Genesis 37:12-36 Joseph’s Beginning: Providentially Sold Into Slavery in Egypt by His Brothers

Posted on March 18, 2013. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bryan E.Walker

 Scripture Reading, Genesis 37:2-11

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

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; throw 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 threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat. 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.

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




Main/Gospel Points: As we go through this passage of Scripture we will see not just the points of similarities between Joseph’s life and Christ (which is why Joseph is such a good Type of Christ) but we will see three main points relating some aspect of the gospel. 1) The One who brings the gospel will be persecuted. 2) The doctrine of God’s Providence is an important aspect of the gospel we must understand. 3) This messed up family is a means for God to display his glorious grace and begin redemption history.



  1. A.     Joseph’s Beginning: The Beloved Son, Sent By his Father, Providentially Sold Into Slavery in Egypt by His Brothers, 37:2-36

Structure- In these verses we see the plot unfold in a series of encounters between one person and another or one person and a group. In vv.12-14 Jacob sends Joseph. In vv.15-17 Jacob receives help from an unnamed man. When the brothers see Joseph coming to them they conspire to kill him but Reuben disagrees and defends Joseph in vv.18-22. In vv.23-24 Joseph is assaulted by his brothers and thrown into the pit. Judah convinces his 9 brothers (minus Reuben, Joseph, and obviously Benjamin) to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelite slavers in vv.25-28. Reuben confronts his brothers in vv.29-30. The brothers confront Jacob with their lie in vv.31-35. Finally, in v.36, the Midianites sell Joseph to Potiphar. (Ross, p.604)


Morally, this part of the story moves from Joseph’s faithful obedience to his father who sends him, to the treachery of his brothers who want to kill him and end up selling him as a slave, to the deceiving of their father with the goat’s blood and torn robe, to the last verse where Joseph is comparatively OK. (Ross, p.606).


And the geographical movement in the story is also important moving from Hebron to Shechem in vv.12-17, and the tragic events at Dothan in vv.18-31. Joseph goes to Egypt in 28c and 36. The brothers send the robe from Dothan to Hebron where Jacob grieves in 32-35. (Mathews, p.694).

  1. 3.      Joseph Betrayed By His Brothers, Sold into Slavery, 37:12-36

a.Joseph: Sent by His Father, Providentially Delayed  37:12-17

   (1). “Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock…” Back in vs 2 we saw that Joseph was pasturing the flock WITH his brothers, and now we see that Joseph is with his father while the other sons are out with the flocks. QQ: Why this change? Moses does not give us an answer but we can reasonably assume that the animosity between Joseph and his brothers detailed in vss.2-11 has gotten worse, and Joseph or his father (or both) have deemed it prudent to keep Joseph at home. Of course this, then, would demonstrate the elevation of Joseph to heir even more, and bring on even more jealousy most likely.

   (2). “…near Shechem.” QQ:There are a couple of odd things here, what are they? Where is Jacob, home base? 35:27 gives us the last known location of the family, Hebron, the home of Isaac and Abraham, and the family burial plot. Jacob’s family had left Shechem after Simeon and Levi had led the slaughter of the Shechemites in ch.34. The family went to Bethel, and then on towards Ephrath/Bethlehem, where Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, and then on to Mamre/Hebron. It is about 50 miles from Hebron to Shechem- so it seems the brothers had great freedom in moving the flocks about. The other odd thing is that now we see the sons of Jacob going back to the Shechem area where they would hated, perhaps feared. Waltke writes, p.502, “The rapes at Shechem occurred about two years earlier, when Joseph was about fifteen….”

   (3). “And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” There are a couple of possibilities here, first, is Jacob naïve? Does he not understand the hatred of his sons for young Joseph? Or, given that Joseph informed him properly of the brothers’ misdeeds in vs.2, and that he has appeared to designate him as his firstborn son (with the coat of many colours), is Jacob sending Joseph out to again monitor his sons’ conduct and to keep watch over the family business? Already it appears as if dream one is coming true.

