Joseph is sold into slavery
February 10, 2013 / No. 3658
Last week we began a study on the life of Joseph from Genesis 37. In the first eleven verses we were introduced to a family in crisis: a favored son, a doting father, and hate-filled brothers. But God, we saw, was not absent from this story. He sent Joseph’s dreams, and, as we’ll see, He did that with a purpose.
As we go through this narrative, we should remember that there are really three different perspectives. There is first our perspective as readers. We either don’t know the story and so are waiting to hear what will happen next or, if we are familiar with it, we know what will happen next. Then there is also the perspective of the inspired writer, Moses. He knows where this story is going and is able to see God’s purpose in it. He can see it in retrospect. Both these views are removed from the story. But then there is also the perspective of the participants: Jacob, his sons, and Joseph. They do not see what we see. They really have no idea how God is using these events to accomplish His purpose for them. We should think about this third perspective because it is so real to our lives. This is not only a family in crisis, but a family that will go through some tragic and painful experiences. And yet, God has a purpose in it for them, and even for us. It is through their suffering that they are brought to maturity as God’s people. Jacob still has a lot to learn. Joseph’s brothers have much to learn too. And even Joseph needs to be prepared for the position that God will give him later in the land of Egypt. The painful events of their lives here in Genesis 37 are a part of God’s preparing them for what is to come.
It may be that you have some very painful circumstances in your life at present, and maybe you think that God is not aware of what’s happening to you, or that He has relinquished His control of your life to some dark forces of evil. You can imagine that Joseph could have thought this way as he was sold into Egypt. But we learn from Joseph’s life that God never leaves one of His children. They may be tossed about in the waves and storms of life, but God is always there, and He always has a purpose that He is working through these things for the good of His people. And that purpose is to make us more like Christ. In Romans 8:29, immediately after the beautiful statement that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” we read that God’s eternal purpose for His people is that they “be conformed to the image of His son.” And you see, that’s what is happening here in the story of Joseph. All of the members of Jacob’s family are being worked on by God so that they become more Christlike. And, whatever you are going through in your life, that is what God is doing with you—He is shaping and molding you to be more like His Son. Let us not resist or rebel against His love but, like Joseph, quietly and submissively follow where He leads.
Well, we pick up the story of Joseph today in Genesis 37:12. The hatred of Joseph’s brothers, after his dreams, is very hot. Now we see it working out in a horrendous crime committed against Joseph their brother, against Jacob their father, and, ultimately, against God.
We read, “and his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.” Shechem is about 50 miles from Hebron, where Jacob had settled with his family. Because pastures for flocks were scarce in this region, Jacob sent his sons following the flocks as they moved through the mountains finding their food.
Verse 13: “And Israel [or Jacob] said unto Joseph, Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? Come, and I will send thee unto them. And he [that is, Joseph], said to him, Here am I. And he said to him, Go, I pray thee, and see whether it be well with thy brethren, and well with the flocks, and bring me word again.”
Obviously, the brothers have been gone with the flocks for some time, and they’re some distance away. There are unknown dangers and people in these regions, and Jacob’s sons have already had an altercation with the people of Shechem (Gen. 34). So Jacob wants a report on how they are fairing.
But I read this and I say, Jacob, Jacob! Don’t you remember what happened last time Joseph brought a report of his brothers? It was a bad report, and they hated him for being a tattletale. And now you are sending him again. Have you not learned anything?
Or is Jacob simply blind to what is going on in his family, refusing to see fault in his own sons? Or maybe he is so disconnected, so busy with his own life, that he is not aware of what goes on between his children?
Either of those is common enough in the life of the family, and the results are never good.
A mother who is always defending her children, and never sees their faults, will end up with spoiled and proud children.
A disconnected father, who does not take seriously his own responsibilities for the spiritual welfare of his children, or who has no interest in the day-to-day life of his children, will end up with a brood of children that do not care about him and are bitter against him.
So, Joseph sets out on foot, and it is quite a journey for a 17-year-old boy, traveling alone. The fifty miles to Shechem, and the further 15 miles to Dothan, would take almost a week to walk. There are threats and dangers along the way, thieves and bandits, hunger and thirst, treacherous trails, and so on. It reminds us of Jacob, traveling alone to the house of Laban, when God appeared to him at Bethel and said, I will go with thee. This same God is with Joseph and brings him safely to his destination in Shechem.
In verse 15 we read, “And a certain man found him, and behold he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him, what seekest thou? And he said, I seek my brethren, tell me, I pray thee, where they feed their flocks?”
Here, Joseph has come to Shechem, but, not finding his brothers, he does not know what to do or where to go from here. And again, God, in His providence, brings a man to him who knows where his brothers are. “And the man said, They are departed hence, for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan.”
