If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to Genesis 37. If you don’t have a Bible there are some black ones in the pew back in front of you and the passage we are studying can be found on page 33.
We are in the second week of a study of the life of Joseph from Genesis 37-50. While Joseph is the central human character of the narrative, we saw last week that God is the main character of this story. We went all the way back to Genesis 3 and saw God’s first restorative promise after the fall of man in Genesis 3:15.
God declares that He is going to set right the wrong that occurred in the Garden of Eden and he’s going to do it through the offspring of Adam and Eve. He reveals later on to Abraham that it’s through his family he will bless all the nations of the earth—bringing to fruition the promise he made in Genesis 3.
God further reveals to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-14 “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be resident aliens for four hundred years in a land that does not belong to them and will be enslaved and oppressed. 14 However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions.
Those are the words that set in motion the events we are going to read about in a moment. We see the first mention of that land that doesn’t belong to Abraham’s family at the end of Genesis 37.
We had this on the screen last week but I want us to see it again as a reminder of what these 14 chapters are really about: In Joseph’s story we learn how God acts in the lives of real people through His divine providence to secure His divine promises as He works to bless all the nations of the earth by rescuing a people from their sin for His glory.
To put it more briefly, God’s providence secures his promises. God’s providence, his actions in creation to advance His purpose, secures the promises He has made to humanity.
And because God is at work in Joseph’s life—and in yours and mine—in bigger ways than you and I could ever comprehend we know that we can press on. We know that because He has promised in Romans 8 . . . all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
That doesn’t mean we will understand all things. But just because we don’t understand them doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Hot dogs are good. I don’t understand what they are and I don’t want to . . . but they’re good.
We need to state that at the outset because on its surface what is about to happen to Joseph is very bad. Extremely bad, as a matter of fact. We saw last week how God—in His sovereign way—created circumstances in which Joseph would be hated by his brothers. Because God granted Joseph a vision of his future position of authority in a dream, because of his father’s favoritism, and because of Joseph’s own attitude—his brothers hated him. But that was necessary for God to to work His purpose in this family and—ultimately—to bless all the nations of the earth.
That plan begins to come into view as we read text today. The events of Genesis 37:12-36 really unfold in four movements. We’re going to label them devotion, depravity, deception, and deliverance so that they’re easy for us to remember as we go through. Devotion, depravity, deception, and deliverance.
Devotion (Genesis 37:12-17)
First we see the devotion of Joseph as he takes an assignment from his father. Let’s read the first three verses together:
12 His brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem. 13 Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers, you know, are pasturing the flocks at Shechem. Get ready. I’m sending you to them.”
“I’m ready,” Joseph replied.
14 Then Israel said to him, “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are doing, and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the Hebron Valley, and he went to Shechem.
Joseph demonstrates not just devotion to his father here, but also to his brothers. Jacob telling Joseph to go check on his brothers in Shechem is a dangerous proposition if ever there as one. At the end of our text last week, we learned that Joseph’s brothers were unable to speak peaceably to him. Here Jacob literally tells Joseph to go and check on their peace—in the original text those are almost identical phrases. This would have been extremely uncomfortable for Joseph no matter where the brothers were but we learned in verse 14 that they had taken Jacob’s flocks to Shechem.
Shechem was not a safe place for members of this family. Back in Genesis 34 Simeon and Levi, Joseph’s older brothers, led a massacre there as an act of revenge because a Shechemite had disgraced their sister. This would not have been forgotten, so Jacob is asking Joseph to go to a dangerous place looking for dangerous men who had already committed a massacre once and who we know hated him.
Yet, Joseph doesn’t protest. He’s presented as a son devoted to carrying out the will and wishes of his father—even though the task is unpleasant and even though its more difficult than he imagined. Look at verse 15:
15 A man found him there, wandering in the field, and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 “I’m looking for my brothers,” Joseph said. “Can you tell me where they are pasturing their flocks?”
