Genesis 37
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Chs. 37–50 (JE.) The Narrative of Joseph and his Brethren

The remaining chapters of the book, with the exception of chap. 38, deal with the story of Joseph. In its way this story is probably unsurpassed. Its vividness of narrative is extraordinary. It contains scenes of great pathos. In the delineation of character, it exhibits strength and simplicity of portraiture. Joseph’s career is dramatic in its vicissitudes. Throughout all the events of his chequered life, God’s overruling Providence is seen to be guiding him. He is led by the discipline of sorrow and misfortune to the position in which he is ultimately to prepare a home for his father and his brethren. His generous magnanimity recompenses with complete forgiveness the men who had basely plotted his death.

The Joseph section, 37–50, is denoted by P “These are the generations of Jacob” (Genesis 37:2), just as the story of Jacob had been introduced by the summary description of P, “these are the generations of Isaac” (Genesis 25:19).

The story of Joseph was deservedly a favourite among the Israelites. It was current in slightly different versions. The two versions of J and E have been combined by the Compiler. A superficial reader, perhaps, will not recognize the slight discrepancies which have survived in the composite narrative. A careful study, especially in chap. 37, enables us to distinguish the different treatment of the story. The main difference appears in the crisis of the narrative.

According to E, Joseph’s brethren, offended at his dreams, resolved to slay him, and cast his body into a tank. Reuben, secretly anxious to rescue him, prevails on his brethren to abstain from bloodshed, and to cast him alive into a tank and leave him there to his fate. A passing caravan of Midianites pull Joseph out of the tank, kidnap him (cf. Genesis 40:15), and carry him away to Egypt. Reuben, on finding the tank empty, is overwhelmed with distress: see Genesis 37:19-20; Genesis 37:22-23 b, 24, 28ac, 29, 30, 31b, 34.

According to J, Joseph’s brethren, who hate him because of his father’s preference, on seeing a caravan of Ishmaelites, determine, at the urgent advice of Judah, to sell Joseph. They draw him out of the tank and sell him for 20 pieces of silver: see Genesis 37:18 b, 21, 23a, 25–27, 28b, 31a, 32, 33, 35.

1, 2a (P). From P, as is shewn by the word “sojournings,” and the phrase “these are the generations,” and the mention of Joseph’s age.

And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.
1. sojournings] Cf. Genesis 17:8, Genesis 28:4, Genesis 36:7 (P).

These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.
2. These are the generations, &c.] The formula of a new section in P.

2b–36 (JE). Joseph sold into Egypt

2b (J). and he was a lad with, &c.] The English here gives an awkward rendering. The meaning is, “he was keeping sheep, being still a lad, with his brethren, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah,” i.e. Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Joseph’s home at this time seems to have been at Hebron (cf. Genesis 35:27). The life of Joseph, the elder son of the favourite wife, spent in the field with the sons of the concubines, was not likely to be happy.

the evil report] What this was, does not appear; cf. 1 Samuel 2:23. But Joseph’s action brought upon him the odium of tale-bearing. On the words for “evil report” cf. Numbers 13:32; Numbers 14:36-37 (P).

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.
3. Israel] In J this name is generally used. Contrast the use of Jacob by P in Genesis 37:2.

the son of his old age] This is hardly the description that we should expect from chap. Genesis 30:22-24, which records the birth of Joseph. The phrase is used in Genesis 44:20 of Benjamin with greater appropriateness.

a coat of many colours] Rather, as R.V. marg., a long garment with sleeves. The familiar rendering “a coat of many colours,” derived from LXX χιτῶνα ποικίλον, Vulg. tunicam polymitam, is certainly incorrect. It is literally “a tunic of palms,” i.e. reaching to the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, differing from an ordinary tunic by having sleeves, and by reaching to the feet. The same word is used in 2 Samuel 13:18 of a dress worn by a princess, where LXX χιτὼν καρπωτός and Lat. tunica talaris are correct. The rendering of the margin, of Pesh., Symm. (χειριδωτόν) and Aquila (χιτὼν ἀστραγάλων), if less picturesque, is more accurate.

The unwise favouritism shewn by his father heightened the unpopularity of the boy.

3, 4 (J). Joseph and his Brethren

And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.
5–11 (E). Joseph’s Dreams

5. dreamed a dream] The influence of dreams in the E narrative is conspicuous; cf. Genesis 20:3. Dreams were regarded by the Oriental as intimations from another world, and were invested with the sanctity of a divine oracle. The dream and its significance entered deeply into the religious conceptions of the ancient races.

