March 10, 2016

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe

 

PART IV: JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN (Gen. 37:1-50:26)


Topic #A: JOSEPH IS SOLD AS A SLAVE. Gen. 37:1-36.                                                            

 

Lesson IV.A.3: They Sell Him, and He is Taken to Egypt. (Gen. 37:25-36).                                                                       

 

GENESIS 37:25-36 (KJV)

25 And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.

26 And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?

27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content.

28 Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.

29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.

30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?

31 And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood;

32 And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.

33 And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.

34 And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.

36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard.

 


INTRODUCTION

 

In this section there is the record of how the brothers confine Joseph and sell him to Midianite merchants.

 

 

Commentary

 

25 And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.

 

There is something mafia-like about the way the brothers throw Joseph into the empty cistern to die, and then coolly settle down for dinner.  What was it about Joseph that made them hate him so much, even to the point that they were willing to get rid of him at any cost?  It is impossible that mere envy of his dreams, his gaudy dress, or the doting partiality of their common father, could have goaded them on to such a pitch of frenzied resentment.  Their hatred of Joseph must have had a far deeper foundation.  It must have been produced by a strong dislike of his piety and self-esteem, which made his character and conduct a constant denigration of theirs and, as a result they found that they could never be at ease until they had rid themselves of his hated presence.  This was the true solution to their problem, just as it was in the case of Cain—“We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous” (1 John 3:12). 

 

While the brothers were eating a company of “Ishmeelites” approached.  They were transporting goods from “Gilead,” which is the highlands east of the Jordan River. According to the text, their merchandise consisted of three commodities:

a)    “Spicery” (tragacanth gum), which exudes from a low bush).

b)    “Balm,” which is harvested by cutting incisions in the “bark” of the mastic tree.  It was thought to contain healing properties (see Jeremiah 51:8).  The balm of Gilead{6] was especially useful (see Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11).

c)    “Myrrh” (labdanum), an aromatic gum (see Psalm 45:8; Proverbs 7:17; Psalm 3:6; 5:13) exuded from the leaves of the cistus rose.  Its oil was used in beauty treatments (see Esther 2:12), as an ingredient in the Egyptian embalming process, and it was sometimes mixed with wine and drunk to relieve pain (Mark 15:23).  As a gift fit for a king, myrrh was brought to Jesus after His birth (Matthew 2:11) and applied to His body after His death (John 19:39-40).

 

 

26 And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?

27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content.

 

“Judah” saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone.  They could get rid of Joseph without violence, and they could pick up some cash in the process.  It would be hard to find a more cold-blooded crime, but it was exceeded by the crime of Judas, a lineal descendant of Judah, who sold one greater than Joseph for an equally paltry sum.

 

Now the “brethren” had a plan for getting rid of Joseph once and for all.  This revealed the hatred God declared in 16:12 would arise between Ishmael’s offspring and Isaac’s—This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives” (16:12).  Since Ishmael was Isaac’s great uncle, these Ishmeelites would have been Joseph’s second Cousins, no more than two or three times removed.

 

 

28 Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.

 

“Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen.” Just then, the men spied a “Midianite” merchant train moving across the plane, and this gave Judah an idea.  They could sell their brother as a slave and at the same time get rid of him and make some money.  Since anybody taken to Egypt and sold for a slave wasn’t likely to win his freedom and come back again, there was no danger that their plot would ever be discovered. Slavery in most places was a living death, and they knew they would certainly never hear from him again.  They forgot that God was watching and was still in control. Jacob had inherited the covenant blessings and this made him a very special person in the eyes of God.  The Lord had His divine purposes to fulfill, and “There is no wisdom or understanding or counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30, NKJV).

 

“Judah,” who had no stomach for his brother’s plans, persuaded them to sell Joseph to the “merchantmen.” The fact that the name “Midianites” appears here and in verse 36, whereas “Ishmeelites” occurs in 25 and in the last part of 28, has been confusing to many readers.  Some scholars have assumed that two stories of the incident have been interwoven here.  However, these are simply two names for the same men—descendants of Abraham and of the nomadic and trader lifestyle.  “Midianites” are identified as Ishmeelites again in Judges 8:22-24.

