Genesis 37 ~ 20080504 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~

5/4 Genesis 37 Senseless Suffering or Pain with a Purpose?

Today we begin a new section in the book of Genesis. We have seen God choose Abraham and develop him into a man of faith in God as he struggled to believe God's unbelievable promises; then we picked up the story with his son Isaac, who was the obedient son, but who became enslaved to his own appetites and tried to thwart God's plans by plotting to bless his unbelieving son Esau instead of the chosen son Jacob. Then we followed the story of Jacob as God took him from a self-sufficient man who could get his way by manipulation and deceit and broke him and shaped him for over 20 years into a man who became dependent on a faithful promise-keeping God. Now we see the focus shifting to the next generation; Jacob's twelve sons, as God begins to shape them and mold them into the nation of Israel.

God has already given away part of the plot in his prophecy to Abraham back in Genesis 15:

Genesis 15:13-16 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Now we see God providentially moving in history to bring about what he had purposed and planned. Jacob is finally back in the land, and now the process begins to prepare the way for them to leave the land. Let's watch how it unfolds:

Genesis 37: Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.

We are introduced to Joseph, the seventeen year old tattle tale spoiled favorite son from the favorite wife who died in childbirth with his younger brother. We would think Jacob of all people would understand the danger of playing favorites with your children. Jacob, remember, was the victim of favoritism that had divided his parents against one another and devastated his family. He had just recently reconciled with his twin brother Esau. Jacob now chooses a favorite son to the detriment of his own family. Jacob unwisely demonstrates his favoritism in a public display of affection. He gives his son a special wardrobe that sets him apart from the other sons. We don't know exactly what this garment was – it has been translated as a multi-colored robe, an embroidered robe, a long sleeved robe. Whatever it was, it served as a sandwich board declaring 'dad loves me more than he loves you'. Apparently Joseph flaunted his preferred status. This, along with his evil reports to his dad about his brothers certainly didn't win their affection. Things escalated to the point where they couldn't say a kind word to Joseph. Anyone have this relationship with their sibling?

5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7 Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

So Joseph has a dream that he just can't keep to himself. As if things weren't bad enough between him and his brothers, he shares his dream with the brothers that already hate him. The brothers don't have any problem seeing the significance of the dream – he thinks he's going to rule and reign over us. He's the younger brother, and he's dad's favorite, now he thinks he's going to get the birthright that belongs to the firstborn. And it seems the circle of people that he offended seems to be widening. First he brought an evil report about Gad, Asher, Dan and Napthali. Now it seems he shares his dream with all his brothers.

9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

Jacob doesn't seem to be a quick learner. He's just digging himself deeper and doesn't know when to quit. His brothers hated him before he told them about his first dream. He told them and they hated him more. Now he has another dream and is compelled to share this one not only with his brothers, but also with his father. Again the interpretation is clear to all – he is going to be superior not only to all his older brothers, but even to his parents. This gets him a stern rebuke from his father and the jealousy of his brothers. But his father did tuck this information away in the back of his mind. This sounds similar to Mary's response to the shepherds who came to see baby Jesus:

Luke 2:18-19 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.

Remember Shechem? That's the city Jacob pitched his tent near, and his daughter was raped. Then Simeon and Levi slaughtered the whole town and Jacob feared retaliation from the surrounding people so he moved his family away. Now the sons are headed back to this place of danger and moral failure.

13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.”’ So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

So Joseph obediently follows his father's instructions. Is his intent to bring back another evil report about his brothers? Apparently neither one of them felt the danger of the brothers' hostility. Remember, these are the brothers who slaughtered a whole town in retaliation for their sister's rape. Joseph makes it to Shechem, but his brothers had moved on. So he's wandering the countryside looking for his brothers, and he runs into a stranger that points him to Dothan.

18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; cast him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”––that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then they sat down to eat.

Joseph's brothers have allowed their hatred to fester into murderous thoughts. Now they are far away from home and seize the opportunity to act out their aggression toward their arrogant brother. The plan is to kill him and throw him into a pit. Reuben, the firstborn, who had recently offended his father by sleeping with Rachel's servant Bilhah, his step-mother, sees also an opportunity to regain favor with his father. He plans to rescue Joseph and be the hero and win back his father's affections. Of course, Joseph is wearing his billboard – 'dad loves me more than he loves you' when he finds his brothers. The brothers are heartless. They strip off his special robe and throw him into a pit and sit down to eat a meal while he's pleading for his life from the bottom of the pit. Their hatred has calloused them from feeling any pity.

