Joseph and His Brothers

Sermon preached on Genesis 37 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/07/2024 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

We begin the final section of Genesis, starting here with the words of, “These are the generations of Jacob.” Here, we will learn more about the lives of Jacob’s twelve sons, with a big focus on Joseph. Indeed, this section of Genesis arguably has the most vivid and gripping narrative of the whole book. We’ve been watching the family of Abraham growing. We’ve seen God starting to fulfill the covenant promises that he gave to Abraham. But in this final section of Genesis, the very existence of this family of God’s people will become threatened. Yet, we will witness God’s saving work through this section to preserve God’s people. Let us remember why this is significant. At this time, this family represents the visible church on earth. And it would be through this family that God’s saving work through Jesus would come about. So, the hope of the world literally relies on this family’s survival. But God would preserve them. This final section will show us how God does it. Today’s chapter is just the beginning of the setup, however, as we see the sibling rivalry between the sons of Jacob, specifically the animosity that develops between Joseph and his brothers.
Let’s begin in our first point for today to consider the brothers’ growing hatred of Joseph. There were several factors that built upon each other that resulted in how greatly they hated Joseph. We see the first reason for their hatred in verse 2. Joseph was out pasturing the flock with some of his brothers and he came out and gave a bad report of them to their father. Now, presumably the report he brought back was accurate. There is nothing here to suggest that it was a false report of them. But the language here to describe Josephs report is one of whispering, similar to how gossip might also be described. So, the text subtly casts his report in a negative light. Basically, Joseph here becomes a tattle-teller. And so this is the first reason our passage gives us of why the brothers would have hated Joseph – no one likes a tattle-teller. In a section of Scripture that paints Joseph fairly commendably, it is important to see right off the bat that he is not perfect.
Next, we see that their father Jacob AKA Israel favored Joseph over all of them. Verse 3 says that Jacob literally loved Joseph more than all his other sons. The reason given is that he was the son of his old age, but we can also remember that he was the firstborn son of Rachel, the clear favorite wife of Jacob. What makes matters worse for Joseph in terms of his relationship with his brothers is that his father publicly displays his favoritism through this coat. Jacob makes this coat of many colors for Jacob, clearly distinguishing him from the rest of the sons. At this, verse 4 clearly notes that this caused his brothers to hate him, when they saw how their father favored him. Already by this point they had so much hatred for him that they couldn’t even speak peacefully to him. They envied Joseph for how much their father loved him, so they hated him for it. This would be an example of what’s forbidden by the tenth commandment of “You shall not covet.”
Their hatred is further escalated by these two dreams that Joseph has. Maybe if Joseph had enough sense to not tell the dreams to his family, things might have been different. But, verses 5-8 records his first dream of sheaves and how he shared it with his brothers. The interpretation the brothers conclude is that it foretold the brothers would one day bow down before Joseph. This part about the dream starts and finishes by noting how it caused the brothers to hate him all the more. Then the second dream is there in verses 9-13, and this time he also tells his father about the dream too. This dream about the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to Joseph is interpreted by his father as his mother, brothers, and father, all bowing down to him. Jacob rebukes him for this, probably for sharing it. We can suppose that Joseph understood these dreams too, and the fact that he seems to specifically share it with the people it involves is also less than commendable. That seems to be the interpretation of his father when he rebukes him. And it certainly is what the brothers thought too, because it says they hated him not just for the dreams but for his words too, verse 8. So then, after this second dream, it mentions that it mentions that his brothers were jealous of him, which is surely a more specific explanation of their growing hatred of him.
On a quick aside, we notice that while Jacob rebukes Joseph here for his dream, verse 11 also mentions how his father pondered on this more. I think of how later Jesus’ mother Mary would ponder some of the special things that were going on associated with his birth. Jacob, like Mary, was surely recognizing that God had a plan behind all this, and was at work in some marvelous way.
Nonetheless, the brothers themselves couldn’t see that. Instead, this first part of our passage today really shows how great their hatred had become. We might remember here the great evil of such hatred. As 1 John 3:15 says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Their great hatred becomes the background for their murderous aspirations that we’ll see now as we turn to our second point.
So then, let’s consider next verses 12-28 and see how it came that the sons of Israel would sell their own brother, Joseph, into slavery. Their hatred was their underlying motivation, but now let’s look at the circumstances that gave opportunity for their great sin. Starting in verse 12, we see that the brothers are out pasturing the flock, and their father sends Joseph out to check in with them to see how they were doing. Let us note that they were pasturing the flock near Shechem, which remember is where the bad incident with Dinah had happened, and how the sons had killed and pillaged the whole town. Remember how concerned Jacob was after that, that the people of the area might rise up against them. So, you might imagine Jacob’s concern if they were pasturing near there.
