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  • Writer's picturemww

"At Least We Didn't Kill Him" -- a dysfunctional group of brothers in Genesis 37

Updated: May 2

God can bring good out of anything, but let's not test that.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 37

Jacob's lifetime of poor leadership finally costs him in the form of his "favorite son". Joseph, who apparently didn't have a sensitivity filter for his mouth, arouses such extreme jealousy that his brothers willfully sell him into slavery (instead of killing him outright). Reuben, the oldest, puts up a half-hearted effort to get the brothers to think about their actions.

When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. (37:5)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Your "Mouth Filter"

We now live in a culture where not having a "filter" between your brain and your mouth has become a badge of honor that is used to excuse all manner of tactless conversation.

In addition to being a source of humor and tension for countless tv shows and movies, I'm sure we all have personal experience with this -- either saying something we wish we hadn't, or hearing something we wish they hadn't said.

So, without opening old wounds, what's something you wish you had thought about more carefully before saying it out loud? As a parent or a teacher, what's your "kids say the darndest things" experience that has stuck with you? One of my favorites is something an exasperated grade-schooler said to another grade-schooler: "just because you think it doesn't mean you have to say it".

In this week's passage, Joseph is going to say something out loud that he might have been better off keeping to himself.

Related: How to Watch Your Mouth (this week's Big Idea?)

This isn't the point of this week's passage, so I don't want to get too sidetracked, but if you do happen to talk about this topic, I think it would be very valuable to include a brief discussion about how to "watch your mouth".

We have talked about this more than once. My favorite such lesson comes from James 3 ("taming the tongue"), and this particular post also include a summary of helpful things the Proverbs say about our speech.

When looking for that t-shirt online, I also found this "think before you speak" formula:

That acronym (True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind) is everywhere, including lots of secular sources. I cannot find who came up with it originally. But even if it isn't of Christian origin, it certainly reflects biblical truth. I endorse it.

Playing Favorites in the Family

We've been setting up this week's conflict for generations (literally). Jacob's favorite son (the firstborn of his favorite wife) was treated favorably by Jacob, and that made the siblings jealous. Surely we can sympathize. My guess is that most of our personal experiences are with perceived favoritism. We think our parents "love our sibling more", and it leads to weird dynamics. Has that ever happened to you or your kids? How did you resolve that?

(To be sure, some parents actually do have "favorites", and that is indefensible and damaging.)

(One of my favorite things I have ever heard at a funeral -- a number of grandkids had come to the funeral, and one of them said of their grandma that "she loved us all differently, and yet we all knew that she loved us all the same". What an incredible, beautiful thing to say! That's probably the best way to overcome the sense of favoritism.)

If you're an only child, or if you have unflappable family solidarity, you can shift gears to the "teacher's pet". We all have experiences with the teacher's pet (I was the teacher's pet; it's actually a rather demeaning term, now that I think about it).

What did that do to classroom dynamics? Of course, it happens in the workplace as well; what does it do to dynamics there?

The point? Well, you can't use this week's passage as encouragement ("hey, at least I never sold the teacher's pet into slavery in Egypt"). But we can use this to try to understand how this terrible thing happened.

[Two ideas to hold for a future lesson:

  • Have you had a dream that predicted the future?

  • Does God speak to non-Christians in dreams?

I suggest waiting to talk about those things when Pharaoh summons Joseph to interpret his dreams.]

This Week's Big Idea: The Ongoing Impact of Family Dysfunction

The difference between you not selling your pesky little brother to the circus and the behavior of Jacob's sons probably has a lot to do with family history and parental leadership. We have talked at great length about Jacob's personal history and failure to lead his family well. Last week, we noted that "at least he started trying". And we are glad he did! How much worse might things have been had he not!

We've talked about this before, so I don't want to belabor it. However, the author of Genesis (Moses) has quite clearly been setting up the repeated failures of family leadership as having a lasting impact. To Moses, this serves as a cautionary tale to his Hebrew audience: "Yes, God can still use you if you're a screw-up, but it would be so much better for your family if fathers were strong spiritual leaders in the home." The Lifeway material even includes a short section on sibling rivalries in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, and Jacob's sons. To me, what jumps out about that list are the parents: Adam and Eve, Isaac and Rebekah, Laban (and his unnamed wife), and Jacob and his multiple wives. Those parents have demonstrable "issues".

However, two VERY important comments here:

  1. Parents are not responsible for their children's actions. (But they may be held accountable for their children's actions in a court of law.)

  2. Children cannot blame their actions on their parents (at least when that means failing to take responsibility for their own actions).

