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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Esau's Descendants & Joseph & His Brothers, Gen 36-37

A. Esau's Descendants, Gen. 36.

In the preceding chapter, the list of Jacob's offspring marks the completion of the series of independent narratives about Jacob; in the present chapter all mention of Esau in the Book of Genesis is brought to a conclusion with the listing of Esau's descendants. The notice of Abraham's death in 25:7-10 was followed by the detailing of the line of his elder son [25:12–18, p.  ? ]; the report of Isaac's demise conforms to the same pattern. In both cases the genealogy functions as a connective that links two series of narratives in which one generation gives way to the next. The architectonic unity is cemented by the double formula, "This is the line of ... These are the names of ... ," in both 25:12-13 and verses 9-10 of this chapter, a stylistic device that occurs nowhere else in the book. The genealogical tables here also serve a theological purpose. Esau was the subject of a divine oracle and the recipient of a patriarchal blessing (25:23; 27:39-40), and the data now given show how these were fulfilled in history. The rise and development of the Edomite tribes, like the fortunes of Israel, are determined by the workings of God's Providence and are part of His grand design of history. (Sarna)

Finally, the close connection with the previous chapter is reinforced by the list of Edomite kings given in verses 31-39. "Kings shall issue from your loins," God promised Jacob, and a major theme of chapter 35 is the birth of Benjamin, whose tribe supplied the first king of Israel [King Saul]. The present chapter appropriately details "the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites."

B. Joseph the Dreamer Sold into Slavery, Gen. 37.

Jacob's life continues through the end of Genesis, but as a major figure he is overshadowed in the coming chapters by his son Joseph. Isaac's death was recorded at the end of Gen 35 because, unlike Jacob, he will not figure even peripherally in the narrative of Joseph's life. But by figuring the various age indications given in Genesis we know that Isaac actually lived for another 12 years after Joseph was sold into Egypt, and died when Jacob was 120 years old. 
The rest of the Book of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, except for the … intrusion of the episode of Judah and Tamar (chap. 38). The Joseph story provides the human means for the fulfillment of a divine plan already announced to Abraham. Jacob must go down to Egypt where his offspring will become enslaved, as foretold in the covenant God made with Abraham: "Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs" (15:13). I suggested a reason for the Egyptian slavery in the way that Jacob and his sons so perverted the meaning of the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision, when Simeon and Levi used it as a weapon against the men of Shechem (Gen 34, p.  ? ). 
The Joseph story clothes this grand scheme of national oppression and redemption in the domestic garb of a very believable story about a father, a favorite son, a boy unwisely telling private revelations in his dreams, and his angry brothers. The domestic scene will dictate grand consequences for the nation which that family will become. And while this story is the prelude to the drama of oppression and redemption of the exodus, the dominant motif of biblical theology, it is also the story of the development of wisdom, spiritual maturity and godly character in one man, Joseph, features which unfortunately did not always thereafter characterize his descendants, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. 
The story of Joseph and his brothers differs markedly from the preceding patriarchal narratives. By far the longest and most complete narrative in Genesis, it skillfully employs the novelistic techniques of character delineation, psychological manipulation, and dramatic suspense. 
A unique feature is the outwardly "secular" mold in which the narrative is cast. As in the later book of Esther, which also transpires in a foreign court, there are no outwardly apparent supernatural interventions such as miracles. God's action is all subtle and behind-the-scenes. Joseph makes no mention of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, nor of the covenants and promises made to them by Yahweh. He refers at times to God, but never calls him El-Shaddai or Yahweh. Because he is outside of the Promised Land, he builds no altars, sets up no sacred pillars, and offers no sacrifices. But he also makes no vows. He is not described as worshiping or praying, although he does marry the daughter of the Egyptian priest of the temple of the Sun-god at Heliopolis (Egyptian ʾôn, [Gen 41:45–46; cf. p.  ? ]). The cultural atmosphere is that of pagan ancient Egypt. Everything is very cosmopolitan. Joseph shows absolute moral rectitude and faith that God (Egyptian pĕ nōṯe) will vindicate him, but his piety is of a supra-national sort: there is nothing very Israelite about him. Until the very end of his life, he shows no attachment to Canaan as the destiny of his ancestors, himself and his family's descendants. No wonder that Joseph is not included among the patriarchs in Jewish tradition, which restricts that category to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Babylonian Talmud, Ber. 16b). 
Nevertheless, the secular atmosphere of the story doesn't prevent it from being infused with a profound sense that God's hand directs seemingly haphazard events: when Joseph cannot find his brothers in Shechem, he meets "a man" [אִ֔ישׁ] who knows exactly where they are (37:15); the caravans of traders who appear when his brothers need to get rid of him just happen to be going to Egypt (37:25, 28); Yahweh is with Joseph in Potiphar's house (39:2) and after he is falsely sent to prison (39:21f.). It is significant that the [word] 'God' [אלֹהִֽים] comes readily to Joseph's lips at critical moments: when he is confronted by Potiphar's wife (39:9); when he interprets dreams (40:8; 41:16 and 25); and when he tests his brothers (42:18). The ultimate interpretation of events is given by Joseph himself at the dramatic conclusion of the narrative: "God [אֱלֹהִים֙] has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God [הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים]" (45:7,8). Joseph's words resemble nothing so much as Paul's words in Romans 8:28 "God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." Here "the called" would be Jacob and his family. But the God whom Joseph understands as his own God has declared his purpose to bless the nations through the chosen line of Abraham's descendants, and the messiah who will come out of it. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each at one time or another brought prosperity to non-Israelites who were associated with them. Abraham rescued the citizens of Sodom from the army of the eastern coalition (Gen 14). Isaac's presence brought prosperity to Abimelech king of Gerar (Gen 26:26–33, p.  ? ). Jacob's temporary presence did also to Laban (30:27, p.  ? ). Consequently, Joseph as the spiritual leader of the family is used to save the Egyptians from disaster. Through Joseph's God-given ability to interpret the pharaoh's dreams, Egypt is warned of coming years of crop failure, and can make preparations to store up food for survival. Through Joseph, many thousands, perhaps millions of pagan Egyptians were saved from death by famine during those years.