   (4). Here is a likeness to Christ in that the Father sends the Son into the world where his brothers will turn against him. Despite the natural enmity of the lost world against the Father, he graciously sends Jesus, his Son, into the world to save the world. The actions of Jacob, though perhaps out of either naivite or out of suspicion, do end up creating the circumstances which would, under God’s sovereign provision, lead to the family’s salvation.

   (5). “And he said to him, ‘Here I am.’” Joseph’s readiness to obey and please his father, even in the face of danger, again points us to Christ who hesitated not to leave the splendours of heaven and enter into our poverty, taking on human flesh and ultimately dying a human death. “Here I am” points us back to Abraham’s responses to God and the Angel in 22:1,11, to Esau’s response to blind Isaac in 27:1, to Jacob’s response to the angel of God in 31:11; and it points us forward to 46:2 when God again calls out to Jacob. Elsewhere in the Bible we see it used inExodus 3:4 when the LORD calls to Moses at the burning bush, in the calling of Samuel in 1Samuel 3, and the call of Isaiah in ch.6

   (6). Application: Are we eager to obey our Heavenly Father? Are we quick to say, “Here I am”? even if there is no real danger? We think of our missionaries like Sarah Amerson, the Drakes, Carters, Daltons, Kauers and the Stringers as being super Christians because they serve on the foreign mission fields, but in reality we here at home must also answer God’s call with a cheerful and quick, “Here I am!” All too often I am afraid that I answer, “Who? Me?” or, “No not me!” instead of “Here I am.” The call to obedience goes to every true son and daughter of the Lord’s. The call to spread the Kingdom, to announce the Good News is with all of us every day. This last week I had an opportunity to share the gospel with a friend who came to me with some good questions; we talked for two hours. This gospel opportunity caused me to skip out on a hospital visit I had planned to make to a couple from our church. Sometimes God’s priorities are different from ours, even when we have ministry on our heart!

   (7). “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers…” vs. 14 the word for “it is well” is shalom and is used twice in the Hebrew in this verse, setting up the irony of Joseph’s mission as opposed to the animosity of the brothers who could not even speak shalom to Joseph in vs. 4.

   (8). V.15 “A man found him wandering…” similar to what happened to Jacob at the Jabbok in ch.32:24 “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him…” A mysterious, unnamed man appears to Joseph as he is wandering and sets him on the right track to find his brothers. The man “found” Joseph in v.15 and Joseph “found” his brothers in v.17. Mathews states that the Jewish tradition is that the “man” is an angel (p.695). Joseph’s wandering seems like a pointless detail, yet it delayed him enough so that he would be cast into the dry cistern at just the right time for the slave traders’ caravan to pass by, thus giving Judah the opportunity to unintentionally save his life.

   (9). APPLICATION: Most of us do not like the feeling of wasting time by “wandering”. Whether it is while looking for a place to which we are traveling, or during a time of our life when we are pointless, missionless, and just wandering. An unnamed man, a person whom we do not know but who may be used of God to point us in the right direction can intervene and get us back on track. Or, we can be that unnamed man/woman and point others to the track that the Lord would have for them. This teaches us that God’s sovereign purpose, his Providence, reigns over all. God can use the most mundane of events to work His will into our lives for his glory and the spread of His Kingdom. Your seemingly random acts of kindness or financial offerings can be used of the Lord in real people’s lives in a cumulative or dramatic way. Though the brothers resisted the sovereignty of God as expressed through Joseph’s dreams, Moses shows us how the smallest of details can reveal the sovereignty of God.

                                b.Joseph’s Brothers Conspire Against Him, 37:18-24

(1). “They saw him…they conspired against him to kill him” Their       jealousy had turned to murderous hatred, to the point of conspiring to kill him.

(2). V.19 “Here comes this dreamer” Their hatred comes from their jealousy of how their father treats him, the jealousy between the wives and children of the different mothers, and the Dreams. They resent the dreams and this Dreamer.

(3). V.20 “Come now, let us kill him…” The same word is used in Gen.4 when Cain killed Abel; the word harag means a violent killing.

(4). “We will say that a fierce animal has devoured him” And after they throw him into the pit, they sit down and “devour” a meal (same word), thus revealing that they are the “fierce animals”. Fierce- evil.

