Genesis 37:12-36

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.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And 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 And 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 afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him 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 will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.”[1]

 The seeds of Joseph’s rejection were carefully planted by his father’s open favoritism and Joseph’s own naïve self-centeredness and gossiping. Combined with the divine revelation of two Joseph-exulting dreams which God used to stoke the fires of hatred, the proverbial noose around young Joe’s neck was tightening. We know from our scene last week that YHWH is completely in charge of not only the divine dreams, but also the free-will sins of the human actors. Though no human could see it, God’s great plan to provide a human savior for the infant nation of Israel was in full motion. Though the story is full of the darkness of human sin and evil, the story also shines with the hidden providence of God directing even human evil to his own good ends.

At the same time, this is a real story with real people who are not mere characters in a novel. This is a story of a real father and real brothers with all-too-human family drama swirling around them. We must consider not only the vantage point of divine providence, but also the vantage point of the people in this historical narrative. As we listen, we can discover both theological and personal truth that are essential.


This scene beings benignly enough with Father Jacob/Israel sending young Joe off to check on his 10 brothers and the family livestock business.

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.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.”

We can understand Jacob’s concern for the family business and his ten other sons. But you have to ask, “What in the world was the Old Man thinking sending his favorite son on such a chore, no less allowing him to wear his amazing technicolor dream coat?” It gives us some idea of how clueless both father and son were to the depths of hatred the ten older sons had for Jacob and Joseph. Jacob was completely blind to his sin of favoritism. Joseph had been so sheltered by his doting father that he had no real social skills to see how his brothers felt about him. And God was behind the scenes blinding Jacob and Joseph’s eyes to the reality to accomplish his purposes.

Hebron (where Jacob lived) was twenty miles south of Jerusalem and Shechem was thirty miles north of Jerusalem. Jacob had a 50-mile trip ahead of him – about a four- or five-day journey just to get to their last-known location. When he arrives, he will have to travel another thirteen miles to find them at Dothan.[2] Remember, Shechem is the village the brothers had left unpopulated when they killed all the men of fighting age and took all the women and children as slaves (Gen. 34). Apparently, the fear God struck into the hearts of the Canaanites was still there since the brothers encountered no trouble with the locals.

So, Joseph makes the journey to the pastureland surrounding Shechem. But when he arrives, his father’s flocks are nowhere to be seen. Verses 15-17 tell us an unnamed man encounters young Joe and redirects him to Dothan. The seemingly-chance encounter provides a transition from Joseph’s association with his father to Joseph’s association with his brothers, from an environment of love, acceptance, and doting, to one of hostility and rejection. Joseph has this man to thank, or curse, for pointing him toward Dothan.[3]

Two extremes of God’s care occur in Dothan. As Derik Kidner notes in his commentary:

The two extremes of his methods meet in fact at Dothan, for it was here, where Joseph cried in vain (42:21), that Elisha would find himself visibly encircled by God’s chariots (2 Kgs 6:13–17).[4]

The angels were just as present for Joseph as they would be for Elisha. If God had granted him the eyes to see, he would have seen something like Jacob’s stairway to heaven. Heaven and earth were intricately joined in divine activity on Joseph’s behalf. God was actively involved in preparing the savior of Israel for his mission in Egypt. And God was using sinful fratricidal lust to his good and glorious purposes.


As young Joe approached the pastures of Dothan, one of the brothers spotted a figure on the horizon. As the traveler drew closer, they could see the shimmering colors of the amazing technicolor dream coat – that outfit that marked Joseph as the royal overseer. The older brothers have been sleeping on the hard ground guarding the flocks from thieves and wild animals, sweating by day, chilled at night, getting by on the barest of rations. Little Joe has been comfortably at home with daddy. But here he comes in his overseer’s outfit to file another bad report with the home office – this kid whose never worked an honest day’s labor in his life, this dreamer of grandiose fantasies. The very sight of him stirred murderous intent in the hearts of most of the ten older brothers.