Joseph thus goes to Shechem to find them. He speaks with some man there who kindly informs them that they have moved on to Dothan, which was a little to the north. Sadly in contrast, Jospeh was treated well by this man of Shechem, but will not be treated well by his own Israelite brothers. As Joseph heads toward Dothan, his brothers see him from a distance. In verse 18-20, we see them conspire to kill him. At this point, I think we can think back to Genesis 4 when Cain killed his brother Abel. How sad to see such a thing revisit itself here, at least in terms of a desire. When we saw Cain kill Able, we all recognized that Cain’s actions showed himself to be of the seed of the serpent. Yet, here, this is the chosen line of Israel considering killing one of their brothers. How could such be? Yet, when we come to the words in verse 20 of “Come now let us kill him,” we can also think forward to the parable of the wicked tenants that Jesus gave in Mark 12, when in the parable they conspired to kill the son of the vineyard owner. Jesus spoke that parable against the religious leaders in Israel who conspired to kill him. So, we know that the visible church of God’s people have not been immune to temptations toward such murderous desires.
Yet, in this specific instance, their murderous thoughts are slowed down when Reuben tries to rescue Joseph. Verse 21 shows the firstborn Reuben advocate that they not directly take his life. Reuben convinces the brothers to instead throw him into the pit. Apparently all Reuben convinced them of is to let him die in the pit through exposure or hunger or thirst, rather than they themselves lay an actual hand on him. But secretly, Reuben was intending to later return and free Joseph. I could imagine Reuben as the firstborn felt a sense of obligation to his father to not let something terrible actually happen to Joseph. But apparently, he was not bold enough with his brothers to really stand up for Joseph’s wellbeing. So the brothers heed Reuben’s suggestion, strip him of his robe and leave him in the pit with no food or water, verse 24.
But then new opportunity arises in verse 25. The brothers sit down to eat while poor Joseph is in the pit without food. Apparently, Reuben is not around. But the rest of them see a caravan of traders coming that is headed toward Egypt. That is when Judah speaks up. He sees an open door that he wants them to walk through. He advocates that they not let their brother die in that pit. In other words, we see that they know that just throwing Joseph in a pit instead of directly slaying him doesn’t take away their guilt for murder of their own brother. If they leave him for dead in a pit, they will be still guilty when he dies. Judah acknowledges that to the brothers. So, Judah proposes that instead they sell him to these traders. It would be one of those “kill two birds with one stone” sort of an idea. Judah tells them this will allow to profit financially without actually being guilty of their brother’s death.
Now, let us say that on the one hand, it is good that they turn away here from murdering their brother. That would have been a great evil. But let us also recognize that nonetheless this was still a heinous evil against their brother. Later Israelite law in the Torah helps us to recognize how evil this is. Deut. 24:7 said, “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” And so, Israel’s later God-given laws would require the same punishment for a murderer as someone who captures and sells a fellow Israelite into slavery. Yet, here, these sons of Israel choose to do this great evil. They sell Joseph off to these traders for twenty shekels of silver to be taken away to Egypt.
Let us now turn in our final point to consider the preservation of Joseph as we find in verses 29-36. We start by seeing that Reuben discovers what his brothers had done. He had tried to save Joseph’s life by later coming back to the pit. But, behold, Joseph wasn’t there. Reuben rebukes his brothers. He basically tells them that he can’t go back home and face their father and tell them they sold Joseph into slavery.
But that is when these sons of Israel show they are their father’s sons, as they quickly come up with a lie. They plan to deceive their father by making him think a wild beast devoured Joseph. They know the truth, but they will hide this from their father. They even go to some trouble to pull off the lie, killing a goat and putting its blood on Joseph’s robe they stole from him. They show it to Israel to let him come to the conclusion they want him to come to. This all the more displays their guilt. They knew how horribly evil this was because they knew they had to hide it from their father. So then, they not only sinned with eyes wide open, they then dishonor their father by lying to him about it.
Indeed, Israel is deceived by this ruse. Jacob concludes that a fierce animal must have eaten Joseph. Look at the great grief this caused their father, starting in verse 34. Jacob tears his clothes. He puts on sackcloth. He mourns for day after day. They try and try to comfort him, but he doesn’t want to be comforted. He doesn’t want the pain and sorrow to go away, so great is his love for his son. This is similar to what happened in the future when King Herod killed all those infants in and around Bethlehem in Matthew 2 when he unsuccessfully tried to kill baby Jesus. Similarly, Jacob so grieved by the supposed death of his son, that he just doesn’t want to heal from the pain. How evil indeed this was by the sons. They sat there, day by day, realizing how much unrecoverable pain their evil actions caused upon their father. Their great sin against Joseph also greatly sinned against their father.
