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Go to Bible: Genesis 37
“Now Jacob lived in the land.” By this time Jacob seems to have moved to Hebron (Gen. 35:27).(top)
“Joseph, being 17 years old.” Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:2). He was 30 years old when he became second in command in Egypt (Gen. 41:46). The Bible does not say how those 13 or 14 years in slavery were divided up between being in Potiphar’s house (Gen. 37:36; 39:1) and being in prison (Gen. 39:20). After Joseph was taken from prison and elevated to second in command over Egypt there were seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Joseph was 44 when the famine ended. Joseph died at 110 years old (Gen. 50:22). Jacob and his family traveled to Egypt in the second year of the famine (Gen. 45:6; 47:8-9), and Jacob lived there 17 years, dying at age 147 (Gen. 47:28).(top)
|Gen 37:3||- (top)|
|Gen 37:4||- (top)|
|Gen 37:5||- (top)|
|Gen 37:6||- (top)|
“bowed down.” The common biblical way of bowing down before people or God was to fall to one’s knees and bow the upper body and face to the earth. [For more on bowing down, see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20].(top)
“reign, yes, reign...rule, yes, rule.” The brothers repeat the verbs twice in different inflections for emphasis. This is the figure of speech polyptoton. [For more on polyptoton and the way it is translated, see commentary on Gen. 2:16].
“hated him even more.” The Hebrew is more literally that they “added” more hate to him.(top)
“bowing down.” The common biblical way of bowing down before people or God was to fall to one’s knees and bow the upper body and face to the earth. [For more on bowing down, see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20].(top)
“come, yes, come.” Jacob repeats the verb twice in different inflections for emphasis revealing that he is upset and perhaps offended. This is the figure of speech polyptoton. [For more on polyptoton and the way it is translated, see commentary on Gen. 2:16].
“bow down.” The common biblical way of bowing down before people or God was to fall to one’s knees and bow the upper body and face to the earth. [For more on bowing down, see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20].(top)
“but his father kept the matter in mind.” The Hebrew word translated “matter” is dabar (#01697 דָּבָר), which is the common word for “word,” but also, like the Greek word logos, it had a wide range of meanings, including “thing,” and “matter.” Thus the translation might well read, “The matter,” or “The thing” as well as “the word” (i.e., the message; what was said).
While Joseph’s brothers completely discounted what Joseph said, Jacob, who loved and trusted Joseph, kept what Joseph dreamed in mind and likely wondered what it meant. While it certainly seemed fantastic to him, he would have wondered in what way it might have truth to it.(top)
“to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.” Jacob and his family were shepherds, and they wandered the Promised Land as the seasons changed, looking for the best pastures for their flocks. Genesis 37:12 reveals something of the range of that wandering. Jacob was living in Hebron, and Shechem was about 50 miles north (over 80 km), and even more as one wandered over the hills and through the valleys. The great distance between Hebron and Shechem has raised a question among scholars as to why the brothers would have gone so far from their home but no reason other than to find pasture has ever been discovered.(top)
|Gen 37:13||- (top)|
“And he said to him.” We see from the context that Jacob was talking to Joseph. The Hebrew text uses pronouns, whereas the average English reader would like more clarity on who is talking to whom. The text is written in a way that forces the reader to pay attention and use their mind to make sense of the record.