And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed:
For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf.
7. sheaves] Joseph’s dream presupposes that the patriarch was leading a settled and agricultural life (cf. Genesis 26:12). In Genesis 46:31-34 Jacob and his family are shepherds and herdsmen, but the fact that the failure of crops compels them to seek for corn in Egypt, Genesis 42:1, shews that they were partly dependent upon local crops. Cf. Genesis 12:10, Genesis 36:1.

And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.
8. reign over us] Perhaps with a reference to the future kingdom of Ephraim, or to the leadership of “the house of Joseph” (Jdg 1:22).

And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.
9. another dream] The repetition (cf. Genesis 41:5-32) seems to indicate stronger certainty and greater importance. The first dream had its symbolism on earth, the second in the heavens. The first included the brethren only. The second included the father and the mother in the same act of obeisance with the brethren. Israel, in its widest sense, as a father’s house, is to recognize the predominance of Joseph.

eleven stars] Supposed by some scholars to refer to the signs of the Zodiac (cf. 2 Kings 23:5 marg.), the twelfth being either Joseph or obscured by Joseph. But the theory is improbable: it is not “the eleven stars.”

And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?
10. thy mother] Implying that Rachel was still alive. Her death was recorded in Genesis 35:19 (J). Presumably this version (E) assumed that her death occurred later.

The sun represented his father, and the moon his mother; each of his brethren is represented by a star. There is nothing in this scene which really favours astronomical or astral theories of interpretation.

And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying.
11. envied] This is the envy of malice rather than of jealousy: it denotes resentment against Joseph for being favoured, and a desire to see him deprived of his privileges.

kept the saying in mind] Lit. “kept the word.” LXX διετήρησεν. Lat. rem tacitus considerabat. This phrase is the origin of the words in Luke 2:51, “kept all these sayings in her heart.” Jacob rebuked Joseph, but evidently was so deeply impressed with the remarkable and seemingly improbable character of the twice repeated dream, that he secretly cherished a presentiment of its fulfilment (Genesis 42:6).

And his brethren went to feed their father's flock in Shechem.
12–17 (J). Joseph’s Mission to his Brethren in Shechem

12. in Shechem] The region of Shechem was famous for its fertility and pasturage. The fact that Jacob’s brethren selected it for pasturing their flocks, indicates that the Dinah narrative, recorded in chap. 34, belongs to a separate group of Israelite tradition. Clearly Dinah, if we may judge from Genesis 30:21-24, was of the same age as Joseph. Joseph in the present chapter (cf. Genesis 37:2) Isaiah 17 years old, while Dinah, to judge from Genesis 34:1, must have been not less than 15; accordingly the events of that chapter would have been of quite recent occurrence. Evidently the present J narrative is independent of them.

Seeing that Jacob, according to Genesis 37:14, was residing in Hebron, Shechem and Dothan would be a very great distance away from the patriarch’s residence. Apparently the writer assumes that the whole country was open grazing ground.

And Israel said unto Joseph, Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them. And he said to him, Here am I.
And he said to him, Go, I pray thee, see whether it be well with thy brethren, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again. So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
14. the vale of Hebron] The residence of Jacob; cf. Genesis 35:27.

And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field: and the man asked him, saying, What seekest thou?
15. a certain man] Evidently Joseph and his brethren were well known, and not unfavourably, in the region of Shechem. The lad’s wandering in uncertainty appeals to the reader’s sympathy. The Targum of Palestine says the “man” was the angel Gabriel.

And he said, I seek my brethren: tell me, I pray thee, where they feed their flocks.
And the man said, They are departed hence; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan. And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan.
17. Dothan] Familiar to us as the name of the city in which Elisha was beset by foes and divinely protected (2 Kings 6:13-15). The modern Tel Dothan probably preserves the site, a hill on the S. side of the plain of Jezreel, and some 15 miles N. of Shechem. It is mentioned frequently in the book of Judith. Modern writers speak of its rich pasturage.

And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him.
18–36 (JE). Joseph is sold into Egypt

The composite character of the narrative becomes at this point very evident. J (Genesis 37:21; Genesis 37:25-28 b, 31–35) relates that Judah restrains his brethren from murder, and persuades them to sell Joseph to passing Ishmaelites, who sell him as a slave to an Egyptian noble. E (Genesis 37:22-25 (bread), 28a (pit), 28c–30, 36) relates that Reuben interposes, and saves Joseph from his brethren: by his advice Joseph is cast into a tank, where he is found by passing Midianite merchants, who draw him out, take him to Egypt, and sell him to Potiphar, “captain of the guard.” Reuben returning to the tank, after the interval for food, finds it empty.

And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh.
19. this dreamer] Heb. master of dreams. This and the following verse are from E. Joseph’s brethren speak derisively of this “master (Heb. baal) of dreams” (cf. Genesis 49:23, “archers” = “masters of arrows”; 2 Kings 1:8, “a hairy man” = “a master of hair”). They will kill him, and so stop his dreams from coming true.

Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.
20. one of the pits) Cisterns, or tanks, are necessary in that country for the storage of water. Long droughts are frequent, and the heat very great. Water is needed for the flocks and herds. The tanks are frequently covered with a stone. The aperture is narrow, and the sides of the tank converging.

And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him.
21. Reuben] Reuben’s name is probably here substituted by the Compiler (R) for that of Judah. Reuben speaks in Genesis 37:22; and it is unlikely that two consecutive clauses would begin with Reuben speaking. Probably this verse comes from J, and is carried on in Genesis 37:26-27, with Judah’s attempt to rescue Joseph.

And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again.
22. And Reuben said] This and the next two verses are from E. Reuben, the eldest, interposes to save his brother’s life; cf. Genesis 42:37.

Shed no blood] Reuben’s warning is that there should be no bloodshed, as if murder without bloodshed would be a less evil. His proposal is that Joseph should be thrown into a cistern or tank, which they knew of hard by, and that he should be left there to perish, Reuben intending himself to deliver him. Reuben is not brave enough to oppose his brothers; but hopes to outwit them. He appeals to the horror of bloodshed. Blood cries out against the murderer: see note on Genesis 4:11.

And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him;
And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
24. the pit was empty] Cf. the incident in the life of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6). Presumably this was the reason why Reuben proposes to “cast him into this pit” (Genesis 37:22).

And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.
25. to eat bread] i.e. to take their meal; cf. Genesis 31:54, Genesis 43:25. The E narrative is here interrupted, and is resumed at Genesis 37:28.

25b. a travelling company] “A caravan.” Cf. Job 6:19, “the caravans of Tema, the companies of Sheba”; Isaiah 21:13, “travelling companies of Dedanites.” Dothan lay on the trade route that led from Gilead through the valley of Jezreel towards Egypt.

Ishmaelites] This must be regarded as a descriptive title for bands of traders at the time of the composition of this narrative. Ishmael, according to the P genealogies in Genesis, was Jacob’s uncle; and the sons of Ishmael were cousins of Joseph. Here the title is used almost in the sense of “Bedouin nomads.”

from Gilead] The trade route followed by caravans passed (1) from Gilead on the east of the Jordan, (2) by a ford, across the Jordan, (3) by Beth-Shean or Beisan, down the plain of Jezreel, and so (4) by Lydda and the coast, to Egypt.

spicery] R.V. marg. gum tragacanth, or, storax. “Spicery” is too vague a word. LXX θυμιαμάτων. Lat. aromata. “Tragacanth” is “the resinous gum of the Astragalus gummifer.” “Spice, Old Fr. espice (epice), is derived from species. The mediaeval merchants recognised four ‘kinds’ = species of aromatic trade; hence ‘spice,’ viz. saffron, cloves, cinnamon, nutmegs.” Weekley’s Romance of Words, p. 129 (1912).

balm] R.V. marg. mastic, for which Gilead was famous; cf. Genesis 43:11; Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 46:11; Jeremiah 51:8; Ezekiel 27:17. It was used for incense, and medicinally for wounds. It is said to be the gum of the mastic tree, pistacia lentiscus.

myrrh] R.V. marg. ladanum, a gum obtained from the cistus creticus, or rock-rose. Myrrh, lôt = LXX στακτή (cf. Genesis 43:11), appears is ladunu in Assyrian inscriptions describing tribute from Syria to Tiglath-Pileser IV. The caravan trade with Egypt was evidently largely occupied with materials for the practice of physicians, embalmers, and priests.

And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?
26. conceal his blood] Referring to the superstition that blood, which was not covered, would cry for vengeance: see note on Genesis 4:10. Cf. Job 16:18; Isaiah 26:21; Ezekiel 24:7.

Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content.
27. let us sell him] Judah proposes to sell Joseph, in order to save his life. Judah takes the lead in J’s version, as Reuben in E’s. See Genesis 43:3 ff., Genesis 44:18 ff.

Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.
28. Midianites] The first part of this verse resumes E’s narrative from Genesis 37:25. According to E, “Midianites,” merchantmen, pass by, traders from the desert on the east of Jordan. The term is descriptive, and not genealogical: for Midian, like Ishmael, was a son of Abraham (Genesis 25:2). The suggestion that “Midianites” is a name representing the North Arabian Minaeans seems to ignore the Heb. character of the story. The name is without the definite article; it cannot, therefore, refer to “the Ishmaelites” of Genesis 37:27, whose description, though similar, is quite distinct. LXX οἱ Μαδιηναῖοι ἔμποροι. Lat. Madianitae negotiators.

they drew and lifted up] According to E, the Midianites did this, and carried off Joseph, while his brothers were engaged in their meal. According to this account, Joseph was kidnapped, or, as he himself says (Genesis 40:15), “stolen away,” not sold.

