Genesis 37:12-36 “Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, ‘As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.’ ‘Very well,’ he replied. So he said to him, ‘Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.’ Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.” [and so on to verse 36]
The events described in the second part of this chapter took place a little later. Perhaps Jacob thought that the tensions between his other sons and Joseph had settled, that the silence was one of acceptance and not one of seething resentment, which it was. Perhaps there had been less displays of hostility towards his favourite son. Old Jacob was blind to the other children’s relentless hostility, barely hidden under the seeming indifferent surface. Firstly, let us look at this man Joseph as his character begins to develop.
- JOSEPH WAS THE OBEDIENT AND HARD-WORKING SON.
The troubles that came into Joseph’s life were not at all because he was a bad boy; quite the reverse. One day Jacob came to his son and said to him, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them” (v.13). It was at this time (apart from the inquiry Joseph makes as to the whereabouts of his brother to a man in Shechem) that we read the only words of Joseph that are recorded for us in this tumultuous episode; “Very well,” he replied to Jacob. What a fine, hard-working son he was; Joseph was up for the most demanding task. Shechem was a fifty mile journey on foot in the heat of the Middle Eastern sun. No servants were sent to accompany him. What an omission! Joseph had already experienced the hatred of his brothers, and now his father sent him into their midst to find out what’s happening. Furthermore, they are in Shechem, the scene of that massacre a few years earlier, and he, the brother of the two murderers, travels alone through enemy territory to search for them. Jacob was either being foolhardy or he had too naive a faith in the power of God to keep his son. We trust that God will keep us, but we lock our doors and the car when we come to church. Jesus himself sent out his servants in pairs.
Joseph’s immediate response to his father’s words was “Here I am.” It wouldn’t have been a task he’d have chosen. It would have taken him far out of his comfort zone, but he was a hard-working man and an obedient son, and also it might have seemed a bit of an adventure to him . . . little did he know what an adventure . . . so off Joseph went. As he disappeared around a bend in the path little did his father realise that he was not to see him again for many years. He arrived at Shechem, but there was no trace of his brothers there, yet instead of turning round and heading back home Joseph searched diligently for the men. A Shechem man saw this luxuriously dressed stranger looking around and asked him what he wanted. Joseph explained and the man told him that he had overheard the brothers saying to one another, “Let’s drive the flocks to Dothan.” Little did Joseph know that actually he would have been safer in the hands of the man who came from the scene of the massacre than he was going to be in the company of his own brothers. Dothan was another twenty miles further away but Joseph was undaunted and on he went looking for them.
Here we are presented with the two beautiful truths of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility because both were a reality in the faith and the experience of Joseph. His knowledge of God’s choice of him didn’t lead him to indolence, or fatalism, or passivity. Joseph obeyed God’s law; he honoured his father, and he instantly did his father’s bidding. Because he loved Jacob he kept his commandments. He faithfully carried out the task he’d been given. The doctrine of election didn’t lead Joseph to lie back on a cloudy bed of ease singing “Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be.” It led Joseph to meticulous effort. It didn’t lead him to a sense of entitlement, it empowered his ethic. He made very certain that God had called and chosen him by being zealous in good works and blameless in his relationship with Jehovah. That is always how the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty impacts the heart of a regenerate believer. So, Moses opens before us a window into Joseph’s character as we watch him on this errand for his father. He first searches Shechem and then discovering he has to travel further he walks on to Dothan.
I will remind you that later in the history of Israel a great event would occur at Dothan. It would be in that locality that the Lord would reveal that the hosts of heaven – its chariots and horsemen – were surrounding and protecting his besieged prophet Elisha and Gehazi his servant. That was the place where Joseph encountered his brothers, and it was there that Joseph would be sold into slavery. It did not seem to Joseph and Jacob that the hosts of the Lord were encamping around Joseph protecting him there. Were they looking after other servants of God and neglecting Joseph? No. They were there all right and as active and loving as ever. Walls of salvation are always around the souls God delights to defend. Then it has to be God’s purpose for what was to happen to Joseph in Dothan, in Potiphars’s house, in the prison, and at Pharaoh’s palace, the heavenly hosts were always on duty guarding this young man.