17 “They’ve moved on from here,” the man said. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” So Joseph set out after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
Joseph not only made the journey to Shechem—which was approximately 50 miles from where Jacob and his family were currently living. That was somewhere around a 5-day journey. But he searched for them so diligently in Shechem that a man notices him searching and asks what he’s looking for. By the way, this is one of the ways we see God’s hand of providence guiding the events of this story. Nothing happens by accident. Ever. Some have even thought of this scene as a theophany—a visible manifestation of God like we see in Genesis 32—or an angel. This stranger appears in the text and directs Joseph to find his brothers and, essentially, seals his fate. God’s hand is all over this story, directing Joseph to just the right place to bring to fruition the promises he made to Abraham three generations ago.
We’ve seen Joseph’s devotion. Now let’s contrast it with the depravity of the brothers in the next section. Depravity is moral corruption, or wickedness. It’s the opposite of holiness—which is what the Bible describes God to be and His people to be seeking. Joseph, while imperfect, will be held up during most of the rest of his life as an example of what holiness applied to everyday life looks like. The brothers are just the opposite. Their depravity is on full display in the next verses. Let’s see it:
Depravity (Genesis 37:18-29)
18 They saw him in the distance, and before he had reached them, they plotted to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Oh, look, here comes that dream expert! 20 So now, come on, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits. We can say that a vicious animal ate him. Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!”
21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben also said to them, “Don’t shed blood. Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him”—intending to rescue him from them and return him to his father.
23 When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s robe, the robe of many colors that he had on. 24 Then they took him and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty, without water.
25 They sat down to eat a meal, and when they looked up, there was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying aromatic gum, balsam, and resin, going down to Egypt.
26 Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay a hand on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh,” and his brothers agreed. 28 When Midianite traders passed by, his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt.
Can you imagine a hatred so consuming that upon seeing your own brother in the distance you decide you’re going to kill him? As Jospeh journeyed to Dothan and drew close to his brothers, the distinctive coat given to him by his father probably allows the brothers to identify him at a distance.
The deep depravity of the human condition is on display here. I don’t want us to miss this because we don’t acknowledge this enough—the example of depravity here is not a warning for someone else. It’s a warning for you and for me. Because of our fallen nature—because you are a sinner—you have the capacity within you to commit every sin imaginable. We see out in the world and on the news the litany of heinous acts that people commit against one another and there’s a danger in thinking we are above that. We are only different because we have been rescued from our sinful actions and from the sinful heart that married us to those sinful actions. Ephesians 2:1— and you were dead in your trespasses and sins. You were dead to holiness—you were in your trespasses and sins so you were alive to depravity. You had no power to live in holiness, because what can dead people do? Nothing.
What changed? Ephesians 2:8-9 answers that—8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast.
So when we look at these 11 brothers we need to understand that we are not far removed from their behavior and we are only removed from it at all based on the work of Christ and now our own doing. There’s a phrase credited to John Bradford, an English preacher who lived in the mid-1500’s. There’s no way to verify if he actually said it or not, but he’s the one who is quoted. The story says that from his study every so often he would see criminals being led to the gallows to be executed. His statement takes a few forms but the most popular one is this. Upon seeing those condemned men Bradford said: “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”
Hearts just like ours led one of the brothers to say in verse 19—look, here comes that dream expert.
Depravity directly contradicts the Word of God. Remember, it was God’s providence that led to Joseph having the two dreams we talked about last week. We even jumped ahead in the story and saw how those dreams would be fulfilled. And here we have the brothers mocking not Joseph’s plan—but God’s.
So they come up with a simple plan—let’s kill him and throw him in a pit. We’ll be done with him for good. But then we have Reuben, the oldest brother, stepping in. His motivation could have come from a good place or it could have been self-preservation. He was already in hot water with his father over his role in the Shechem massacre we mentioned earlier. He knew who would bear the most responsibility for this if dad found out. So he hatches a plot to save Joseph later on.
Instead of killing him the language in the text leads us to believe that they severely beat him, stripped him naked, and tossed him in an empty cistern and left him for dead. And then it gets worse!
They sit down and have a meal—likely a meal that Joseph brought for them from their father. And they did it within earshot of the pit. If we fast forward to Genesis 42:21 we see the brothers say: “Obviously, we are being punished for what we did to our brother. We saw his deep distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this trouble has come to us.”