28b. and sold] This is from J. Joseph’s brethren, by Judah’s advice, sell him to the Ishmaelites. This clause follows upon Genesis 37:27.

twenty pieces of silver] i.e. shekels, as Genesis 20:16. In Leviticus 27:5; Leviticus 27:20 shekels is the price for a slave between the ages of 5 and 20. 30 shekels is the price for a slave in Exodus 21:32. On the value of a shekel, see Genesis 23:15.

And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.
29. And Reuben] Reuben returning to “the pit” finds it empty. The Midianites had carried off the lad. Reuben’s distress reveals his purpose to his brethren. Clearly this is a different picture from that of the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites.

And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?
30. The child is not] Cf. Genesis 42:13; Genesis 42:32; Genesis 42:36, Genesis 44:31; Jeremiah 31:15; Lamentations 5:7. The word “child,” yeled, is appropriate for a small boy: see Genesis 21:8; Genesis 21:14.

And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood;
31–35. The continuation of the J clause in Genesis 37:28. Having sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, the brothers have to plan how to explain his disappearance to Jacob.

According to J, they sent the coat to Jacob: according to E, they dipped it in blood, and brought it to Jacob.

And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.
And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.
33. an evil beast] Jacob interprets the message, as they had intended. They never asserted his death, but asked him to draw the inference. The clause is repeated from Genesis 37:20.

And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
34. rent his garments, &c.] Jacob mourned with the mourning rites of the Israelites. The rent clothes, the sackcloth, and the ashes, denote the exact opposite of festal array, new garments, soft raiment, and ointment.

For “sackcloth” in mourning, see 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 6:30.

And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.
35. his daughters] Either a different version from that in chap. 30 where Dinah is his only daughter; or referring to his sons’ wives.

the grave] Heb. Sheol, the name of the abode of the dead, answering to the Greek ᾅδης, e.g. Acts 2:27. Sheol, as the region of the dead, is, according to Hebrew ideas, the locality beneath the ground, where the disembodied spirits led a shadowy existence. See Isaiah 14:9-20. Jacob thinks that he will arrive in Sheol, as he had been on the earth, in mourning for his lost son. See Genesis 42:38. The shade of his son will there recognize the signs of his father’s grief for his sake. “To bring a man’s gray hairs with sorrow to the grave” (here and Genesis 42:38, Genesis 44:29; Genesis 44:31) does not, therefore, only mean “to bring a man prematurely aged to his grave,” but also “to bring an old man to the place of departed spirits in a state of lamentation for bereavement.”

And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, and captain of the guard.
36. Midianites] Heb. Medanites. This verse, from E, resumes the narrative from Genesis 37:29-30.

Potiphar] An Egyptian name, denoting “the gift of Ra,” the sun-god. It appears as “Potiphera,” Genesis 41:45, Genesis 46:20. LXX Πετεφρῆς, Lat. Putiphar, reproducing the Egyptian Pedephrç = “he whom the sun-god gives.”

officer] Lit. “eunuch.” Probably a word used to denote an official about the court. Heb. saris, LXX σπάδων, Lat. eunuchus. Some Assyriologists prefer the derivation from ša rêši = “he who is the head.” But there seems to be no sufficient reason to call in question the meaning which the word has in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. The class to which the saris belonged has always infested Oriental courts, and the name was therefore likely to acquire a general significance as “a court official.” Cf. 2 Kings 18:17 (Rab-saris); Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13; Daniel 1:3.

Pharaoh] i.e. the king of Egypt. The title, but not the personal name, of the sovereign: see note on Genesis 12:15.

captain of the guard] Heb. chief of the executioners, and, as such, having charge of the prisoners (Genesis 40:3-4, Genesis 41:12). Cf. “captain of the guard,” 2 Kings 25:8; Jeremiah 39:9; Jeremiah 41:10; Jeremiah 43:6; Jeremiah 52:12; Daniel 2:14. Another very possible rendering is “chief of the butchers” (cf. Genesis 40:2, “chief of the bakers”), the officer over the men who killed the animals for the food of the king’s house, and one of the principal officials in an ancient court. The Heb. word in the sing. is “cook” in 1 Samuel 9:23-24, i.e. the man who killed the animal for food and cooked it.

If so, the rendering of the LXX ἀρχιμάγειρος, “head cook,” “head of the kitchen department,” is nearer the truth than that of the Lat. magister militum.

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