18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him 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 will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.”

The brothers’ hearts were beating like war drums, so loudly that we can almost hear it as we read Moses’ words. One callously calls young Joe “this master of dreams.” That reveals the true direction of their hatred. They don’t identify him as “this gossip” or as “daddy’s favorite.” St Author of Hebrews warned, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.[5] Moses ended the account of Joseph’s dreams by writing in 37:11, “And his brothers were jealous of him.” Their hatred is in response to God’s decrees. God sent Joseph the dreams; their hatred is directed at God. Joseph is merely the “fall guy,” the convenient target.

This is always the case with the human heart. We saw that way back at the beginning to Genesis in the story of Cain and Abel. Ultimately, we hate God for his decrees over that with which we disagree. When you’re angry with your spouse, your neighbor, your government, your health, your parents, your children, your finances – any irritating situation in your life – you are refusing to rest in the sovereignty of God. The root of bitterness that takes hold deceives you into believing the source of your discomfort is that person, that thing, that situation. BUT THE SOURCE IS GOD HIMSELF!

There is no situation in your life (whether pleasant or unpleasant to you) in which the sovereign God of the universe is not actively working for his good and glorious purposes. Obsess all you want over that horrible person in your life, convince yourself that THEY are the real problem, carefully water and tend your root of bitterness. You will be deceiving yourself. Far worse, you will be living in unrepentant and prolonged sin just like the sons of Israel!

Why do the brothers bother to be upset about a couple of dreams? They’re just dreams after all. James Boice writes:

If a child has a dream that reveals how the child hopes to be important some day [sic], regardless of how foolish the dream is, the proper course is to ignore the specifics while encouraging the child to apply himself or herself and thus live up to the goal of the dream if possible. One does not hate a child for dreams, however self-centered or bizarre. Since the brothers did hate Joseph, the implication is that they were actually taking the dreams seriously, as perhaps actually revealing what God might do, and they were hating God for it. …This put them against God and thus revealed their folly as well as their malice toward their younger brother.[6]

Back to the story: God was delivering Joseph into the hands of an angry mob whose crowing evil was their plan to toss his naked, unburied body into an empty cistern – the ultimate dishonor. Would they all take their turns beating and kicking him? Perhaps they would assign Simeon and Levi to simply cut Joseph’s throat. After all, they were well practiced in the art of throat-cutting.

Nine of the ten brothers were deep into their orgy of hatred. But Reuben, hearing their plan to kill Joseph and toss him into an empty cistern, intervenes. His opening words read in English like a suggestion or proposal. But they are forceful. He’s the eldest brother. As such he says, “We shall not take his life” (21), followed by “Y’all shed no blood.” He distances himself from the very idea of murder. His commands his brothers (22), “throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father.” Reuben is already on the outs with his father following his attempt to claim primary inheritance by sleeping with his father’s concubine. It would be in his best interest to return Joseph to daddy.

The verbs of verses 23, 24 describe a brutal assault. “So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” “They stripped him” is a term used to describe the skinning of animals (Leviticus 1:6). Like a pack of dogs, his nine brothers were upon him, scratching and pulling the hated coat from him and likely his remaining clothing, finally dumping him like a dead body into a pit so deep and vertical that he could not climb out.[7] Joseph, who dreamed of his brothers bowing down to him, is now under their feet in a deep, dry hole and slated to die of exposure. The brothers are all good legalists at this point; they reason that if they haven’t slit Joseph’s throat then they haven’t really committed murder. No blood, no crime. Joseph’s blood could not cry out from the ground against them like Able’s had done (4:10). He would surely die of exposure and starvation and dehydration, but it wouldn’t be bloody.