 

“And they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit.” The Middle Eastern climate makes it necessary for people to find ways of conserving water for the dry season, so they collect it in large cisterns, a little like Wells. Cisterns were usually quite deep and had long narrow openings that would be too high for a prisoner to reach.  In order to get out, you’d need somebody to lower a rope and pull you up (Jeremiah 38).

 

When the caravan arrived at the brother’s camp, they (the brothers, not the Midianites) raised the boy from the “pit” and sold him for “20 pieces of silver.” These were not coins but pieces of silver shaped into rings and weighed in balances.  Compare this price with the values expressed in Leviticus 27:3-7.  The normal price of a slave in Moses’ time was 30 pieces of silver (Exodus 21:32; Zechariah 11:12; Matthew 26:15).  This caravan took Joseph into Egypt.” For more on the slave trade, see slave trade{3]

 

It must have given them great pleasure to strip Joseph of his special robe and then drop him into the empty cistern (“pit”). They were likely to have been equally “happy” when they removed him from the “pit,” since by selling him they would be rewarded with cash (hard cash, i.e., pieces of silver) and be rid of the person they probably hated more than anyone else in the world.  The brothers not only hated Joseph as a brother, but the real reason seems to be that they were rebelling against the idea expressed in the dreams and against the divine power itself . . . who had given the dreams.  All of us are potentially capable of doing what Joseph’s brothers did, for “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV).

 

 “And sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver.” Joseph’s brothers sold him to a caravan of Ishmeelite merchants who were passing by their camp for the price of “20 pieces of silver.”  Slave-trading was common in Egypt.  The price agreed on for Joseph was the same price that was later specified for a slave, between the ages of five and 20 years under the Mosaic economy—“A boy between the ages of five and twenty is valued at twenty shekels of silver; a girl of that age is valued at ten shekels of silver” (Leviticus 27:5, NLT).

 

“And they brought Joseph into Egypt.” The cruel deal was closed and Joseph was led away, his cries and pleas falling on deaf years.  What did the Ishmeelites care for a Hebrew’s tears?  What did Judah and Simeon and Levi and the sons of the bond women care for Joseph’s tears?  It had been their lucky day.  They had rid themselves of a rival and lined their purses besides.  It was a fine bargain in cash.  But was it?  Each of the 10 pocketed a wretched two pieces of silver, and each inherited a conscience that would never rest again.  There are some deals that are too expensive for the soul to permit, and moments of indulgence, and some stolen pleasures it would be better to have turned away from than to have shared.

 

 

29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.

 

“And Reuben returned unto the pit.” While the brothers were eating, “Reuben” evidently had been caring for the flock as a ruse so that he could secretly release Joseph.

 

“And, behold, Joseph was not in the pit.” When he came back, however, stopping at the “pit” to give “Joseph” some encouraging words, he was horrified to discover the lad was gone. “The child is not,” he wailed, “and I, whither shall I go?”

 

“And he rent his clothes.” Why was “Ruben” so upset when the others seemed pleased with what they had done to Joseph? He is distraught because he knows that as the oldest, he will have to answer to his father for whatever has happened. 

 

Certainly his attitude and actions made it clear to his brothers that his sympathies were with Joseph, for he was so overwhelmed with grief that he “rent” (tore) his clothes like a man in mourning.

 

 

30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?

 

“And he returned unto his brethren,” and said, The child is not.” It was from this bombshell that the brother’s scheme evolved.

 

He expressed his grief to the others who probably looked Reuben over with cold distaste and alarm, or simply ignored him.  “Oh, shut up, Reuben.  You’re as guilty as we are.  Here, put this in your wallet and be quiet.  We only sold the boy, and that’s better than killing him, isn’t it?  Some softy in Egypt will buy him and, most likely, he’ll live in clover.  What are we going to tell father?  Why, we can’t help it if he sends the kid off on some wild goose chase!”

