Joseph’s Dreams

37:1 But Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, in the land of Canaan.
37:2 This is the account of Jacob.
Joseph, his seventeen-year-old son, was taking care of the flocks with his brothers. Now he was a youngster working with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father.

The account of Jacob – This formula marks out the main sections of Genesis, beginning with the creation of the heavens and the earth, Gen 2:4; then the account of Adam, Gen 5:1; then Noah, Gen 6:9; then Noah’s sons, Gen 10:1; then Shem, Gen 11:10, then Terah and Abram, Gen 11:27; then Ishmael, Gen 25:12 and Isaac, Gen 25:19; then Esau, Gen 36:1 and Jacob, Gen 37:2. Such is the flow of sacred history, and such the fulfilment of God’s promise of blessing through ever more definite channels, until we read in Mt 1:1, ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.’

The final section of Genesis extends from Gen 37:2-Gen 50:26. It is formally identified as the account of Jacob, for it is he and his family who are strategically important. Joseph, however, will figure prominently. He was he whom God used to reconcile the covenant family.

The story tells how Jacob’s other sons fell out with Joseph. Jacob loved Joseph and Benjamin, sons of his beloved Rachel, but not the other sons, born of Leah and the concubine wives. The tension has already been building up in Gen 34-35. Now it reaches breaking-point, as the other sons plot to dispose of Joseph. In the event, he is sold into slavery in Egypt, while Jacob is led to believe that he is dead. Joseph, however, through various trials and tribulations, is promoted to become Pharaoh’s righthand man, and the family is eventually reconciled.

The account of Jacob is more than a story of a broken family reconciled. It shows how God achieves his gracious purposes in spite of human sinfulness and adverse circumstances. It is, as Kidner says, ‘a locus classicus of providence. The key lesson is found in Gen 50:20.

‘Though the striking parallels are not developed in the New Testament, the Christian church has traditionally viewed Joseph as a type of Christ. Godly Joseph, beloved by his father (Gen 37:3; cf. Mk 1:11), was sent to his brothers, but was then sold for twenty pieces of silver (Gen 37:28; cf. Mt 26:15). After suffering persecution and temptation (Gen 37:18-36 Gen 39:7-20; cf. Mt 4:1-11), righteous Joseph was exalted as lord over his brothers (Gen 37:5-11 Gen 41:3745 Gen 42:6???; cf. Php 2:9,10).’ (New Geneva)

This is the account of Jacob. Joseph… – Jacob’s trials are not yet over. His very love for Joseph would bring them both to despair.

Joseph…was tending the flocks with his brothers – The sense is that Joseph was with his ten brothers, but assigned to (or even responsible for) the four who were the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.

‘Literally, “Joseph being seventeen years old was a shepherd over the flock”he1 a lad, with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. Oversight or superintendence is evidently implied. This post of chief shepherd in the party might be assigned him either from his being the son of a principal wife or from his own superior qualities of character; and if invested with this office, he acted not as a gossiping telltale, but as a “faithful steward” in reporting the scandalous conduct of his brethren.’ (JFB)

He brought their father a bad report about them – Whether we view Joseph as a tale-bearer or a truth-teller, his action was bound to stir up animosity against him. Some of his brothers were, after all, old enough to be his father.

Notice how fuel is added to the fire of hostility against Joseph, vv 2,4,8 and 11. Notice also how the fire spreads from the four brothers, v2, to the whole group, v4, to include even the father, v10. Joseph ends up in total isolation.

This, notes Baldwin, ‘is the kind of family situation that can cause the youngster great pain and lead to a warped, inward-looking personality, full of fear and resentment. That it did not do so in Joseph’s case is part of the charm of this story. His personality was remarkably resilient.’

37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons because he was a son born to him late in life, and he made a special tunic for him. 37:4 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated Joseph and were not able to speak to him kindly.
Gratuitous interpretation

A past minister of City Temple, one Robert Bragg, preached a series of sermons on the individual colours of Joseph’s coat, Gen 37:3. This prompted one of his congregation to sigh:-

Eternal Bragg, in never-ending strains
Unfolds the wonders Joseph’s coat contains.
Of every hue describes a different cause
and from each patch a solemn mystery draws.

