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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 37

JOSEPH

The Life of Joseph ( Gen 37:2 b - 51:26)

In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.

The Betrayal and Selling into Egypt of Joseph (Genesis 37:2-36 )

We note here a remarkable change in the narrative. Up to this point each section has been relatively brief. Covenant narrative has followed covenant narrative. This was because the records were written down in order to preserve the words of the covenant which were then, as regularly in the ancient world, put in the context of the history behind them. Thus up to Genesis 37:2 a we continually have typical examples of covenant records.

But now all changes. Instead of short sections we have a flowing narrative that goes on and on, portraying the life of Joseph. And this remarkable fact is exactly what we would expect if these records were written in the first part of the 2nd Millennium BC. For Joseph was a high official in Egypt where papyrus (a writing surface made from the papyrus plant) was plentiful and the recording of information about such officials was common practise. A good case could indeed be made for suggesting that it was at this time that the earlier written covenant records were taken and compiled into one narrative to provide background history to this great man.

Verse 1

‘And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.’

In contrast with Esau Jacob remains in the promised land. This is the crucially important statement that keeps Jacob firmly established as the inheritor of the promises. He remains where God purposes are being outworked.

This verse could well in the original tablet have immediately followed Genesis 35:29 with Genesis 36:0 inserted by the compiler to explain what happened to Esau before carrying on the Jacob story. Alternately it could be the conclusion to Genesis 36:0, for it is of similar import to Genesis 36:8. This would then make the chapter part of ‘the family history of Jacob’ (Genesis 37:2 a). Jacob may well have been responsible for the tablet that recorded the Esau story as the elder brother and head of the family once Esau had died, just as Esau could have been responsible for the tablet that told the Jacob story (Genesis 36:1) because he was the elder brother and head of the family at the time. But the important fact as far as we are concerned is the fact that colophons to tablets are indicated.

Verses 2-7

Genesis 37:2 a

“This is the family history of Jacob.”

This verse is extremely important as establishing that ‘toledoth’ means family history. It is clearly a colophon identifying the tablet to which it refers and in our view equally clearly refers backwards. The following narrative begins with ‘Joseph’ and contains his story in a continuous narrative.

JOSEPH

The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26 )

In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.

The Betrayal and Selling into Egypt of Joseph (Genesis 37:2-36 )

We note here a remarkable change in the narrative. Up to this point each section has been relatively brief. Covenant narrative has followed covenant narrative. This was because the records were written down in order to preserve the words of the covenant which were then, as regularly in the ancient world, put in the context of the history behind them. Thus up to Genesis 37:2 a we continually have typical examples of covenant records.

But now all changes. Instead of short sections we have a flowing narrative that goes on and on, portraying the life of Joseph. And this remarkable fact is exactly what we would expect if these records were written in the first part of the 2nd Millennium BC. For Joseph was a high official in Egypt where papyrus (a writing surface made from the papyrus plant) was plentiful and the recording of information about such officials was common practise. A good case could indeed be made for suggesting that it was at this time that the earlier written covenant records were taken and compiled into one narrative to provide background history to this great man.

Genesis 37:2 b

‘Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers, 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 to their father.’

It would appear from this narrative that at this time the six Leah brothers kept some of their father’s flocks and herds in a separate place from the others. Perhaps his policy of dividing his possessions into two companies (Genesis 32:7) had become permanent (although subsequently changed). Or it may simply be that the herds were so large that to remain together was impossible due to the sparsity of good grazing land. Thus Joseph works with the sons of the concubines.

But he made himself decidedly unpopular by tale-telling. He told his father about their bad behaviour. Possibly he felt some superiority as the son of Rachel, but more probably it was because he was spoiled as the next verse shows, and because he felt bitter at their unfriendly treatment of him (Genesis 37:4). This is a strong warning against parents having favourites among their children. Yet in this case God would use it for good. But that does not justify the spoiling or the favouritism, both of which are destructive.

Genesis 37:3

‘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 colours (or ‘a long sleeved coat’).’

