Immediately following the list detailing the children of Esau, we return to Jacob. “And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil report of them to their father (Genesis 37:1-2).” Before even getting into the content, I think it’s interesting to note that the story of Jacob’s children is being told in narrative form, immediately following the straightforward list from the previous chapter. This juxtaposition seems to demonstrate one final time the difference in statuses between the two brothers, and hits home exactly who the winner was in the conflict between Jacob and Esau.
Now, on to the next generation! So we’ve been introduced to Joseph, and immediately we know that he’s essentially the annoying younger brother. He’s sent to help his brothers with the sheep, and instead tattles to their father about their actions in the fields. As an older sibling myself, I’m already not feeling much love for Joseph right now. I think it’s particularly interesting that it’s specifically the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, the concubines, that he’s having this initial issue with. Did he look down on them for being the children of lesser wives? Did he try to lord his status over them in particular? Was Jacob more open to hearing negative stories about these sons than he would have been had they been the sons of Leah?
“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 colors. 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 (Genesis 37:3-4).”
Bad parenting alert! First, we have Jacob/Israel playing favorites. Then, he apparently can’t keep his favorite amongst his children to himself, but instead feels the need to show it off to the rest of them by showering gifts on Joseph. He fosters the discontent between the boys by pitting them against one another through favoritism, which sets the stage for the anger that the brothers feel towards Joseph. Also, as a side note, at this point in the story, Joseph is described as the child of his father’s old age. Does this mean that the events in this book are being told out of order? Has Benjamin not been born yet? And if this is the case, why isn’t Rachel mentioned in this saga involving her son?
“And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him yet the more. And he said to them: ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for lo, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf (Genesis 37:5-7).'”
Joseph is dumb for sharing this dream with his brothers, and they call him out on it immediately. However, can we blame him? Previously, he’s been praised for blurting out news about his brothers to his father. With that kind of positive reinforcement, it almost makes sense that he would want to share more news as it came up. Of course, the brothers get mad at him, and hate him even more.
“And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said: ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.’ 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 you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow down to you to the earth (Genesis 37:9-10)?'”
Now, the bragging begins to catch up to Joseph. Jacob begins to notice and takes issue with his son at this point. The second dream is different than the first, because in addition to his brothers, he now has parents bowing to him as well. Thus, by this point in the story, his brothers are envious and his father is cautious. I can see Joseph as thinking he’s the one being mistreated because no one wants to listen to him, and the brothers thinking that they’re the ones who are the victims in this case, because he’s still the favorite, and of course, he’s an arrogant younger sibling.
So, with all of this drama brewing at home, Jacob/Israel sends Joseph to find his brothers while they’re tending to the sheep. Joseph goes searching for his brothers, and while he looks for them, he runs into a man in the fields, who points him in the proper direction. Many commentators see this man as an angel, lending to the tradition that we encounter messengers of God throughout our lives, who guide us on our paths without us even knowing it. The angel/man sends Joseph to his brothers, and as he approaches, “They saw him far off, and before he came near to them, they conspired against him to slay him (Genesis 37:18).” It seems like a major leap from our brother is annoying to we should kill him, but the anger of the brothers seems to have gotten to that point. They plot to kill Joseph, but Reuben, the oldest brother, has an alternative plan.
“And Reuben said to them: ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’ – that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father (Genesis 37:22).” While this new plan isn’t exactly a merciful one, Reuben’s intentions are good. The brothers get on board with the new plan, and throw him into the pit. Then, in a particularly callous moment, they sit down to eat lunch. Are they that cold hearted? Their brother is at the bottom of a pit, and they’re having a snack while debating what to do with him? Not exactly brotherly love.
“And Judah said to his brothers: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him (Genesis 37:26-27).” Judah and Reuben are the only two brothers who are mentioned by name, because they’re the two who work to prevent their brothers from committing fratricide. Interestingly, each time, the brothers listen to the lesser crime and go along with it. It makes me wonder: if any of them had been brave enough to say “let’s stop this entirely,” would they have listened as well, and this whole incident been avoided? We’ll never know.
Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery, and is taken to Egypt. Now, Reuben returns to the pit (begging the question of where was he, and when did he leave?), and tears his clothes, because he’s scared to return to his father with the news of what happened. So, the brothers conspire once again. They take Joseph’s coat, which their father had made for him, and dip it in blood, and show it to Jacob, who believes that his son has been killed by a wild animal. Jacob mourns deeply for Joseph, and refuses comfort from his other sons and family members. Instead, he seems to have resigned himself for a life of mourning for his favorite son, whose true fate he doesn’t know.