Joseph Is Mistreated
Genesis 37:5–11, 19–21, 23, 24a, 28
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Describe the early relationship of Joseph with his brothers and parents.
2. Explain why Joseph had to tell about his dreams.
3. Make a commitment to share the gospel in a situation where it may not be welcome, and be prepared for the potentially difficult result.
How to Say It
Paddan Aram. PAY-dan A-ram.
Shechem. SHEE-kem or SHEK-em.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Oct. 29—The Favored Son (Genesis 37:1–4)
Tuesday, Oct. 30—The Jealous Brothers (Genesis 37:5–11)
Wednesday, Oct. 31—The Messenger (Genesis 37:12–17)
Thursday, Nov. 1—The Dreamer (Genesis 37:18–24)
Friday, Nov. 2—Sold into Slavery (Genesis 37:25–28)
Saturday, Nov. 3—A Father’s Distress (Genesis 37:29–36)
Sunday, Nov. 4—A Prayer for Deliverance (Psalm 70)
His brothers … sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
Why Teach This Lesson?
Some people are good at planning for the future, sometimes at the expense of the “right now.” Others live only for today. God excels at providing for both today and tomorrow.
As a certain writer said, “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.” It is essential for your learners to keep this in mind, especially when they face trials. They need to know that God is the one who has the big picture for our lives. Knowing he has plans for our tomorrows makes it easier to get through the hardships and betrayals of today.
God’s plans for us do not guarantee family harmony, pain-free living, or an up-front understanding of what is happening to us. And yet “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Today’s lesson shows this idea in action.
A. The Butterfly Effect
Have you ever noticed that something that seemed to be small or insignificant at one point can have a major effect over a longer period of time? One theory of forecasting changes in the weather and the stock market says that small variations in initial conditions can bring about large variations in the long-term behavior of a system.
The idea was originally expressed by Edward Lorenz in 1963 in a paper he wrote for the New York Academy of Sciences. Initially, he referred to the effect as being like the flap of a seagull’s wings, but later would use the more picturesque phrase butterfly effect. Simply stated, the idea is that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world could eventually result in a hurricane in another part. (A more scientific description for butterfly effect is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.”)
The lesson today about Joseph is a portion of the greater narrative that describes God’s movement to bring salvation to the world. Whether or not butterflies can cause hurricanes can be debated. But one thing is certain: the reach through history of the things done to and by Joseph is profound indeed!
B. Lesson Background
Jacob eventually returned to Canaan from living in Paddan Aram, where he had married and where most of his children were born (last week’s lesson). The livelihood of the family was based on raising livestock. In this relatively dry region, it was necessary to move the flocks and herds around to provide them with daily food. Sometimes the shepherds would have to go long distances to find that food.
Jacob was a very successful shepherd, and apparently he intended for Joseph, his favorite son, to follow in his footsteps. To that end, we see Joseph learning the family operation. The biblical record tells us that Joseph had eleven brothers and one sister. The nature and significance of Joseph’s interaction with his brothers is a vital part of the Genesis account.
I. Dreamer Dreams (Genesis 37:5–9)
As we enter into the story of Joseph, around the year 1900 bc, we find a boy at age 17 (Genesis 37:2). Immediately we are introduced to a love-hate triangle consisting of Joseph, his brothers, and their father, Jacob. Joseph’s father loved him more than he loved his other sons. This created a burning resentment toward Joseph.
Three things aggravated the situation. First, Joseph had brought a bad report about his brothers to his father, Jacob (also known as Israel; Genesis 37:2). Second, Joseph received preferential treatment in terms of a special coat, a colorful one perhaps with long sleeves (37:3, 23). Third, Joseph had been having dreams of personal grandeur. That’s where our story opens today.
A. Sheaves in the Field Bow Down (vv. 5–8)
5. Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.
For the most part, we discount the possibility of receiving information through dreams today. It is comparatively rare even in the Bible for people to receive revelations from God in dreams. Dreams in the Bible can refer to the normal dreams of sleep (Isaiah 29:7-8), the imaginary dreams of false prophets (Jeremiah 23:25–32; 27:9-10), or dreams of revelation (Genesis 41:17; Daniel 2:28).