It’s likely that they could hear his pleas for rescue while they were eating this meal. . . but they offered no help. In fact, they only changed course when they thought there was something in it for them. Judah pipes up and says, “Hey, we can sell him to that caravan of slave traders and get some money out of this whole situation.” So they sell him for 20 pieces of silver and go on about their business. Now, they’ve created a sin that needs to be covered up. So we move from seeing their depravity to seeing their deception. Let’s read verse 29
Deception (Genesis 37:29-35)
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone! What am I going to do?” 31 So they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the robe in its blood. 32 They sent the robe of many colors to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it. Is it your son’s robe or not?”
33 His father recognized it. “It is my son’s robe,” he said. “A vicious animal has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces!” 34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth around his waist, and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said. “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” And his father wept for him.
I think Reuben’s motivation is revealed to us in verse 29. Notice that he’s not worried about Joseph. “The boy is gone, what am I going to do.” That doesn’t sound all that sincere.
The brothers depravity and deception devastate the entire family. Jacob, in verse 33 uses the same word—vicious animal—that the brothers used back in verse 20. It’s appropriate because the literal translation there is an evil animal. It’s the brothers’ evil that has now torn this family apart.
Mourning was a much more formal process in those days and would last for a determined amount of time. Despite the attempts at comfort from his whole family, Jacob remained despondent over the loss of his favorite child. He tells the family he’ll mourn for the rest of his life. I think when the brothers deceived him they hoped, in Joseph’s absence, that his affection for his remaining sons would grow but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He essentially rejects the comfort of the remaining sons and daughters over Joseph’s loss.
There’s a caution here for parents. Notice how Jacob was deceived—they took and killed a goat and dipped Joseph’s robe in its blood to deceive their father. Back in Genesis 27, Jacob had taken the skins of dead goats and used them to deceive his father into thinking he was Esau so that he could steal the blessing. The very same sinful deception present in Jacob’s life was present in the lives of his children. That should be sobering to those of us God has entrusted with the discipling of the next generation.
When we see this family—and we’ll get a little deeper into them next week—we see that sin has very real consequences. The hurts run deep here and they keep running for generations. You see how dangerous unchecked sin can be and you see the deep contrast between the devotion of Joseph and the depravity and deception of the brothers and within all that there is one crucial thing that we can’t walk away from this text without acknowledging today:
When we read a story like this it’s natural that we inject ourselves into it. Our natural bent is to want to look at Joseph’s life and emulate his character, especially in some of these later stories that we’ll study. And that’s not a bad thing. But here, in Genesis 37, we need to understand that we are not Joseph. We are not the hero of this story. We’re the brothers. You and I, if we are anywhere in this story, are the villains. When we read the Bible, Jesus is always the hero. We aren’t Joseph. We aren’t David flinging rocks at a giant. Jesus slays the giants, we stand behind him shaking in the armor. In this text, here we are throwing the hero in the pit and covering up our own sin.
Covering up our own sin is a serious problem. David wrote in Psalm 32:5
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not conceal my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
When we try to cover our sin we are functioning as atheists. Think about that. When we know we sin and we try to hide it, we are acting as though we don’t believe that God exists. How? Because rationally, we all understand that we can’t hide anything from God. We can hide things from one another, but not from Him. The Holy Spirit within is unsettling when we sin. David knew that, too:
When I kept silent, my bones became brittle
from my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was drained
as in the summer’s heat.
We should be a people compelled to confess our sin. First, to God. And then, to those we have sinned against. That psalm begins wit these words: How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!
If you struggle with joy, you could have a sin problem. If you confess your sin, Jesus will cover it. If you hide your sin, Jesus will expose it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, writes, “You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. . . . You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before him. He wants to see you as you are, he wants to be gracious to you.” (source)
We should read the story of Joseph and sense our deep need for the gospel and not our accomplishment in being devoted to the Father. It starts to come into focus with the last verse of chapter 37:
Deliverance (Genesis 37:36)
36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guards.
