Last updated: November 11, 2009
English Translation (ESV)
1Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
2These are the generations of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.
5Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. 6He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: 7Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
9Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” 11And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And 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.” 14So 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. 15And 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.” 17And 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.
18They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come 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.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22And 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. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25Then 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. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, 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. 28Then 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.
29When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes 30and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” 31Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32And 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.” 33And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. 35All 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. 36Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
1 Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
[A]ccording to the Genesis chronologies, Isaac was still alive when the events in this chapter took place. This may be calculated as follows: to the 13 years Joseph spent in slavery must be added the 7 years of plenty and the 2 years of famine that elapsed before Jacob’s migration. To these 22 years must then be added the 17 Jacob spent in Egypt before he died, at age 147. If one deducts the resultant 39 years from the 147, Jacob would have been 108 when Joseph was sold by his brothers. Since Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born, and died at 180, Jacob must have been 120 at the time of Isaac’s death. Hence, Isaac lived on another 12 years after the sale of Joseph.1
2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.
One might understand brothers as just the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, but more likely it includes all his brothers. Neither Bilhah’s sons (Dan and Naphtali) nor Zilpah’s sons (Gad and Asher) figures prominently in the Joseph story, but they are Joseph’s colaborers. The syntax of the Hebrew allows for the translation “Joseph was shepherding his brothers,” if ‘et is understood as the sign of the accusative rather than as the preposition “with.” So understood, this verse would provide an excellent introduction to the Joseph story in the form of anticipatory paranomasia. What Joseph is doing during his teen life is exactly what he will be doing in his adult life – caring and providing for those who are dependent on him. But in what sense might a younger brother shepherd his older half-brothers? In several instances raa ‘et means “to rule over.” For example, in 2 Sam. 5:2 (par. 1 Chr. 11:2), “you will shepherd my people Israel,” raa ‘et clearly means “rule.” The same nuance for raa ‘et appears in 2 Sam. 7:7 (par. 1 Chr. 17:6), “whom I appointed to shepherd my people Israel.” Note that later (v. 8) Joseph’s brothers wondered aloud if Joseph intended to rule over them (malak) and be master over them (masal).2
That Bilhah and Zilpah are here called “wives” may indicate that they acquired a new status after the deaths of Rachel and Leah. The bad report, the nature of which is not specified, is the first of a number of causes of enmity between Joseph and his brothers.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.
The precise meaning of Hebrew ketonet passim remains unclear. In 2 Samuel 13:18-19 the garment is mentioned as the distinctive dress of virgin daughters of royalty. Josephus describes it as “a long-sleeved tunic reaching the ankle.” In Aramaic and rabbinic Hebrew pas means the palm of the hand and the sole of the foot. Radak took passim to mean “striped.” The Septuagint and Vulgate rendered the Hebrew “a robe of many colors.”
Ancient Near Eastern art may shed some light on the subject. An Egyptian tomb painting at Beni-hasan from about 1890 B.C.E. features a Semitic clan with the men and women wearing multicolored tunics draped over one shoulder and reaching below the knees. Another Egyptian tomb has a representation of Syrian ambassadors bringing tribute to Tutankhamen. They are dressed in elaborately designed long robes wrapped around the body and over the shoulders. A mural fresco in the palace of King Zimri-lim at Mari, in southeast, Syria, shows figures dressed in garments made of many small rectangular panels of multicolored cloth. The discovery of a “pas garment” (lbs psm) in a list of various articles of clothing from the town of Ugarit, dated not later than the thirteenth century B.C.E., provides a parallel to the biblical phrase but little clarification.
It may well be that the tunic was a sign of high social standing. It plays a key role in the narrative both because of the jealousy it aroused and because it was the only means by which Jacob could have been convinced that Joseph had been killed (vv. 31ff.).3
4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.
The text explains that it was the special coat that particularly angered them, taking it as proof of their father’s special love (v. 4). That the passage says they “hated” (sane’) Joseph is another reminder of the competition between his wives; the Hebrew term describes Leah as “unloved” (sane’, 29:31, 33), which, however, prompted the divine bestowal of her children, much to the affliction of Rachel. Their intense dislike produced only contemptuous words for him; Jacob’s household was tumultuous, absent common courtesy (“kind,” “peaceably,” salom).4
5 Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more.
