Open your bibles to Genesis 37. We come to the last section in Genesis. This is also the longest section in Genesis, so we will be in this section for the next several months. My plan is to wrap up this sermon series by the end of May. We have been making our way through Genesis considering how the main events and characters point forward to Christ. After creation, we noted the downward spiral into sin and chaos. However, since chapter twelve, God has sought to reconcile himself to mankind through the covenant he made with Abraham. Those same covenant promises were passed on to Isaac, and then to Jacob.
We have talked about God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, but last week we acknowledged that his mercy does not eliminate misery. Jacob’s life is a prime example of one that is filled with misery from start to finish. His hope had to be in a future glory, because he never experienced any of that glory in a physical sense.
This week we transition from Jacob to Joseph. Once again we see the same problems of an ever-present misery.
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
1 Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
2 These are the generations of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.
5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
This is the Word of the LORD.
Once again we face a chapter in which evil is exemplified and the covenant promises are in jeopardy. Not only that, but the bearer of the covenant promises is the victim. If you were in Joseph’s shoes, what would you be asking? Imagine growing up in a home like this, now at seventeen years old you’re sold into slavery. What questions might be running through your mind?
Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this? He was the recipient of a coat and the recipient of prophetic dreams. Yet, he finds himself by the end of this chapter, far from home and enslaved in an Egyptian officer’s home.
Could there have been some other way for God to accomplish his purposes? Sure. Was this the best possible option according to God? Absolutely. Joseph never seems to waver from his trust in the will of God. To my mind, the only way to really make sense of Joseph’s life is to see the following principle at work: God values developing spiritual maturity in his children over providing physical security for his children.
First, we will look at Joseph’s Dreams (1-11). Second, we’ll see Joseph’s Nightmare (12-36).
Joseph’s Dreams (1-11)
Before we get to Joseph’s dreams, Moses sets the stage by revealing his favored status in the home (Gen. 1-4). After the section header, we see that Joseph is a seventeen year-old tattletale (v.2). This is one of only a few potentially negative statement made about Joseph between chapters 37-50 (or in the rest of Scripture for that matter).
Some call into question his treatment of his brothers in Egypt near the end of the story, but his “flaws” are never central to the story. At the very least we would have to admit to being nit-picky. Only someone with an agenda could read the narrative of Joseph and come away thinking it has anything to do with him getting what he deserved. The only other character who has no recorded flaws is Daniel.
This is a significant difference between Joseph and his father Jacob. Yet, despite the moral superiority of Joseph he still suffers great misery for twenty years. Ironically, this is the same period of time Jacob spent serving Laban. Joseph’s serves Potiphar until he is wrongfully sent to prison.
On top of being a tattletale, Joseph is also the recipient of his father’s favoritism which is witnessed by the gift of a fancy coat (v.3). This coat might have had many colors or it might have been finely decorated. But, either way, it was of a superior quality than his brothers.
This is indicated as the primary reason Joseph’s brothers hated him. As verse 4 indicates, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.” Their hatred of Joseph is because of how Jacob treats him.
But let’s be sure to point the finger at the real issue, before casting the blame solely upon Jacob. Let’s be honest for a minute. If a coat – no matter how fancy it is – can fill you with so much anger you might have some issues to work through. John Calvin comments, “that a many-coloured coat and similar trifles inflamed them to devise a scheme of slaughter, is a proof of their detestable cruelty.”
Nonetheless, Jacob was at fault for this lack of judgment. Had he learned nothing from his own experience of receiving the favoritism of his own mother? Favoritism will lead to fury on the part of those left out.
We are told of the brother’s hatred for Joseph three times:
- They hated him because he was Jacob’s favorite (4).
- They hated him because of his first dream which suggested he would rule over them (5-8). The content of this dream, heads of grain, foreshadow Pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41:22). Their bowing also foreshadows what they will literally do before Joseph as the co-ruler of Egypt (Gen. 42:6).
- They also hated him because of his second dream which includes his ruling over his father and mother (9-11). A second dream serves to authenticate the first one. The content of this dream serve as a polemic against the Egyptian astrological gods. Problem: How can there be eleven stars and a moon? If Benjamin is included, wouldn’t Rachel be dead? Plus, Jacob is never recorded as bowing before Joseph. It seems this dream is not literally fulfilled. Moon = mother figure (concubine). The whole house of his father will reverence him.
God does not operate according to our timeline. It’s obvious that God is in control over all of this, but we can even further than that. God is as much in control of the difficulties and turmoil Jacob endures as he is in the fulfillment of the dreams. But we can go even further and say that God values developing spiritual maturity in his children over providing physical security for his children.
It is difficult for us to see past the physical inconveniences we experience. But if we can keep the spiritual aspect in mind we might be better prepared for suffering.
When we think about how we can help others, the first thought is towards those in situations of physical trial. But if spiritual maturity is more important than physical security, our ministry to others should always have a spiritual component. We don’t ignore the physical needs, but neither can we ignore the spiritual component.
