Genesis 37:1-11 “Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of corn out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered round mine and bowed down to it.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?’ His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”
It is very natural reading through the lives of the patriarchs to discover a growing anticipation for Joseph to appear and arrive on central stage, and our minds become full of him. The final chapters of the book of Genesis contain what could be rightly called the best known biography in the world, and we believe it is also the best loved. It is heroic in its portrayal of a brave young believer trusting in the Lord in the most challenging of situations. It is full of exemplary lessons on how we should live to the glory of God within the restrictions of a hostile family and world. But it is also the story of a suffering servant of the Lord, and so it is full of images of Christ. Every incident whispers Christ’s name. A.W. Pink in his less disciplined early years as a writer found over a 100 ways in which Joseph is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ. Where do we begin?
1. THIS IS A CHAPTER WITH A STRANGE OMISSION.
Let me start with two questions; firstly, how many times is the name of Joseph mentioned in Genesis 37? The answer is a dozen times. Secondly, how many times is the word ‘God’ mentioned in Genesis 37? The answer to that question is that God is not referred to once. There are the twelve sons of Jacob, and they are considered as a group, the ‘brothers’, a dark, brooding brotherhood which include psychopaths and adulterers, a mere two of the twelve being identified by name in the first five chapters of the story of Joseph. It is their mothers who are named, but Joseph is named on twelve occasions in this chapter alone. We are being introduced to someone of remarkable importance. You see that in the way Moses puts him suddenly in your face. The narrative begins in the second verse; “This is the account of Jacob. Joseph . . . !” Joseph’s father, Jacob, isn’t to die until the end of the penultimate chapter of Genesis, chapter 49, but throughout those thirteen chapters Jacob is a mere peripheral figure. All his considerable achievements and battles are in the past. He’s a yesterday man until his long death-bed speech in chapter 49. The central figure from now on is Joseph, and this fact can be demonstrated in column inches, that is, in the number of chapters devoted to his life. These next fourteen chapters are the longest section of the book of Genesis to deal with a single person, longer even than the chapters describing the life of Abraham. This is some fellow!
Why isn’t God’s name found in this chapter? I enjoyed Liam Goligher’s answer very much: “Moses, who wrote this account, wanted his readers to ask the question, ‘Why isn’t the Lord mentioned?’ This is one of the author’s teaching techniques. The absence of God’s name is deliberate in order to provoke the question and make the reader or hearer think. Although God’s name is not mentioned and his presence is not seen, he is nonetheless active in everything that takes place. The reality is that in your life and mine there are many days, and there are hours within days, when God’s presence is not felt, when he seems miles away and when no reference either in thought or word is made to him. To anyone looking on at the circumstances Joseph goes through, God does not appear to be involved. That’s why secular writers can write about his life and miss the point of what is going on. That is also why our non-Christian friends can look at us and see no obvious sign that God is alive and at hand for us. Like them, we struggle to get up in the morning, we catch a cold, we get cancer, we grow old and we die. Circumstances over which we have no control often seem to determine the course of our lives; we make good and bad decisions, and God seems a million miles away. Very often the most ‘spiritual’ among us forget to consult God and push on with our own agenda. That’s what we find people doing in this story; that’s the way the story is told because that’s the way we are as human beings. Made by God, we ignore him; provided for by him, we forget to give thanks; loved by God, we don’t return the compliment ” (Liam Goligher, Joseph, the Hidden Hand of God, Christian Focus, 2008, pp. 13&14).
