This chapter is the beginning of the story of Joseph, son of Jacob. It extends over several chapters, and next week we will look at one of the much later episodes in his story. Perhaps the story is familiar to you, not least because Andrew Lloyd Webber popularised it in his musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat! It’s difficult to see this part of the story in isolation from the rest, as so much of what it has to say to us comes from the much bigger overarching story.
This chapter is the beginning of the story of Joseph, son of Jacob. It extends over several chapters, and next week we will look at one of the much later episodes in his story. Perhaps the story is familiar to you, not least because Andrew Lloyd Webber popularised it in his musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat! It’s difficult to see this part of the story in isolation from the rest, as so much of what it has to say to us comes from the much bigger overarching story. In this part of the story God doesn’t even get a mention! The love of Jacob for his son Joseph is almost eclipsed by the predominance of hatred, arrogance and dysfunctional family relationships. All the time when we are reading this early part of the story we’re aware that many things could have turned out very differently in the long run - not just for Joseph, or for his father and brothers, but for the whole of the human race. And so we can see God at work behind the scenes if not explicitly mentioned, preparing and providing for Jacob and his family.
The first four verses are the foundation of the story. They set the scene, reminding us that the story of Joseph is actually still part of the wider story of Jacob. And we’re aware of family tensions right from the start. The narrator refers to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, two of the wives of Jacob, yet we know from earlier chapters of the tension and rivalry surrounding Jacob’s four wives and their providing him with children. We know that Joseph is the firstborn son of Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel, and as such he would have naturally been the target of jealousy and animosity. We can ask, why else would the narrator mention a detail about genealogy if that wasn’t a factor in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers? There’s a bit of confusion too I think around the timing of the story. Verse 3 reads as though Joseph might be Rachel’s only son - we don’t know from this passage whether Benjamin has been born or whether Rachel is still alive. A couple of chapters before this story, in chapter 35, we do read that Rachel dies after giving birth to Benjamin, but it’s not altogether clear how the chronology of that whole genealogical passage fits in with the story we read in chapter 37. However, in verse 10, Jacob’s rebuke of Joseph does suggest that his mother is still alive.
In these first four verses we begin to understand something of Jacob’s favouritism. It’s made quite clear in the gift to Joseph of a “long robe with sleeves” - the coat of many colours that the King James Version describes is actually based on a misreading by the Septuagint translators. The detail of the coat is apparently important enough to be mentioned. In Hebrew it means something like “a tunic reaching to the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet”. A similar item of clothing is mentioned in 2 Samuel 13: 8, suggesting that it’s a very fine garment, and that wearing it gave a person certain honours. Although not directly stated, the mention of the robe seems to imply that it gave Joseph a sense of superiority and privilege. This is seen in verses 5-11 in which Joseph tells his brothers about two of his dreams, in which he is the object of attention and admiration and everyone else is bowing down to him. Joseph comes across as arrogant and antagonistic. This causes his brothers to hate him all the more, and at this point the brothers’ animosity is made evident to their father Jacob, even if he wasn’t aware of it before. In verse 11 we read that Jacob “kept the matter in mind.”
This might make us wonder why Jacob sends Joseph out to look for his brothers in verses 12-17. It seems to give us another indication of the preferential treatment that Joseph gets - we know from the earlier verses that he’s 17 and helped the brothers shepherd their flocks, so why has he been let off the hard work on this occasion? Or perhaps he was skiving but Jacob found him and decided to send him out to them! At first it seems like a bit of a wild goose chase - Joseph goes to one place, Shechem, but they’re not there. He’s redirected to Dothan which sounds as though it’s some distance away, and as readers we might wonder how long this kind of evasion will go on. Joseph finds his brothers at Dothan, but they see him coming from a long way off and they hatch their plan. Perhaps it’s already been something they’ve talked about in quiet moments when Joseph wasn’t around. They can’t stand Joseph anymore, they have a plan to cause his death without putting any suspicion on themselves.
It’s thought that this chapter might combine at least two different versions of the story of Joseph because there are some details that seem to be repeated but with differences. The first is that in verse 21 Reuben steps forward to save Jospeh’s life, but then in verse 26 Judah does the same thing. In the story as we have it in front of us today, Reuben’s initial intervention would have only delayed his death and not saved him. He probably wouldn’t have lasted long in a waterless pit in the desert. So Judah’s intervention goes further, although the outcome is by no means secure. The chances of Joseph not dying in slavery were not much better than the chances of his survival in a pit in the desert. This is where there is another difference in the story - in verses 25 and 27 we read that the Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt, whereas in verses 28 and 36 we read that it is the Midianites who do this.
As readers who probably know the rest of the story - spoiler alert! - we can understand the irony that Joseph’s salvation ultimately ends up sparing Jacob and his brothers too. Although God is not mentioned at all, and we don’t get any miraculous rescue by a redeeming angel, if it wasn’t for this part of the story, the whole of the story of Israel (and therefore also the story of which we are a part as Christians) could have been tragically different. God’s presence and grace is evident if we read between the lines and keep our focus on the bigger picture.
For further reflection…