Here we learn that Joseph was his father’s clear favourite. A long sleeved or many-coloured coat was a symbol of luxury (see 2 Samuel 13:18). It was not a working garment but one for wearing to make an impression.

“The son of his old age.” Joseph was not much younger than his brothers. This phrase must therefore mean that in his old age Jacob had made him his special favourite, as old men can tend to do, the one on whom he leaned (Genesis 37:4). Later Benjamin is called ‘the child of his old age’ where his father’s special love for him is stressed (Genesis 44:20).

“Israel.” Jacob is now again called by his new name Israel. But until Genesis 42:0 ‘Israel’ is only used twice (Genesis 37:3; Genesis 37:13) and ‘Jacob’ is only used once (in Genesis 37:34) thus we cannot speak of a preponderance of either. Then they are interspersed freely. This use of two names of the same person in the same context is evidenced in ancient literature in both Egypt and elsewhere.

Genesis 37:4

‘And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him and were unable to speak to him in a friendly way.’

This is the other side of the story. Because, quite inexcusably, Jacob had let his favouritism be seen his brothers were rough with Joseph. Thus the tale-telling may have been his method of getting his own back

Genesis 37:5-7

‘And Joseph dreamed a dream and he told it to his brothers and they hated him even more. And he said to them, “Listen, I beg you, to this dream that 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.’

To dream such a vivid dream was looked on as of special significance. It was not the kind of thing you kept to yourself for it contained portents of the future. Joseph was not on such bad terms with his brothers that he could keep such a thing from them. Perhaps he did not recognise what the dream meant. Or perhaps he was so filled with wonder that he did not consider the consequences. But when they thought of its meaning they hated him even more, for they recognised that it was suggesting his superiority. Perhaps they even thought that he was making it up so as to make them look small..

“Binding sheaves in the field.” The dream is interesting in confirming yet again that the family tribe grew crops as well as herding cattle and sheep.

Verse 8

‘And his brothers said, “Will you indeed reign over us? Or will you indeed have dominion over us?” And they hated him yet even more.

The brothers recognised the significance of the dream. As sons to the slave wives (Genesis 37:2) they took it very badly. Joseph was even dreaming of his superiority over them. The idea that they should bow down to him was preposterous.

Verse 9

‘And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold I have dreamed yet a dream, and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars made obeisance to me.”

Again he dreams and again he cannot keep it to himself. The meaning of the dream is made clear in the next verse.

Verse 10

‘And he told it to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream that you have dreamed. Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves down to you to the earth?” ’

This time he not only told it to his brothers with whom he worked but also to his father and his other brothers. Possibly he was even troubled by the dreams. But his father too took it amiss. How dare he suggest that they would all bow down to him?

“And your mother.” This does not mean that his natural mother was necessarily alive. In days when women regularly died in childbirth some other of the family would adopt a child and become its mother. Probably Leah was in mind here.

Verse 11

‘And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in his mind.’

There is here an interesting contrast. Quite understandably his brothers, who were already on bad terms with him, took his dreams badly. If they signified anything they signified his feeling of superiority over them. The suggestion of jealousy indicates that they felt that the dreams did somehow thrust him into further undeserved prominence. But his father was uneasy. While damping down any pretentiousness, he could not get the dreams out of his mind. Somehow he felt that they must have special significance, although he did not know how.

We notice from these previous verses how the hatred of his brothers is steadily growing from strength to strength (Genesis 37:4-5; Genesis 37:8; Genesis 37:11). Preparation is being made for their final act of betrayal. This is a warning to us all that if we let evil thoughts build up in our minds and do nothing about it they will grow and fester and can lead to dreadful consequences. We need to learn to forgive.

Verse 12

‘And his brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.’

Over the years things and circumstances change. It may be that Joseph was now not sent with them because of how they felt about him, but it is equally likely that he was kept at home simply because of his father’s needs (he was ‘the son of his old age’) and possibly even for the very purpose of maintaining communication between home and herd. Jacob, as is the case with those who show favouritism, does not appear to be aware of how much Joseph was hated. He thought Joseph was wonderful and assumed everyone else did as well.