2. THIS IS A CHAPTER WITH AN ENIGMATIC BEGINNING.
“This is the account of Jacob. Joseph . . .” (v.2). The figure of Joseph is central to the history that follows, but notice that this story is not called the account of Joseph. Two things I want you to notice;
i] It is entitled the account of his father Jacob, in Hebrew the toledoth of Jacob. We can turn back just a single chapter to the opening verse of chapter 36 and there we see, “This is the account of Esau” and then you read on concerning his descendants, but you can go back through the book of Genesis, starting at chapter two and the fourth verse, where you will meet the first of ten occasions in the book of this very phrase “the account (in Hebrew, the toledoth) of so and so . . .” What is the best translation of this word? The N.I.V. committee opted for the word ‘account’ amplifying it in some places, ‘the account of so-and-so and his descendants.’ The word is a signal marker for the beginning of ten sections or ‘books’ within Genesis. Toledoth comes from a root meaning ‘to bear children’ and so the phrase means, ‘what is produced or brou
ght into being by someone.’ So Jacob had brought into being Joseph. So toledoth means ‘offspring,’ ‘descendants’ or ‘generations’ and so the Authorised Version translates it ‘generations’ while the N.I.V. translates it ‘account.’ and the New King James ‘the history’ while the ESV goes back to ‘generations.’
This word ‘account’ doesn’t look very important but actually it holds the book of Genesis together. A hundred fifty years ago the attack on the truth of the Bible started in Germany and quickly came to Wales and was taught in every seminary of every denomination because Wales was a small country with a small country’s inferiority complex. Welsh people didn’t want to be thought backward and obscurantist as far as education was concerned. Thus as many academics in Germany believed this, and many in England and then Scotland too had followed them in believed it Welsh Christians quickly swallowed it, hook, line and sinker, the whole modernist view of the Old Testament. That view said that Genesis was cobbled together 1500 years after the time of Abraham during the exile in Babylon by a committee of priests who had saved different old manuscripts. In one manuscript God was known as Elohim (the E manuscript), and in another manuscript God was known as Yahweh (the J manuscript) and another was the book of Deuteronomy (D) and these priests joined these various books together
In this way Genesis and the other four books of Moses were compiled as we have them today – so the popular theory went. All the denominations and their theological principals and lecturers quickly believed that view as one of ‘the assured results of modern criticism,’ and they have taught this for 150 years. That view is held still, and it is taught in the schools of Wales today and it has had a devastating effect on the professing church. At the centre of our worship, instead of an infallible word from God, you have a man-made book with plenty of human errors. What ministers think they have before them in the Bible is a collection of quaint and wise old lessons concerning morality, and warnings of immorality, and monotheism. This is what is still preached from Welsh pulpits from the Old Testament in the rare times it is preached to the elderly, tiny, dying congregations of Wales.
Now my point is this, the book of Genesis shows its unity with this signal marker toledoth , ‘generations’ or ‘accounts’ in ten places at the start of fresh, divine initiative and direction in salvation history. So here we have, “This is the account of Jacob” (v.2). In other words, this is the history of Israel, because Israel was Jacob’s new name. In the loins of these twelve men is the family God is going to bless and make a blessing to all nations. Here are the forefathers of Moses, and Joshua, and Gideon, and Samuel, and David, and Isaiah, and Ezra, and Hosea, and all the writers God chose to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. What we have at the end of this extraordinary book is the genesis and growth of the church. From this time onwards the people of God are going to be called ‘Israel.’ Even in the New Testament, the apostle Paul is going to refer to us as the Israel of God. So what lies before us in Genesis 37 to 50 is not simply the story of a brave and godly young man but it is church history.
This is the last time in the Old Testament that this phrase toledoth occurs. In other words, this toledoth of Jacob continues right down, on and on. When Genesis ends, the toledoth of Israel carries on, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and so on to the beginning of the new covenant. Matthew is very mindful of this. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel the opening words of the New Testament are, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Had Matthew been writing in Hebrew, he would have said the toledoth of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. You see what Matthew is telling you? That the history of God’s people continues on right into the new covenant and exists even today. It is thus also the story of the Lord Jesus Christ who is building his church against the hostility of the gates of hell. Our Saviour is the inheritor and the facilitator of the promises that were given way back in Genesis.