This is the deliverance of not just Joseph from death but remember, this whole story is about how God will rescue His people. This is the first step in God securing Joseph’s place in Egypt as the one who can rescue His family. When we see this story we have to acknowledge that deliverance doesn’t come through us, it comes through Jesus. And Joseph is held up time and time again in this story as a picture of who Jesus will be when he finally arrives.
Often in the Old Testament we see examples of what the Messiah will be like, or to use the language of Genesis 3:15—how the offspring will come to crush the head of sin and death. I like to think of these as billboards. For 6 1/2 years we lived in a place where we were 90 minutes from the nearest Cracker Barrel. And every time we’d go visit family in Tennessee we’d start seeing these billboards for Cracker Barrel—and it’d get that craving. They’d show pictures of the food, directions to the restaurant, and when they are open, etc. That’s what God has given us in the life of Joseph. He shows us what Christ will look like.
Just think about the similarities in this very chapter—he’s sent from the father to be with the brothers, they reject him, mock and humiliate him, and throw him in the ground. But God’s providence rescues him from what looked like a certain death (a real death in Jesus’ case) and took him to a place that would become the refuge for even those who rejected him.
W.A. Criswell called Joseph the story of our holy Messiah Redeemer in miniature. Throughout this story we’ll see Joseph falsely accused, persevere through temptation, thrown into prison, stand before ruling authorities, rise to a position of exaltation, feed the hungry, and save God’s people from what would be certain death. As we go through the story we’ll try to point out these pictures of Christ in the life of Joseph.
But for today what is most important for us to see is that God is the hero of the story and we are the ones desperately in need of his rescue.
That rescue comes despite our own depravity and despite our own deception. We have God who is fully devoted to his commitment to rescuing His people and we can rest in that today. Let me give you one final encouragement as we close.
Dothan, the place where Joseph was sold into slavery is an interesting site in the Old Testament. Not only did these events take place there, but something very comforting happened there in 2 Kings 6.
The king of Aram had set out to kill the prophet Elisha, who was living in Dothan. We see in 2 Kings 6:13-17:
13 So the king said, “Go and see where he is, so I can send men to capture him.”
When he was told, “Elisha is in Dothan,” 14 he sent horses, chariots, and a massive army there. They went by night and surrounded the city.
15 When the servant of the man of God got up early and went out, he discovered an army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. So he asked Elisha, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?”
16 Elisha said, “Don’t be afraid, for those who are with us outnumber those who are with them.”
17 Then Elisha prayed, “Lord, please open his eyes and let him see.” So the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he saw that the mountain was covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
It would be easy to think, “Gee, that would have been nice for Joseph.” You know what, I think those very same horses and chariots were guiding Joseph that day. He probably felt abandoned, as some of you may today.
But, despite our depravity and deception, God’s devotion to delivering us to Himself remains true. We won’t always see the plan, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Let’s pray.
(Use the questions in this section to further your study of this text with your spouse, Bible study group, or in your own personal devotional time)
Have you ever resented someone that you should treat lovingly?
Resentment is a passive, weak emotion that has no place in the Christian life. If there is injustice, we should deal with it through prayer and godly action. If there is insult, we should concentrate on who we are in Christ and not place too much value on the cruel words of others. If we face injustice in the course of our work for God, we should accept it as to be expected. And if God allows us to be dishonored for the sake of sanctification, the best, least painful response is to repent and allow Him to work in us. (source)
Should we expect this life to treat us fairly? (Read John 15:18)
How should believers respond when we feel resentment toward another person?
Read the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. Remember that we have been forgiven much, so we must not only forgive but also change our attitude toward those who we feel have wronged us.
What do you think led Joseph’s brothers to want to kill him?
Why did they decide instead to sell him as a slave?
What does the greed and hatred expressed by Joseph’s brothers tell you about human nature?
How can you see God working behind the scenes in these verses to accomplish his purpose?
What initially caused the hatred between Joseph and his brothers?
Read Matthew 5:21-26
What do these verses tell us about harboring anger toward another person?
Why is it so important as disciples for us to forgive one another?
How could forgiveness have changed the outcome of this situation?