Dothan happened to be the one place near the pasture lands traveled over by these nomadic herders that happened to be bisected by a main merchant route leading to Egypt from Syria. We see God’s hand in many of the little details of this incident, such as the decision of the brotherhood to leave Shechem for Dothan, and then allowing a man from Shechem to overhear their plans, and then for that man later to spot Joseph and think to himself, “That boy is looking for someone or something.” He was probably the only person in that desolate area who could tell Joseph where he might find his brothers. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions. We are seeing in this chapter God’s active providence even when God is not named. Let’s learn with Joseph to trust in God though we cannot trace his hand at work. Don’t scan his work in vain. Joseph later could say, “It was God who sent me to Egypt.”
- JOSEPH FACED DANGER AND DEATH BY THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD.
The brothers spotted Joseph walking towards them when he
was still some distance away. He was wearing his royal clothes and he stood out a mile, but unlike the father of the prodigal son none of them went running to greet their little brother, throwing their arms around him and kissing him, celebrating his arrival. In fact long before he arrived at their campfire the suggestion had been made to kill this favourite son, the one who spied on them, and they were pretty well united in their plot to murder him. “‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams’” (vv. 19&20). There was calm deliberation about the murder when he was still walking across the fields towards them. The ring leaders are not named, though one suspects that Judah must have been involved as he is the leader later on. Their exasperation and hatred had sent deep roots into their lives. There were no witnesses around; there would be no local censure; no reports of a missing person and no one in the family circle to raise his or her voice.
One reason for this sustained rage is that the natural man is at enmity against God, and here were ten men who had been deeply angered by his dreams. You see that emphasis; “Here comes that dreamer . . . let’s kill him . . . and see what comes of his dreams” (vv. 19&20). They hated him because they hated the word he’d brought them. They wanted to be rid of him because they wanted to be rid of the divine Word! They’d been given a personal divine revelation. Each one of them had been made aware that he was one of those eleven sheaves, and each one of them was also one of those eleven stars all falling and cringing in an unmanly, servile posture before . . . Joseph! They were being told by God, “He is my man; the one I have chosen. Don’t lay a finger on him. Soon you will be bowing to Joseph,” and they hated the thought of it. They were kicking against the goads of the God who speaks and is not silent. They were in rebellion against the divine power standing behind them who had given the dreams. God was the one to announce it would happen and all the forces of earth and heaven and hell couldn’t prevent it from taking place, but they were defiant; they would never . . . never . . . never bow to Joseph. There is nothing more thankless, and nothing more dangerous than to stand in the way of a sinner who has made his mind up.
They would guarantee that that submission to Joseph would become an impossibility because . . . they would kill him. Then “we’ll see what will become of his dreams.” They thought that they could do something once and for all that would thwart the plans of God and destroy his revelation. By their actions these pipsqueaks intended to frustrate the designs of the Almighty Creator of the universe. How utterly irrational! They believed that they could derail Joseph’s future as a mighty lord, as God had plainly revealed this fact to them in those dreams. That is the point that Moses specifically wants to make, their rebellion against God. You remember where an identical event would occur again, when the Sanhedrin and the chief priests and the Pharisees and Pilate all planned together to destroy the Son of God, the Lord Christ, 2,000 years later. They would silence Jesus of Nazareth by putting him to death. “The man must die,” they decided. They’d put an end to his claims and his preaching for ever. Meanwhile back in Dothan two things happened:
i] Reuben, the firstborn, intervenes. As the murder plot is hatching (v.20) Reuben, the oldest son, has a fit of conscience and intervenes. “He tried to rescue Joseph from their hands” (v.21). This is a sign of what God is able to do in the direst circumstances, that he can providentially become involved in delivering his servants. Reuben talks to his brothers and suggests that rather than cut his throat they ought to throw Joseph into a pit. Moses tells us that Reuben’s design in suggesting this was to delay them so that he could come back later on and rescue him. This was Reuben’s scheme of forestalling the immediate murder of Joseph and giving himself some time to come up with a plan to rescue him from the blood lust of these men. Now Reuben had every reason to attempt to forestall what the brothers were plotting against Joseph. Not only do we know from his natural temperament that he would have been hesitant to participate in this kind of a plot, but a brother’s blood was sacrosanct, even as Judah himself will admit later on in this passage. It was an odious thing to spill the blood of a brother (v.27). Reuben was the firstborn and therefore directly answerable to Jacob their father, and remember, he was already under his father’s high displeasure. This could be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Joseph’s death could result in Reuben being cast out from the home, and so he’s very anxious to keep the brothers from carrying out their design.
