or vizier. Gesenius considers it to be the same name as Potipherah (Genesis 41:50), and explains it as meaning “consecrated to Ra,” that is, the sun-god. Thirdly, Canon Cook, in the “Excursus on Egyptian Words,” at the end of Vol. I. of The Speaker’s Commentary, argues with much cogency, that it means “father of the palace.” This again would be an official name.

An officer.—Though this word literally in Hebrew signifies an eunuch, yet either, as seems probable from other places, it had come to mean any officer of the palace, or Potiphar was chief of the eunuchs, and therefore is himself numbered among them.

Captain of the guard.—Heb., chief of the slaughterers, by which the LXX. understand the slaughterers of animals for food, and translate “chief cook.” The other versions understand by it the commander of the king’s body-guard, whose business it would be to execute condemned criminals. A comparison with 2 Kings 25:8, where the same title is given to Nebuzar-adan, proves that this interpretation is correct.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 37". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-37.html. 1905.