Joseph Is Sold By His Brothers
It must have given them great pleasure to strip Joseph of his special robe and then drop him into the empty cistern. Cisterns were usually quite deep and had long narrow openings that would be too high for a prisoner to reach. In order to get out, you’d need somebody to lower a rope and pull you up (Jer. 38).
It’s difficult to understand how the men could sit down and calmly eat a meal while their brother was suffering and begging them to set him free (Gen. 42:21).
However, hearts that have been hardened by hatred and poisoned by thoughts of murder aren’t likely to pay much attention to the cries of their victim. But then, think of what our Lord’s own nation did to Him! All of us are potentially capable of doing what Joseph’s brothers did, for “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jer. 17:9)
Then, just as they were sitting down to eat, they looked up and saw a caravan of camels in the distance coming toward them. It was a group of Ishmaelite traders taking a load of gum, balm, and aromatic resin from Gilead down to Egypt.
Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother? We’d have to cover up the crime. Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!” And his brothers agreed.
Genesis 37:25-27 (NLT)
No sooner had they begun to eat, than they spot a caravan of Ishmaelite, Arab traders. With this, Judah, another son of Leah, has an idea: let’s not allow him to die in the pit, let’s SELL him to the Arabs, that way whatever happens to him from that point is beyond their control. What fractured logic.
The brothers were worried about bearing the guilt of Joseph’s death. Judah suggested an option that was not right but would leave them innocent of murder. Sometimes we jump at a solution because it is the lesser of two evils but still is not the right action to take. When someone proposes a seemingly workable solution, first ask, “Is it right?”
So when the Ishmaelites, who were Midianite traders, came by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to them for twenty pieces of silver. And the traders took him to Egypt.
Genesis 37:28 (NLT)
Incidentally, the idea that it would be such a great coincidence for these traders to come along, out in the middle of nowhere, is not at all farfetched. For one of the oldest trading routes of the Middle East ran from the spice producing region of Gilead, down through the area of Shechem (right where they were located), and then all the way into Egypt.
So, the brothers sold Joseph to the traders for 20 shekels of silver, the going rate for a male slave.
Some time later, Reuben returned to get Joseph out of the cistern. When he discovered that Joseph was missing, he tore his clothes in grief. Then he went back to his brothers and lamented, “The boy is gone! What will I do now?”
Genesis 37:29-30 (NLT)
Rueben returned to the cistern to find Joseph, but his little brother was gone. His first response, in effect, was “What will happen to me?” rather than “What will happen to Joseph?”
In a tough situation, are you usually concerned first about yourself?
Consider the person most affected by the problem, and you will be more likely to find a solution for it.
As the oldest, Reuben is responsible for what happens to Joseph. Does he dare go home and face his father? After sleeping with his father’s concubine, he has little chance now of being confirmed as Israel’s firstborn.
The brothers took Joseph’s fancy, colorful robe, slaughtered a male goat, and dipped it in the blood. Then they took the special robe to their father.
Joseph’s Brothers: We found this, Father. Tell us if you think this is Joseph’s robe.
Israel (recognizing the robe): This is my son’s robe! A wild animal must have killed and eaten him. Joseph is without a doubt torn to shreds!
Genesis 37:31-32 (VOICE)
The brothers now put blood on the royal tunic they had stripped from Joseph before they threw him in the well, and take it to their father, asking, “is this Joseph’s tunic”?
Of course Jacob immediately identified the tunic as Joseph’s. The blood on the tunic was proof enough to Jacob that a wild animal had killed and eaten Joseph, such that the brothers didn’t even have to tell their lie.
Jacob himself had deceived others many times (Including his own father; Gen 27:35). Even though he didn’t know it at this point, Jacob was learning by hard experience the painfulness and destructive consequences of deceit.
Then Jacob wailed in agony and tore his clothes with the depth of emotional pain only a father could feel upon losing a child. He dressed in sackcloth and mourned his son for a long time.
Genesis 37:34The Voice (VOICE)
Tearing one’s clothes and wearing burlap (sometimes called sackcloth) were signs of mourning, much like wearing black today.
All of his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted.
Israel: No, I will go to the grave grieving for my son.
Israel is inconsolable. His grief over his son transcends even death itself.
This is how deeply Joseph’s father grieved for him.
Genesis 37:35 (VOICE)
Rather, they offered their father comfort. But, Jacob couldn’t be comforted and gives us a little hint of how people of his day viewed death. He says rhetorically, that surely HE shall now die, and then go down into Sheol to be with his son Joseph. At that time, Sheol basically meant the grave, or the place of the dead.
The concept of dying and going to heaven did not exist. As we have seen in recent chapters, there IS this concept of dying and “being gathered to your people”, a statement associated with the nearly universal practice of ancestor worship.
Exactly what that meant to the mind of these ancients is unsure; but certainly it carries with it the idea of some type of life after death, even if they were unclear as to what that amounted to.
One little thing about this chapter that gives us a little trouble: it alternates between saying that the brothers sold Joseph to Ishmaelites, and to Midianites. Now, Ishmaelites were a different people than the Midianites. Ishmael was a son of Abraham, as was Midian. But, Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, while Midian’s was Keturah. Perhaps Ishmaelites had already become simply a general term for all the Semitic peoples living in the area of Arabia, and Midianites was more specific and precise identification. But, we’re just not sure.
Meanwhile, the Midianite traders arrived in Egypt, where they sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard.
Genesis 37:36 (NLT)
In any case, in the last verse we see Joseph arrive in Egypt and get sold to a very high Egyptian government official: Potiphar. Potiphar is a rather common Egyptian name, and it is found on Egyptian monuments from several dynasties. Written Pet-Pa-Ra, it simply means “dedicated to Ra” or “a gift to Ra”; Ra was the Egyptian sun god.
Now, it is often debated as to exactly what office Potiphar held for Pharaoh, but it for certain had something to do with the military. Whether he was captain of the palace guard, or in charge of all of Pharaoh’s armies, or simply the Pharaoh’s chief bodyguard isn’t fully clear. But, he was probably the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt…for the moment, anyway.
Bible Exposition Commentary – Be Authentic