The dreams of revelation are found primarily in Genesis and Daniel. Joseph is one of the few to whom God speaks in this manner. Equally important is the fact that Joseph will later demonstrate the God-given ability to interpret the dreams of others (Genesis 40:12-13, 18-19; 41:25–32). This ability will open doors for the family of Jacob to come to Egypt.
As we are introduced to Joseph’s dreams, we are also introduced to his brothers’ response. For them the dream represents an intolerable attitude of superiority.
6, 7. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
We are introduced to the style of grain harvest in Joseph’s day. Men and women go out with hand sickles and cut the grain. As they do, they gather the cut stalks into sheaves. The sheaves are stacked in the field to await transport to the place of threshing. (A fuller picture of the process of grain harvesting in Bible times is found in the book of Ruth.)
Older translations of the Bible use the word obeisance to describe this bowing. The idea is that of an act of great respect. It signifies that someone else has (or will have) power over the one doing the bowing.
8. His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
Joseph’s suggestion that his brothers will bow down to him infuriates them. As far as they are concerned, Joseph will never rule over them.
What Do You Think?
What was a time when you saw speaking the truth cause resentment? How do you handle such a reaction in a godly way?
Though the Bible is silent on this matter, it is very possible that the brothers have already discussed killing Joseph as soon as Jacob is dead (compare Esau’s idea in Genesis 27:41). Whether they have or not, Joseph’s dream adds fuel to the already burning fire. It is bad enough to have to accept the fact that Joseph is their father’s favorite. But the suggestion that they will bow down before him is too much. The stage is being set for terrible happenings.
We may note at this point that we have a prediction that will be fulfilled in the later years of Joseph. “When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.… Then he remembered his dreams about them” (Genesis 42:6, 9; compare 43:26, 28; 44:14).
Visual for Lesson 10
After exploring these comparisons, ask your learners if they can think of others.
B. Sun, Moon, and Stars Bow Down (v. 9)
9. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
Some time after the first dream, Joseph dreams again. For Joseph, the two dreams provide absolute verification that the message is true, since the two dreams concern the same subject. We may compare this with Pharaoh’s two dreams in the same night; those dreams had different images but the same meaning (Genesis 41:25).
Joseph’s second dream has implications as serious as the first. It predicts that Joseph’s father (Jacob), his mother, and his 11 brothers will bow down to him. The number 11 leaves no doubt about whom these images signify!
Delusions of Grandeur
Jackie Gleason starred as bus driver Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners in the early years of television. Ralph lived with his wife, Alice, in a run-down apartment in the city. He was a blustering big-mouth—a self-appointed “king of his castle”—who went through scheme after scheme in which he dreamed of becoming great, rich, and successful.
Ralph’s best friend, Ed Norton, worked for the sewer department. Ed was a more down-to-earth kind of person, yet he also had dreams of grandeur. One observer noted that the men had more ambition than aptitude.
Part of the appeal of these fictional characters was that they represented the mind-set of many watching. Ralph was “everyman,” the frustrated plodder whose life was dull despite his daydreams. Joseph also had dreams of grandeur, but these were of a far different type from those of Ralph Kramden and “everyman”! Joseph didn’t create his dreams; they came from God. Joseph’s dreams were not daydreams, whipped up out of whims of fantasy; they were God’s revelation of assured future events.
Some Christians have been known to muse about all the grandiose things they could do for God if only they could win the lottery or some such. Much more productive and pleasing to God would be efforts to strengthen our character and integrity. As time would tell, those were to become hallmarks of Joseph’s life. They can be ours as well. —C. R. B.
II. Family Reacts (Genesis 37:10, 11)
Joseph usually is the one who can do no wrong in his father’s eyes. But this dream offends even his father. The implications are incredible, even to Jacob.
A. Jacob Rebukes (v. 10)
10. When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”
It is possible that Joseph’s father (Jacob) does not know about the first dream regarding the sheaves. Jacob certainly wants his son to be the leader of the family, but to hear Joseph now declare his authority in this fashion is too much. Is Joseph really arrogant enough to think that his father and mother and 11 brothers will bow down to him? (The mother in view here is not Rachel, who is dead by this time, but Joseph’s stepmother, Leah.)