Then we are presented with another little surprise, that the toledoth of Jacob begins and ends with a man called Joseph. Joseph was the first of the line of Jacob in the covenant succession while another Joseph, the legal father of the Lord Jesus Christ, would be the last before the new toledoth comes in. From Joseph to Joseph God’s plan moves in a mysterious way. But there is another little thing to notice in this beginning:
ii] In this opening verse we are given the revelation that Joseph had been chosen by God. Joseph is to be the son who will receive the patriarchal headship that his father has been holding. He will be the successor to his father as the head of the family. This is stressed in the title. “This is the account of Jacob. Joseph . . . !” God has chosen Joseph, not Reuben. You remember back in Genesis 35 Reuben had incurred the wrath of his father by sleeping with one of his concubines, and his father took note of it. And so Reuben, the first born of Leah, the first born son of Jacob, would not be the one to lead the covenant line. Simeon and Levi were psychopathic murderers and though they too were older than Joseph they certainly could not lead the people of God, and so the divine choice is of a seventeen year old teenager to be the patriarchal head of the next generation. How mysterious God’s choice. Don’t many of you know it? Not of your intelligent brother, and your gorgeous popular sister, but of you! Think of it! So Joseph must have been the wisest and best choice for God’s own purposes. Joseph was God’s man for the hour. He had come to the Kingdom for such a time as this.
3. THIS IS A CHAPTER WHICH TRUMPETS THE DIREFUL CONSEQUENCES OF POLYGAMY AND FAVOURITISM.
i] Joseph is performing menial tasks. We are introduced to him as someone who was not killing lions or pulling a sword out of a stone as some mythical super hero in some northern saga. This is not the story of an epic hero. Joseph was shepherding sheep, but he was also serving the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. The N.I.V. translates the word as a ‘young man’ but often it means an attendant or servant. In other words, Joseph is presented to us as waiting on four of his half brothers, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. This quartet stuck together because they were the sons of his father’s two concubines, and so they were made to feel they were ‘lesser sons.’ Six other brothers also stuck together too, all of them the sons of Leah. They were the majority group, older boys feeling themselves superior and keeping to themselves in family affairs, distancing themselves from Joseph because Leah their mother had been snubbed throughout her life by Jacob her husband and made to feel that she was the second class wife.
So apart from his baby brother Benjamin young Joseph was on his own. He had no doting mother to turn to whose protection would keep him from harm. As the son of his father’s beloved Rachel, he was younger than all his siblings (apart from Benjamin) and he didn’t fit in with any grouping. He had no older full brother to stand up for him, and so the first thing we are told of him was that the sons of his father’s concubines could require him to do menial tasks for them. We think of the Lord Jesus washing the feet of twelve proud men none of whom were ready to do what he did.
ii] Joseph is repeating to his father the slanders of his brothers. The N.I.V. doesn’t make it clear but the verse is saying that the complaints and gossip that these four sons freely offered about their father, running down and disdaining 107 year old Jacob, that these were the criticisms that Joseph repeated to his father. He was worried about the old man and his leadership of these difficult boys and their mothers. Jacob couldn’t trust his sons and so later on when the boys had taken his herds of sheep to pasture in Shechem it was Joseph whom Jacob sent to make sure everything was all right. These boys were capable of selling some of his sheep on the side to the men of Shechem without telling him. “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks and bring word back to me” (v.14). This was the sort of information Jacob looked for from Joseph, the one son he could trust. What an invidious task, to report on his brothers’ behaviour to his father. How could he hide this ‘spying’ from his brothers? They thought of him as a young brat, a snitch, a tattletale! No father should make one son his informer, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Joseph was mean-spirited in what he said. We’re not told in this early verse (v.2) what Joseph actually told Jacob about his concubines’ sons. How different the Lord Jesus is! He’s not the spy who whispers tittle tattle about us into the ears of our heavenly Father! He ever lives to intercede for us, praying for our forgiveness because he has shed his blood to save us, and command his blessings to come down upon us.
iii] Joseph is his father’s favourite. Jacob himself had been a favourite of his mother Rebekah, and that had brought trouble into the family. His father’s favourite had been his brother Esau, and rival parental favourites had split the family into two. You’d think as he considered the damage done by that that Jacob, as an old man, would vow never to show favouritism himself! Yet Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons and every one of his sons knew it. He had been 90 years of age when Joseph was born to Rachel. Rachel thought that she’d never have children and then in her old age she had Joseph.