The point I'm getting at is this: Jacob's sons bear full responsibility for their actions in selling Joseph into slavery and convincing Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. However, Jacob bears the responsibility of creating a home and family environment that enabled them to even consider that possibility in the first place. The chickens have come home to roost, as the saying goes.

I want us to read this passage in the full context of everything we know about this family.


Where We Are in Genesis

Chapters 35 and 36 are basically a wrap-up of the story of everything that has happened:

  • Isaac: dies and is buried.

  • Esau: becomes the father of many tribes (the Edomites) (listed)

  • Jacob: becomes the father of many tribes (the Israelites) (listed)

  • Rachel: dies giving birth to Benjamin.

Chapter 37 then begins the story of utmost importance to Moses' audience: how the Israelites came to be in slavery in Egypt.

  • It's a tragic story of family betrayal and dysfunction.

  • It's a miraculous story of God's grace and deliverance.

  • Most importantly, it sets up the Exodus, which will be the defining event in the formation of the Jewish nation (in particular, the Passover, and the Law).

  • On this side of Jesus, we now know that God used their years in slavery to illustrate our personal slavery to sin and our need for a savior/deliverer.

So, yes, this week's passage is depressing. And that's kinda the point. Human sin always has a cost. And God can provide a redemption for even the worst of human sin.


Part 1: Joseph's Dream (Genesis 37:5-8)

5 Then Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 There we were, binding sheaves of grain in the field. Suddenly my sheaf stood up, and your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 “Are you really going to reign over us?” his brothers asked him. “Are you really going to rule us?” So they hated him even more because of his dream and what he had said.

Note that the so-called "coat of many colors" in verse 3 has already pegged the jealousy brewing in the family.

We're going to talk more about dreams when we get to Pharaoh in a few weeks. For now, my takeaway is simple: "Dude, you did not need to tell your brothers about this dream." I mean, seriously. What did Joseph think he was accomplishing here?

And it gets worse in the following verses:

9 Then he had another dream and told it to his brothers. “Look,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 He told his father and brothers, and his father rebuked him. “What kind of dream is this that you have had?” he said. “Am I and your mother and your brothers really going to come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Seriously -- read the room, Joseph.

Aside on Joseph's Character

A lot of Christians seem to have drawn the conclusion that "Joseph was a stuck-up, entitled, braggart who needed to be knocked down a peg". And that certainly could have been the case! But the Bible doesn't say that.

Let me offer another possibility: Joseph was a true do-gooder who had a rigidly black-and-white sense of truth.

That would certainly explain the previous verse:

37:2 At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended sheep with his brothers. The young man was working with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought a bad report about them to their father.

What if Joseph hadn't done that to ingratiate himself with his father? What if he had done that because his brothers were doing wrong, and the "right thing" for him to do was report it? Let me take that further -- what if Joseph didn't report his dreams in order to show off? What if Joseph simply took his dreams to be of truth, and the "right thing" for him to do was report that to everybody in question?

In other words, Joseph might not have been a self-centered jerk at all. He just might not have had a "mouth filter". And because he had a much clearer sense of right and wrong than his brothers, that put him at odds with them regularly. And 1 vs. 10 is already not good odds.

And I think that makes very good sense of his future behavior. Not to spoil the ending, but you probably know that Joseph basically serves as a paragon of virtue in every dealing he has while in slavery. What if Joseph had always been a paragon of virtue?

If you think that's a reasonable possibility, it opens two great topics:

  • If you caught your siblings (or long-time coworkers) doing something they shouldn't, how should you handle it?

  • If you had a dream like Joseph's, how would you describe it, or would you keep it to yourself?

So, it's time to talk about the dream. Note that the Bible doesn't say it comes from God, but we are given the impression that it does (after all, it comes true). There's no way to sugarcoat it -- Joseph's dream is about him ruling over his brothers. (Likewise in his next dream, his mom and dad also bow down to him.) I would have a hard time hearing someone tell me about this dream. Remember that God promised Abraham that "kings and rulers" would come from his line; I'm sure that all of Jacob's sons hoped it would mean them.

But, it would be Joseph.

[Aside: note that Jesus, however, came from the line of Judah, not Joseph, or even Reuben the firstborn. A reminder that God chooses not based on human perspective but His own.]


And that give you another tremendous topic to discuss: jealousy. It looks like there are three primary definitions of the word:

  1. hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage; envious

  2. intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness; disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness

  3. vigilant in guarding a possession

We're obviously focused on the first definition. At least, that the definition of the Hebrew word used in 37:11.

What does jealousy do to a family? To a workplace?


Part 2: Joseph's Trap (Genesis 37:18-22)

18 They saw him in the distance, and before he had reached them, they plotted to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Oh, look, here comes that dream expert! 20 So now, come on, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits. We can say that a vicious animal ate him. Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!” 21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben also said to them, “Don’t shed blood. Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him”—intending to rescue him from them and return him to his father.