(5). 1Peter 5:8 “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” The world hates us in a million ways because it hates our Lord Jesus. The world doesn’t mind if we be religious or nice, or even moral, just don’t be saved, born again, and preaching the gospel while living it out.

(6). V.21 “But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands” Reuben is the actual firstborn but had rebelled against his father and had sex with Bilha back in 35:22, close after the death of Rachel. Is this an attempt at redeeming his position with his father? His desire to rescue Joseph is twice mentioned, here, and in v.22, and in v.29 actually came for Joseph, but he had been sold. In 29 and 30 we see that Reuben was genuinely upset over his brother’s actions towards Joseph.Ultimately, however, while he may prevented the murder of Joseph, he failed to lead his brothers and leadership passes on to Judah.

(7). V.23 “They stripped him of his robe…” The robe that signified his father’s love and his position as the heir, the robe that had so insulted his brothers and led their jealous hearts to plan murder, this robe was stripped off him. Likewise a robe of scarlet was placed upon Jesus in mockery in Matt.27 and his own robe was gambled for by his executioners. The word for stripped indicates force, violence; one can imagine the beating they most likely inflicted upon the young man.

(8). V.24 “Threw him into a pit” This was perhaps their new plan to murder him instead of shedding his blood…just let him die of thirst in the pit which had “no water in it.” Cisterns like these are common in the region for storing water from the rainy season. Jeremiah was likewise thrown into a pit (Jer.38:9); perhaps this was a common way to kill people.


                                c.The Rise of Judah, Joseph Providentially Sold to Egypt, 37:25-28

(1). V.25 “they sat down to eat” The degree of cold bloodedness here is astonishing. They have discussed murdering their young brother, tossed him into an old, dry cistern with risk of injury and were going to leave him there to die of thirst. Now they sit down to eat a meal!? The irony and foreboding of the text is great- the dry cistern points to a coming drought and famine in which the brothers would have to come to Egypt and beg bread of their brother whom they considered killing through abandonment in the pit. In 42:41 the brothers tell of hearing Joseph pleading for mercy from the pit. Cold hearts indeed. And THIS is the family God has chosen to use to bring about the Saviour! God’s grace is amazing!

(2). V.25 “They saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead” This automatically causes us to think back to ch.21 and Ishamel’s mocking of Isaac which resulted in Ishmael being banned from the camp along with his mother Hagar. The symbolism then is that a group long known to be opposed to the children of Promise now has the chance to strike a blow against the descendants of Abraham through Sarah. This heightens the tension.

(3). “camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh” it is ironic that these are some of the same gifts given by Jacob to Joseph in 43:11.  

(4). V.26-27 “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother…” Judah here becomes the leader as the brothers listen to him and act accordingly. He seems to be a very practical man, he sees that they can avoid the unpleasantries of actually killing Joseph and they can make a bit of money by selling him to the slavers.

(5). V.28 “And they drew Joseph out of the pit and lifted him up” Perhaps Joseph had a brief moment of thinking his brothers had changed their minds and were not going to leave him there to die. They had surely listened to his cries of anguish, his pleading for mercy, and his prayers. He thinks he is saved, but, wait…who are all these strangers!? He is stripped and inspected by the slavers and it dawns on him that his brothers are actually going to sell him as a slave! From favored son and heir to slave in a caravan! Fear grips him again as he sees the silver coins exchange hands, and the manacles are placed on him. He is chained to the other slaves and the whip cracks as the caravan begins its slow crawl to Egypt. His last look over his shoulder shows his brothers laughing and waving. In the Hebrew Joseph’s name appears three times in this verse: “they drew Joseph…they sold Joseph…they took Joseph” making this the key verse in the story. Twenty pieces of silver was the going rate for a slave.

                                d.Jacob Mourns the “Death” of Joseph, 37:29-35

 (1). “When Reuben returned…he tore his clothes” Moses does not tell  us where Reuben had been or why he missed out on the sale of Joseph, but the information he does gives us is very revealing. One thing it tells us is that Reuben, though trying to do the right thing and regain his position in the family, could not successfully influence his younger brothers. He has no moral authority.