The unifying theme for the development of this plot is the same as the one that dominates the Abraham saga and the Jacob saga: strife in the family. Some indication of a critical role for the promise theme in the patriarchal traditions appears here. For example, in Joseph’s speech, 45:4b–13, Joseph avers that “God sent me before you to preserve life… God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” The many survivors fulfill the promise for great posterity, the promise that descendants would become a great nation. But the dominant theme in the Joseph story is strife in a family, broken family structures, and eventually, reconciliation that restores the family to a position of unity. The nature of that reconciliation is a key for the Joseph traditions in the Pentateuch, indeed, for the theological structure of the Pentateuch itself. ("Joseph," AYBD 3:977)

Joseph’s rise is told through a series of encounters with adversaries and benefactors, after each of which he experiences a change in status. Joseph begins as his father’s favorite son and attracts the enmity of his brothers. His first transition, from beloved son to foreign slave, occurs after he is cast into a pit and his special garment taken away. As a slave he is the favorite of Potiphar but attracts the desire of Potiphar’s wife. His identity is transformed from slave to prisoner as he is cast into prison, again with his garment torn away by his adversary. The repeated images of Joseph’s clothing torn away present a series of symbolic “rites of passage” from one state to another, from beloved son to foreign slave to prisoner. After the cupbearer remembers Joseph’s wisdom to Pharaoh, Joseph is released from prison and is dressed in new clothes (Gen 41:14), signaling a new ascent in identity. His success in interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams is rewarded by a final ascent in status to Pharaoh’s vizier, and is symbolically enacted when Pharaoh has Joseph dressed in fine clothes and jewelry (Gen 41:42). ("Genesis," AYBD, 2:937).

37:2–4 Joseph the Favorite who reports bad behavior

2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper [naʿar] to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.  3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.  4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Although the central character in the following chapters will be Joseph, v. 2 makes it clear that his story is only told as part of the general picture of the family of Jacob (אלה תולדת יעקב). His role is to help them survive. Joseph was not the youngest of Jacob's children: Benjamin was. But Benjamin is only a child at this point in time and would have only done household chores; so he is not in the picture at all. Joseph is the next youngest, seventeen years old at this point. He and his younger brother "Benjy" were Jacob's sons, born of Rachel his favorite wife, and children of his old age (37:3). 

