Genesis chapter 37

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What does Genesis chapter 37 mean?

Beginning with this chapter, Genesis takes up the story of Jacob's son Joseph. Joseph, just 17, is both deeply loved and deeply hated. Described as the son of Jacob's old age, as well as being the firstborn of Jacob's beloved late wife Rachel, Joseph is clearly favored by his father over his older ten half-brothers. It's not surprising, then, to learn of their hatred for Joseph, especially when Jacob gives to him a princely, multicolored robe. This gift may have indicated Jacob's plan to make Joseph his primary heir. Joseph doesn't make it better. He reports on his brothers' misdeeds to Jacob. He also tells them of powerful prophetic dreams he experiences that suggest all of them will one day bow down to him (Genesis 37:1–11).

After that, the fury and jealousy of Joseph's older brothers reaches a boiling point. They are ready to kill him. Apparently unaware of how bad things are, Jacob gives them just such an opportunity. The ten of them are pasturing the family flocks near Shechem, north of the family household in Hebron. This is the same area where Jacob's sons demonstrated their willingness to engage in violence when angered (Genesis 34:26–27). Jacob charges Joseph to go to his brothers, alone, to get a report on how the flocks are doing (Genesis 37:12–14).

Joseph obeys, eventually locating his brothers even farther to the north near Dotham. When they see Joseph coming, the brothers immediately form a plan to kill him outright. This is the chance they've been waiting for. They will kill him, throw his dead body in a nearby pit, and report to their father Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. The oldest, however, objects. Reuben insists that they throw Joseph alive into the pit, implying that they will leave Joseph to die in the wilderness. Reuben's secret plan is to return and rescue Joseph later and bring him safely to Jacob. Having disgraced himself (Genesis 35:22), it's possible Reuben sees this as an opportunity to be redeemed (Genesis 37:15–22).

The brothers agree to Reuben's plan. They strip Joseph of his multicolored robe and lower him alive into the pit. When they sit down to eat together, while Reuben is away, they spot a caravan of traders traveling by on the road to Egypt. Judah suggests a new plan. Why not make some money and get rid of Joseph at the same time? If they sell him as a slave instead of killing him, or allowing him to die, they can claim they are innocent of the blood of a family member, as well. Those present agree, and Joseph is immediately sold to the traders (Genesis 37:23–28).

When Reuben returns and finds the pit empty, he is heartbroken. Much of this grief may be selfish. His mother, Leah, had hoped that giving birth to a son would make Jacob love her—that son was Reuben (Genesis 29:31–32). Her plan failed, and Reuben's scheme to present a rescued Joseph to his father has also fallen through (Genesis 37:29–30).

To fully sell the lie that Joseph is gone, and the brothers are innocent, they fabricate evidence. They kill a goat and smear the blood on Joseph's ornate, unique robe. They return to Jacob and, cruelly, ask him to confirm that this belongs to Joseph. Jacob reaches the exact conclusion they hoped for: that Joseph has been eaten by a wild animal (Genesis 37:31–33).

The brothers would have expected Jacob to be intensely grieved at the loss of his favorite son. Even so, Jacob's shattered reaction seems to catch them by surprise. Typical mourning for a dead son in that era—formal steps such as wearing sackcloth—might last as long as a month. But Jacob refuses to stop grieving and mourning, or even to be comforted, after the customary time of mourning has come and gone. This display is so emotional that Judah—mastermind of the plot—will offer his own freedom while seeking to spare Jacob from another tragic loss (Genesis 44:18, 30–34). For the time being, there is nothing else to be done, and Jacob is locked in a state of despair (Genesis 37:34–35).

Meanwhile, Joseph has arrived in Egypt, sold as a slave to an Egyptian officer named Potiphar (Genesis 37:36).

Chapter 38 will relate some of the unpleasant events which happened to Jacob's family while Joseph is gone. Chapter 39 will resume Joseph's story, now as a captured slave.
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