(2). APPLY: The bigger lesson from Reuben is that God’s sovereign plan sometimes means that genuinely good and godly plans (rescuing Joseph) are not God’s will and therefore they fail. God’s sovereign will very often includes the righteous suffering needlessly (from our perspective!). We look at how close some things are to succeeding and watch helplessly as defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory and we struggle with God’s will. Prayers go unanswered, godly counsel fails, the gospel faithfully preached falls on deaf ears, godly people die young. Reuben seems genuinely upset “he tore his clothes” and was likely distraught. This is an encouraging sign that perhaps Reuben is experiencing real repentance since his great sin earlier. However, he does seem to have gone along with the others in the cover-up and lie about Joseph being devoured by a fierce animal.

(3). “they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood” Again, Jacob and Rachel had deceived Isaac with a goatskin and clothing and now Jacob’s sons do the same to him with Joseph’s robe and goat’s blood.

(4). V.35 “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” Sheol is the realm of the dead, the grave, not a positive place nor a highly developed concept at this point. Nonetheless, it indicates that death is Not the end. Mathews writes, p.702, “That Jacob anticipates meeting his son once again indicates that he expects some form of life after death.”

Epilogue: Joseph Providentially Sold to Potiphar, 37:36 Here is the point to which  God was driving the life of Joseph: He was going to get this shepherd boy to Egypt! He did not end up in a sale to a labor pool building a pyramid, he got bought by Potiphar, Captain of the Guard for Pharaoh. God controlled so many details along the way including a caravan of traders/slavers and the auction block in Egypt so that he could get Joseph in exactly the right spot on time.


Gospel Point: Along the way we have pointed out key things in Joseph’s story that resemble some aspect of Christ’s story, like the robe, the betrayal, being sent from his Father. These are all reasons why we can look at the life of Joseph as being a Type or Foreshadowing of Christ. But there is a larger point here that brings out some elements of the gospel.

  1. 1.      The One who brings the gospel will be persecuted. God sent Joseph the dreams, and I believe he was supposed to relate those dreams to his family. His family rejected the dreams from God and the messenger as well, just as Christ was rejected by his own and those who faithfully proclaim the gospel today are rejected. The preaching of the gospel has always been costly and painful. We will be hated for the sake of Christ.
  2. 2.      Part of the gospel is the doctrine of God’s Providence, his sovereignty over all the little circumstances that make up our day. There is not a single stray electron in the entire universe. Therefore, when bad things happen to those of us trying to live for Christ we can try to take heart in faith as we understand that this, too, is for His glory and Kingdom. This is no mere fatalism which says either, “Que, sera, sera, whatever will be, will be” as Doris Day sang, or, “It is the will of Allah” as the muslims say. The doctrine of God’s Providence means that an all-powerful, good, wise and loving God has so ordered the universe that everything that happens, happens for a reason that will ultimately help display God’s grace and God’s holy justice. When we are overwhelmed with suffering, pain and grief because of the cruelty of this fallen world, we can still trust in good God who knows exactly what He is doing, even it is taking a favored son away in a slaver caravan.
  3. 3.      In this story we see the beginnings of God’s amazing grace. This murderous, messed up family will be redeemed, they will be spared by the one they tried to kill, and God will use this family to begin the people who would become a nation from which nation the Saviour of all the world would be born. If God can give his grace and mercy to a messed up family such as this, surely he can give grace to you! There is hope in Christ Alone for salvation.


Application: Have you ever been persecuted for the sake of the gospel? Do you personally know anyone who has? In what areas of your life are you resentful/bitter/not trusting in God’s Providence? Do you have a tendency to be fatalistic about God’s Providence, or are you able to rejoice in God’s goodness in his Providence? Can you tell someone about God’s grace to you and your family?


Assignment for Next Week: Read chapter 38.




Waltke, Bruce. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids,MI 2001 (pp.491-505)


Mathews, Kenneth A. The New American Commentary, Vol.1B, Genesis 11:27-50:26.   Broadman&Holman: Nashville, TN 2005 (pp.661-702).


Ross, Allen P. Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI 1998 (pp.595-610).





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