Joseph accompanied his older brothers into the grazing lands of the sheep and goats. But while they did the chief labor as herdsmen, he was an assistant (here translated 'helper').

Joseph was not designated as the assistant of the sons of Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun), but of Bilhah and Zilpah (v. 2). They were closer in age to Joseph, and this could have been why he was assigned to them. Bilhah and Zilpah were last called the 'maidservants' of Rachel and Leah. Now they have been promoted in status to 'wives' of Jacob. Early Jewish interpreters explained this as due to the deaths of Leah and Rachel, although we are never told just when Leah died. 
Joseph's role as 'assistant' to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah may have involved running errands, including being sent home for additional supplies. And this could have been the occasion for his practice of reporting on his brothers to Jacob. We aren't told if these reports were required of Joseph and were not clandestine, or not. Nor are we told if he reported only on the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah to which he was assigned as an assistant, or on all his brothers. We are not told if he frequently gave favorable reports as well, or if this was just a nasty boy's sniping.

The only purpose this information serves is to show how Joseph increased in Jacob's favor as his source of information on his other sons. If the reports were not part of his official duties and all above-board, we don't know if his brothers eventually became aware of them, and held that against him. 
What the text does identify as the source of the brothers' anger was the prestige garment that marked him as his father's favorite.  Jacob made a special robe for Joseph. In older translations this was called a "coat of many colors," and this is how those of us who are older remember this coat. What a picture that makes. It is somewhat of a disappointment to us to see that now it is translated "a long robe with sleeves"! That seems rather pedestrian! I won't bore you with the technical details of why this newer translation seems preferable. In other ancient cultures such as Babylonia, Egypt and the Hittites, multicolored garments were indeed luxury wear. But in visual depictions of ancient Canaanites the elite persons wear a robe such as is described by this newer translation. It was worn next to the body, was ankle-length, had long sleeves with a stripe figure on the sleeves. The full-color tomb paintings in Egyptian tombs of royal Syrian tribute-bearers shows that the stripes were indeed of several different colors. So we can have our cake and eat it too: they are long robes with sleeves, but also multi-colored!  It seems to have been a regional prestige dress characteristic of ancient Syria and Canaan. And it is likely that Jacob would have chosen such a garment to mark his favorite son Joseph as an elite person. One wonders if the robe was the reward for the spying, and if so, if the brothers knew that was its source.

This was enough to alienate him from them. And anyone who as a child has experienced this favoritism by his parent for a brother or sister knows how demeaning and irritating it is. There is no way to feel loved by such a parent. There are always the comments to deal with such as: "Why can't you be like your brother?" You are shut out. Such had been Leah's fate in marriage to Jacob, against which she had struggled valiantly, but in the end in vain.
The brothers were angry. They could not stop the spying, but they could reduce the material Joseph could use against them. So they enforced a silent treatment: they wouldn't reveal any of their plans or secrets in his presence. This could be the meaning of the words "could  not speak peaceably to him," meaning "confidentially." But that phrase could also mean what the English word "peaceably" normally means: they had only hateful words for him. The rift caused by Jacob's favoritism was now permanent and would soon turn lethal. The Hebrew שָׁלוֹם, translated "peaceably," is one of several key terms to trace through the Joseph story. And even where the term itself doesn't occur, it is clear that Joseph makes peace with his brothers (50:15-21, p.  ? ). There is "closure" in this respect.

37:5–11 Joseph Tells his Dreams

5  Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.  6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.  7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”  8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.  9  He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

The situation was bad enough between Joseph and his brothers: it didn't need him to pour gasoline on the fire. What ignited the brothers' resentment into a murderous conflagration was Joseph telling them of dreams that clearly implied he would rule over them like a king!

