Joseph’s Place in the Family – The Dreamer
Genesis 37: 2-4
2These 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. 3Now 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. 4And his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren; and they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him (ASV 1901).
The text begins by telling us that Joseph was seventeen years old. He left Paddan-Aram when he was six. During the last eleven years he lived in Succoth, Shechem and now in Hebron. Jacob was one hundred seven years old. Isaac who was still alive was now one hundred sixty seven. The text tells us that his work was that of a shepherd. He was working with his brother and half-brothers. Their ages were close together. He was out in the pasture working with the sons of his father’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. The text reverses the order of the wives since Joseph would have been closer to Bilhah his mothers hand maid. Some suggest that the reference to them as wives indicates that Leah has passed as well as Rachel. The distinction though was two fold, one they were the progeny of concubinage relationships and two, Joseph was not only the first-born son of a legal wife, Rachel his mother was the much loved favorite wife of his father Jacob. The text then progresses to the statement that, Joseph brought the evil report of them unto their father. There is some depth to this statement that is not clear from the plain text of Scripture.
Ruben, the chronological first-born son of Leah and Jacob had two strong criteria causing Jacob to remove him from the rights of the first-born in the family. First, he was the son of Leah who was hated because she was thrust on Jacob and she was not beautiful like Rachel. Second, Ruben committed incest with Bilhah his father’s concubine (Genesis 35: 22). Jacob might have had motivation to deny Reuben this position but the incest sealed it. Jacob removed him from the first-born position. Now Joseph as the first-born son of Rachel moved into the blessed position of the first-born son. So Joseph was the overseer to his brothers and found them doing some wrongdoing while he was out in the field with them. He, as the overseer, reported back to his father as required. Some say that Joseph was a tattletale. However, it was his job and genuine wrongdoing was occurring so he was acting properly. The Bereshit Rabbah says that his brothers ate limbs torn from live animals (Bereshit Rabbah 84: 7). They were engaged in some form of evil and it was not wrong for them to be reported back to Jacob. Joseph was being a faithful servant and naturally the wrong doing brothers hated him for relating their behavior to Jacob.
The texts say that, Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. The Hebrew words translated as “The Son of His old Age” is kee-ben zekunim כִּי־בֶן־זְקֻנִים and it is an idiomatic phrase meaning, “As Son of Wisdom.” Joseph was known to have wisdom far beyond his chronological age. We see this confirmed in his willingness to do what was right in the eyes of God no matter what the circumstances were in which he found himself. Those that fear God receive His wisdom (Proverbs 2: 6 etc.).
In recognition of the status he had as first-born of the favorite wife Rachel, he was given a special coat signifying this status. This caused additional envy from his brothers. Jacob should have known better since he saw first hand from his birth family what favoritism does to the stability of the family unit. Jacob gave Joseph the coat. The Hebrew text describes it as a ketonet-passim, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים that is translated as a long coat with full sleeves, a coat of royalty. The multi-colored designation came from the Septuagint (Cir. 250 B.C.), which also found its way into the Latin Vulgate (Cir. 380 AD). In Egypt the Tombs of Bene Hassein confirm this royal apparel worn by the Semites. Bene Hasan is one hundred sixty miles south of Cairo (and just north of Amarna on the map). Named after the local Bedouin tribe living there for centuries. Little of the city is left, except the rock-cut tombs in the cliffs high above the Nile’s eastern shore. Here, Egyptologists found a now-famous tomb painting, which offers important insights into the world of the Biblical Patriarchs. The Israelites went down to Egypt during a famine and stayed four hundred years. Archaeologists refer to them as Asiatics. The following is a quote from the Association for Biblical Archaeology regarding the tombs.
“Most immediately distinctive is the difference in clothing. While the two Egyptians wear the traditional white linen kilt, the Asiatics wear mostly multi-colored garments. Five of the men wore robes to their knees, three of them with colored cloth. All four women wore colored robes to their ankles. Most robes (men and women) appeared to cover only one shoulder. Three of the men and the walking child wore colored kilts. With white representing the basic color of linen or wool garments, the multicolored red, white and blue would represent a considerable financial investment. In addition, the colored kilts of the last two Asiatics and the leader’s robe all seem to have fringe on the hem.”
