12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30 and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard. – Genesis 37:12-36 ESV
Joseph and his father had a unique relationship. While Joseph enjoyed the privileged status of being his father’s favorite son, he also appears to have served as Jacob’s personal spy, keeping tabs on the activities of his older brothers. Verse 2 reveals that “Joseph reported to his father some of the bad things his brothers were doing.” (Genesis 37:2 NLT). This doesn’t necessarily prove that Joseph was a snitch, but it does help to explain why his brothers hated him so much. They probably believed that Joseph’s royal treatment by their father was a form of compensation for his role as an informant. Joseph’s older brothers viewed him as spoiled, arrogant, and untrustworthy. He seemed to delight in telling them about his dreams, in which they were always cast as his groveling subjects. When he paraded around in the robe of many colors his father had given him, it only served to aggravate the seething envy of his brothers.
Sadly, Jacob appears to have been oblivious to the animosity he was stirring up in his own home. He doesn’t appear to recognize that his favored treatment of Joseph was driving a wedge between his 17-year-old son and his brothers that would soon reach a dangerous tipping point. Without realizing it, Jacob was fostering an atmosphere of distrust and dissension within his own home, and it was about to come back to haunt him.
Unwittingly, Jacob gave Joseph an assignment that would result in his disappearance and apparent death. He sent his young son to check up on his older brothers who were shepherding their flocks near Shechem, some 60 miles north of Hebron. Jacob owned land there, that he had bought from Hamor, the king of Shechem (Genesis 33:19). It was there that the son of Hamor had raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah and that her brothers, Simeon and Levi, had taken revenge by slaughtering all the males in Shechem. Now, years later, the sons of Jacob had returned to the scene of the crime, but rather than slaughtering and plundering, they were shepherding.
Eager to please his father, Joseph donned his multicolored robe and set off with the intention of returning with a full report of his brothers’ activities. But, unable to locate his brothers, Joseph sought the aid of a local resident and discovered his brothers had headed north to Dothan. Moses doesn’t reveal why the brothers left Shechem for Dothan, but the name “Dothan” means “two wells,” so it could be that they went there in search of water for their flocks. It just so happens that Dothan was located on a major trading route between Syria and Egypt. Perhaps the brothers intended to sell or trade some of their sheep or wool.
Moses indicates that the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance. Most likely, due to his colorful coat. And, as soon as they saw him, their anger reached a fever pitch. No longer content to simply despise Jacob, they began to plot his death.
“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” – Genesis 37:19-20 ESV
They may not have understood the meaning behind the dreams or known the source of their content, but they recognized an arrogant spoiled brat when they saw one. And they had had enough of Joseph. But Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, intervened and pleaded with his brothers to spare Joseph’s life. He offered an alternative solution, suggesting that they throw Joseph in a nearby pit or cistern. Since the pit was located in the wilderness, far from prying eyes, the brothers assumed that Reuben was suggesting that they leave Joseph to die by natural causes. But his real intention was to come back later and rescue him. As the firstborn son, Reuben felt an obligation to protect his younger brother.
Having stripped Joseph of his colorful robe, they threw him into the empty cistern and sat down to enjoy a meal together. But their reverie was soon interrupted by a caravan of Ishmaelite traders. These men would have been close relatives of Reuben and his brothers because Ishmael had been the brother of their grandfather, Isaac. And, in verse 28, Moses indicates that there were also Midianites in the caravan. They were also close relatives of Jacob’s sons because Midian had been a brother to Ishmael and Isaac, having been born to Abraham through his second wife, Keturah.
So, this entire transaction was a family affair. The brothers of Joseph sold him to the brothers of Isaac, their grandfather. And it was Judah, a younger brother of Reuben, who came up with the idea of profiting off their brother rather than simply letting him die.
“What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” – Genesis 37:27 ESV
Their dislike for Joseph was so great that they all agreed to sell him as a slave in exchange for twenty shekels of silver. They literally sold out their younger brother. Unaware that this transaction had taken place, Reuben returned to find Joseph gone and he immediately felt the weight of his responsibility as the eldest son. What was he going to tell his father? How would Jacob ever get over the loss of his favorite son?
But his brothers had already come up with a plan. They took Joseph’s infamous robe and covered it with animal blood, then they concocted a story that had Joseph being killed and consumed by a wild animal. These men made a mutual pact to hide their actions from their father and deceive him into believing that his favorite son was dead. And their plan worked. When they returned to Hebron and informed their father, he was deeply distraught.
Jacob tore his clothes and dressed himself in burlap. He mourned deeply for his son for a long time. His family all tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. – Genesis 37:34-35 NLT
But while Jacob mourned Joseph’s death, his missing son was actually on his way to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). No longer wearing his signature robe or enjoying his father’s favor, Joseph was transported to Egypt, where he was sold “to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Potiphar was captain of the palace guard” (Genesis 37:36 NLT).
Hundreds of miles from where Jacob was living a nightmare, mourning the loss of his favorite son, God was actually paving the way for the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams. This entire scenario was part of God’s sovereign plan for the people of Israel, and He had foreshadowed it in a message He had given Abraham hundreds of years earlier.
“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Genesis 15:13-16 NLT
God had a plan and He was bringing it about through the actions of Jacob and his sons. These men were completely unaware that their decisions were being sovereignly orchestrated by God Almighty in order to bring about His divine will. Jacob’s unwise favoring of his son had caused strife within his home, but God would use that animosity for good. Joseph would pridefully flaunt his status as the favored son and inflame the anger of his brothers. And those men would allow their jealousy and rage to treat their brother with contempt and disdain, selling him out for a few pieces of silver. But as bad as it all seemed, it was all the work of a loving, gracious, and all-knowing God, who was preparing to do something far greater than they could have ever imagined.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.