“and bring back word to me.” Joseph’s round trip of over 100 miles would have taken at least four days, and likely more. This whole record brings up lots of unanswered questions. Why did the brothers go so far away to find pasture? Why did they go to Shechem where there had been trouble between them and the native population (cp. Gen. 36)? Didn’t Jacob know that Joseph’s brothers hated him and likely might harm him? What exactly did Jacob think Joseph could do if it was not “well” with the brothers and the sheep? If there were problems then Joseph would have ended up in the middle of them. Who is the unnamed man, “the man,” who knew that Joseph’s brothers had gone some 15 more miles north of Shechem to Dothan to pasture their flocks? These are challenging questions that are not answered in the text.(top)
“he was wandering in the countryside.” The Hebrew “countryside” usually refers to a “field,” but it is not like Joseph was in some field near Shechem wandering aimlessly back and forth. He was walking the contryside around Shechem trying to see where his brothers might be pasturing their flocks. This would have had to have been a frustrating time for Joseph. The area around Shechem is very hilly, and the brothers and their flock could have been very close but on the other side of a hill and Joseph could have missed them completely. No wonder it looked like he was “wandering.” The Complete Jewish Bible by Stern has the translation “countryside” as well.(top)
“Please tell me.” Joseph assumed that the man was a local, and because a large flock being brought into the area would have caught the attention of the locals and been a subject of discussion, Joseph also assumed the man might know where they were. Amazingly, the man knew about them and even that they had gone on to Dothan, about 15 miles to the north.(top)
“Dothan.” This verse reveals some of the travel that was involved with shepherding large flocks and finding water and good pasture for them. The brothers had started in Hebron (Gen. 37:14), then went to Shechem (Gen. 37:12, 14), about 50 miles north, then traveled about 15 more miles north to Dothan. Sheep do not move very fast, so this journey would have taken many days if made at one time.
[For more on shepherds and their travels, see commentary on Exod. 3:1].(top)
“conspired.” In this context the Hebrew word means to plot or plan with cunning or deception, thus some English versions read that they “plotted” to kill Joseph.(top)
“master of dreams.” The Hebrew word translated “master” is baal, but here it does not refer to the god Baal, but rather the meaning of the word as “lord” or “master.” The brothers did not believe Joseph’s dreams and mocking referred to him as a “master of dreams.”(top)
“throw him into one of the cisterns.” The brothers were developing their plan as they talked. As we see, being thrown into the cistern did not kill Joseph. On the other hand, he would eventually die in the cistern, but they had to have something to say to their father, thus the part about the wild animal. Actually, cisterns like that in the deserted areas can be quite dangerous. It has happened quite a few times that the hole of a cistern gets covered by brush or debris and cannot be seen, and an unsuspecting person traveling alone falls into it and cannot get out and eventually dies in it.
“a wild animal.” The Hebrew uses the word “evil,” but the brothers were not ascribing evil motives to an animal, they were describing the wild animal as “evil” in the sense that it was wild and dangerous. Given that, the translation “wild animal” is better than “evil animal.”(top)
“Reuben.” It is not likely that Reuben loved Joseph more than his brothers but rather that as the oldest son he was feeling responsible for the care of the whole family. Reuben would be the clan head when Jacob died, and with Jacob very old and the brothers many days walk away from Hebron, Reuben had to be prepared for that at any time.
“Let’s not take his life.” The Hebrew is idiomatic, and more like, “Let us not strike the soul,” with nephesh (soul) here meaning Joseph’s physical life.(top)
“do not lay your hands on him.” In this context, “do not lay your hands on him” refers to killing Joseph.
“so that he could deliver him.” The sentence is incomplete and moves to the reason in the sentence which is the important part: “so he could deliver him.” A more complete sentence would have been, “Reuben said this so that he could deliver him….”(top)
|Gen 37:23||- (top)|
“no water was in it.” The most likely reason the cistern was empty was that it was the dry season, likely late summer. This would also explain why the brothers had traveled from Hebron and gone some 65 miles north to Dothan looking for pasture for their flocks.(top)
“a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead.” The city of Dothan was right beside a major trade route between Damascus and Egypt. These Ishmaelite traders would have left Damascus and traveled south through the area of Gilead east of the Jordan River, then crossed the Jordan and traveled west up the Jezreel Valley, then headed south by Dothan, then west again until they intersected the “Way of the Philistines” and taken that major route down into Egypt. The position of Dothan on that major route explains why a caravan of Ishmaelites traveled by. Although the Bible does not tell us how many camels were in the caravan, considering the valuable goods they were carrying, and the wild and lawless country they had to travel through, several thousand camels would not be unusual, because there was strength in numbers.(top)
“and cover up his blood.” Judah uses “cover” or “cover up” in the same way police do today. To “cover up” the blood was to conceal what really happened to Joseph, not to literally cover his blood with dirt or something.(top)
|Gen 37:27||- (top)|
“And some Midianite men who were merchants passed by.” If the camel caravan was several thousand camels long, which is very likely, it could have been passing by for quite a while.