“We·can note that in the Genesis narrative to this point all dreams have come from God as direct messages, and are received as such by Abraham (Gen. 15), Abimelech (Gen. 20), Jacob (Gen. 28), and Laban (Gen. 31).  These dreams feature God as central, speaking directly to warn or support at critical junctures in the narrative. Joseph's dreams, like those yet to come of the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh and then of Pharaoh himself, do not feature God as a character in the stories they portray. Furthermore, they work with more or less opaque symbolic elements absent in the earlier dreams. They require decoding, either by those who first hear them or by a special interpreter. Thus in the Joseph novella dreams may be the word of God, but they do not feature God speaking to a particular character. If  they are a medium for God, it is because other characters and readers so receive them. Just what Joseph's initial dreams are, and therefore their import, remains to be determined for the reader first engaging the story”.

He had two dreams which he told to his brothers, and the second one also to his father. The repetition of the dream, with one significant addition in the second dream, follows the same pattern of the pair of dreams given to the pharaoh, announcing the years of plenty followed by years of famine. The reason for the repetition was to confirm the truthfulness of the dream:once a coincidence, twice no coincidence! The use of two to confirm is similar to the later law of Moses which required two witnesses to a crime before bringing a valid charge in court (Deut 17:6; 19:15; Mt 18:16). Joseph's first dream concerned agricultural work and carried with it the interpretation in Joseph's words "your sheaves" and "my sheaf." His description of the second dream does not identify who are the sun, moon and eleven stars, but identifies Joseph himself as the object of their reverence. The number of stars (eleven) marks that element as referring to his eleven brothers, including his younger brother Benjamin! And Jacob, when told of the dream sees himself as the sun, and his deceased wife Rachel as the moon. The first dream wouldn't have bothered Jacob, because it portended royal greatness for Joseph. But this second dream angered him as well. He was incensed that he too must bow before his own son. From the rest of the Joseph story in Genesis, it is easy for readers to see that the two dreams predicted the three voyages to Egypt by Jacob's sons—including Benjamin on the second, and Jacob himself on the third trip. On all these occasions they had to bow respectfully to Joseph as the pharaoh's Grand Vizier,a position very much like that of a king.  But this is of course unknown at this early point to Jacob and his other sons.  The dreams seemed to show extreme arrogance in young Joseph. Even a favorite son can at times antagonize his favoring parent!

37:12–24 His Brothers Get Even

12   Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”  14 So he said to him, “Go now, see how it is with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.  He came to Shechem,  15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”  16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”  17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.  18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.  20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”  22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.  23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;  24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Earlier one is given the impression that Joseph was normally with his brothers in the field and only occasionally went from there to Jacob on errands. Here he is depicted as at home with Jacob and being sent to the brothers on a special mission. Does this indicate that he was promoted by Jacob and no longer had to spend long days in the field?

It is a considerable distance from Hebron in the far south and Shechem in the Central Highlands, about 60 miles. It was a responsible trip for Joseph. Shechem was earlier the scene of violence by the brothers Simeon and Levi. Now violence will occur again, this time against Joseph. In vv. 13-14 Jacob sends Joseph out as he must have done many times, and his words indicate the nature of Joseph's earlier missions: to find out how his brothers were doing. The words "if it is well with them and with the flock" indicate the two areas of Jacob's concern. To his credit his first concern is with his sons, and only secondarily with the flocks.

37:18–20 The Brothers Conspire to Kill Joseph

When the brothers saw Joseph coming, they conspired to kill him and take evidence of his death to his father, claiming a wild animal had done it. In fact, later, when they sold him as a slave instead, they did fake the evidence so that Jacob believed a wild animal had killed his son. 

37:21-24 Joseph not killed but sold to a traveling merchant band

God used two of the brothers to intervene and prevent the death of Joseph: first Reuben (vv. 21-22), and then later, while Reuben was absent, Judah (vv. 26-27). Reuben proposed throwing him into a pit for a while, to frighten him and teach him a lesson. He planned later to rescue Joseph out of the pit. So the brothers stripped Joseph of his fine robe and hurled him into the pit.