The third and most menacing source of discord was Joseph’s dreams. This situation is easily understood when we view it against the cultural background of the times. Everywhere the dream was recognized as a means of divine communication. In the dreams previously described in Genesis, the revelation is straightforward and the message is conveyed verbally. In the case of Joseph’s dreams, however, the language of communication is symbolic. God does not figure explicitly in the content of the dream; yet it is taken for granted that He is the source of the message being conveyed. The predictive aspect of dreams was universally assumed in the ancient world, and this was reason enough for the brothers to take Joseph seriously. However, since the dream was also recognized to be inseparable from the personality of the dreamer, reflecting his own needs and wishes, Joseph bore, in the eyes of his brothers, a measure of responsibility for his highly egocentric vision of superiority and lordship. Joseph’s aspirations raised such hostility in his brothers as to inspire a conspiracy to murder (vv. 19-20).5
The twicefold reference to Joseph’s “dream” and the comment “they hated him all the more” form the boundaries of this unit (vv. 5, 8). The expression “more” (wayyosipu) renders the verb “to add to,” a probable play on Joseph’s (yosep) name (cf. comments on 30:24). Whereas Rachel hoped Joseph’s birth would portend an added son (i.e., Benjamin), for the brothers his dream only added to their disgust.6
6-7 He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”
The Mari documents note that pastoralists were employed during the harvest.7 The agricultural motif foreshadows the circumstances that will allow Joseph to rise to power (ch. 41).
8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.
The meaning of the dream is obvious to his brothers. The plural “dreams” either anticipates the second dream or implies that Joseph had told his brothers about other dreams in the past. The “words” may refer to his bad report about his brothers (v 2).
9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
Throughout the Joseph narratives, dreams come in pairs in order to demonstrate their seriousness, as noted in 41:32. The possibility of an idle dream was recognized by the ancients. From the literature of the ancient Near East we have accounts of double, triple, and even sevenfold repetition of dreams in which one symbol is successively substituted for another, although the basic meaning and central theme remain the same throughout the series.8
Unlike the first dream, this dream includes his parents. Recall the promises that the Israelites would become as numerous the stars (15:5; 22:17; 26:4).
10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?”
Joseph again tells the second dream, this time in the presence of both his father and his brothers (v 9 mentions only his brothers). Jacob’s rebuke may have been meant to curb Joseph’s apparent sense of self-importance. The reference to Joseph’s “mother” must refer to his stepmother Bilhah. Some commentators think the reference suggests this passage assumes Rachel is still alive. However, since Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (35:19) and this passage mentions eleven sons, this is not a necessary interpretation.
11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.
In context, this seems to be a stronger and deeper passion than “hatred” (vv 5, 8). Indeed, in various passages it is a feeling that is liable to spill over into violent action (e.g., Num 25:11, 13), even with God (Exod 20:5). The ritual in Num 5:11-31 is designed to prevent a husband physically punishing his wife for suspected adultery, and Proverbs cautions against allowing such jealousy free reign (14:30; 23:17; 24:1, 19). So the note that “his brothers were very jealous” is ominous, suggesting that they may well seek revenge.9
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.
Since Shechem was the site of Simeon and Levi’s murder of the Hivites (34:25-31), it is surprising that the brothers would return to its pastures. This suggests that the times were peaceful toward their neighbors or an early indicator of the famine to come since the brothers appear to go afar in search of sufficient grazing.10
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.”
In view of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers, Jacob’s action is surprising and Joseph’s ready response no less so. Clearly, the brothers had hitherto successfully disguised their true feelings and, indeed, there is no record of their having uttered any threats against Joseph. Shechem had been the site of a bloody massacre carried out by the brothers, who had apparently captured the city (chap. 34). This incident must have occurred very recently since Dinah was about the same age as Joseph (30:21-24) and could hardly have been younger than about fifteen at the time. Joseph is now seventeen (v. 2). The danger inherent in the brothers’ presence in the vicinity of Shechem (cf. 34:30) may have been the source of Jacob’s anxiety.11
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.
Hebron itself was located on a hill. The Valley of Hebron, mentioned only here, may refer to the area around the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham was buried. Shechem was about 50 miles away from Hebron. It must have taken Joseph about five days to make the journey.
15-17 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 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.
The two occasions of the word “found” (from masa’) mark the boundaries of this episode (vv. 15, 17). The “man” found Joseph and enabled Joseph in turn to find his brothers. Joseph roamed about, obviously befuddled by the absence of the brothers, but the “man” intervened. The picture of the roaming Joseph reinforces the young man’s vulnerability and naivety. Fortunately, a “man” rescued him from his bewilderment. The unidentified “man” who informed Joseph that his brothers had moved on to Dothan reminds the reader of the “man” Jacob had wrestled (32:24-32). Jewish tradition considered him an angel in the form of a man. For Calvin the inclusion of the “man” episode was to depict the diligence of Joseph in carrying out his duty and concomitantly reveals the heinous atrocity of the brothers’ crime. The word order in Joseph’s response, lit., “my brothers I’m seeking” (v. 16), making familial relationship paramount in his thinking, reinforces the trust that he presumes and the brothers transgressed. Since the “man” intercepted Joseph, overheard the private conversation of the brothers, and correctly directed Joseph to discover his brothers at Dothan, the passage conveys the theological orientation of the narrative as a whole. Whether the “man” is an angel or a human, the unseen hand of the Lord is apparent here. He is directing Joseph to discover his brothers so that the divine plan for the salvation of Jacob and many peoples (50:20) might be realized, although it meant a troubling time for the house of Jacob. Where are Joseph’s custodial angels who like his father’s might save him from his brothers, as they did with Jacob and Esau (32:1-2 [2-3])? Luther answered, “In such danger we see the deepest silence of God and the angels . . . But behold how much good God draws forth from this.”12
Dothan was about 14 miles northwest of Shechem.