Understand what's happened in the meantime. We don't know how much time has passed, but we do know that Joseph's brothers had gone out to work, and Joseph had not gone with them. Apparently, they had traveled a long way with their flocks. Here's a map from a BSF blog that uses nice, big print to show just how far Joseph had to travel to catch up with them.

And it sounds like the brothers could see him coming from a distance. I'm sure you have a person (or two) (or three) that, when you see them coming toward you, your heart sinks.

Well, that was Joseph to these guys. Seeing him tended to set them off -- especially that one-of-a-kind coat that they would recognize from anywhere. And they had time to plot. This is shaped in way to make us think of Cain:

4:8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Your topic here is something to the effect of "acting without thinking". We've all thought rash thoughts, but hopefully we've taken the time to think it out before acting rashly. And that's the value of there being a "cool-headed group member" or an "adult in the room". Reuben, the firstborn, was that.

Note that Reuben was going to rescue Joseph from "them". This clearly means that not all of the brothers were in step here. Context suggests that it was the "sons of Bilhah and Zilpah" (37:2) who were the primary conspirators. Remember from our family dynamics lessons that those women were slaves, and their four sons probably felt like second-class citizens. That leaves five brothers who could have swung the decision either way (the "undecided middle"?). But murder and violence won out.

Reuben, the firstborn, tried to be the voice of reason (if you consider "hey, let's not kill our brother" to be reasonable), but really falls short. Reuben had never had a real model of moral leadership, so we can be a little sympathetic. Over the course of this saga, he does show real leadership. [Remember, however, that Reuben had slept with one of his father's wives (35:22), so this might be more about getting back into Jacob's good graces.]

Earlier, we used "speaking without thinking" as a topic. This time, it would be "acting without thinking". What's something you did that you wish you had put a little more thought into before doing it?


Part 3: The Tragic Outcome (Genesis 37:23-38)

23 When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s robe, the long-sleeved robe that he had on. 24 Then they took him and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty, without water. 25 They sat down to eat a meal, and when they looked up, there was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying aromatic gum, balsam, and resin, going down to Egypt. 26 Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay a hand on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh,” and his brothers agreed. 28 When Midianite traders passed by, his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt.

It's difficult to imagine this scene. My guess is that Reuben was not present for most (all?) of this (see 37:29). (My guess is that his plan was to distance himself from his brothers immediately so he could sneak back to Joseph without arousing their suspicion.)

Verse 25 is intended to sound as callous as possible. They threw Joseph into a pit (a dry cistern), and then had a meal. This is Denethor-level stuff (my Return of the King nerds get it).

While eating, they see some Ishmaelites. I know that you probably have in mind one of a vast number of nomadic tribes, but we're just two generations from Ishmael!

  • Isaac and Ishmael.

  • Jacob and Esau.

  • Jacob's sons.

This is probably just a small group of brothers very much like Jacob's sons. It's possible they knew each other, which is how they knew they were "Ishmaelites" from a distance. [Note: it's also possible that the term "Ishmaelite" became used of all the tribes of Arabia, not just the direct descendants of Ishmael.] Working with the theory that these were direct descendants of Ishmael, these two groups are not-so-distant cousins.

When the caravan got closer, the brothers realize that there are also some Midianites in the caravan. (That's how I understand the change in descriptors.) The Midianite faction was probably more interested in buying their cousin than the Ishmaelites, so the brothers went to them first. According to Judges 8:24, Midianites and Ishmaelites maintained a close connection for generations.

I "love" (read: "am shocked by") the brothers remembering that Joseph is their brother. "Yeah, I guess we shouldn't kill him." They seem to think of this as a great moral victory on their part. (Let alone the logic they just revealed: "if we kill him, we gain nothing; if we sell him, we can make some money". Just very disturbing.)

Two details of note to Moses' audience:

  • 20 pieces of silver was the price of a slave;

  • that's how Joseph ended up in Egypt.

We'll learn much more about Joseph's destination next week. For now, I think you already have plenty of fodder for discussion in a short group Bible study.

But in the background of all of this, keep in mind Joseph's realization:

45:5 I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “the one you sold into Egypt. 5 And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. 7 God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 8 Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

God can work good from even the worst of human choices. (This also explains the "sheaves of wheat" detail in the dream.) We thank God for His providence, but we also must remain sensitive to the Spirit's lead: we want God to work through us, not in spite of us.

If you "suffer" from this week's character flaws --

  • not thinking before you speak

  • not thinking before you act

  • unbridled jealousy

then this is a great time to ask God (and your small group) to help you overcome them.


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