Genesis 37 Study Notes


37:1 In contrast to Esau, who left the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, Jacob remained in the land of Canaan, demonstrating Jacob’s acceptance of God’s gift of the land to him and his descendants (35:12).

37:2-4 The family records of Jacob, which extend through the end of the book, constitute the eleventh and last of the (Hb) toledoth sections in Genesis (see note at 5:1). The account begins with a description of seventeen-year-old Joseph, the central human figure in this section; he is the subject of more than two hundred verbs within the narrative framework of the final fourteen chapters of Genesis. These opening verses continue the troubled portrait of Jacob’s sons begun in chap. 35, as the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah—Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher—misbehaved. Jacob’s unequal treatment of his sons (cp. 25:28) aroused great jealousy, so Joseph’s brothers hated him. The robe of many colors probably marked Joseph as Jacob’s chosen successor for clan leadership, especially since he was the firstborn of Rachel, the only woman Jacob had ever intended to marry.

37:5-11 Like his father Jacob (28:12-15; 31:10-13), Joseph received two dreams from God during his lifetime. Both portrayed Joseph as gaining a position of supremacy in his family, though the symbols differed greatly. The first dream used an agricultural image (v. 7). The second, more important and wider in scope than the first, was astronomical (vv. 9-10). The pairing of dreams with a shared meaning meant that God would certainly make the events happen (41:32). Ancient interpreters suggested that the moon signified Bilhah since Joseph’s mother Rachel was dead at this time (35:19).

37:12-17 Israel (i.e., Jacob) made his teenage son Joseph a supervisor over his brothers. Joseph, who had earlier given a bad report about his older brothers, was once again called upon to report how they were doing. Joseph traveled about fifty miles north to Shechem. Learning that his brothers had moved on, he finally found them at Dothan, some fifteen miles farther north.

37:18-24 Joseph’s older brothers, all of whom hated him and were violent men (34:27-29) or even murderers (34:25-26), immediately plotted to kill him, calling him “the lord of the dreams” (that dream expert). Being skilled at deception as well (34:13), the brothers also concocted the lie that a vicious animal ate him. They threw him into a dry cistern designed to store water for the flocks. Reuben, probably out of concern for his reputation with his father rather than any affection for Joseph, objected to fratricide.

37:25-28 The fact that Joseph’s brothers sat down to eat a meal soon after they disposed of him reveals how brazenly sinful they were. Later Joseph would be free while the brothers were in prison (42:17). But on this day the brothers saw a caravan of Ishmaelites traveling south on the main road leading from Egypt to Damascus. Judah convinced seven of his brothers that it was more profitable to sell Joseph as a slave than to kill him. According to 42:21, Joseph pleaded with his brothers, but to no avail. They sold him for twenty pieces of silver, the standard price for a teenage male slave (Lv 27:5). Midianite is another designation for Ishmaelites in this narrative. Mention of the descendants of Ishmael (21:9-13) and Midian (25:1-6) call to mind the kind of sibling rivalry that is taking place here again.

37:29-35 As the oldest of the brothers, Reuben felt responsible for Joseph’s safety. He had not been present when his brothers decided to sell Joseph. He was shocked and dismayed when he discovered what had happened. In a traditional ancient Near Eastern show of grief, he tore his clothes (cp. v. 34).

Jacob naturally concluded that a vicious animal had torn Joseph to pieces. Joseph had been Jacob’s favorite son (v. 4), and Joseph’s mother Rachel had recently died tragically. Thus when confronted with this evidence, he refused to be comforted, expressing instead the desire to go down to Sheol—the traditional term for the place of the dead—to be with his son.

37:36 Even as Jacob mourned his son’s death, Joseph—very much alive—was taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, a prestigious military officer in the court of Pharaoh.