Genesis 37: Joseph is Sold by His Brothers

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After the dream incidents, Joseph’s brothers go off to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem. Shechem is the place where Dinah was abducted - where they deceived all the men and killed them. Still, that is where they are grazing their sheep. Now Israel (who was also know as Jacob) said to Joseph, “Your brothers are all grazing their flocks and I will send you to them.” Some scholars think he might have been concerned for their safety because they were grazing near Shechem, and he wants Joseph to see if all is well. If they are settled at Hebron, Shechem will be about 50 miles north. So this isn’t just a morning’s walk. It is quite a journey for a young man traveling alone. It will probably take him five full days of walking just to get there.

Readers can only marvel at Jacob’s lack of awareness involving his children. Surely there is no feminine intuition operating here. Given all the hatred and discord that is going on between the brothers, this might not be his best decision. To send this one young child wearing a fancy little coat out into a group of hateful brothers clearly indicates that Jacob is oblivious to the dynamics of his family.

Nonetheless, Joseph is ready to go. And the brothers are not easy to find. He first goes to Shechem and wanders around there. Someone stops him and asks what he’s doing, then tells him that the brothers have moved on to Dothan. That’s another 13 miles down the road – so it takes him another day. And he goes there. As he’s coming over the hill, he is immediately recognized by his brothers – why? Because he is wearing the coat. And the coat is probably flapping in the breeze. When they see him, they call him the “dreamer.” Away from home, away from his father’s protection, the brothers waste no time in venting their true feelings about Joseph. “Let’s kill him and throw him into a pit. Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams.”

Surely, it is one thing to not like someone, but when the first thought is to kill him, it reveals the situation being way out of control. In this usage “hate” is an active word. It isn’t a word just describing an emotion. In Hebrew, that word “hate” is so much bigger than the feeling. The brothers’ statements are perfectly consistent with that feeling. The author is saying that they really don’t like him.

But then there’s Reuben (the firstborn son); he wants to rescue Joseph from their hands. As the eldest brother, if anyone has a right to be really upset about Joseph, it is Reuben. As the eldest brother, he inherits half of everything. The rest have to share what is left over. That coat should have been his; that honor should have been his. Jacob should have been grooming him. If Reuben is 50 years old, Jacob is probably close to a hundred. Perhaps it’s time for him to be thinking about his legacy, about passing on the farm and the animals. Wise people would be in the process of making some of those provisions known. It is also noteworthy that he does not seem to be doing that with Joseph either. He’s simply pampering him. He’s just spoiling him. He’s not grooming him to take over the family business. That involves work. Joseph appears to be exempt from working.

So if anyone has a reason to be really angry with Joseph, it is Reuben. Yet Reuben is the one who wants to save him. Of course, Reuben might also be thinking that he will be the one his father will hold accountable if anything happens to Joseph. On the other hand, we know that there has been bad blood between Reuben and his father ever since the Bilhah incident. So maybe Reuben is thinking this might be a way to ingratiate himself back into his father’s good graces. We have no idea how the other brothers might have reacted to his good deed. But for the moment let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his motives are honorable and good, when he has every reason to be leading the pack against Joseph. Reuben brings an opposing opinion. He’s not offering to land the first blow. He wants to save him.

“Let’s not take his life; don’t shed any blood. Throw him into the pit.” Reuben’s plan is to throw him into the cistern alive. Supposedly, it will be a place where he will eventually starve or die of exposure. That’s what Reuben wants his brothers to think. “Let’s just leave him in the cistern, and then we’ll all leave and go about our business.” In point of fact, Reuben does leave. Perhaps the brothers all have their own sheep. Joseph’s brothers strip him of his coat, and Reuben leaves.

A cistern is generally shaped like a bottle with a small opening at the top. These were usually covered with rocks. It is highly unlikely that Joseph will be able to crawl out on his own, since the walls are quite smooth. The original plan, of course, is to kill him. But they throw him down the shaft alive. Undoubtedly, he is yelling and screaming from down there. So the brothers’ next move is very revealing. After Reuben leaves the area, they sit down to eat their meal. Joseph is in the cistern calling for help. They have lunch. They are totally unsympathetic to Joseph’s plight.

It is at this point that the brothers see a caravan in the distance, and Judah has another idea. Now it’s his turn to speak out against the idea of killing Joseph. At this point the brothers have sort of agreed not to kill him, but leaving him in the cistern will eventually lead to his dying. So Judah suggests that they sell him to the Ishmaelites, a term that comes from their own family tree. Judah is the fourth brother. He’s not the one next in line. But he steps up to the forefront. Levi and Simeon, brothers 2 and 3, are silent. With no opposition, the brothers pull him up out of the cistern and sell him for 20 shekels of silver. The text then states that the “Midianites” take him to Egypt. Some scholars argue that “Ishmaelites” is the more generic term for nomadic tribes, and the proper one to use for traders in the distance. Yet when the group arrives, it is plain to see that they are Midianites. So there may be no contradiction in using both names.

Twenty shekels of silver is the typical price for a healthy slave. They do not bargain for a higher price. Scholars argue whether Judah’s plan is better or worse than Reuben’s. Clearly, he does not know that Reuben plans to sneak back and rescue Joseph; Judah’s plan in selling him to the Ishmaelites is meant to be permanent. And if the idea is simply to get rid of him, they could have offered him for free. Later on, laws will be written that will deem this sort of transaction to be a capital offense.

Sometime later, Reuben makes his way back over to the cistern and discovers that Joseph is not there. He tears his clothes. That is the immediate sign of mourning. He goes back to his brothers and says the boy isn’t there. “What should we do?” This would be a really good time for his brothers to mention that they sold him. But apparently, they remain silent because they don’t say anything to make him feel better. Perhaps they are not keen to share the money. The bottom line is that Reuben doesn’t seem to be on the inside track here. He does not know what is going on; and they do not tell him.

The brothers decide to slaughter a goat and cover the coat with blood. They take the bloodied robe back to their father and say, “Look what we found. Do you think this is your son’s robe?” It is interesting that they say, “Your son,” and not “our brother.” It is another indication just how much they have distanced themselves. Of course, Jacob recognizes the bloodied robe and cries out that it is, indeed, Joseph’s. Some wild animal must have torn him to pieces and devoured him. This is exactly what the brothers are hoping Jacob will think. Jacob tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and mourns many days. And all his sons and daughters (yes, “daughters” really is plural!) come to comfort him, but he refuses to be comforted.

Readers wonder how the brothers feel seeing their dad grieving, refusing to be comforted. His world has literally fallen apart. And he refuses to be comforted. Did they imagine this as a possible outcome? Maybe they’re starting to feel bad. And of course, they can’t tell the truth because they really have no idea where Joseph is at this point. It’s not like they can go and get him. This is a very sad situation. They see Jacob grieving, and they know Joseph is not dead. Still, they watch him grieving, day after day, but they are unable to comfort him. As it is, Jacob refuses to be comforted, and the brothers say nothing. The bottom line is that the gulf between father and sons is widening every day. They have a big secret that they can’t tell him.

Remember the bigger picture here. These are God’s people. Everything in this family is fractured. Also, there is no mention of any praying going on this whole time. Jacob doesn’t pray; neither do the sons pray. They probably feel very distant from God right now. These are such real texts. Anyone devastated by grief can relate to this Jacob moment. God is still there, of course, but He has been relegated to remain silently in the background.