It is clear that any unpleasantness resulting from previous happenings at Shechem (Genesis 34:0) is now forgotten. It may well be that the inhabitants were just unaware of the connection of the brothers with the previous incident and they appeared peaceable enough now. Most eyewitnesses were dead or had been absorbed into the family tribe.

The land at Shechem was clearly good pasture for there is now no suggestion of separation of the flocks. Perhaps famine or raids by bandits had diminished them. There were many ups and downs in life at that time. Or perhaps Shechem was seen as fertile enough for all.

Verses 13-17

‘And Israel said to Joseph, “Aren’t your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” And he said to him, “Go now. See whether it is well with your brothers 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. ’

Jacob sends Joseph to find out how things are not knowing that they are no longer at Shechem but have moved to Dothan. Constant changes of pasturage were needed for the large flocks. This reminds us that in the lives of all the patriarchs, while they themselves settled down at various places, their herds and flocks often had to be on the move.

“He sent him out of the Vale of Hebron.” Is there a hint of something ominous here? He was going never to return. The city of Kiriath-arba or Hebron was over a thousand feet above sea level but may or may not have existed at this time. It was ‘built seven years before Zoan in Egypt’ (Numbers 13:22) possibly around 1720 BC. The valley may, however, already have been called the Vale of Hebron (‘confederacy’) because a confederacy was formed or met there, later giving its name to the city. (Otherwise it could be a scribal updating, a common feature of ancient manuscripts).

Genesis 37:15-17 a

‘And a certain man found him, and lo, he was wandering in the countryside, and the man asked him, saying, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “I am looking for my brothers. Tell me, I beg you, where they are feeding the flock.” And the man said, “They have departed elsewhere, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ‘

Joseph is unable to find his brothers in Shechem and while searching for them rather helplessly is at a loss what to do. However, fortunately he meets a man who knows where they have gone. He may have received hospitality from the brothers or met them at a well, where people tended to gather, and heard their conversation.

This piece of reminiscence suggests that Joseph remembers vividly little incidents about his last days in Canaan. They were imprinted on his mind. This almost irrelevant incident given in detail bears all the marks of an involved eyewitness.

Genesis 35:17 b

‘And Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.’

Joseph is not disturbed at the thought of meeting his brothers, otherwise he could have made not finding them an excuse to go back. He sets out determinedly for Dothan where at last he spots them.

The fertile plain of Dothan lies between the hills of Samaria and the Carmel range. It was on the trade route to Egypt. Dothan itself is known from inscriptions and excavation.

Verses 21-22

‘And Reuben heard it and he delivered him out of their hand. And he said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this cistern which is in the wilderness but lay no hand on him.” (This was so that he could deliver him from their hand and restore him to his father).’

The repetition ‘and Reuben said’ bears all the marks of ancient literature. Reuben may not be as strong and fierce as his brothers but he has more compassion and common sense. He thinks of his father’s feelings and he thinks of the stain of fratricide and determines to save Joseph, but the roundabout route is typical of him, although it may have also been wise in the circumstances.

“Let us not take his life.” In other words let us not be directly responsible for his death.

“Shed no blood.” Is he thinking here of Cain who shed his brother’s blood? He knows how deeply the world of his day felt about fratricide. Such bloodguilt was a terrible crime which demanded vengeance.

But Reuben’s intent was to save Joseph. As the eldest brother he may not have felt the indignity of Joseph’s position as deeply as the others and he felt a certain responsibility because of his status.

Verses 23-25

‘And it happened when Joseph had come to his brothers that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that he was wearing, and took him and threw him into the cistern. And the cistern was empty. There was no water in it.’

The foul deed is done, although not as foul as it would have been without Reuben’s intervention. The stripping him of his coat was a sign of their intense jealousy, although later they would have a use for it. Fortunately for his well being it was the dry season and there was no water in the cistern.

Genesis 37:25 a

‘And they sat down to eat food.’

To eat heartily after an evil act is always the sign of men who lack conscience. For a time their anger made them feel justified, but no doubt through the years their consciences would not remain so peaceful. In the end conscience makes us pay for what we do. It is interesting that Reuben is not there (Genesis 37:29). Perhaps his conscience was stronger than his brothers and he could not eat. It may well be that he was sickened by his brothers’ attitudes and wanted to be on his own. Or it may be that he was watching the sheep.

