Genesis 37, the Fortunate Son
The story of Abraham’s grandson Jacob has been developed in Genesis 25 to 35. In Genesis 32, Jacob’s narrative took a dramatic turn toward Jacob’s relationship and walk with God. Faced with the crisis of returning home to face his violent brother Esau that Jacob had cheated and deceived, Jacob humbly turned his life over to God. The once power hungry, greedy, and deceptive man, now bent the knee to God and prayed a humble prayer of servitude and gratitude to the one true God. Jacob’s new identity as a believer walking with God was marked by three major events. First, he wrestled with God, which was an image of his life long struggle of his will versus God’s will. Finally after 20 years of being mistreated and deceived by his Uncle Laban, Jacob returned a humble man willing to seek God’s will. Secondly, God marked this great event of the transformation of his life by changing his name to Israel, which means “striving with God”. The third event was that God dislocated his hip so that he limped for the rest of his life. We want to think that if God is with a person He will bless him with good health, wealth, and peace; but in these biblical stories we see that what is best for proud men like Jacob is adverse circumstances that serve to humble him and bring him to dependence on God. Just as James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Therefore Jacob walked around the rest of his life with a painful limp. It almost makes me want to embrace trouble and pain (I said, almost!).
Now in Genesis 37, Jacob’s story shifts to his favored son Joseph. Joseph’s story must be very important because it is the longest narrative in Genesis. The action will move from northern Canaan to the Egyptian courts of the Nile River. Joseph’s story will explain how the Jews got into Egypt and developed into a nation of people prepared for the Exodus. At the end of the book of Genesis the family of Jacob will number only 70, but 430 years later, the nation of Israel would number about 2-3 million people. In Genesis 15:13-14, God revealed to Abraham that even though He would give the land of Canaan to Israel, He was not ready to dispossess the Canaanites from the land until their sin and depravity had maxed out. God said this would happen after the people of Israel spent over 400 years in a foreign land enslaved and oppressed. Somehow Jacob’s family would end up in Egypt while God patiently gave the Canaanites every imaginable opportunity to repent. Instead of repenting they would reach the maximum level of sin, to which God’s holy nature would require Him to intervene against the Canaanites. Then God would bring Israel out of Egypt through a series of miracles and give Israel the land of Canaan. By Genesis 37, we must ask the questions: Why would Jacob’s family leave their home behind and go to Egypt? What circumstances would force them to pick up and leave, and why would they be given land in Egypt?
Ultimately, Joseph’s story is about the providence of God. There are no miracles in Joseph’s story, so God was just using everyday events and circumstances to bring about His will. We can’t understand it, but somehow in every situation God is involved to bring about His will through natural means. I think it is so hard for us to figure out because God is omnipotent and omniscient, and those two attributes are foreign to us. Our word providence is derived from two Latin words–pro and videre. Pro means forward and videre means to see. Originally it meant the foreknowledge of God, but it came to mean “divine guidance as God conceived… as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny” (Webster’s Dictionary). Joseph clearly attributed the wild events in his life to God’s providence in many passages such as Genesis 45:7-8 where he told his brothers, “God sent me here before you to preserve for you a remnant…and to keep you alive…therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God”. God did not cause the brothers to sin by selling Joseph into slavery, but He used their sin to bring about Joseph’s removal to Egypt so that he could save them from the famine.
The Resentment of Joseph’s Brothers
In Genesis 37:1-4, we find Jacob’s family has migrated down to Hebron in southern Canaan. Joseph was now seventeen, younger than all the brothers who were sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Nevertheless, Joseph, being the son of Rachel whom Jacob loved, was in a position of authority over the other ten brothers. Joseph brought back a bad report about the work performance of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. We’ve already seen in the previous stories that there were hard feelings between Jacob and Leah’s sons, but the sons of the slave wives have even lower status. Naturally they had a bitterness against Jacob’s favored son Joseph. This bitterness was heightened by “a bad report of them to their father” by Joseph. In verse 3 we read that Jacob really did love Joseph best—this was not one of those imagined “Father loves you best” pity stories like the Smothers Brothers used to portray on TV. Then to make matters worse, Jacob gave Joseph a special coat with bright colors that must have been expensive. The coat signified that Joseph was an executive in charge of the other brothers, but what it really did was increase their jealousy and hatred.