(ABFBR http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/09/09/the-beni-hasan-asiatics-and-the-biblical-patriarchs.aspx#Article accessed on June 15, 2012)
This coat was an insignia of leadership in ancient Israel and Joseph was appointed as leader of the tribe. This coat demonstrating his leadership over them was a visible insignia provoking them to hatred. His brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren; and they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. So they were even unable to exercise civility toward him. A closer examination of the Hebrew for “could not speak peaceably to him (velo yokhlu dabro leshalom) gives us a more accurate translation of, “they could not abide his friendly speech.” So despite his attempts at conciliatory dialogue they hated him. Joseph on the other hand seemed to be oblivious to their evil intentions toward him because he began to reveal his innermost thoughts and dreams to them. If he had any retaliatory feelings toward them he concealed them well.
Joseph the Dreamer
Genesis 37: 5-11
5And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. 6And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: 7for, 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. 8And his brethren said to 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. 9And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars made obeisance to me. 10And 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? 11And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind (ASV 1901).
Joseph begins to relate his dream to his brethren and it accelerated their hatred for him. Any conversation of this sort implies the individual relating the dream is on intimate term with those hearing it. They obviously did not want that degree of intimacy with him and their hatred was kindled so that as he proceeded with the details of the dream they did not take it well.
He relates a dream that was obviously an illustration of some agricultural setting with his eventual ascendancy over them. Even though the dream seemed to give the impression that they were all working together, the dreams imagery of Joseph clearly shows that he would rise above them without assistance indicating his ability to withstand forces opposing him. Finally the dream’s imagery demonstrated that even though there were many opposing him they all acquiesce to him by bowing down to him. The brothers got the essence of the dream because they said, “Shalt thou indeed reign over us? Or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?” This caused them to hate him more for not only the dream but also how he spoke to them. They could not know if he was actually receiving a dream or if he was telling them of what he aspired to achieve over them. Hence, this was additional fuel for their hatred. Joseph in relating the second dream seemed oblivious to their growing dislike for him. The second dream encompassed the heavens. This dream suggested that the sun (as his father), and the moon (as his mother, Rachel) and eleven stars (representing his eleven brethren) bowed down before him. These dreams clearly showed in an unmistakable way that Joseph would someday exert supremacy over them all. The first level of supremacy would be over his brethren, the second over the whole house of Israel. Jacob when told of these dreams interprets them not Joseph. His brothers knew what they meant too. Jacob rebuked Joseph for this presumptive dream but he then referenced Rachel even though dead would be a component and then fell into silent contemplation over what he heard. He was no stranger to special messages from God and must have thought on the possible heavenly source of these dreams.
The New Testament gives us additional insight over the meaning of this second dream. Revelation 12: 1-2 makes reference to this passage (Genesis 37: 9-10) and the woman of this chapter is symbolized as Israel not the Church. Israel has been referred to as the “Wife of Jehovah” (Jeremiah 31: 32).
Joseph’s Cast Into The Pit
Genesis 37: 12-24
12And his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. 13And Israel said unto Joseph, Are not thy brethren feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send thee unto them. And he said to him, Here am I. 14And 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. 15And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field: and the man asked him, saying, What seekest thou? 16And he said, I am seeking my brethren: tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock. 17And the man said, They are departed hence; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan. And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan. 18And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. 19And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20Come 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. 21And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand, and said, Let us not take his life. 22And 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. 23And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; 24and they took him, and cast him into the pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it (ASV 1901).
Jacob’s sons had driven the flocks to Shechem then to Dothan an area a day’s journey north of Shechem. They passed through Shechem uneventfully because the Jews owned the city since the slaughter after the rape of Dinah. Jacob next sent Joseph the overseer to check on them. He would be traveling at least three days on foot to reach them. When he got to Shechem and didn’t see them he asked a stranger that answered by saying, “They are departed hence; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan.” So he continued on an additional day’s travel to Dothan to find them. Some see this man as an angel but the text does not support this assumption. Certainly he was divinely inspired to instruct Joseph in the direction he must travel in his trip of historical importance for the Israelite nation’s development. That would be their eventual departure to Egypt for a four hundred year sojourn. Dothan was located on the east-west trade route between Gilead and the Coastal Plain, which was connected to the Via Maris. The Via Maris was the road way to Egypt. These events were in anticipation of the sale of Joseph to the Midianites.
The brothers thought that if they killed Joseph, the dream of his ascendancy over them would be extinguished (and we shall see what will become of his dreams). Reuben the first-born was uncomfortable with the killing and sought his brother’s agreement in not directly murdering Joseph. He wanted no part of the conspiracy to murder. He was willing to cast Joseph into a dry cistern to die of starvation, thirst or exposure though. This was what he said to his vengeful brothers. He had a different motive though as the text says, that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father. This was his real intent, to restore him to Jacob his father. Even though Reuben knew that Joseph had replaced him in status as first-born it did not lead him to the same level of malevolence as his siblings had toward Joseph. So they took Joseph’s coat, cast him into the pit, and Reuben intended to return alone and rescue Joseph.