At this moment it appears that Joseph is alone: his brothers hate him, and his father has rebuked him. We should keep in mind, however, that Joseph is being honest about what he experienced. The Bible makes it clear that these dreams are not fabrications on Joseph’s part.
B. Brothers Envy (v. 11)
11. His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
What Do You Think?
What was a time when you had to tell a truth that turned out to be very unpopular? How did you handle the situation?
The idea that the brothers are jealous of Joseph suggests a stronger and more significant passion than even hatred. The emotion of envy magnifies the possibility that their feelings will spill over into violence. This is another signal that the brothers are plotting revenge.
The phrase his father kept the matter in mind tells us that Jacob recognizes that this dream does have potential for revelation. Jacob’s reaction is similar to that of Mary in the New Testament: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
What Do You Think?
Was it inconsistent for Jacob to rebuke Joseph but keep the matter in mind anyway? Why, or why not?
In any case, Jacob seems unaware of the danger that Joseph is in. This is seen by the fact that Jacob is willing to send Joseph to check on his brothers one more time (Genesis 37:12-13, not in today’s text).
III. Plot Develops (Genesis 37:19–21, 23, 24a, 28)
It is only a matter of time until Joseph is again alone with his brothers. Supposedly they are tending flocks near Shechem, so Joseph goes there first. But a resident of the area tells him that his brothers have moved to Dothan, about 14 miles north of Shechem (Genesis 37:12–17) and perhaps 60 miles from home.
Dothan is a major city in the area, important to two people in the Bible: Joseph and Elisha. Whereas God allows Joseph to be taken to Egypt in slavery from near Dothan, he will miraculously deliver Elisha from the Syrian army in that locale centuries later (2 Kings 6:13–17). The brothers may have moved on to there in order to find better grass for the flocks and herds or because more water is available. There is no suggestion that they are trying to hide from their father.
A. First Plan: Murder (vv. 19–21, 23, 24a)
19, 20. “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
What Do You Think?
Does it surprise you that Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him? Why, or why not? What does this situation teach us about dealing with human nature in a godly manner?
Here comes that dreamer indicates that Joseph has gained a new nickname that is intended to be an unveiled insult. The brothers’ first plan is to kill Joseph outright. That will put an end to his dreams and free them from this pesky brother!
21. When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said.
Reuben is the oldest of the brothers. He is the one who accepts responsibility as the firstborn son to save Joseph by suggesting that they cast him into a cistern (Genesis 37:22, not in today’s text). For reasons unknown, Reuben apparently leaves Joseph in the care of the other brothers (v. 29, not in today’s text).
What Do You Think?
Why do half-hearted attempts to do right usually fail?
23, 24a. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing—and they took him and threw him into the cistern.
The offensive robe has to be removed. The robe symbolizes all the things the brothers hate about Joseph. Its existence demonstrates that he is privileged. Stripping Joseph of this article of clothing provides a first taste of revenge. Humiliating this 17-year-old boy brings the brothers cynical pleasure.
The next stage of their revenge is throwing Joseph into a dry cistern. This undoubtedly is deep enough for it to be impossible for him to climb out without assistance from outside.
B. Second Plan: Slavery (v. 28)
28. So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
After casting Joseph into the cistern, it is time for lunch (see v. 25, not in today’s text). Before the Midianites arrive, the brothers may enjoy special delicacies that Joseph has brought from their father. It is doubtful that they shared any with their captive!
As they eat, they spot a camel caravan on its way to Egypt. Dothan is close to one of the major trade routes to that country. The brothers recognize the opportunity to solve their problem while keeping their hands free of their brother’s blood.
It is at the suggestion of Judah that Joseph be sold to the merchants (see vv. 26-27, not in today’s text). Reuben planned to save Joseph somehow, but failed. Instead, Judah is the one to step forward and provide a solution that keeps Joseph alive.
We will see this failure-success pattern again. When famine later comes to Canaan and the brothers return from Egypt with food, Reuben will try to convince his father to allow Benjamin to go along on a follow-up trip. That offer will be rejected (Genesis 42:37-38). Judah then will demonstrate leadership qualities once again by stepping forward to accept personal responsibility for the life of Benjamin. His offer will be accepted (43:8–15).