Jacob’s feelings were understandable, but though a parent might have a favourite he should never show it, but he displayed his affection for Joseph in the splashiest of gifts, in giving him a richly ornamented robe. The same terminology is found in the book of Samuel to describe royal robes. Joseph had to put the coat on to please his father and then he stood out a mile. Eleven shepherds in their working clothes, smelling of sheep . . . and here is Daddy’s boy, this teenage brat in his coat of many colours! It indicated status as well as favour! It marked Joseph out for management rather than being a co-worker and fellow-shepherd. It might even have implied to the brothers that their father might be favouring Joseph as the inheritor of all his possessions, and they would be cut out of his will. This was the last straw as far as his brothers were concerned and they sent him to Coventry. He was ignored day by day. You see he wore that coat all the time! It was a permanent statement of his favoured position. Jacob would expect him to wear it. When some time later his father sent him on an errand to find out how the boys were doing with their sheep in Shechem, Joseph went wearing the coat. You see how they stripped him of it (v.23), and later they dipped it in goat’s blood and showed it to his father as though the blood were Joseph’s. “It is my son’s robe!” he said (v.33). The brothers hated him and especially his coat. How different Christ! He sees us proud of our religious success; vain about our good sermons; luxuriating in the love the congregation has for us, but he never stops talking about us to his Father, asking his Father to bless us and keep us every day.
I did appreciate what Ligon Duncan said about Jacob and Joseph. “So once again we have family strife in the promised line, though God will use it for good. The great love of Jacob’s life had been Rachel, but she was taken from him. So then in her absence he doted, quite naturally, on her children, Joseph and baby Benjamin. Yet even Jacob’s comfort in those children turns to grief and worry for him as his family becomes more hostile to him, more disunited, more strife-ridden, more tension developing palpably each day. It is salutary that in the midst of that horrendous family situation, everything falling apart, that God had a plan. We can see this lonely patriarch, yearning for a lost wife, seeing Rachel’s eyes and smile in the eyes and face of Joseph, over-compensating for that in the way he lavished expensive gifts on Joseph, and then that stirred up increasing strife and hatred – towards the one he loved so much. In all of this, the unmentioned God was present and active, weaning the hearts of Jacob and Joseph from the world and preparing a plan whereby he’d redeem his people.
God even uses the brothers’ own hatred and murderous designs on Joseph for their good, and for Joseph’s good, and Jacob’s good and for the good of Israel, the people of God. God will use what he will for his own purposes. He even employs tensions and arguments amongst his people for those purposes. What’s more, God wastes no trial, no silence of contempt, no opportunity of humiliating an enemy, no estrangement amongst his people. None of it is permitted to be wasted. All of the pain experienced by both Jacob and Joseph after him had a purpose. Not a drop was wasted. We see it here in the providence of God” (sermon of Ligon Duncan).
4. THIS IS A CHAPTER WHERE OCCUR THE FIRST DREAMS OF JACOB AND THE PEOPLE HE MEETS.
Joseph had dreamed all his life as we all do, but the two vivid dreams that the 17 year old had were different from anything that had happened to him in the past. These dreams were a communication from God to him, and they were well suited to be such a divine revelation. He recognized their significance, their compelling authority and power. The dreams were shaped by God. There is no way that Joseph, snubbed and hated by his brothers, could go to sleep any night and say. “Right, tonight I am going to dream a dream and God is going to speak to me.” Once you sleep you are no longer in control of your mind. What fantasies enter your thinking. You imagine you live in another country, that you are married to a different person. The rich man thinks he’s a beggar and the pauper imagines that he’s a millionaire. You can’t control your dreams, but God can. He has access to you always, even when you sleep, and
so there were times in the history of redemption when God chose by the most vivid and powerful dreams to bring a message to bear on a prophet or on Joseph and his circle to speak a word to these people. Not only did he dream but increasingly he came to know the meaning of the dreams, though maybe not at first. This was an utterly new phenomenon to him.
These dreams came to Joseph in a pair. He might have shrugged off the first dream, but another dream came to him, and this one had the identical message to the first. Later on in Israel’s history any message had to be established in the mouths of two witnesses. The two dreams are two testimonies to Jacob and to his other sons of what God’s intention was for this family and for Israel. “God speaketh once, yea, twice unto men; but man perceiveth it not.” God told them, as God tells us, about the future. He has made it clear to mankind that we are facing death, and that then we must all appear before the throne of God.