In its simplest form the prison was a cave (Josh 10:16–18) or—more frequently—a “pit” (bôr), a usage reminiscent of a nomadic lifestyle (Gen 37:22–24; Jer 38:6–13; Zech 9:11; cf. ARM III 36:17–20, where an evildoer risks being thrown into a “pit” [ḫirı̄tum]). This ancient form of imprisonment has survived in the Hebrew term bêt habbôr (or simply bôr, Gen 40:15; 41:14), designating various types of prisons (Exod 12:29; Jer 37:16). In Gen 40:15 the term bôr refers to the bêt hassōhar, “house of the enclosure” (LXX ochyrōma, “fortress”) in which the ʾăsı̂rı̂m (Ketib: ʾăsûrim) of the pharaoh were kept. The biblical description corresponds to Egyptian practice as we know it from the hieroglyphic records: those who were condemned to detention and forced labor were relegated to a fortified building (often called pr šnʿ), supervised by one of pharaoh’s officials. How general a term bêt habbôr came to be is apparent from Jer 37:15–16, where the four terms bêt hāʾēsûr, “house of the fetters,” bêt hakkeleʾ, “house of detention,” bêt habbôr, and haḥănuyôt, “the storerooms,” are applied to one and the same place, viz., an ordinary dwelling house which had been turned into a prison. (AYBD, 5:469 ["Prison"])

37:25–36 Reuben Frustrated, Jacob Deceived

25   Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum (נְכֹאת֙), balsam (צְרִ֣י), and resin (לֹ֔ט), on their way to carry it down to Egypt.  26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.  28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.  29  When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes.  30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?”  31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.  32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”  33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”  34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.  35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.  36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

37:25–27 Judah's advice

Later, when Reuben was away, a merchant caravan approached from the north, heading to Egypt. Judah had a good idea. He also saw no value in killing Joseph, and suggested instead that they make some money out of him, while still getting rid of him. They should sell him to a traveling band of merchants headed toward Egypt. Judah was also worried about incurring guilt before God, because Joseph was their own brother.

The Midianites, who were related to, if not identical with, the biblical Ishmaelites, were of Arab stock, and engaged in caravaneering. The biblical story of Joseph describes a Midianite caravan on its way from Gilead in the Transjordanian highlands to Egypt, passing through the vicinity of Dothan in N Palestine (Gen 37:25–28). The traders carried with them stock items of resin, balm, and myrrh, and also trafficked in slaves. Some Arab tribes probably made their living, as they did at later times in history, by preying upon such caravans, or by raiding villages or the encampments of other Arabs. ("Arabia", AYBD, 1:324)

37:29–31 Reuben frustrated and terrified

When Reuben returned and found Joseph gone, his plan to rescue him foiled, he was terrified. He had saved Joseph from being killed, but not from being lost to his father. Reuben had already disappointed Jacob in the matter of sleeping with Bilhah, and he had hoped to do something to compensate. Now he had nothing but bad news for his father. Neither he nor his brothers dared to admit what they had done; so they returned to their original plan to falsify evidence that he had been killed by a wild animal.

37:32–35 Jacob deceived into believing Joseph killed by animal

The first installment of the brothers' punishment was watching the grief of their aged father. The subsequent installments were going to be even worse. 


Joseph is one of very few characters in the OT about whom a lengthy story is told, who have no sin or failure of faith attributed to him. Let's begin looking for ways in which Joseph's experiences and his character foreshadow Christ. 

  • (1) What role do you think Jacob's favoritism to Joseph plays in this story? God used it to send Joseph to Egypt. But that God uses something bad to eventually accomplish his purpose never justifies the bad act itself. All favoritism is bad, and especially within families. Jacob should have known better. 
  • (2) What role does Joseph's reporting mission, his privileged attire, and his dreams play? Perhaps Joseph had to report to Jacob what he saw; perhaps it was his job that Jacob required of him. And the special garment was not his own idea. But the whole situation was an incitement to his brothers, one which Jacob should have foreseen.
  • (3) What role does Reuben's futile attempt to rescure Joseph play? How does this anticipate the role Peter played on the night of Jesus' betrayal. How do you view Reuben as a result of reading this episode? What do you think he learned from this half-success, half-failed attempt to rescue Joseph?  
  • (4) What lesson do you draw personally from any of the experiences of these characters? Reuben was not completely honest with his younger brothers. He should have rebuked them at the start and not tried to  trick them and sneak Joseph away. Honesty in such situations requires courage and faith, which all too often I lack. 

37:36 Joseph sold to Potiphar
Verse 36 is what is called a "catch line", a device that lets you know that the main line of the story will be continued when this line reappears, which it does in 39:1. We will discuss its content in ?. 

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