Do we see the hand of God in our lives in small details like this? Maybe you meet someone through an acquaintance, and it leads to a fruitful relationship? Or maybe it is as simple as someone giving you the information you need as you stand in line at the bank? God is busy in all these things, leading us through life. Joseph’s encounter with this fellow in Shechem leads him to his brothers in Dothan.
Verse 18: “And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him.” They have been absent from him, and yet the hatred is still there. Talking together, they come up with a plan, verse 20. They will kill him, throw his body into a pit, and say to their father, some wild beast has devoured him.
What was it that provoked them, so quickly, to this murderous plan? They want him dead! Why? How can it get so bad in a family that the members are ready to kill one another?
There are two things indicated in the passage. First, it is his coat, which is a symbol of Jacob’s favoritism. How do they recognize him? By his coat. Here Joseph comes in his supervisory outfit. And they hate him for it. And second, it is his dreams. In verse 19, they say to one another, “Behold this dreamer cometh,” and verse 20, We will kill him, and “then we shall see what will come of his dreams.”
They are opposed to Joseph’s having a position of rule over them, and not only that their father would put Joseph over them, but that God would do this. They hate Joseph for the dreams. It is the dreams. How can they stop these dreams from happening? How can they stop the purposes of God? We will kill him, and then these dreams will never come true.
But when Reuben, the oldest brother, hears it, he has a plan to save his brother Joseph (v. 21).
There are two reasons for which Reuben would do this. One is that he was the oldest brother, and so held primary responsibility. If Joseph’s death would be connected to something the brothers did, then Reuben would be held the most guilty. But also, Reuben at this time was already in serious trouble with his father. Dysfunctional is a word we have used to describe this family. And Reuben has, around this time, had physical relations with one of his father Jacob’s wives (read about it in Genesis 49:4). There was incest in this family. And so, Reuben is not in a position where he wants also to be guilty of murder.
Reuben’s plan is simple (verse 22). He tells his brothers that it would be better for them that they not kill Joseph, but instead leave him to die of thirst and starvation in the pit. At least then, he says, we won’t be guilty of his blood. He will die of natural causes, not as a result of murder. This is a trick, because his real plan was to come back to the pit when his brothers are not around, and set Joseph free and send him home safely. It all backfires on him, because his brothers get to the pit when he is not around. But this is his plan.
And so, verse 23, Joseph comes and they commit their horrid crime. They grab him, strip him of his coat, and throw him into a nearby pit, in which there was not water. What a horrible and frightful scene this must have been. Joseph, fighting and kicking to get away, swinging his arms, screaming, and then finally crying and pleading, but they don’t listen. In Genesis 42:21 we learn that Joseph’s behavior here etched itself into their minds, and came back to trouble them. They said, “We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he besought us, and we would not hear.”
Back in Genesis 37:25 we get a very vivid picture of that. While Joseph screams and cries for mercy, “they sat down to eat bread.” How hardened their hearts were! God has made us so that whenever we’re overcome by guilt or grief, it hits us in the stomach. But these men were unfazed. I suppose it would have been the same if they had actually murdered him. We see here the depths of the selfish depravity of the human heart. It defies description. And all, to kill the dream.
Here is the irony in the story—God’s irony. Their very efforts to kill the dream ensure that it will take place. While they are eating, they see a company of Ishmaelites, riding their camels, going down to Egypt to sell spices and ointments. And Judah says, verses 26 and 27, “What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh.” Let us avoid the blood, and make some money at the same time. And the brothers are happy with this plan.
So Joseph is lifted from the pit, and for 20 pieces of silver he is sold to the Ishmaelites. It is the climax of their hatred. They are rid of their brother. This is what hatred will do. They were ready to murder him to get rid of him, but this accomplishes the same thing. He is out of their life.
I wonder, who is it that you hate? You say, I do not hate anyone. Well then, who is it that you would rather not have in your life, or who is it that you have already cut off from your life? And what have you done to get rid of that person? You see, the same hatred that is in the hearts of these brothers we find in our hearts, and that hatred is murder. Jesus says that being angry with your brother without a cause, and calling your brother a fool, are equivalent to murder, and place a person in danger of hell fire. We had better not read the story of Joseph’s brothers from a position of superiority and self-righteousness, but with sorrow and repentance over our own hate-filled, selfish, and depraved hearts. May God bring us to see ourselves, and to humbly repent.
The crime is committed, and now it must be concealed.
While the brothers ate their lunch and sold Joseph, Reuben was watching the flocks. When his brothers come back to the fields, he hurries to the pit to deliver Joseph, and Joseph is gone. Reuben is distraught. What will he do now? What will he tell his father?