The heartlessness of the brothers is obvious. They sit down to celebrate their non-bloody disposal of their pesky little brother by having lunch (25a). They may have even been feasting on provisions Joseph brought with him from home. The text says nothing at this point about Joseph’s reaction to being beaten, stripped, and tossed into the cistern. But, in 42:21, the brothers will confess:

In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen.[8]

While the brothers shared a covenant meal sealing their evil agreement to murder Joseph and lie to their father, Joseph wailed and begged from his underground prison. Given their hatred, it’s not difficult to imagine that as their brother cried out to them, they returned his calls with mocking responses. “Try dreaming in a pit!” “Since you’re so special, why don’t you pray for God to bring you up out of the pit.” One day the Promised Seed would be mocked by the people he had come to save (Matt. 27:39-43):

39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” [9]

The brothers’ plan was to eat, pack up and move on, leaving little Joe to die a bloodless death. But the hidden hand of God was about to pull Joseph out of the pit. A caravan appeared on the horizon offered them a better solution to the Joseph problem.

25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, 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 let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. [10]

Ishmael’s descendants were so associated with commerce that all traders in the Middle Bronze Age were likely referred to as Ishmaelites. These particular Ishmaelites were Midianites, residents of the Arabah (c.f. Judges 8:22-28). These were men clearly outside the covenant. Joseph was sold out of the Promised Land and into the City of Man. Reuben is not present for the slave trading, he is off with the flocks. In his absence, Judah (the fourth-born son) outflanks the violent duo of Simeon and Levi by offering his idea of making money off their little brother. “Both later biblical law and cuneiform law prohibit what Judah and his brothers did to Joseph. It is a crime that is considered a capital offense.” [11]

Moses does not tell us Judah’s motivation. Was it simply a money-making proposition or did he want to save his little brother from death? Whatever his true motives, Judah saves Joseph’s life. From here on, Judah would play a more active role in leadership, and (notwithstanding the Tamar incident in chapter 38) he will have a more influential role in the covenant. Ultimately Jacob would name him bearer of the messianic line (cf. 49:8-10).[12]

Egypt was a large market for the international slave trade. The Midianites may have doubled their initial twenty-shekel investment. “Dragged naked from the pit and tethered to a beast of burden so that he too could carry some of the freight, he began the long trek to the Nile. He had begun the day a robed prince in Israel and ended it as a slave.”[13] Because Moses doesn’t write about Joseph’s feelings, commentators and preachers tend to fill in the “silence” with pictures of a brave young Joseph full of love for his brothers and peaceful trust in God as if he were Christ on the cross. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that for a second. I’m guessing he felt as betrayed, victimized, humiliated, and terrified as any one of us would have felt. Joseph was only a type of Christ, a primitive picture of the coming Promised Seed. He was not the perfectly sinless God-Man.

He must have wondered where God was. Why had God not warned him at Schechem? Why hadn’t Reuben returned in time? Why had this caravan of traders appeared out of nowhere at just the right time? Joseph could no more fit the pieces of his drama together than you and I would have. God’s hand was writing the drama, but he was not sharing the script with Joseph.


As the eldest brother with multiple flocks to supervise, Reuben was not with the other brothers when they sold Joseph. When he returns to the cistern, it is empty. Ruben’s response is the ancient Near Eastern practice of tearing his garment. He cries out to his brothers, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Reuben has no place he can run to escape the terrible consequences. Not one of brothers answers his cry with anything other than the grim activity concerning the amazing technicolor dream coat.

Joseph’s royal robe was at the center of the story. It was made with great love but generated deep hatred and was torn and bloodied in great contempt. It becomes the physical evidence for the great deception to come.

31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”

There is sad irony as Jacob sons used the blood of a slaughtered goat to perpetrate their lie just as Jacob had slaughtered a goat to deceive his father and gain the patriarchal blessing (27:9-17). Jacob’s sin had come full circle. The great weight of the evidence and resulting grief came in three waves. First, he identified Joseph’s royal robe. Notice the brothers call Joseph “your son” and not “our brother.” Next, he notices the robe’s torn condition and concludes the boy was eaten by a wild predator. Finally, he forms a terrible mental picture of Joseph ripped apart. “Look how they massacred my boy!” Jacob wails.