Yet as soon as Joseph arrived at the camp they set on him violently. They tore off his coat of many colours (they hated that cloak with a vengeance), and they frog marched him to the edge of a deep cistern and threw him in. Then what happened? They had a meal together (v.25). They feasted because their enemy had been overthrown, a nineteen year old blameless boy! They were leaving him to starve to death while they ate roast lamb. What did Joseph do? He cried out to them from the bottom of the cistern and begged them to deliver him. “Don’t leave me here to die!” he shouted out while they were passing round the wine and cutting off pieces of roast lamb. How do we know that he cried out to them? Because years later in Egypt when the brothers were in deep trouble under the power of Pharaoh and his chief minister, the cruelty of what they’d done to Joseph came back to torment them. “They said to one another, ‘Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us’” (Gen. 42:21). God has given to all men a monitor that bears his witness to their conduct. All of you too have that conscience. All those brothers knew how evil their actions were, that they must answer to God for what they’d done. When Christ the servant of God was crucified then his enemies rejoiced, not knowing that God was still working out his purposes in the agony of the Redeemer. Today the enemies of the church rejoice when the church is brought low, but we know that God is still in control and is working all things together for our good.
So Reuben certainly had prevented Joseph being killed by these murderers, but mere prevention of wickedness is not the total righteous response is it? That is not justice. What had Joseph done to deserve being starved to death in a cistern? Was there not a higher demand on Reuben to overcome this evil with good, and to love his neighbour as himself, and rebuke wickedness sharply and summon them all to a repentance that was commensurate with the intended evil? Reuben was not a model firstborn son who would lead his brothers in righteousness, but the Lord Jesus is. So there is Reuben’s intervention.
ii] The Ishmaelite-Midianite slave traders suddenly arrived and Judah suggested selling him into slavery. The boy was shouting to them from the depths of the cistern, while they were trying to enjoy a meal with their consciences convicting them. It was unpleasant, and then they saw a movement in the distance. It was a caravan of traders coming from Gilead, and they were trading not only in spices, balm and myrrh but in people. They were on their way south to Egypt. It was the brother Judah who, on this occasion, spoke up; “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.’ His brothers agreed” (vv.2&27).
It’s true that this suggestion, in the providence of God, resulted in God’s appointed saviour going down to Egypt so that he could become the right man in the right place at the right time. To Judah, it seemed a God-given opportunity to be rid of Joseph without actually shedding his blood. It was still a despicable thing to do, a crime which the Mosaic law condemned with the death penalty. Yet God used the evil action; God brought good out of this wicked act while still holding the brothers accountable; God would never permit any evil actions if he couldn’t bring good out of them. There have been many times in life when the wrong decisions seemed right to us. They seemed beautiful to us because that suited our purposes and desires. A man and woman meet, they are married to other people, but they are thrown together. It all seems so right. It’s possible to rationalize away all the arguments we know against our course of action.
“So Joseph was sold for just 20 pieces of silver, the asking price for a slave in that region. Hardly a fortune, so it certainly wasn’t done for financial gain. With hindsight, even the price was no coincidence. Jesus himself would be betrayed for just 30 pieces of silver. In the end it would be this same brother, eventually converted and transformed, who would be the ancestor of the Messiah. Jesus was to be born of Judah’s line. There are parallels with the New Testament here. Matthew’s Gospel tells us of another Joseph who goes down to Egypt to preserve the life of the chosen one, Jesus, who was descended from Judah. He would be the Saviour of Israel and the world. This suggestion of Judah to sell Joseph into slavery shows us that the choice of Judah to be an ancestor of Christ had nothing at all to do with any worthiness on his part. He was a wretched man; the choice of Judah was dependent purely on the sovereignty of God. God’s grace is always shown not to worthy achievers but to unworthy sinners. Judah most certainly wasn’t a worthy man at this point. He is definitely a sinner and yet God is going to use him for his glory. This is always the way of grace with us” (Liam Goligher, Joseph: The Hidden Hand of God, Christian Focus, 2008, p.33).
You have noticed, by the way, that twice the term ‘Ishmaelite’ is used in this narrative, and twice the term ‘Midianite’ is used. It seems that in the day that Moses was writing Genesis that ‘Ishmaelite’ was used rather as we use the term ‘Arab’ in quite a loose way. Somehow ‘Ishmaelites’ and ‘Midianites’ were conceived to be interchangeable names, or perhaps the Ishmaelites were considered to be related to the Midianites, or a sub-tribe of the Midianites. So Moses used the two titles interchangeably. It does not mean that there were two records of this story, clumsily fused together. What is more significant than the double designations is the fact that God used so defiling an activity as slave trading to take Joseph down to Egypt.