To add fuel to the fire, Joseph had two dreams sent by God to predict that in the future Joseph’s brothers would all bow down to him (which actually happened in Genesis 42:6-9). The first dream was clearly Joseph’s “sheaf” being bowed to by his brothers. This foresaw when Joseph would be ruler over Egypt and his brothers would come begging for food. Joseph was naïve and very unaware of his brothers hard feelings because he readily shared the dream with them, and “they hated him even more.” In verse 9, God took it up another notch that would prove unbearable to the brothers. God gave him another dream beyond the scope of the first one as it included even his parents. Joseph saw eleven stars representing his brothers and a sun and a moon representing his parents—all bowing down to him. This time Jacob rebuked him, and we read again about how much his brothers were jealous of him and hated him. Yet, Jacob pondered the dream as to what it could mean. It appears that by His providence, God used those dreams to seal Joseph’s fate. The brothers would now choose to do evil to Joseph, because all the circumstances fueled the fire of their hatred. Joseph’s future was set—human sin and divine providence would send him to Egypt. The brothers’ cruel attack on Joseph seems (and was) very bad and evil, but God’s providence worked through it all for their ultimate preservation.
One day, the favored son Joseph was rich, loved, had a bright future, freedom, and all was right with the world; then suddenly and unexpectedly, by no fault of his own, Joseph was attacked, hated, a slave, and had a dismal future. In Genesis 37:12-36, Joseph was sent out by his father to check on the brothers who were far away from home grazing the flocks. When they saw him coming from a distance they recognized his coat, and began hatching a plan against him. All nine of them together attacked Joseph, roughed him up, and threw him into a deep empty cistern. They wanted to kill him, but the oldest brother Reuben prevented it. Why didn’t God help Joseph? Didn’t God love Joseph? Surely Joseph prayed for God’s help, but God had a higher purpose that Joseph could not imagine. As the story unfolds, we will find that throughout the next 20 years of hardship, God was with Joseph blessing him even in the midst of all the pain and trouble, and in the end, God would bring good out of all of it. Joseph was perhaps the greatest example of the benevolent providence of God in spite of temporary adverse circumstances. Later in Genesis 42:21, the brothers would recall Joseph’s reaction to their attack, “we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us”.
While Joseph was begging his brothers for help from the pit, his brothers were laughing and feasting because their hearts were hardened by jealousy, bitterness, and hatred. In Genesis 37:25, by the providence of God, an Ishmaelite caravan was passing by on its way to Egypt. Judah saw an opportunity to get rid of Joseph permanently and make a profit by selling Joseph as a slave to the Ishmaelites who would then sell him in Egypt. This was quite a reversal of fortune for Joseph who had begun the day as the favored son and heir apparent, but ended the day as a naked beat up slave tied to a beast of burden.
The Convenient Lie
Reuben then returned planning to retrieve Joseph from the cistern and restore him to his father. Reuben was on the outs with his father Jacob because he had slept with Jacob’s slave wife Bilhah, so perhaps he hoped to get back in good graces by saving Joseph, but he was too late. In Genesis 37:30-33, the brothers all put together a convenient lie about what happened to Joseph. The irony is that the expensive coat that Jacob gave Joseph out of love, inspired hatred, and now it was the tool for deception. They took the coat of Joseph and dipped it in blood and told Jacob that they found it, but not Joseph. The conclusion could only be that wild animals had devoured Joseph—thus absolving the brothers of any apparent guilt. Jacob’s grief was so severe that he refused to be comforted or stop mourning until 20 years later. I can think of at least two principles that we can derive from this story. We see the love and care of the father contrasted with the indifference of the world, just like the care of God for us contrasted to the hostile world around us. Peter said it well in 1Peter 5:6-7, “God will exalt you at the proper time, so cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” Secondly, life is unfair and deals out pain and suffering, but the eternal truth is that God is sovereign and His providence is at work to do us good in the end.