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After his first dream, Joseph announced to his brothers that at some point in the future they would bow down before him. He then had a second dream indicating that not only would his brothers bow down to him, but his parents would as well. Genesis 37:12 picks up the narrative:

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 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.” 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. (Gen. 37:12–14)

You might get the impression that Jacob was merely sending Joseph down the road a bit—perhaps half a mile or so—to the fields where the brothers were tending the flock. Remember, however, that the Jewish people at this time were seminomads. They lived in tents and moved around as their livestock found fertile pastures in which to graze. Since the land was somewhat sparse in terms of grazing areas and given to seasonal fluctuations, they had to move around a lot.

In some cases, the seminomads would find a place to live and assign the task of caring for the sheep to their sons or their servants. The keepers of the flock followed the sheep into sometimes distant areas while the main family remained rooted in one place. Here, we are told that Jacob sent Joseph from the Valley of Hebron to Shechem, which was a distance of about forty miles. For a teenage boy living during this time, traveling alone was quite a journey. There was no train to ride, and he would risk encountering bandits and other dangers. We can see why Jacob would be interested in hearing from his sons. Since they were so far away, Jacob couldn’t receive regular updates from them. By sending Joseph, Jacob could obtain a report regarding the brothers and the flock.

Joseph set out, and “a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’” (Gen. 37:15). Presumably, Joseph had made it to Shechem. He was wandering around in the fields, looking for his brothers and for his father’s flocks, and he hadn’t been able to find them. This man found Joseph and asked him what he was seeking. “‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said. ‘Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ 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” (Gen. 37:16–17).

Dothan is about ten miles farther north of the Valley of Hebron, so Joseph traveled more than fifty miles to find his brothers and the flock. In verse 18 we read, “They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him.” Even though they had been removed from their brother, the raging jealousy had built up to such a degree that now they were conspiring with one another on how to kill Joseph.

They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 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. But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 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. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Gen. 37:19–24)

The hostility that had taken root in his brothers’ hearts was profound at this point. Yet Reuben interceded on behalf of Joseph, and he came up with a counterscheme. He thought he could satisfy the brothers’ vengeful rage by deserting Joseph in the pit, and then later he could sneak back and rescue Joseph.

It’s significant that there was no water in the pit. In the desert region of the ancient Near East, there was very sparse growth on which to graze livestock. It was necessary in those days, as it is today, for shepherds working in the heat to carry an abundance of water with them. Wells were extremely important in Jacob’s day. To throw a young man into a pit that is exposed to the beating sun and not provide him with any water is to guarantee his certain death.

“Then they sat down to eat” (Gen. 37:25). This speaks volumes about the hardness of heart of Joseph’s brothers that they could throw him into a pit, exposing him to certain death, and then sit down and devour a meal. Many people find that whenever they feel guilty, they feel it in their stomachs. There’s nothing worse than the upset stomach that comes from feeling awful about one’s sin. That didn’t bother these men, however. They sat down and gorged themselves with a meal.

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. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 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. (Gen. 37:25–27)

Caravans were used to transport merchants’ goods to various commercial centers. This particular caravan was laden with precious spices and ointments being taken from the northern regions down to Egypt, where there was a lucrative market for these goods.

We would expect Reuben and Judah, two of the elder brothers, to have a little more wisdom and a little more sense of protective care for their younger brother. Now both have interceded against the conspiracy to kill Joseph.

Let us be careful to learn from their pattern, lest we continue to duplicate it.

When Judah made his suggestion, he apparently did not know of Reuben’s secret plan to rescue Joseph after the brothers left him in the pit. So Judah came up with his own plan for how to persuade the brothers not to kill Joseph. It’s hardly as compassionate as Reuben’s plan, though. We don’t know for certain whether Judah was acting out of concern for Joseph or whether he was only aggravating the plot by seeking to find some profit in it. Either way, he explained his plan as a better one. Instead of killing Joseph, they could get rid of him just as easily by selling him to the Ishmaelites, and they’d make a profit as well. They’d be rid of Joseph, and his blood wouldn’t be on their hands.

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. When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” (Gen. 37:28–30)

Many commentators in church history have seen in Joseph an Old Testament type of Christ, and here we see another reason for that typological interpretation. Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver, just as Jesus was betrayed by one of His “brothers,” as it were, His disciple, into the hands of His enemies for thirty pieces of silver. Apparently, Reuben had been absent during the brothers’ further discussion and change of plans, so his plan to rescue Joseph from the pit went awry.

Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 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.” And he [Jacob] identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 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. (Gen. 37:31–35)

The brothers displayed remarkable hypocrisy on this occasion. They are the ones who had stripped Joseph of his coat, dipped it in the blood of a goat, and presented the tunic that they knew very well was Joseph’s. They could hardly mistake this coat, for it was extraordinary and unique in the first place. If somebody tried this scheme today, it wouldn’t take long for the police to see that the blood on the garment was not human blood. In antiquity, however, no blood analysis or DNA testing was available to implicate the brothers in their crime. Jacob reacted to the evidence in front of him, and that evidence proved to him beyond a reasonable doubt that his son had been killed by an animal. It’s striking that Jacob was tortured by grief—a grief that had to be mixed with a sense of guilt. Most of his grief was over the death of his beloved son, but mixed with that grief was the knowledge that it had been his own idea to send his young son on this arduous journey and to put his life at risk.

While we must be careful not to overdo the typological references from Joseph to Jesus, we do see a connection between the two, in that Jesus was put to death because He was sent on a mission by His Father. We must not include in this comparison a heresy called Patripassianism, which teaches that the Father suffered in the death of the Son on the cross. Certainly in the human relationship between Jacob and Joseph, the father suffered enormously in his perception of the loss of the son.

While Jacob was beside himself with grief and would not stop mourning, his other sons and daughters sought to comfort him. It is egregious that all the passion of Jacob was not enough to move the brothers to repentance. They saw the consequences of their crime in the pain of their own father every day. They sinned not only against their brother but against their father as well, and they compounded that sin by hypocritically making a show of bringing comfort to their father.

Notice that Jacob said, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen. 37:35). One of the techniques used by novelists in general and by mystery writers in particular is foreshadowing. The author sets up a sequence and alerts the reader to a danger that’s about to take place. In this case, the foreshadowing is Jacob’s prediction regarding himself. He said that there wouldn’t be any end to his grief—that he would go to his own grave and join Joseph in the grave, grieving. Because we know the outcome of the story, we know that Jacob’s conclusion is wrong, but it adds to the drama. At this point, Jacob had no hope for the future.

Crime begets crime. Few of us have been guilty of killing a brother or a sister, but all of us have been guilty of sin. When we commit sin, we do several things, one of which is to try to justify our sin to ourselves, to rationalize it, to make it seem that our sin was the right thing to do at the time. Oftentimes, after we attempt to justify our sin, we then try to conceal it. We see that these men went to great lengths to conceal their sin. Not only did they try to conceal it in the first instance, but one lie led to another lie and another lie and another lie. This is the human pattern. It’s the way we sin. Instead of standing in total judgment of these men, let us be careful to learn from their pattern, lest we continue to duplicate it.