 

“And I, whither shall I go?”  It was not long before the first bite of conscience was felt.  The anguished cry of Reuben fell like a dark cloud upon the spirits of the conspirators.  Where was Reuben when Judah struck the deal?  We do not know.  Also, Scripture does not tell us whether they told Reuben what they actually had done, but I’m of the opinion they did.  And they probably said it was no use chasing after the merchants because they were a long way off by now; so he might as well help them think up a good story to tell Jacob.

 

 

31 And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood;

 

Now we can begin to see the cowardly scheme that the brothers have worked out between themselves.  One of the brothers, and we are not told who, gets the attention of the others when he suggests, “Let’s tell our father that a wild beast killed him and that we found this coat and thought it looked like his. Someone fetch a kid so we can soak his coat in blood. That’ll make the story sound more believable.

 

 

32 And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.

 

“And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found.” Unwilling to confront their father personally, the brothers “sent” a servant to Jacob to show him the “evidence” and tell him the lie that they had concocted.  This was a cruel way to treat their father, but “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10, NKJV).

 

“Know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.” Notice that the brethren never actually say Joseph is dead.  They simply deceive their father.  Pretty clever, isn’t it?  They act as if they had never seen Joseph.  They pretend they just found this “coat.”  Believe me; they knew that hated “coat!”  But they pretend they don’t recognize it and ask their father whether he recognizes it.  Jacob knew whose “coat” it was.  He comes to a natural conclusion and, of course, the conclusion to which the brothers intended for him to come.

 

 

33 And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.

 

The fact that only his tunic was found suggested to Jacob that Joseph’s body had been destroyed by some wild animal.

 

They did exactly what they had planned to do.  They deceived old Jacob with a kid as he, many years before, had deceived his father with a goat, using the skin to replicate his brother’s hairy arms. They stained the garment (coat of many colors) in blood, concocted their lie, and thought they had concealed their sin forever.  But a lie is a very poor refuge when dealing with the living God.  Years later, God used their act of hate as an opportunity to save Israel from both physical famine and spiritual extinction. 

 

Observe: When Satan has taught men to commit one sin, he then teaches them to conceal it with another; theft and murder, with lying and perjury; but anybody that covers his sin, shall not prosper for very long.  Joseph’s brethren kept their own and one another’s counsel for some time; but their crime came to light at last and it is published here in the Bible where those of every age can learn from it.

 

Notice this very carefully.  Jacob is deceived in exactly the same way that he had deceived.  “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7)—not something else, not something similar, but the same thing.  This man Jacob did some bad sewing.  He used deception, and now that he is a father, he is deceived in the identical way that he had deceived his own father years before.

 

 

34 And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

 

“And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth{1] upon his loins.” He followed the custom of his day, as had Reuben (37:29).  “Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins.”

 

“And mourned for his son many days.” His expressions of prolonged sorrow alarmed the family and they tried to comfort him (37:35).  For more on “mourning” see mourning practices{4].

 

35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.

 

“And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him.” The boys finally show signs of having a conscience, for when they arrived home; they saw Jacob’s inconsolable grief.  They looked at one another and crept guiltily away as old Jacob, shaken to the core, his sobs sounding like the toll of doom throughout the camp, retired to the tent that once had been Rachel’s to proclaim to God in heaven his unutterable grief.  But ironically, they could have allayed some of his sorrow by telling him the truth of the matter, but even Reuben did not divulge the secret.

 

“And all . . . his daughters” indicates that Jacob had other “daughters” besides Dinah, the only “daughter” mentioned by name.  (It is a term that can include daughters-in-law (for example, a daughter-in-law of Jacob is mentioned in 38:2).

 

“But he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave{2] unto my son mourning.” “The grave” is the Hebrew ‘Sheol,’ the underground abode of the dead, the same as the Greek “Hades”.  There, according to tradition, disembodied spirits continue to exist in shadowy regions that have no exit and no communication with God or man.  It is a mere half existence.  Jacob realized that he had no hope of seeing an end to his heartrending suffering until that hour, when he left the land of the living. (Jacob clearly believed in an afterlife.) Joseph’s loss made Jacob love him more and withdraw from the rest of the family.