Genesis 37:25 b

‘And they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold, a travelling company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels, bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down into Egypt.’

The trade route went from Damascus, through Gilead, crossed the Jordan and joined the easy coastal route to Egypt. This then was directly in the line of the trade route along which caravans of traders constantly passed carrying goods between lands to the north and east and Egypt in the south.

“A travelling company of Ishmaelites.” They spot the gold earrings and recognise them as Ishmaelites. Later Joseph will realise that there are also Medanites among them, for it is they who arrange his sale. By this time Ishmaelites, Midianites and Medanites had become intermingled and could be seen as one. In the story of Gideon he fights ‘the Midianites’ and we learn that ‘they had gold earrings because they were Ishmaelites’ (Judges 8:24). Thus Ishmaelites are now seen as a grouping within the Midianite confederation, and regularly called Midianites. It seems that once Ishmael was dead Midian took over the pre-eminence in the confederate tribes linked with them. Midian and Medan are brothers, sons of Keturah by Abraham so that Medanites (Genesis 37:36) are also within the confederation and are unknown in external sources for this very reason. They also are seen as Midianites.

Peoples like the family tribe of Jacob despised such people and the different terms may well have been intended to be disparaging.

The use of different terms for the same peoples in the same context is witnessed elsewhere in ancient literature, e.g. the stela of Sebek-khu (also called Djaa) in Manchester University Museum exemplifies the use of three names for one Palestinian populace: Mntyw-Stt ("Asiatic Bedouin"), Rntw hst ("vile Syrians") and ‘mw ("Asiatics"). The ancients liked variation and were not so particular about exactness, especially when they despised people.

“Spicery and balm and myrrh.” ‘Spicery’ is probably tragacanth, a gum that exudes from the stem of the astragalus gummifer, a small prickly plant which grows on the arid slopes of Iran and Turkey and is a member of the pea family. ‘Balm’ is possibly gum mastic and ‘myrrh’ possibly ladanum obtained from rock roses. These were resinous products used for healing purposes (Jeremiah 46:11).

Verses 26-27

‘And Judah said to his brothers, “What profit do we gain if we kill 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 brothers listened to him.’

There is still disagreement about what is to be done to Joseph. The more belligerent (Simeon and Leah especially? - compare on Genesis 34:0. They were bloodthirsty enough) still want to kill him while others, like Judah, are probably siding with Reuben’s idea. But the sight of the caravan combines the two parties. They can not only get rid of Joseph for good without killing him, but also make a profit out of it as well by selling him to the traders.

“Conceal his blood.” That is, conceal his violent death. But they are all aware that spilled blood, especially of a brother, ‘cries from the ground’ (Genesis 4:10).

“Let not our hand be upon him for he is our brother, our flesh.” Judah does not like the idea of killing a person of his own flesh and blood. It would be looked on by all decent people as a heinous crime. Instead they will sell him.

Verse 28

‘And the Midianites, merchantmen, passed by and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the cistern and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they brought Joseph to Egypt.’

The ‘they’ is the brothers. They had seen the caravan in the distance and now it approaches to pass them by. So they draw Joseph from the cistern and sell him for twenty pieces of silver, the price of a man. As we have seen above Ishmaelites were known as Midianites, but distinguished by their gold earrings from other Midianites.

“Twenty pieces of silver.” The price of Joseph as a slave at 20 shekels of silver is correct for that period. We know from external sources that in the late 3rd millennium BC the price of a slave was 10-15 shekels, but by 1800-1700 BC it was 20 shekels. In 15th century Nuzu and Ugarit it was 30 shekels (compare Exodus 21:32) and by the 8th century BC it was up to 50-60 shekels (2 Kings 15:20). This is remarkable confirmation of the accuracy of the narrative.

Verses 29-30

‘And Reuben returned to the cistern, and behold, Joseph was not in the cistern, and he tore his clothes, and he returned to his brothers and said, “The child is not, and as for me, where shall I go?

