Was Joseph meant to rule his brothers? (Genesis 37)

Why did his brothers sell Joseph into slavery?

Genesis is the foundational story of the kingdom of God. It starts with all God’s creatures in the care of his human servants who live in his garden. When they rebel, God sets in motion his plan to bring everything and everyone back under his sovereign care, starting with a prototype kingdom through the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We saw how the different stages of this story are clearly marked by the tô·lē·ḏôṯ formula, the final one being, These are the generations of Jacob. (37:2). Observing these cues helps us avoid twisting the story into our own image.

But why is this Jacob’s story? People usually treat Genesis 37–50 as the story of Joseph. His name is mentioned 151 times, twice as often as Jacob/Israel (73 times). We’ve heard Jacob’s name more frequently in previous chapters (150 times in Genesis 25–36), so why does the narrator say we’ve now reached Jacob’s story?

We think in terms of individual achievers, whereas Genesis was written to introduce us to the family of Israel. The family roots are in Jacob, the man who became Israel, father of the twelve who became the twelve tribes. The nation’s roots are in Israel and the twelve, the generations of Jacob.

So, how does Jacob intend his family to function? Which sons does he place in charge? Who should rule? How should the brothers relate to each other? These are key questions for the generations of Jacob for the generations still to come. That is the story we’re being told.

Will Joseph rule Jacob’s family?

The most significant person is introduced first. Usually this would be the eldest, but our attention is directed to Joseph, even though he is only a teenager. Jacob trusts the family flock into the care of Joseph and his unnamed brothers. It’s remarkable that Joseph addresses how things really are, not just what he thinks his father wants to hear (37:2).

For reasons of his own, Jacob favours Joseph, setting him apart from his brothers with a garment of honour (37:3). Living in Joseph’s shadow they are just his brothers, and they hate him (37:4).

If we have any doubts about Joseph’s ambition to rule, his dream dispels those doubts (37:5). The narrator has told us of dreams from God (Genesis 20:3-6; 28:12-15; 31:10-11; 31:24), but this time there’s no comment on the source of the dream. The brothers view it as Joseph’s ego:

Genesis 37:8 (ESV)
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.

This is a kingship question. The root word for king in Hebrew is mlk. Here that word is doubled for emphasis: Will you reign over us as king (hǎmālōḵ timlōḵ)? Then the question is repeated: Will you rule (mā·šǎl) us?

And just in case we still haven’t grasped the emphasis, the narrator slows us down by recounting a second dream. This time it isn’t just the brothers who bow to Joseph; it’s his father and mother as well! (37:9)

If this is just his own ambition, Joseph is dishonouring his father and his mother. It draws his father’s rebuke. Israel puts Joseph back in his place (37:10). Is Joseph really greater than his father and mother? Is he greater than them all? Must they all bow to him? The narrator doesn’t answer the question until we reach the end of the book (Genesis 48–50).

Israel entrusts Joseph with responsibility for looking after his brothers, while they have been entrusted only with the animals (37:12). Joseph is expected to know they will be grazing the flocks near Shechem. The generations who hear this as their story recognize the irony: when the land was divided among the tribes, this was the heartland of Joseph’s tribes. Starting from the south, the brothers have gone all the way to Dothan (37:17), the northern edge of Joseph’s territory.

If this story is about Joseph’s rule, the generations to come understand that they graze their herds under Joseph’s watchful eye. The whole northern kingdom can be called Joseph (Psalm 80:1). This is how Israel structured his family. It’s confirmed in his final will and testimony: the double blessing for Joseph as the leader of his brothers (Genesis 48–49).

The rebellion against Joseph

But back to the brothers. Rather than submit to his rule, they prefer to assassinate him (conspire to kill, 37:18). It’s a pre-emptive strike against his kingship, to see what will become of his dreams.

For his demise they’ll blame a bad animal (37:20). Ferocious (NIV), fierce (ESV) or wild (NLT, NKJV) our translations say, but rā·ʿāh means simply bad or evil. In ensuring we don’t treat the animal as morally responsible, our translations have masked the real issue: the bad animal exists only in the murderous minds of his brothers.

Hasn’t this been the story of Genesis? Cain was angry when his younger brother found acceptance (4:5-8). What followed was a cycle of retribution, away from God’s presence, where violence is the only hope of justice (4:23-24). This violence corrupted the earth, destroying life (6:5, 11). Even after the flood, murder remained a key concern (9:5-6). The nations realized they could hunt humans to build their kingdoms (10:8-12). By Abraham’s day, they were already banding together for war against the land (14:1-3).