“and the brothers pulled him up.” The text reads “they” pulled him up, but that is confusing in English and seems to refer to the Ishmaelites, whereas it is referring to Joseph’s brothers.(top)
“And Reuben returned to the cistern.” This makes it clear that Reuben was not with the other brothers when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites, but the Bible does not say where he was. A likely possibility is that he was with the sheep.(top)
“where am I to go.” This idiom has the force of “what do I do now?” As the oldest son, Reuben had the responsibility for protecting the family, but what could he do now? How could he tell his father Jacob what had happened?(top)
“and slaughtered a he-goat.” A male goat was less valuable than a female goat which would give birth to more goats and also give milk.(top)
|Gen 37:32||- (top)|
“A wild animal has devoured him.” Jacob deceived his father Isaac with the skin of two goats (Gen. 27:9-16), and now Jacob’s sons deceive him with the blood of a goat.(top)
“Jacob tore his clothes.” Tearing the clothes was an ancient and widely practiced custom. A person would tear his clothes as a sign of grief, mourning, or anguish. It occurs here in Genesis, and it was still being practiced during the early Church (Acts 14:14). When it came to the High Priest in Israel, his clothing was considered sacred, so he was not allowed to tear his clothes (Lev. 21:10). At the trial of Jesus Christ, the High Priest became so enraged at Jesus saying he was the Messiah that he ignored God’s command and tore his clothes (Matt. 26:65).
Although there was no set way to tear one’s clothing, in the last couple centuries missionaries to the Middle East reported seeing people grab the top of their garment and tear it (or cut it with a knife) a handbreadth. So apparently tearing the clothes was more of a symbolic act and did not involve tearing the garment from top to bottom. Tearing one’s clothing is mentioned many times in the Bible (Gen. 37:29, 34; 44:13; Num. 14:6; Josh. 7:6; Judg. 11:35; 1 Sam. 4:12; 2 Sam. 1:2, 11; 13:19, 31; 15:32; 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 5:7; 6:30; 11:14; 18:37; 19:1; 22:11; Ezek. 9:3; Esther 4:1; Job 1:20; 2:12; Isa. 36:22; 37:1; Jer. 41:5; Matt. 26:65; Acts 14:14).
“and mourned for his son many days.” The Bible does not say how long, but from the fact that his children tried to comfort him but he rejected it tells us that it was longer than customary.(top)
“all his daughters.” The Bible only records Jacob having one natural daughter, Dinah, so it is likely that this refers to his son’s wives.
“I will go down to Sheol.” Jacob correctly understood that when he died he would be dead, not alive in heaven or anywhere else. Although some scholars think Jacob did not understand the afterlife and thought he would go to some kind of underworld place, there is no reason to assume that Jacob, who had personally met God, did not know the truth. It is Christian tradition that is wrong about the afterlife, not Jacob.
[For information on the dead being dead until the resurrection, see Appendix 4: “The Dead are Dead.” For more on “Sheol” referring to the state of being dead, see commentary on Rev. 20:13. For more on the resurrections, see commentary on Acts 24:15. For more on the soul not being immortal but dying when the person dies, see Appendix 7, “Usages of ‘Soul’”].(top)
“Meanwhile, the Midianites.” While Jacob was mourning over his supposedly dead son, the Midianites were selling the living Joseph into slavery. This contrast and irony is brought out much more graphically in the Hebrew text than in English. In the Hebrew text, “father” is the last word in Genesis 37:35, while Genesis 37:36 reads, “and the Midianites.” So the Hebrew text, which is even more compressed than the English can make it because the “and” and “the” become attached to the word, “Midianites” So the Hebrew text reads, “and wept for him his father and the Midianites sold him.”
“sold him in Egypt.” Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt when he was 17. [For more on the chronology of Joseph, see commentary on Gen. 37:2].
“the captain of the guard.” The translation “captain” is not meant to be a title here, but rather a position, the top man. The Hebrew could also be translated as “leader” or “ruler.” The “captain of the guard” refers most likely the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguards. That meant that Potiphar would have been well known by Pharaoh.(top)