There will be a great division, sheep and goats. Those whose trust in the life and death of Jesus Christ alone are going to be saved. Those of you whose trust is in yourself and your own good life will go to hell. You might not like me telling you that, but that is clearly revealed in the Bible. That is why God the Son became incarnate, preached the Sermon on the Mount, lived a blameless life and died an atoning death as the Lamb of God to take away our sin. You may hate this message, but the Lord who cannot lie has told it to us all.
So Joseph struggled, no doubt, against the word he had to speak It was like fire in his bones; if he spoke there would be a blaze, and yet he could not keep such an incandescent phenomenon to himself. Couldn’t God in a miracle of grace change the hearts of his hearers so that his brothers listened solemnly to what he had to say? “Hear this dream,” he says, and first he tells his agrarian dream of sheaves of grain gathered together in a field; one sheaf standing high and all the other sheaves falling down flat, bowing before it. Joseph told this to shepherds, not to sowers and reapers. It seems to us to have a flavour of the cornfields of Egypt about it, though none of them knew about seven years of plenty and seven years of famine then. His brothers understood immediately the message of the dream, that some day in the future they would all bow down before him. “Will you actually rule over us?” they cried with scorn and mockery, and they hated him all the more. You might think that that would caution Joseph about sharing his second dream, but he told them this one too. The dreams were not intended by God to be kept private. God had his purpose in constraining Joseph to speak. In this dream the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed down before Joseph, and the same message came through, except that this time it seemed to include also his father and his late mother. He was the voice of God to his family at that time. “Be very careful in how you touch Joseph,” God was telling them, but they mocked Joseph as a dreamer, and then they mocked the dreams, and thus they were mocking the revelation of God.
The brothers’ and his father’s hostile reaction to his dreams is the reaction of non-Christians to hearing that God is sovereign over their lives, sovereign to create them; sovereign to choose them; sovereign to save them; sovereign to condemn them. The natural man hates such power being vested in God – his God, the only God the one in whom he lives and moves and has his being, the God in whose image he has been made, the God to whom he is going to be accountable. How resentful he is. He loathes this God’s authority over him. He questions God’s fairness and purposes. He screams in defiance, “I have my free will.” Yes but it is a will that freely says, “I will not have this Lord rule over me.” So Joseph’s brothers pose their astonishment at his fantasy dreams – the spoiled brat’s ego trip. Even Jacob is perplexed and rebukes him, but he hides this word, just like Mary did, in his heart. He knows that this message has come from the Lord. It is true; he cannot deny that, but how it will work out in the life of their family and his lonely son old Jacob does not know.
We have read the story; we know the details; we know what will happen, that episode years later when the family fall and bow before Joseph, but if we did not know that here we would at least know that everything happening to Joseph was the product of the will of God. Yes, here is a chapter in which God’s name is not mentioned once, and yet Joseph’s name is mentioned a dozen times. But the theme of this chapter as every chapter that follows is about God accomplishing his sovereign purposes in the life of this man in the teeth of enormous hostility and opposition. When things looked their worse then God was there in control in Joseph’s life. Nothing was happening to Joseph by the whim of men or by mere chance or through the activity of the devil. All Joseph gets every day of his life is the providence of God. God’s providence is the inheritance of each one of us.
A trans-Atlantic liner was passing through fog, but the captain did not slow down at all. The passengers could hardly see across the deck and after a while they were worried enough to send a message to the captain asking him if he would decrease the speed of the ship and put a double watch, fore and aft. “Tell the passengers,” said the captain, “not to be concerned. Everything is all right. It is all clear up here.” From the bridge he could see for miles ahead, and it is all clear to the Captain of our salvation. As dark as some days can be here on earth the Lord can see all. He knew everything that needed to be done to save Joseph and all the children of Israel. He determined even before he created the heavens and the earth what would take place in the world. What is soon to happen to Joseph was from a human perspective shrouded in the mists of uncertainty, but with the Governor of the cosmos all things were clear. He will guide Joseph every step of the way, and he will guide us to our journey’s end.
3rd April 2011 GEOFF THOMAS