The brothers get Reuben to agree with them on the plan of concealment and deception. They take Joseph’s coat of many colors, dip it in the blood of a goat, and bring it to their father with the question, “This we found, know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no.” The power of suggestion is stronger than an explanation. Father, do you recognize this coat that we found, covered in blood?
And Jacob, seeing it says, “It is my son’s coat, an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.” The conspiracy is flawless. Jacob tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and mourns many days for his beloved son Joseph. He says, “I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning.” He is tortured with grief.
We can be sure that a part of his grief is guilt for sending his son on this dangerous journey, but Jacob’s grief is unreasonable. He does not grieve in faith and hope with a view to the joyous day when he will be reunited with his apparently dead son, but rather he feels the pain and the loss for himself. Even in this grief, we see his favoritism. Had this been one of his other children, it would not have been so severe. He grieves as one who has no hope, and he does not trust the providential hand of his God, as he should. Later, in Genesis 42:36, when it seems he has lost Simeon and will lose Benjamin, he says, “all these things are against me.” But it was not so, and the child of God should never see it this way, or say such a thing. If God be for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31). Yes, even in death. I Thessalonians 4:13 says that we do not sorrow as those who have no hope, and that is because God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Abraham believed that even if he would sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God, God Himself would raise him from the dead in order to keep His promises. And in death, we should have a similar faith in God. We believe that Jesus, who was put to death, is risen again and is alive today, and that He will come again to raise us to live with Him. We sorrow, but we do it in hope. Jacob, in his grief, does not have a faith like that.
But worse yet than Jacob’s grief is the hypocrisy of his sons. They fake it at the funeral. In verse 35: “And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him.” The daughters here would be the wives of these men. When Jacob grieves, the whole family gets behind him to support and encourage him. That would be a wonderful thing, except for the hypocrisy. How hard are the hearts of these men. All the passion of Jacob, all his weeping and wailing, are not enough to move them to repentance. From day to day they watch the grief they have brought on their father by their crime, and they compound it by attempting to console him.
Meanwhile, Joseph, 17 years old, is strapped to the back of a camel, a prisoner, headed down the road to Egypt, wondering whether his father, Jacob, will come to get him. What were your dreams, and what your desires at 17? A job, a car, a girl, a life? All Joseph’s dreams are shattered. This is his worst nightmare coming true.
Where is God in this? Where is justice? It just does not seem fair! As we read this story in Genesis from our perspective, and from the perspective of the participants, that seems to be a legitimate question. Where is God? There is no mention of Him here in this entire passage. He seems to have forgotten Joseph.
Maybe you look at your life and ask the same question. It is a shambles, evil men are set against you, you have been wronged, and God seems to be absent. Where is He?
God is right here in the middle of the story of Joseph—the invisible hand guiding these events. Who sent the man to find Joseph in the fields of Shechem? Who sent the brothers to Dothan, right along the trading route to Egypt? Who sent the Midianites to Egypt so that they came by, right at the moment Joseph was in the pit and the brothers were having their lunch? Who sent the dreams that so incited the hatred of the brothers?
It was God who did all this. The last verse of the chapter hints at that: “And the Midianites sold Joseph into Egypt.” This verse is an important link in the history of Joseph. At the very same time that the brothers were deceiving their father and pretending to comfort him, something else was going on, far away, that would make sense of all this. God was guiding Joseph, step by step, to Egypt, to Potiphar’s house, to the prison, to the palace, and to a position of leadership that would end in the repentance and preservation of the family of Jacob.
God has a hand in all this. Psalm 105:17 puts it very bluntly, “God sent Joseph before them into Egypt.” God did this. The doting father, the hate-filled brothers, the crime, the concealment, the cries of Joseph—all of it—were under God’s control, to serve His purpose, for His people. And as He unfolds His covenant promise to send the Christ, He uses these events to cause the nation to begin from which the Savior will be born, a Savior who will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. This is connected to the coming of Christ.
And so, I finish with this. Let us trust this sovereign God. Let us not question His purposes, as Jacob did. But let us see from this story that God is always at work, in the day and in the night, in prosperity and in adversity, in health and in sickness, in brokenness and in joy. Let us believe that, and, believing it, let us rest in God. Nothing shall ever separate us from His love. That was the promise to Joseph. Though Joseph was far away from his father and his family, in Egypt, God was with him (chap. 39:2). Not only was God in control, but God was with him.
Dear child of God, God says to you, no matter how dark your way, “I will never, no never, no never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” So that we may boldly say, “The Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”
Let us pray.
Father, thanks for thy unfailing love, thy constant presence, and thy sovereign, powerful government of all things, for the good and salvation of thy people. Lord, help us to believe this about thee, so that we’re not afraid when evil and hardship comes our way in this life. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen.