Genesis 37
The God who is with us

(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Scripture:  Genesis 37

1 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the account of Jacob.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives,


Commentd on passage details

Jacobs Family, his wives and sons:
Leah - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun
Rachel - Joseph and Benjamin
Bilhah (Rachel’s servant) - Dan and Naphtali
Zilpah (Leah’s servant) - Gad and Asher

Lead and Rachel were Jacob's real wives, Bilhah and Zilpah were concubines (Gen 35:20) - thus there was a definite hierarchy in this family. And of course, because Rachel was Jacob’s real love, everyone played second fiddle to Rachel and her children, especially the children of the concubines.

 and he brought their father a bad report about them.

(Read all you want into how bad these family dynamics were - they were all there.)

The family dynamics were actually very complicated. Reuben, being the first born had the birthright of the first born, but then according to Genesis 35:20, Reuben slept with his fathers concubine Bilhah, he defiled his father’s marriage bed. According to 1 Chronicles 5, it was because of this that Reuben lost the birthright of the first born, and since Jacobs next true firstborn was Joseph (from Rachel), he inherited the firstborn right which meant that he would be the leader of the family.

3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. Joseph’s many coloured coat was not just a symbol of his father’s favouritism, it was a symbol of Reuben’s failure, it was a symbol that out of all these sons, this puny 17 year old was Jacob's choice to be the family leader, the family ruler.
4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 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.”
This birthright business seemed to be going to Joseph’s head.
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. (You’re taking this birthright business too far!)
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.”  
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?”  11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. (Now his father is saying - Joseph, you are carrying this too far.)
12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
(This was no safe venture. Joseph going near Shechem by himself was dangerous for the very simple reason that not long before, his brothers Levi and Simeon had killed all the men of that town, and revenge for blood spilled has a long memory. Retaliation was a real possibility. That Jacob would send Joseph there demonstrated his trust in Joseph’s abilities to take care of himself.)
“Very well,” he replied.
14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
("all is well = Hebrew "Shalom"  In this context, the word has connotations of them living at peace with each other.  Jacob knows his family has problems.  It also expresses Jacob's concern for their welfare in the potentially dangerous area of Shechem.)
When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”
17 “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”
(Most commentators find the presence of this unknown stranger and the fact that the stranger overheard a conversation in a middle of a field among bleating sheep at least intriguing.)
So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. (Guaranteed, the motive for this plot has been on their minds for a long time.  The plan hatches quickly!)
19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “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.”  
21 When Reuben  heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father. (Reuben was the oldest son of Leah, but he lost his birthright status  to Joseph when he defiled his father’s marriage bed (1 Chronicles 5), Joseph in Reuben’s place has become the leader, yet Reuben is the oldest)
23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing— 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.
25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead.
(Notice what the brothers do - their anger is aimed not only at the brother, it is also aimed at their father's decision to make him the leader as represented in Joseph's many coloured coat.)


(The Hebrew of this passage has word plays which picture the brothers as ravenous animals about to eat their prey.)

Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt (Balm and myrrh were used for burial and embalming in Egypt.  The passage at least mentions this because their actions secure Joseph’s death to them).
26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (Judah, fourth son of Leah)
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. (twenty shekels of silver - the price of a common slave)
29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?” (Reuben, who is the eldest and firstborn seems to take some responsibility for his brothers welfare, possibly because he knows that he himself is the one responsible for losing his own birthright.)
 31 Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.”
33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him . Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”
(Based on Hebrew word plays, the text invites us to picture the brothers as ferocious animals who have eaten their brother)
34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters came to  comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him. (Here the dysfunction of Jacob's family is clearly portrayed.  It seems that the brothers who have effectively murdered Joseph, now with their families come to comfort Jacob.  This is hypocrisy to the nth degree.)
36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt t o Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.  


This past year has been a year with some very significant challenges. As reported in our year summary - yes there have been many blessings, but their have been the challenges of world events, discovering how disastrous tsunamis can be, earthquakes that kill 80,000 people in one night, hurricanes that just keep on coming, wars that have not gone well. We have all wondered where God is in the mess.

There have been personal tragedies with the passing away of loved ones and continuing grief. Sickness has reminded some of us of our mortality. Challenges in Mexico have taken sacrifice to resolve. Personal family dynamics have strained some of us to our limit, and we wonder where God is. Somehow, we have thought that in the blessing of God, things just should go better. And when they aren’t better we wonder where God is in the mess.

This was especially true for Jacob and Joseph. If you are somewhat familiar with their story, you know that Jacob’s concern that things would go well with his sons was a well founded concern, after all, his entire family was fraught with difficulty, conflict and dysfunction.  Jacob’s analysis of his own life was that it was filled with grief and difficulty. If there is anything this chapter cries out in the mess of Jacob’s family, I don’t know if you noticed, but it appears that God is not in the picture. These are family dynamics filled with evil. This is life filled with problems. These were relationships filled with conflict. This was grief empty of resolve because there was no hope and no God in the picture.

Maybe you have come out of one of the more difficult years of your life and you feel the same and you wonder what happened to God in your picture, in your life.

In this context, I want to turn your eyes upon a stranger. Take notice of the stranger in this passage. Joseph, trusted by his father, is sent to Shechem (90 kms from Hebron - or about two days travel) to see how his brothers are doing.  Are they safe?  Are they getting along? Are they doing well? He travels the distance to Shechem only to find the fields empty and the brothers gone. Now the next logical sequence of this story is that 17 year old Joseph would go back to his father and tell him another bad report:  They weren’t were they said they would be!" They would just have to wait until they returned. But we run into a surprise in the story. I encourage you to listen very carefully to the surprise.

A stranger finds Joseph. This is not Joseph finding someone of the area. Remember, this was a dangerous area. This was an area where Levi and Simeon had killed all the men of the town. To go find a male stranger in this area would be dangerous because certainly the city of Shechem had every interest in revenge.

The stranger finds Joseph, the picture of this passage is as if this stranger is out there, looking for Joseph, watching out for him. The story does not tell us who this stranger is. It does not tell us why he was there in the fields where Joseph was wandering. It simply tells us that the stranger found Joseph lost and meandering not knowing where to go in the fields near Shechem.

And the story even gets more interesting. The man asks Joseph the confused 17 year old, what he is looking for, and Joseph asks the stranger where his brothers might be tending their flocks. And then this stranger answers that they went to Dothan (another 30 km), and he knows this because he heard them speaking to each other.

I don’t know about you, but this passage pops all kinds of questions into my mind.  Out in an open field, near a city that would be decidedly dangerous, how in the world would a man overhear a few shepherds talking to each other about where to go next? This is the kind of conversation that is not overheard, just like Joseph later on was not able to overhear their plots to take his life by killing him. Yet this stranger overheard what normally would never be overheard.

Who is this stranger that finds Joseph, overheard his brothers and sends Joseph on to Dothan?

The passage itself does not answer our question. But those who are well aware of God and his promises, the God who comes to us as a stranger know well who the stranger was. And even though God seems totally absent from the story, not mentioned once - we discover God in the stranger. Besides the fact that this stranger was looking out after Joseph, besides the fact that this stranger overheard a conversation that would never otherwise be overheard, let me give you the most basic reason why we are driven to accept that this stranger is God.

First, this story, in its context is the fulfillment of promise - a promise God made to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-14) where God said

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.

God had made a promise and he was making sure it would be kept. If this stranger had not appeared, what would have happened? Joseph would have returned to his father, and assuming a consistent flow of events, Israel and his family, and the line of the Savior, would have never been rescued from famine by food in Egypt and would never have been enslaved in Egypt only later to be delivered by Moses. The heart of this story is God fulfilling what he promised and even the most corrupt hearts of Joseph’ brothers ended up serving God’s ends.

There is a very simple and profound theme here. When God is hidden, he often meets us in the stranger and we do not recognize him. Certain, it was only later that Joseph would recognize this stranger as God at work, God meeting him in the middle of a field to direct his path toward slavery. Joseph himself recognized this when he said to his brothers - "You meant it for evil but God meant it for good!"

There are times in our lives when God is hidden from our view, often times when things are going, it seems, in all the wrong directions, but just because he is hidden does not mean he is not there, keeping his promises, determining outcomes, making sure that his word comes to fulfillment. Walter Brueggeman, a well known Old Testament scholar, says (paraphrased) in regard to this theme, it is when God is hidden, working in hidden ways, that he does far more for us that we could ever do for ourselves. Our future is not a consequence of our good intentions, our future is a consequence of a God working in hidden ways to secure the future he has promised us.

As we look back at this past year, we need to hear this story afresh, this Word of the Lord, that even when God is hidden, he is not absent, even when God is not seen, he is with us, even when life goes all wrong, God is still in control. Some of us in our struggles, in our grief have certainly wondered about the presence of God, his blessing, his promises, but this passage reminds us that God is with us even when he seems the most distant. When we feel the most forsaken, God is often doing some of his greatest work. When God was the most absent at the cross of Christ, God was the most near to save us.

God is with us, calling us to obedience, even if he seems the most unreal, God is with us and he will never leave us or forsake us, always keeping his promises to us, simply because that is who he is.

As we look back, I can offer you no greater comfort and no stronger hope for the future - than the character and the faithfulness of God. His words will not fail. We may. We may fall, we may disobey, we may sin, like Joseph’s brothers, we might even attempt murder. But God’s word is even bigger than our unfaithfulness, our sin, our rebellion.

And so end this year. And if God has been absent from it in your life, then remember the stranger that was there guiding your steps even when you never anticipated it. God’s faithful children pay attention to the stranger, because the stranger is often God at work. So Joseph, looking for his brothers at Shechem was found by a stranger, who sent him to Dothan, and from Dothan, Joseph was delivered as a slave to Egypt, and from Egypt, he was the instrument in the hands of God that not only saved nations, it also saved his family, from which the Christ would be born.


(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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