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 rose up 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 wept for him.

Conventional grieving lasted a week for a parent (cf. 50:10). And when Moses died, the people mourned for the extraordinary period of a month (cf. Deuteronomy 34:8). But Jacob/Israel insisted he would publicly mourn for Joseph for the rest of his life. He refused to be comforted and may have kept us his public mourning for the next twenty years until he saw Joseph again. What a horrible mess his overindulgence of one son had made for his family. Jacob/Israel’s idolatry brought twenty years of grief. His other ten sons could only offer hollow and ineffectual comfort since they had done the foul deed and lived with the sound of their brother’s cries ringing in their ears.

As for Joseph, we have a postscript: “36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.” God’s providence had brought about Joseph’s terrible sale into Egypt. Israel’s human savior was in place. God had planned it all, using even the free-will sin of his people for his glorious purposes. Joseph was no machine, no robot, he lived as you and I live today with God’s word to guide him – though he had far less of it than we. He had an imperfect understanding of life around him and struggled with his own besetting sins, and with sinners framing his existence. He lived a real life in real time and space. He had every reason to plunge himself into a perspective of victimhood. He had been relationally crippled by his father’s overweening favoritism. He had suffered from the “yours, mine, ours” relational pathology of pleural marriage. He had been horribly abused by his brothers. The scars were there to stay— their homicidal rage, his beating and humiliation, their demeaning insults, the agonizing trip to Egypt, and his naked humiliation on the slave block in Egypt.[14] In Egypt, his treatment would be far worse than at the hands of his brothers.

But Joseph was given extraordinary trust to endure his extraordinary circumstances. He clung to the bare word of God, first delivered to his great-grandfather Abraham, that God would be his God, that he would be God’s man, and that God would dwell with him. He believed that would somehow be accomplished by the Promised Seed to arise out of Israel. He knew part of that great plan would involve his family bowing down to him – meaning he would see them all again one day. Joseph reasoned that God was doing his will throughout this inscrutable drama with all its terrible consequences.

What does that have to do with us? Quite a bit, actually. We all have scars and wounds, some from when we were young and some quite fresh. For some of us, all it would take to rip of the scabs and reopen the wounds is a family re-union, or a wrong word spoken by another, or some occurrence in our day-to-day life. Most can name their old wounds. Some cannot. But the emotions come flooding back just the same. Some wounds are not scabbed over, they are gaping – from irrational parenting, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, family infighting, armed conflict – the list can be endless.

Joseph’s story teaches us that the consequences of sin leaves all of us with lives full of inequities, unfairness, and tragedies. But it also teaches us we have a great and sovereign God who works all things according to his will. If you are trusting into the perfect life of the Promised Seed – imputed to you by faith alone – for your righteousness before God; and into Christ’s sacrificial blood-shedding death as the payment for your condition of sin, then you are free from the bondage of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). You can rest absolutely EVERYTHING on your great covenant God.

We must believe that the awesome God of Genesis is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him— that he is good and equitable to all his children (Hebrews 11:6). We must appropriate the freedom of Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2: 20).

Here is reality. Real life is unfair. Real life deals out many injustices. Real life is filled with sin and sinners. Real wounds are everywhere. But the transcending eternal reality is that God is all-powerful and that his massive providence is at work in his children’s behalf. In Christ, Life brims with hope and optimism. On the other side of our wounds, we can hope in to God and say with Joseph, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 37:12–20.

[2] Hamilton, 2:414.

[3]Id., 415.

[4] Kidner, 193.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 12:15.

[6] Boice, 3:874.

[7] Hughes, 445-446. Kindle Edition.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 42:21.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 27:39–43.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 37:25–28.

[11] Hamilton, 2:421.

[12] Hughes, 477. Kindle Edition.

[13] Id.

[14] Hughes, 448-449. Kindle Edition.