And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.

While Joseph is crying in the pit, there just happens to be a caravan headed to Egypt. Judah takes leadership of the group with his own plan. Remember, Reuben, Simeon and Levi, the first three sons of Leah had disqualified themselves from leadership in the family, leaving Judah as next in line. Judah's leadership in the family is Godly and moral. He suggests that rather than killing their brother themselves, they make a profit on him and let him suffer and die at the hands of others. He appeals to the moral sensibilities of the violent band – after all he is our brother – we shouldn't kill our own brother. That wouldn't be nice. It would be much more morally acceptable to sell him into slavery and never have to see his face again. Then we can lie about it and cover it up and live with the question mark of what happened to him hanging over our heads the rest of our lives. So they don't hesitate to sell their brother for the price of a common slave and bid him good riddance.

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?”

Reuben apparently was not with the rest when the traders came through and the transaction had taken place. Maybe that was another selling point for Judah's plan – let's sell him quick while Reuben is out chasing sheep – that way we'll only have to split the money 9 ways instead of 10. Reuben realizes his plan to come out the hero has been frustrated. As the oldest brother, he would be held responsible for his brother. He acts helpless and doesn't know what to do. He should have confronted his brothers honestly about their evil plan, and he should have pursued the traders to get his brother back. But apparently he doesn't want to be the hero that bad.

31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

This is profound irony. Jacob is deceived by his sons with the killing of a goat and his favorite son's clothes, just as he had deceived his father Isaac by killing a goat and wearing the favorite sons' clothes. The brothers are heartless and shrewd. They intentionally bring grief to their father, and yet they simply present him with the evidence that they have manipulated and allow him to draw his own conclusions. Jacob goes into deep grief and depression over the loss of his favorite son. He refuses to be comforted. Needless to say, no-one tries to comfort him by actually telling him the truth and confessing their sin. It's much easier to buy him flowers and send him a card than it is to actually tell the truth and confess the wrong done.

Jacob says he has nothing left worth living for. He says he will go to the grave mourning his son. Jacob has wrongly elevated his son into a place of favoritism in the family. Now he reveals that he has elevated Joseph to a place of worship in his life. His life is so centered around this boy that he has forgotten the promises of God to him. I don't in any way want to minimize the devastating grief over the loss of a child, but I think we can distinguish between a healthy way to grieve and a destructive way to grieve. Jacob appears to have lost his faith in God. A tragedy has taken place and there is no comfort to be found. God is left completely out of the picture. It was simply a random chance senseless occurrence. The only consolation Jacob can find is the thought of joining his son in the grave. Contrast his reaction to the reaction of Job when he was told that all of his sons and daughters had been killed when the house they were in was hit with a violent wind and collapsed.

Job 1:20-22 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Job grieved. Job experienced the numbing pain. Job was devastated. Job contemplated his own death. But Job worshiped. Job acknowledged that God is in control of every accident that happens and that he sovereignly allows it for a good purpose. Job didn't understand why, but Job acknowledged his own total dependence on God who gives life whose right it is to take life away. Job found his comfort in a sovereign good God who was worthy of his worship in the midst of his greatest pain as much as when things were going well. The contrast is even more amazing when we look at the next verse:

36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.

While Jacob is defeated and giving up hope, his son Joseph is still alive and is exactly where God intended him to be. Job's sons and daughters were indeed dead in what seemed to be a senseless tragedy. Yet he trusted God and worshiped God. Jacob lived in defeat and hopelessness, all the while his son was in the hand of God, and he would live to speak these words:

Genesis 45:7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.

As Christians we do not believe in random chance; we believe in the providence of God over all things; nor do we believe in fatalism or determinism. Joseph's brothers made evil choices – they were real choices and they were responsible for those choices.

All Jacob could see was hopelessness and death, but God was at work preserving life and fulfilling his promises. God would use this in the lives of his other sons to shape their character and refine them, as we will see as the story unfolds.

O may we have the faith to trust in God in the hard times! Place yourself in the good hands of our sovereign God. Let the pain of life drive us to worship a God that is too big for us to figure out.

Isaiah 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.