And not only was Joseph the son of Jacob’s old age, but the son of his beloved and lamented Rachel. Only Benjamin was younger than him.

A richly ornamented robe – This has also been translated as ‘a coat of many colours’ (AV, RV), or ‘a long rove with sleeves’ (RSV). The meaning of the underlying Hebrew is uncertain. The notion that is was a ‘coat of many colours’ comes from the LXX. A garment of the same description in 2 Sam 13:18 is a royal robe. What is clear that the garment was distinctive and ostentatious, and was a sign of Joseph’s preferential status. Moreover, it was a constant reminder to the brothers of Jacob’s favouritism.

‘In Joseph’s day, everyone had a robe or cloak. Robes were used to warm oneself, to bundle up belongings for a trip, to wrap babies in, to sit on, or even to serve as security for a loan. Most robes were knee length, short sleeved, and plain. In contrast, Joseph’s robe was probably of the kind worn by royalty – long sleeved, ankle length, and colourful. The robe became a symbol of Jacob’s favouritism toward Joseph, and it aggravated the already strained relations between Joseph and his brothers. Favouritism in families may be unavoidable, but its divisive effects should be minimised. Parents may not be able to change their feelings toward a favourite child, but they can change their actions toward the others.’ (The Handbook of Bible Application, 214)

A Transgender Dreamcoat?

It has been argued (well, imagined, really) that Joseph’s coat might really have been a ‘princess dress’.  Appeal is made to the one other OT use of the underlying word in 2 Sam 13:18 refers to a robe worn by a virginal princess.  The blog writer admits that they [sic] don’t need to feel certain that Joseph’s robe was actually a ‘princess dress’.  Rather, [they] just need to know that it was possible.  As if to say: ‘You cis-gender people have plenty of role models in Scripture; let the rest of us have some too – David and Jonathan, Martha and Mary, Joseph…’

By way of response:-

  • as the blog writer seems to realise, the evidence that Joseph’s was anything other more than distinctive and ostentatious is surpassingly thin;
  • the coat was given to Joseph by his father, and so we would have to assume that Jacob already knew about, approved of, and was willing to make a public show of his son’s unusual sexuality;
  • as v4 shows, Joseph’s brothers were not outraged by his ‘feminine’ robe, but by his father’s show of affection for him;

Nevertheless, we can feel the longing for acceptance that is felt by this blogger:- ‘If Joseph wore a princess dress, then for the first time, I see someone in our holy Scripture who is like me. Someone who bends–or even breaks–the expectations of gender. I can read the story of my faith tradition, the story of my Savior, and see in it the radical possibility that God loves even me. Because God has done it before. God loved and protected Joseph even through hardship.’

As is so often the case, this person gets the gospel half right: yes, God does indeed love you, whoever you are, and whatever you have done.  But also half wrong: for God meets you where you are, but does not leave you there.

It is of some concern that this dubious theory about Joseph’s coat has gained some currency at the present time (late 2018).  It has been reported that a Christian teacher has resigned because the A-level Religious Studies syllabus required her to teach exactly the same thing about the coat.

They…could not speak a kind word to him – Or, ‘could not greet him with peace.’ The greeting “peace be with you” was an essential element of ancient social manners, and so we see here another sign of the deep resentment and animosity of the brothers.

37:5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him even more. 37:6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 37:7 There we were, binding sheaves of grain in the middle of the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose up and stood upright and your sheaves surrounded my sheaf and bowed down to it!” 37:8 Then his brothers asked him, “Do you really think you will rule over us or have dominion over us?” They hated him even more because of his dream and because of what he said.
37:9 Then he had another dream, and told it to his brothers. “Look,” he said. “I had another dream. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 37:10 When he told his father and his brothers, his father rebuked him, saying, “What is this dream that you had? Will I, your mother, and your brothers really come and bow down to you?” 37:11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept in mind what Joseph said.