Yet, what I want us to recognize in this third point, is that Joseph isn’t actually dead. His father thinks he is and grieves accordingly. The brothers presumably assume that he is still alive, though they never expect to see him again. But while they had at first thought to kill him, his life had been ultimately preserved. Reuben had tried to deliver Joseph from the brothers hands, but was only partially successful. Judah had indeed saved Joseph from death, yet for clearly immoral reasons. Meanwhile, we see that our passage ends in verse 36 telling us that Joseph is alive! He has been sold to someone named Potiphar, who was an important officer of the King of Egypt, Pharoah. Potiphar was the captain of Pharoah’s guard. While surely no one would want to be a slave of anything, there is something positive here to think that Joseph was going to serve someone with connections to the royal court of Egypt.
So then, in this third point I’ve wanted to understand that ultimately God preserved Joseph despite all the sinful conspiring of his brothers. But when talking about the preservation of Joseph, I want you to understand that God not only preserved Jospeh, but he did it so he would preserve Joseph’s brothers too. Spoiler alert, but this whole section of Genesis will show how Joseph will one day rise to prominence in Egypt, and God will use Joseph in a great famine to ultimately preserve the life of all the sons of Israel. Had Joseph not been sold off to slavery here, he would never have been able to rise to power in Egypt. He would never have been there to predict and plan ahead for a coming seven year famine. Many would have presumably died in that famine, quite presumably Israel’s house too. But while Israel’s sons sold Joseph in hatred and sin, God uses it for the good of life and salvation. Indeed, we will be taught that explicitly at the end of Genesis in chapter 50. But it is such a key point here that I thought it would be helpful to call out right here at the start of this story line. This is indeed an example of Romans 8:28, that even when his brothers so hated Joseph, God was still at work through all these things today. So then, Joseph’s life being preserved here would result in the preservation of the entire house of Israel.
This is indeed the same that will be true later for Jesus as well. Jesus, while not preserved from death in that he did die on the cross, yet he was preserved from it ultimately through the resurrection. Yet, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was not only to preserve his own life, but it was also to preserve the life of all God’s people.
And so, Trinity Presbyterian Church, we’ve joined today with Jacob in pondering the things God was doing in our passage. There is no explicit reference to the acts of God in this passage. Yet, surely the dreams came from the LORD. And we can recognize that God permitted the evil of these brothers as part of his ordained plan to save Israel from the coming great seven-year famine. Jacob pondered what God may be doing in all this, and over time he was able to better recognize the saving work of God. And this all then became a picture of something God would do all the more when Jesus Christ later was born into this world. Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, but God used it to bring a mighty salvation. So too, Jesus was betrayed not just to slavery but unto death, that he might bring an even mightier salvation to all God’s elect. And while we know there is no excuse for what they did to Joseph, we can recognize at least some ways in which he stoked their anger. Yet, righteous Jesus was an innocent as a dove and yet they still crucified him. But in his resurrection, we are reminded of the gospel of grace again today. All us sinners can come to Jesus in faith and find mercy and grace. Even these sons of Israel, in their wickedness in this chapter, found the grace of God. This is again to remind us that the salvation of God is about underserved grace. This was seen in God’s salvation of his people through Joseph. And it is seen now all the more in God’s salvation of his people through Jesus.
In conclusion, let me offer two final applications. First, let us draw an application from Joseph’s sufferings. Some of us like Joseph might have to endure some serious trials and afflictions. In that, we too might find ourselves having, in some way, to share in Christ’s sufferings today. But let us trust that Romans 8:28 is still in effect. May we look to God to give the emotional strength and the perseverance of faith through any such trials. May we through such times ponder with Jacob and Mary and all the saints to consider how God’s salvation and Spirit is with us through all things.
Second, let us take an application from the brothers. Their sin here would be used for good and for a glorious manifestation of God’s grace. I mean, why should God save such brothers, let alone use them as the patriarchs of the church? But that is God’s grace. And that’s the kind of grace we’ve come to receive in Jesus, great sinners that we are too. But, we can remember that even though the sin of Israel’s sons abounded to God’s grace, let us not sin so that grace would abound. May that never be, but may today’s passage remind us to walk in righteousness even should others in the church want to walk astray. Even if all in the church were to say, “Come now let us do this evil thing.” Let us instead be the voices that more boldly than Reuben advocate for righteousness. All to the glory of God and to the praise of Christ Jesus our Lord.


Copyright © 2024 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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