Do you understand that God had entered into a covenant with Abraham and told him “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions” (Gen. 15:13&14). God made it absolutely clear that Abraham’s descendants had to go down to Egypt and must be oppressed for 400 years until the iniquity of the Amorites had been made complete. How were they going to get there? God would use Jacob’s sons’ hatred of Joseph; God would use their decision to drive their herds of sheep and cattle to Dothan which was on an important trade route from Gilead to north Africa; God would use a father’s desire to send his son on an errand to see how things were working out with the rest of his family; God would use a man who spotted a teenager looking around, lost and perplexed, to give directions; God would use a brother who would plead that they did not murder Joseph immediately; God would use another brother who would suggest selling Joseph into slavery to these traders. All these things God used, according to his perfect timing, the places these men chose to meet one another, and some sympathetic words and some greed for silver – God used it all to take Joseph down to Egypt in order to save Israel during seven years of drought in order to keep the ancestors of the Seed of the woman alive that Christ the Son of Judah might one day be born.
So it’s significant that it is Judah who speaks up and suggests that they don’t murder Joseph. And Judah suggests that this servant of God be handed over to the Gentiles just as the descendants of Judah, the religious Jewish leaders plotted to hand Jesus over to the Gentiles.
iii] Reuben returns and goes into mourning. Joseph was out of sight, handcuffed and chained to the back of a camel, while Reuben was absent having gone to perform some other duty, perhaps with the flocks. Maybe he’d been slipping away from the others in order to find a way surreptitiously to get back to the cistern and rescue Joseph, but when he got back to the pit Joseph was not there; he was well on his way to north Africa. Reuben immediately goes into mourning (v.29) showing his deep distress to his brothers, but there is no report of any response from them. Reuben goes into official mourning; he tears his clothes; he vents his distress, but they ignore him. They go about covering up their crime.
- JACOB WAS DECEIVED AT THE REPORT OF JOSEPH’S DEATH.
The sons of Jacob killed a goat and smeared its blood on the famous coat that Joseph always wore and they walked the 70 miles back to Jacob carrying the coat. “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe” (v.32). See! They can’t even say the name of their own brother, ‘Joseph!” What cruelty in the sons, and Moses wants us to see this, because in God’s providence he is not going to make a great nation out of Israel. He will one day break this family into little pieces and then he will humble them and unite them as they kneel before Joseph. Then these twelve brothers may begin to gain some wisdom and love one another, maybe for the first time. But these boys and their children will never as a nation become great. There will be no ‘Israel Empire’ as there was a British Empire. It is not the seed of Abraham according to the flesh that will inherit the earth, it is the ch
ildren of Christ who are both Jews and gentiles whose kingdom is going to stretch from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more. The meek shall inherit the earth.
The Bible speaks of the sins of the father being visited upon his children. Old Jacob had been the arch deceiver, in fact he had also killed and prepared a goat and told Isaac his father that the goat was venison from a deer that that he, Esau the hunter, had killed. Now the same trickery is done to him; the biter is himself bit; his sons’ deception and lies convict him. While his father Isaac had doubted Jacob, challenging the voice and the speed of the preparation of the meal and the touch of hairless skin, Jacob had no doubts; “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.’ Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days” (vv. 33&34). God’s providence is wise and appropriate and even just. Jacob himself has spiritual lessons to learn from these events.
Always we are hemmed into the providence of God. We might believe lies and are deceived, but thank God he is still in control. Consider the different parties in this history.
i] Consider Joseph who is on his way to Africa to be sold into a life of slavery. From a life of privilege, destined to be the head of the next generation of a rich father, he is cast down to a future of abject servitude. What was he thinking? Was it obvious to him at this point in the story that God was in complete control of his life and working his brothers’ hatred for his own good? I do not believe that. Did he know how he would become a portrait of the Saviour? Are not the ways of God often inscrutable? The bright side of the story, the silver lining in the dark cloud, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is hardly apparent to Joseph at this point in time.
ii] Consider the brothers, and what they were thinking now. Did they feel they had sinned the unforgivable sin? Did they know they could not hide what they had done from Jehovah, that his eyes run to and fro through the whole earth? Can any hide himself in a secret place that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill the heaven and the earth? saith the Lord. Must this God reject them for their virtual fratricide? He had rejected Reuben, Simeon and Levi for their wicked. How could they inherit the salvation promises acting as they had done? Surely they were cut off.
iii] Consider father Jacob and what he must have been thinking. His favourite son was dead, killed by an animal, and yet he had been chosen to be the head of the line of the woman. What of the protecting promises and power of God now? Who could Jacob trust? What did the future hold with such feckless sons who came with their insincere comfort to speak to him? He refused to be comforted even as our heavenly Father won’t be at peace when one of his disciples is attacked. It were better for a millstone to be tied around that attacker’s neck and he be cast into the sea than to sell one of God’s children into slavery.