We may pause to consider the two designations, Midianites and Ishmaelites. One opinion is that these are different designations for the same group. In favor of this idea, we may compare Genesis 37:36 with 39:1; the former says it is the Midianites who sell Joseph to Potiphar while the latter says it is the Ishmaelites who do so. Much later we find Gideon fighting against “the Midianites” (Judges 7:24-25; we are told that “it was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings” (Judges 8:24).
On the other hand, some scholars see the caravan as made up of Midianite merchants who act as “middlemen” for the Ishmaelites. Both groups are relatives of Abraham. Ishmael was Abraham’s son born to Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. Midian was one of the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s second wife (Genesis 25:1, 2). Both the Midianites and Ishmaelites are thus blood relatives of Jacob and his family.
The relative value of twenty shekels of silver is uncertain. Weighing a total of about 8 ounces, 20 shekels of silver seems to be the going price for slaves in the time of Joseph. Compare Exodus 21:32, where servants (slaves) later are to be valued at 30 shekels of silver. Jesus’ life will also valued at 30 pieces of silver when he is betrayed centuries later (Zechariah 11:12-13; Matthew 26:15; 27:9-10).
In any case, the sale of Joseph brings monetary profit to the brothers as well as providing the means by which they can be rid of him. The brothers confidently assume that they will never see their brother again. Now what will become of his dreams (Genesis 37:20)? Time will tell!
The Tangled Web
Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
Those are the words of the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). The truth of the sentiment is seen in the frequency of its quotation in commentary on a wide range of subjects. For example, an Internet search of the phrase what a tangled web we weave will return scores of “hits” on subject matters as diverse as teaching botany to grade-school children, digital library practices, shady bookkeeping techniques, political shenanigans, misleading advertising, and falsified scientific research.
Joseph’s brothers had a hard time trying to decide upon the most expedient way to get rid of their pesky younger sibling. Whatever method they chose, they knew they would have to deceive their father, who loved Joseph more than any of them. Whether to kill him outright or sell him into slavery, they still had to concoct a story.
Their deception would ultimately be exposed. Isn’t that still true? Is there one of us who has not seen (or caused) the sad effects of “the tangled web”? —C. R. B.
When the news of Joseph’s “demise” reached Jacob, he cried out in his grief (Genesis 37:33–35). He already had lain his dear wife Rachel to rest. Then he (apparently) lost the most precious of his sons as well. Yet unbeknownst to all parties, a great plan was beginning to unfold. The brothers in their haste to dispose of Joseph had no idea of the chain of events that they had set in motion.
God in his foreknowledge was aware of what was to come. God had already promised through Abraham that his family would sojourn in Egypt for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). That sojourn would result in a group of people large enough to be a nation.
Joseph was being sent ahead as a kind of “point man” for his family to this end. At the place where today’s lesson ends it is almost certain that he could see only the slavery that lay ahead. The brothers later remembered Joseph’s state of mind at this point in time: “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen” (Genesis 42:21).
Because we can look back on the entire story, it is easy for us to see the hand of God at work in all of this. But what about Joseph when he first began to have dreams of great significance? Did he see the hand of God working in his life? At the age of 17 it is more likely that he simply knew that he was having dreams that amazed even him.
Joseph may or may not have understood that his dreams pointed to his being a leader. Of much greater importance was the fact that Joseph determined to maintain his personal integrity regardless of what happened. His brothers thought him to be positioning himself to take over the family. The life of Joseph demonstrated that he primarily sought to work with integrity no matter what position of life he was in. God, the unseen mover in this story, had chosen the right man for the job!
It can be very difficult to see God’s hand during our trials today. Yet God remains as the unseen mover in our lives and indeed in all of history. This fact leads us to today’s prayer.
Thought to Remember
God is still the unseen mover.
Our Father in Heaven, we ask that you help us to use the story of Joseph to inspire us to be patient as we await the outcome of events we experience. In our waiting, we pray that we would conduct ourselves with all holiness, even during—especially during!—the toughest times. In the name of Christ, amen.
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007, S. 87