Joseph’s assault in Genesis 37 demonstrates God’s providence since Dothan “happened” to be close to the main trading route joining Egypt to the rest of the known world. This city gave the Lord, through the machinations of Jacob’s sons, an ideal place to deliver Joseph into Midianite hands and on into Egypt ahead of his family (vv. 17–28; 45:7). These Midianites were also called Ishmaelites (37:28), perhaps because the two groups had intermarried or because they were sons of Ishmael who lived in Midian. It also may be that all nomadic peoples were commonly called Ishmaelites back then.
Whatever the case, today’s passage indicates Joseph’s oldest brother, Reuben, was not around when he was sold into slavery, since he found Joseph missing when he “returned to the pit” (v. 29). This fits with what we know about the work of shepherding. The brothers were all gathered in one general area, but having to tend and move many flocks required each one to come and go at different times.
Finding Joseph absent, Reuben rends his clothes, a sign of mourning and a prediction of his father’s reaction to this news. Many commentators say this shows Reuben loved Jacob and was concerned for his emotional state. His brothers, on the other hand, hide their crime by slaughtering a goat and dipping Joseph’s treasured coat in its blood (v. 31). As typical, one misdeed leads to another. Matthew Henry comments: “When the devil has taught men to commit one sin, he then teaches them to conceal it with another…but he who covers his sin shall not prosper long.” Indeed, the sin of Joseph’s brothers will one day find them out (Gen. 44; Num. 32:23).
Jacob is inconsolable at the loss of his favorite son, and he believes that he will not see Joseph again before his death (Gen. 37:33–36). Ironically, Jacob’s sons use a goat to deceive him about Joseph’s fate just as he, as a son, once tricked his father Isaac with a goat as well (27:1–29). Most likely, this is another instance of divine, talionic (eye-for-an-eye) justice where Jacob reaps what he has sown (Gal. 6:7). God turns away His eternal wrath from all who repent; nevertheless, sin has its consequences in the here and now.
Though as good as dead, Joseph is alive and will be used to bring life to Egypt and his kin (Gen. 50:20). How much greater, then, is Christ who actually died before rising again to give us life? John Calvin says regarding Genesis 37:6 that “the Lord performs his work by wonderful and unusual modes; and…brings forth the salvation of his Church: not from magnificent splendor, but from death and the grave.” God loves to bring good from evil and life from death.