 

Perhaps some will think his grief is a demonstration of how much Jacob loved his son Joseph.  I’ll admit that he certainly loved this boy.  But it reveals that Jacob had not learned to walk by faith yet, dear reader.  You recall the experience he had at Peniel.  It was the deflation of the old ego.  The flesh collapsed there, but now he must learn to walk by faith.  He hasn’t learned that yet.  In fact, the faith of Jacob is mentioned in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, but nothing in his life is mentioned there as an example of his faith until the time of his death.  Then faith is exhibited.

 

“Thus his father wept for him.”The boys live for years without ever telling their father what they had done.  Had Jacob believed more strongly in God’s Revelations through Joseph’s dreams, he might not have jumped to the conclusion that Joseph was dead, and his sorrow might not have been as great.  (I find it interesting that God never speaks, nor is he spoken to or about, throughout the entire chapter.)

 

If you are a parent, who has lost a son or daughter, then you know the agony of poor Jacob.  His sons sordidly pretended to comfort him, but they were miserable, hypocritical comforters.  If they really wanted to comfort him, they might easily have done it, by telling the truth.

 

 

36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard.

 

God providentially brought Joseph safely to Egypt (The majority of scholars place Joseph’s arrival in Egypt at around 1800 b.c.) and saw to it that he was sold to one of Pharaoh’s chief officers.  Potiphar{5] is called “captain of the guard” which suggests he was head of Pharaoh’s personal bodyguard and in charge of official executions.  But the important thing wasn’t that Joseph was connected with such a powerful man in Egypt.  The important thing was that “the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered” (39:2).  The Midianites unwittingly fulfilled God’s purposes by providing free transportation for Joseph to Egypt and selling him to Potiphar.  Thus God makes man’s wrath to praise Him, and what will not praise Him, He restrains (see Psalm 76:10).

 

There are three results for the sad events described in this chapter.  First, Joseph will now live in slavery (39:1-6).  Second, Jacob is to live the next 22 years in sorrow, grieving for his favorite son.  Third, Joseph’s brothers will continue to live in guilt, always seeing the sin against their brother as the source of all their woes (42:21-22; 44:16).

 

Here then is the beginning of the sufferings of Joseph, the obedient servant.  God would test his character through the things he suffered, so that he could then be exalted.

 

Jacob and Joseph never read Romans 8:28, but they’ve experienced the truth of it and saw what the hand of God can do.  If the promises worked for them, they will work for us today; FOR GOD AND HIS WORD HAVE NOT CHANGED.

 

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28).

 

 

 

 

Special Notes

 

{1] Sackcloth is a course material made of black goats hair, coarse, rough, and thick, worn by mourners (Gen. 37:34; 42:25; 2 Sam. 3:31; Esther 4:1, 2; Ps. 30:11, etc.).

{2] The grave is “sheol” in the Hebrew.  Jacob did not expect to find Joseph on earth, for Joseph was supposed to be torn in pieces, therefore, he would meet him in the unknown place—the place of departed souls, where Jacob expected go upon his death.  Sheol means ‘the place of departed souls.’

{3] The slave trade had existed from earliest times in the ancient Near East.  Slaves were generally war captives or persons taken in raids.  Traders often accepted slaves when transporting goods to their customers.  These persons seldom obtained their freedom.

{4] Mourning practices generally included tearing one’s robe, weeping, putting dust and ashes in the hair and wearing sackcloth.  The official period of mourning was 30 days but could continue for as long as the mourner chose to continue to grieve.

{5] Potiphar is an Egyptian name meaning, “Whom P’Ra (sun-god) has given.” Most authorities would consider Potiphar as an abbreviated form in Hebrew of Potiphera.

{6] Balm of Gilead was a rare perfume used medicinally, that was mentioned in the Bible, and named for the region of Gilead where it was produced. 

 

 

 

 

 

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