So, are the generations of Jacob corrupted by violence too? Jacob watched Simeon and Levi slaughter an entire town as retribution (Genesis 34). He never trusted them again, the brothers whose swords are weapons of violence (49:5). There’s no surprise in Chapter 37 when Joseph’s brothers have more taste for blood than submission.

Finally, we meet one of these brothers in verse 21. Reuben is the eldest. Israel doesn’t trust him because he’s dishonoured his father (35:22; 49:4). Nevertheless, Reuben rescues Joseph from his murderous brothers (37:21-22).

Next, we meet Judah (37:26). Rather than assassinate Joseph, Judah suggests they sell him into slavery (37:25-28). Is this guy suited to have a ruling role in the family? That’s the pressing question in the next chapter.

Ishmaelite traders arrive from Transjordan, ironically a region that ultimately belongs to Joseph (through Manasseh). While Reuben tries to be his brother’s keeper, the others sell him into slavery, spilling blood on Joseph’s robe to fabricate his demise (37:29-31).

Jacob is convinced that a bad animal has torn him to pieces (37:33). There will be no Joseph tribe, Jacob laments (37:35). One of the twelve is no more (42:13, 32, 36).

Despite their lie, we know Joseph isn’t dead. He’s in slavery where there is no chance escape. If anyone knows how to keep Joseph enslaved, it would be the captain of the guard of Pharaoh, the most feared ruler of the region (37:36).

What could restore Joseph now? It would take a hand far greater than Reuben’s, greater than the murderous hands of his brothers, greater than the Midianite traders, greater than Potiphar and the Pharaoh of Egypt.

The true ruler

The generations of Jacob are just as unwilling to live under God’s leadership as the nations. They call on the power of death and forced servitude rather than submit to the one God appoints.

But that’s not how things turn out. As Joseph will say to his brothers:

Genesis 45:7 (NIV)
God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 

Eventually, that is how the brothers will tell Joseph’s story too:

Psalm 105:16–19 (NIV)
16 He called down famine on the land and destroyed all their supplies of food; 17 and he sent a man before them — Joseph, sold as a slave.
18 They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons, 19 till what he foretold came to pass, till the word of the Lord proved him true.

All of Scripture is the narrative of the kingdom of God, the faithful heavenly sovereign who is bringing earth back under his care and governance in the one he has appointed to save us and lead us as our Lord.

Open Genesis 37.

What others are saying

Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 298:

The battle is between the dream and the “Killers of the Dream.” The dream seems nullified by the end of the chapter. The father believes the dreamer is dead (v. 33). The brothers believe the threat of the dream has been removed (v. 28). Only the single verse hints at another possibility (v. 36). The main character in the drama is Yahweh. Though hidden in the form of a dream, silent and not at all visible, the listener will understand that the dream is the unsettling work of Yahweh upon which everything else depends.

John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 700:

In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, the narrator encourages the imprisoned Joseph not to despair because “I’ve read the book and you come out on top.” Unfortunately, neither Joseph nor any of us has the benefit of such a prognosticator. Our books are written as we live them out, and none of us knows what the ending will look like.

Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 254:

The story of Joseph and his brothers differs markedly from the preceding patriarchal narratives. By far the longest and most complete narrative in Genesis, it is set forth by a master storyteller who employs with consummate skill the novelistic techniques of character delineation, psychological manipulation, and dramatic suspense. Another unique feature is the outwardly “secular” mold in which the narrative is cast, the miraculous or supernatural element being conspicuously absent. There are no direct divine revelations or communications to Joseph. He builds no altars. He has no associations with cultic centers. God never openly and directly intervenes in his life. … Nevertheless … the narrative is infused with a profound sense that God’s guiding hand imparts meaning and direction to seemingly haphazard events: when Joseph is lost he meets “a man” who knows exactly where his brothers are (37:15); the caravans of traders happen to be going to Egypt (37:25, 28); the Lord is with Joseph in Potiphar’s house (39:2) and in prison (39:21f.). It is significant that the name of God comes readily to Joseph’s lips at critical moments: when he is confronted by Potiphar’s wife (39:9); when he interprets dreams (40:8; 41:16 et seq.); and when he tests his brothers (42:18). The ultimate interpretation of events is given by Joseph himself at the dramatic conclusion of the narrative: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:7, 8).

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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