‘Joseph had a great deal of trouble before him, and therefore God gave him betimes this prospect of his advancement, to support and comfort him under the long and grievous troubles with which he was to be exercised. Thus Christ had a joy set before him, and so have Christians.’ (MHC)

Joseph does not come across as particularly conceited, but as transparently and perhaps naively honest. Cf. Gen 37:2.

‘Joseph was more of a prophet than a politician, else he would have kept this to himself, when he could not but know that his brethren did already hate him and that this would but the more exasperate them.’ (MHC)

According to Gen 41:32, duplicate dreams indicated certain and prompt fulfilment.

v10 He told his father about the second dream, because it evidently points to the heads of the family.

But the rebuke is quite mild, and Jacob may have been secretly pleased at his son’s high prospects.

‘It is probable, when he saw his sons so malevolent, that he wished to meet the danger by feigning what he did not feel: for he was not offended at the dream, but he was unwilling to exasperate the minds of those who, on account of their pride, would not bear to be in subjection. Therefore I do not doubt that he feignedly reproved his son, from a desire to appease contention.’ (Calvin)

v11 ‘Jacob, like Mary, (Lk 2:51) kept these things in his heart, and no doubt remembered them long afterwards, when the event answered to the prediction.’ (MHC)

Jacob would later give Joseph the birthright and double inheritance, Gen 48:5-6.

37:12 When his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 37:13 Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” “I’m ready,” Joseph replied. 37:14 So Jacob said to him, “Go now and check on the welfare of your brothers and of the flocks, and bring me word.” So Jacob sent him from the valley of Hebron.

The distance from Hebron to Shechem was about 80 km (50 miles).

Jacob’s concern for his sons was not unfounded. Shechem was the place where Dinah had been taken by force and where Jacob’s sons had slaughtered all the men in revenge, Gen 34. Jacob had purchased land there, Gen 30:19, and so was natural that he woud make use of its rich pastures by sending his flocks there. But there was always a danger that some angry relative of the Shechemites would seek revenge.

Rather a risky mission, in the light of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. As Matthew Henry points out, both Jacob and Joseph had more of the innocence of the dove than of the wisdom of the serpent.

Jacob’s concern over the welfare of his sons my be related to the incident covered in Gen 34 – the rape of Dinah and the subsequent vengeance meted out by Jacob’s sons.

37:15 When Joseph reached Shechem, a man found him wandering in the field, so the man asked him, “What are you looking for?” 37:16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Please tell me where they are grazing their flocks.” 37:17 The man said, “They left this area, for I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

It was because of this delay that the Ishmaelites arrived at just the right time, vv21-28.

The brothers may have been experiencing some difficulty: they had been away from home for some time; they had travelled further than they intended; the dryness of the cistern into which they lowered Joseph; – these circumstances are suggestive of scarcity and drought.

Dothan was a town situated in a fertile plain, some 32 km to the south of Shechem. It was on the route from Syria to Egypt. Near the site of the town have been discovered a number of rectangular cisterns, about 3 m deep.

37:18 Now Joseph’s brothers saw him from a distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. 37:19 They said to one another, “Here comes this master of dreams! 37:20 Come now, let’s kill him, throw him into one of the cisterns, and then say that a wild animal ate him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out!”

They recognised him at a distance because of his distinctive robe.

The plotted to kill him – And thereby attempt to prove his dreams false.

37:21 When Reuben heard this, he rescued Joseph from their hands, saying, “Let’s not take his life!” 37:22 Reuben continued, “Don’t shed blood! Throw him into this cistern that is here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” (Reuben said this so he could rescue Joseph from them and take him back to his father.)

Reuben was the oldest brother. He assumed leadership in the father’s absence and would be held the most accountable for the safety of his brothers. He seems to have been of a different temperament to his brothers: he was impulsive, but lacked their cold brutality: see Gen 35:21-22 Gen 37:21 Gen 42:37 Gen 49:3-4. In any case, he was already in big trouble with his father, Gen 35:2.

37:23 When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped him of his tunic, the special tunic that he wore. 37:24 Then they took him and threw him into the cistern. (Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.)

‘Imagine him advancing in all the unsuspecting openness of brotherly affection. How astonished and terrified must he have been at the cold reception, the ferocious aspect, the rough usage of his unnatural assailants!’ (JFB)

‘Is this he to whom his brethren must do homage? Note, Gods providences often seem to contradict his purposes, even then they are serving them, and working at a distance towards the accomplishment of them.’ (MHC)

37:25 When they sat down to eat their food, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh down to Egypt. 37:26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 37:27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not lay a hand on him, for after all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. 37:28 So when the Midianite merchants passed by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. The Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt.

An indication of their callousness, that their had hearty appetites even though they were perhaps even within earshot of Joseph’s cries for help, Gen 42:21. See Am 6:6.

‘Those that oppose Gods counsels may possibly prevail so far as to think they have gained their point, and yet be deceived.’ (MHC)

The Ishmaelites are also called Midianites in this passage. The two terms are virtually synonymous, as Jud 8:24 shows.

Midianites…Ishmaelites – The interchangeability of these terms is demonstrated in Jud 8:24.

Twenty shekels of silver – ‘Tracking the price of slaves sold from 2400 B.C. to 400 B.C. using extrabiblical sources, he finds that this amount matches exactly the going price in the eighteenth century. Steady inflation had driven it up to 30 shekels by the thirteenth century (which corresponds to Exod. 21:32), 50 shekels in the eighth century (which corresponds to 2 Kings 15:20), and to nearly 100 shekels soon after the Exile in the sixth century.’ (Kevin D. Miller, Christianity Today, referencing Kenneth Kitchen)

37:29 Later Reuben returned to the cistern to find that Joseph was not in it! He tore his clothes, 37:30 returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy isn’t there! And I, where can I go?” 37:31 So they took Joseph’s tunic, killed a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood. 37:32 Then they brought the special tunic to their father and said, “We found this. Determine now whether it is your son’s tunic or not.”

Why had Reuben been absent from the group while his brother sold him to the Ishmaelites? His absence is not explained. It is, however, consistent with the reality of the comings and goings of real life: maybe he had been taking his turn guarding the flock, or attending to a wandering sheep. ‘Of many possible reasons, the simple”]st is that when the foreign caravan was sighted, Reuben, the most conscientious of the brothers (and true to character), went off to mount guard among the sheep: passing foreigners could not be trusted not to filch a few choice animals. Reuben would have to wait till they had passed. By the time Reuben could safely return, Joseph was sold and gone; they then sent his blood-stained robe to Jacob.’ (NBD)

This alarm was due, no doubt, to his awareness that, as the eldest brother, his father would hold him responsible for what had happened to Joseph.

37:33 He recognized it and exclaimed, “It is my son’s tunic! A wild animal has eaten him! Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” 37:34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned for his son many days. 37:35 All his sons and daughters stood by him to console him, but he refused to be consoled. “No,” he said, “I will go to the grave mourning my son.” So Joseph’s father wept for him.

‘We often perplex ourselves with imaginary troubles. We fancy things worse than they are, and then afflict ourselves more than we need. Sometimes there needs no more to comfort us than to undeceive us: it is good to hope the best.’ (MHC)

What must have passed through the sons’ minds, now and later, as they continued to allow Jacob to believe a lie?

The family is shattered, and the father inconsolable. But the dreams still stood. What God had promised would surely come to pass, however unlikely it seemed.

‘Great affection to any creature does not prepare for so much the greater affliction, when it is either removed from us or embittered to us. Inordinate love commonly ends in immoderate grief; as much as the sway of the pendulum throws one way, so much it will throw the other way.’ (MHC)

37:36 Now in Egypt the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.