Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
In our text for today, sibling rivalry comes close to murder and sets in motion a chain of events that occupy the rest of the book of Genesis (chapters 37-50).
Indeed, the events of this text will impact the rest of the story of the Israelites, as they leave the Promised Land at the end of Genesis to settle in Egypt.
This text continues the saga of Jacob’s family and introduces us to the figure of Joseph. The lectionary divides the story in an odd way, so that the account of Joseph’s two dreams is omitted from the reading. The preacher should read (or summarize) that account to make sense of the later references to “that master of dreams” (37:19) and to the dreams themselves (37:20). Including the verses about the dreams will help to explain the brothers’ intense hatred of Joseph.
We are introduced to Joseph as a youth of seventeen. He is the favorite son of his father Jacob (who, from his own history, should know the danger of playing favorites). The first son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, Joseph is “the son of his old age” (37:3). To show his love for Joseph, Jacob gives him a special robe. Traditionally translated, “coat of many colors,” the Hebrew term here probably refers to a coat with long sleeves or to an ornamented coat. (The only other place in the Bible such a garment is mentioned is in 2 Samuel 13:18, where it is the royal garment of King David’s daughter, Tamar.) In any case, the coat is an explicit sign that Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other sons, and they hate Joseph because of it.
This motif of the younger son being the beloved son — and the resultant family strife such favor produces–has been prominent in Genesis. It begins with the murder of Abel by his older brother, Cain, and continues with the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. In each case, the younger son is shown favor by God and/or by a parent, but that favor, that election, leads to great hardship (and even death) for the younger son. The same will be true for Joseph.
Joseph himself is portrayed as a young man somewhat lacking in common sense, or perhaps simply a bit self-absorbed. He has two different dreams with the same message: He will become preeminent in his family. His brothers (and even his parents) will bow down to him! Seemingly unaware of his brothers’ feelings for him, he eagerly shares these dreams with them. They hate him both because of the dreams and because he insists on talking about them (37:8). Even his doting father rebukes him for his words (37:10).
Perhaps Jacob, too, is unaware of the feelings his other sons have for Joseph, because Jacob sends him to check on them while they pasture the flocks. Joseph, again showing a lack of common sense, wears his special robe — the sign of his father’s favor — as he goes in search of them (37:23). He goes first to Shechem, the setting of an earlier scene of violence (Gen 34), then, at the direction of a stranger, to Dothan. (The man who meets Joseph wandering in the fields has sometimes been understood in the historical interpretation to be an angel, on par with the “man” who wrestles with Jacob in Genesis 32. There is little warrant for this interpretation in the text.)
The brothers, when they see Joseph coming, refer to him scornfully as “this master of dreams” (37:19), and they conspire to kill him. Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them otherwise. They instead strip Joseph of his beautiful robe and throw him into an empty well or cistern. This is the first of several literal and metaphorical descents (and ascents) Joseph will make in the story. Drawn out of the pit, he is taken “down” to Egypt (39:1) and sold into slavery. Nevertheless, blessed by God, he rises to a position of authority in Potiphar’s house (39:2-4). Falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, he is again cast down, this time into prison. Once again, God blesses him, and he rises to a position of authority (39:22-23). Forgotten by Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer after he correctly interprets his dream, Joseph seems fated to spend the rest of his life in prison (40:23). Then the cupbearer remembers, and Joseph is raised once again from the “pit” of prison to the highest position possible: he becomes the second in command in Egypt.
Joseph’s brothers, meanwhile, have deceived their father. They have taken Joseph’s special coat and dipped it in the blood of a slaughtered goat, then sent the coat to Jacob (37:31). Their father, of course, draws the obvious conclusion that Joseph is dead, killed by a wild animal. It is worth noting that Jacob is deceived by his sons just as he deceived his own elderly father. And in both cases, a slaughtered goat and a garment are the instruments of deception (27:15-16). As we saw in the story of Jacob and Laban, Jacob’s actions come back to haunt him. Yet, God continues to be at work in the lives of Jacob and his family.
This story is the first of two about Joseph in the lectionary readings. The second one, next week, will reunite Joseph and his brothers and will provide the theological lens through which to read the whole Joseph narrative. It is important, therefore, that one preaches on both texts in the series, in order to get a full picture of the workings of God in and through (and in spite of) this strife-torn family.