To all three groups the situation seemed pretty hopeless. What is happening in their lives is not what they expected from their understanding of the nature of God, and the power of God, and the promises of God. That is the perspective of those who fail to trust in the Lord who works all things after the counsel of his own will, and works all things together for the good of those who love him. But we are reminded rather of William Cowper exhortation:
God is in control of everything, the merciless slave-traders who think they have made a bargain, the isolated son waiting for the slave mart to be opened the next day and wondering who was going to purchase him, the purchasers going there looking for a healthy young man, the broken-hearted father refusing to be comforted, determined to go down to the grave to his son (v.35), and the sullen guilt-ridden brotherhood having to deal with this shattered old man, knowing that they were responsible for his unending pain. God was in control of everything.
Deliverance will come through the suffering son. This chapter shows us his deaths and resurrection. He is put into a cistern never to be delivered, but he is brought out. He has gone down into the earth, into his grave, but he is brought out of that place. It is a picture of the resurrection of the Son of God. He is mourned by Jacob as one who is dead (vv. 34&35) but the last verse in the chapter tells us Joseph is very much alive. Here again is another sort of death and resurrection. We are to see in these chapters the death and resurrection of the Son of God prefigured again and again. He is sold into slavery in Egypt. He no longer has any freedom to do what he would do with his strength and life and gifts. Slavery is the death of liberty and we must wait for a few more chapters to see how God delivers him from that death. Eventually he is rise to power and sit at Pharaoh’s right hand. Here again we are seeing a picture of the Son of God humbled even to death but then highly exalted and given a name above every name.
Joseph is sent away to Egypt, far from the Promised Land. When will he come back? We search through the whole book of Genesis and there are just a few clues to that question. Joseph is like Adam and Eve put out of the Garden and living east of Eden. Joseph is taken to Egypt and it is in Egypt that he dies. His last instructions as death comes nearer are about his bones, that they be gathered and returned to the Promised Land and buried there. That is not a satisfying picture of the resurrection, so though Joseph is great as a trusting and merciful and powerful son he is not the Seed of the Woman promised at the beginning of this book. Another is needed; the real thing is need, the one whose heel is bruised but he crushes the serpent’s head.
Our Lord Jesus Christ knew all these things. Beginning at Moses and all the prophets he taught grieving, guilty sons of Abraham on the road to Emmaus the things concerning himself. He knew that he had to suffer and die and be raised again. He taught these things plainly to Cleopas and his companion. They had believed he was the one, the head of the covenant and the Redeemer of Israel, but now God has not spared him from his enemies. He lets them conquer him, crucify him and bury him. The plan of God has come to a big screeching halt. The forces of evil have triumphed. God’s messenger, their great hope, has been put to death through Gentile dogs and the wickedness of the sons of Abraham. Could things look any bleaker?
Cleopas and his friends should have known from the Scriptures what had happened to Joseph and that he would work these things together for the good of his servant. Church of Christ you should also know. You do know these things. You have an unction fro
m the Holy One and you do know that nothing can happen to you that’s outside of God’s plan.
Therefore come and embrace even the sufferings of Christ. Don’t fear the world, they did not overcome Christ, and they cannot overcome his Church. Rely on these promises! Rest in them! Whatever happens, remember this story of Joseph which is the story of Christ. God cannot be thwarted. Think of your lowest point, and perhaps you’re going through that right now. This is exactly God’s plan. Maybe something bad has happened because someone has sinned against you. So what? God is not frustrated by that. His plans cannot be frustrated. They meant it for evil, but God means it for good.
Maybe it was even your own sin. That is no barrier to your redemption if you but confess it and turn from it. He is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you. Joseph’s brothers sinned against him in a terrible way and yet he became their salvation. The people of Israel sinned against Christ, and he became their redemption once they repented. Jerusalem sinners who cried, “Away with him! Crucify him!” were the first at Pentecost to be offered forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. They were the first on whom the mighty Christ poured out his Spirit. God is more powerful even than your sin. This is what the story of Joseph tells you. This is what the coming of Christ confirms and establishes. Cling to this above all else – God is in control and working all things out for the good of his people. What have you to fear?