God is always working a deeper virtue in us that is far more satisfying than the physical blessing that is withheld or removed. In the case of Joseph, God would develop in him a purity and forgiveness that still stands as a great source of encouragement for the people of God. The reality is, these virtues cannot develop apart from distressing circumstances.
Our natural response is to be arrogant, selfish, prideful, and envious. When our brother gets a gift, we want to know why we didn’t get one. When we all receive a coat, but the coat of the youngest child is the nicest, we get angry. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. What should surprise us is the Spirit-wrought response of humility and meekness.
If we are seeking wisdom rather than ease, we won’t be surprised when the dreams become a nightmare.
Joseph’s Nightmare (12-36)
The section progresses geographically as Joseph travels further and further away from his father’s house (Haran > Shechem > Dothan > Egypt).
Joseph shouldn’t be willing to go on this mission (vv.12-13). He shouldn’t be so resilient. He shouldn’t be so confident. He experienced several years of hatred from his brothers. At his age, we would understand if he had become isolated and lonely because of how his brothers treated him. Yet, he responds to his father’s request without hesitation. “Here I am.”
He is quick to obey and he perseveres in fulfilling his mission to the point of traveling some 50 miles to Shechem, followed by another 15 miles to Dothan. Moses relates these few details to highlight the contrast between the nature of Joseph and his spiteful brothers. After enduring so much hatred Joseph is willing to show concern for their well-being, while they are only growing more and more wicked in their thinking and plotting.
This wasn’t one of Jacob’s wisest decisions. He must have known the tension that was there between his sons. But even he could not have known the depth of their hatred. Thus, as he watches Joseph depart, he had no idea that it would be another twenty years before he would see his son again.
Mob mentality takes over the brothers and whips them up to a violent frenzy when the spot Joseph approaching. They are ready to kill him (18-20), but Reuben plots to rescue him (21-22). Remember it was Reuben who slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. Maybe he thinks this rescue would put him back in his father’s good graces.
Moses points out the audacity of the brothers who could throw Joseph into an empty pit to die, then sit down to eat (vv.24-25). Later on we learn of the distress Joseph felt as he begged them for help, but they refused to listen (42:21). Waltke comments, “Their next meal in Joseph’s presence will be with Joseph at the head table (43:32–34).”
Judah, already beginning to rise in prominence over Reuben, urges the sale of Joseph (26-28). The brothers wrath against Joseph abates some as they see the wisdom in Judah’s suggestion. Still extremely cruel, but God has softened the hardness of their hearts just enough to sell him into slavery. This includes Reuben who returns to find the pit empty he is struck with grief (vv.29-30).
However, the chapter closes with the focus shifting to Jacob mourning Joseph’s “death” (31-36). Again, this highlights the cruelty of the brothers who would rather watch their father endure the depths of grief than relieve his torment with a word of hope. Any one of them could have intervened and given him a word of hope and comfort, but they would rather watch him suffer than explain themselves to him. The wickedness of their sin continues to compound. And we will see that this never lets up.
We want immediate judgment. We want to see Joseph’s vindication right away, not twenty years later. But we cannot see the whole picture as God sees it. We do not know if vindication will come sooner or later. Despite the persistent wickedness of the brothers, God’s plan would be accomplished. They could not stand in the way.
God values developing spiritual maturity in his children over providing physical security for his children. Spiritual maturity isn’t so much about having all the answers, but learning to trust in God and rest in the process of discovering his sovereign will.
There is a danger in focusing exclusively on the inner change that takes place in a Christian. The danger is that people begin to look at themselves rather than Christ. Christianity begins outside of us. Jesus Christ died on the cross for paying the penalty for our sins. It is only because of the outward objective work of Christ that we can discuss the inward subjective transformation. But we cannot ignore the latter (transformation) in an attempt to preserve the former (work of Christ).
Just as we should be careful about focusing exclusively on the inner change, we should also be careful of focusing exclusively on the outward change. The first is commonly called legalism. The second is commonly called antinomianism. Both are heretical.
The Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful at this point (18.2): The ground of our Christian assurance is the “divine truth of the promises of salvation”, the “inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made,” and “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.”
The whole gospel addresses the whole person. We become “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), one in which God sanctifies us completely—“spirit and soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23). Peter charges: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Pet. 1:5-7).
Again, John Calvin is helpful on this point.
“We, also, who have received the gratuitous adoption of God amidst many sorrows, experience the same thing. For, from the time that Christ gathers us into his flock, God permits us to be cast down in various ways, so that we seem nearer hell than heaven. Therefore, let the example of Joseph be fixed in our minds, that we be not disquieted when many crosses spring forth to us from the root of God’s favour. For I have before showed, and the thing itself clearly testifies, that in Joseph was adumbrated, what was afterwards more fully exhibited in Christ, the Head of the Church, in order that each member may form itself to the imitation of his example.”
In other words, Joseph provides the example of the perseverance of the saints in the face of great hardship.
And Joseph is a mere shadow of Christ.
I began this sermon asking an important question: Could there have been another way for God to accomplish his purposes? Joseph is a shadow of the Christ to come. The same Christ who in the Garden of Gethsemane would say: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Joseph was despised and rejected just like our Savior. “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).