Joseph is Sold
Genesis 37: 25-36
25And 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, going to carry it down to Egypt. 26And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, 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. 28And 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. 29And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. 30And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? 31And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood; 32and they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father, and said, This have we found: know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not. 33And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat: an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces. 34And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35And 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. 36And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard (ASV 1901).
The opening verses describe how Joseph was actually sold. Joseph’s charge from his father in visiting the brothers was to check on their activities to determine if they were engaged in nefarious goings-on as before. He was in the pit and some suggest that it was Simeon who threw him in. All were guilty in the collusion to harm him. His brothers had decided to follow Reuben’s request and keep him in the cistern instead of killing him outright. However since Reuben was not telling them that his personal hidden agenda was to rescue Joseph afterward they saw an opportunity to market Joseph as a slave to the Ishmaelites. They were a semi-nomadic group of traders from the Transjordan. Judah took the opportunity to propose to his brethren to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. “What profit is it,” he said, “if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites; and let not our hand be upon him (in other words to kill him), for he is our brother, our flesh.” Judah may have had a slight change of heart and did not want to kill him as Reuben was also so minded. The others saw this a good opportunity too.
They were so insensitive to Joseph that while he was in the cistern crying out for mercy they were making merry and enjoying a meal. In fact they admitted to this at a later time. Their hatred for him was so strong that they had hardened their hearts toward his torment as he cried to them to be released.
Genesis 42: 21
21And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us (ASV 1901).
The brothers were near a trade route that crossed the Jordan near Gilead in what is today Jordan. It then wound through the Jezreel valley toward the Mediterranean coastal area and then turned southward at Megiddo so as to connect with the ancient trade route from Damascus to Egypt known as the Via Marais. The Ishmaelites had goods that represented their trading prowess. This seemed like a good opportunity to broker a trade for Joseph. The caravan was laden with spices: נְכֹאת, Nehchoat which is a gum-tragacanth; צֹרִי, Tsoree balsam, for which Gilead was celebrated (Genesis 43:11; Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11); and לֹט, Loat ladanum, the fragrant resin of the cistus-rose.
There is an exchange of terminology between Ishmaelites and Midianites. The Midianites were a tribe of the progeny of one of Keturah’s son Midian who she had with Abraham as his second wife. Judges 8: 22-26 connects those two tribes together. Then Joseph’s brothers drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. The general idea was that the Midianites would take him to Egypt and sell him, off into the slave markets there. The text does not reveal exactly what the brothers’ thought would happen to Joseph. They just wanted him out of their life. Their wrath at Joseph would end up praising God.
The meager price of twenty pieces of silver they got for Joseph later became the price which Moses fixed as the value of a boy between 5 and 20 (Leviticus 27:5), the average price of a slave being 30 shekels (Exodus 21:32).
They did not tell Reuben what became of Joseph because he would have told Jacob that his favorite son was still alive. So they concocted a story of his death by wild animals. This whole process obviously frustrated Reuben to find that Joseph was gone and now he was unable to rescue him. He was extremely distraught when they told him Joseph was dead. He said after renting his clothes“ The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?” Normally, this phrase means that a person has died. So he must have been led to believe that Joseph died. Then the brothers took Joseph’s coat and dipped it in the blood of a recent slain he-goat. They did not want to face their father with this news so they sent someone else.
They expected Jacob’s response, which was to rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and then he, mourned for his son many days. His sons and daughters came to comfort him but he did not want them comforting him and said, “For I will go down to Sheol to my son mourning.” And his father wept for him. What a sad state of circumstances for Jacob to believe he lost his favorite son so early in they boy’s life. It is easy to imagine the depth of his grief. He was sure it would last his entire life. Sheol is the place where the Old Testament people went before the sacrifice of Christ. There were multiple compartments depending on the destination God assigned to them (See Attached Chart). The faithful and the unfaithful both entered Sheol when the spirit separated from the body.
Finally Joseph was sold again this time to Potiphar in Egypt. This was an officer of Pharaoh and he was the captain of the guard. He was part of the Egyptian military and the term , the captain of the guard literally means “The Chief of the Executioners.”
Daniel E. Woodhead