Reuben has quite clearly been away for some unknown reason. It may that he was sickened by their desire for blood and wanted to be on his own, or it may be that as the eldest he went to keep an eye on the sheep while the traders were passing. It was not unknown for a few sheep to disappear when a caravan passed by. But afterwards he goes privately to the cistern which his brothers have now left, in order to release Joseph. However, to his shock and dismay he finds that Joseph has gone. The tearing of clothes was a sign of great distress especially expressing sorrow and grief.

He comes to his brothers and expresses his dismay. He clearly feels he has the responsibility for Joseph’s welfare as his eldest brother. What is he going to say to Jacob? Then they no doubt told him what they had done.

Verses 31-33

‘And they took Joseph’s coat and killed a he-goat and dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the coat of many colours and they brought it to their father and said, “We have found this. Decide now whether it is your son’s coat or not.” And he recognised it and said, “It is my son’s coat. An evil beast has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.” ’

The dreadful deed has been done but now Reuben’s words stir them into action. How can they best cover it up? The answer is simple. They will take Joseph’s coat, cover it in blood and then pretend they have found it. And that is exactly what they did. And Jacob was completely taken in. But what they had not considered was the effect on their father. How easily we do things without thinking how many people might suffer as a consequence. Each wrong action can produce a chain of suffering.

“Sent --- and brought.” Is there here an indication of the wrestling already taking place within their minds? Do they ‘bring’ it by sending it by the hands of servants who pass their words on? One can understand why they would not wish to touch the coat themselves.

Verse 34

‘And Jacob tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son for many days. 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 the grave (sheol) to my son mourning.” And his father wept for him.’ And the Medanites sold him into Egypt, to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of his bodyguard.’

The contrast is striking and deliberate. On the one hand the grief-stricken father mourning for the dead son for a long time, unable to be comforted, and on the other the son sold without thought, in moments, into the hands of an Egyptian officer. So does the writer bring out the evil of what was done.

“Tore his clothes -- put sackcloth on.” A regular method of demonstrating great grief and emotion. The writer stresses the prolonged grief of the father. This must surely have torn at the hearts of even the hardest of the sons. For try as they will they cannot comfort him. They had not known not what they did. How many times did they wish that they could bring Joseph back again? We may do things in the emotion of a moment that we regret for a lifetime.

“Daughters”. Probably, along with Dinah, mainly the wives of his sons.

“I will go down to sheol with my son mourning.” Sheol is the world of the departed, connected with the grave. It is always a shadowy world, a vague world of semi or non existence in shadowy form. There is no real doctrine of the afterlife in the Pentateuch.

So do we say goodbye to Jacob for some long time. We leave him grieving and recognise that he will continue grieving and broken hearted while the story goes on.

“Medanites.” Part of the Midianite confederation (see on Genesis 37:25). It was probably Joseph who became aware of the different skeins in the Midianite group, a mixture of Ishmaelites and Medanites. He had the chance to communicate with them and knew exactly which of them had sold him. He had cause to know.

“Potiphar.” Possibly an abbreviation of Potiphera (compare Genesis 41:45) but not the same person. The latter means ‘he whom Re has given’, which would be a popular name. It is quite clearly Egyptian.

“An officer of Pharaoh, captain of his bodyguard.” The word for ‘officer’ is ‘saris’. It eventually came to mean eunuch (LXX has eunouchos here), but is here used in its earlier use as a court officer. As ‘captain of his bodyguard’ he is someone in close touch with the Pharaoh. Very few were in close touch with Pharaoh for he saw himself as a god and stood aloof and unapproachable.

“Pharaoh.” The title of the king of Egypt. It derives from the Egyptian term for ‘great house’ and originally signified the palace and court of the king. The first use of it for the king himself is around 1450 BC, but without an individual name attached, as here and in Exodus. Thus we may see the use here as being probably the work of Moses, changing an original ‘king of Egypt’ into the more modern title. It was only in the early first millennium BC that an individual name began to be attached to the title. This minor detail helps to authenticate the narrative.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 37". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-37.html. 2013.