18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him.
The brothers are far from their father’s restraining presence. The robe of many colors would have only helped the brothers recognize Joseph from a distance.
19-20 They said to one another, “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.”
[The pits] would be cisterns hewn out of rock intended for gathering and storing water in the rainy season. Large numbers of such cisterns have been found in excavations all over the Land of Israel. They vary in depth from six to as much as twenty-four feet. Dried out cisterns were occasionally used as temporary places of detention. Murderers seem to have deliberately slaughtered their victims near such pits in order to dispose of the corpses there. One has only to bear in mind that lack of proper burial was considered to be the supreme dishonor in order to imagine something of the frenzied intensity of the brothers’ hatred for Joseph. His wearing of the special tunic at the time probably was an added provocation.13
Ironically the action the brothers take allows Joseph’s dreams to come true.
21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”
On an earlier occasion [Reuben] had impetuously asserted his rights as the first-born by taking his father’s concubine (35:22); now he desperately asserts the authority that belongs to that status. His being under a cloud sharpened his sensitivity to the fact that he would surely bear the main share of blame for any misfortune. Perhaps he also hoped to regain his father’s favor. There is no need, however, to question Reuben’s sincerity. Still troubled by his failure to save Joseph (42:22), he is willing to go to extreme lengths in order to convince his father to let him be the protector of Benjamin (42:37).14
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.
The other brothers would assume that Joseph would die of starvation or exposure.
Cisterns were shaped like a bottle, with a little opening in the top, and often covered with a stone. They were hewn deep in the rock, and the narrow vertical shaft near the top was for letting down pitchers. In most cases they would be waterproofed with plaster made from burnt and slaked lime. Joseph’s chances of escaping from a cistern are minimal.15
Note that Reuben tells his brothers to place Joseph in a pit “in the wilderness.” “On the one hand, this locale may appeal to the brothers in that any calls for help by Joseph would go unheeded. On the other hand, Reuben can successfully retrieve Joseph from a cistern that is far enough away from the watchful eyes of his brothers.”16
24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Later, we learn that Joseph was not silent when he was thrown into the pit (42:21). Since such pits were usually for water storage, the narrator notes that this pit had no water in it. This means Joseph may die of thirst but not drown. “The dry pit may be an indicator also that water was scarce and famine loomed on the horizon.”17
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.
The brothers callously eat a meal as their brother is nearby in the pit. Gilead is the central mountainous region east of the Jordan. “The caravaneers would have traveled from Gilead by way of the Valley of Beth-Shean (Beisan). The road southward passed by Dothan and then returned westward to link up with the route to Egypt.”18 “There is ample Egyptian evidence that the slave trade with Egypt from locations in Asia was a brisk one in the time of Joseph.”19
26-27 Then Judah said to his brothers, “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.” And his brothers listened to him.
It is not clear whether Judah’s suggestion is a desperate attempt to save Joseph’s life or an attempt to make a profit.
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.
It is widely assumed that this section of Gen. 37 presents the clearest evidence for a conflation of two accounts of the Joseph story. Scholars use three points to substantiate that position. First, here Judah is Joseph’s mediator (vv. 26-27, J), rather than Reuben (vv. 21-22, E). Second, the text shifts back and forth on who actually took Joseph – Midianites (E) or Ishmaelites (J). Third, if the verses under consideration are from one source, then Reuben heard Judah’s proposal to sell Joseph and was present when Joseph was actually sold. Why, then, is he shocked (vv. 29-30) when he returns to find the well empty? These three observations have led to the conclusion that in 37:25ff. we have the following two strands: J, vv. 25-27, 28b; E. vv. 28a, 29-30. This breakdown explains, so it is assumed, all the inconsistencies within the text of 37:25-30.
Let us examine another possibility that does not follow the J-E analysis. Judah is not convinced that Reuben’s suggestion is an improvement over the original plan. The brothers have two ways to kill Joseph – immediately or gradually, the brothers’ way or Judah’s way. Of course, Judah is not aware of Reuben’s intentions. Accordingly, he suggests a less hostile proposal – do not kill our brother in any way; rather, sell him to some barterers.
These traders are identified as Midianites and Ishmaelites. Judg. 8:22-28 state clearly that Midianite and Ishmaelite are overlapping, identical terms. In other words, the two names were used interchangeably to refer to North Arabian caravaneers who branched off through Gilead (v. 25) from the main transport route on the way to Egypt. This would be but one episode of pastoral groups repeatedly journeying from Northern Arabia and southern Canaan to Egypt, bringing their products of incense to sell at the Pharaoh’s court. That Judg. 8:24 in particular equates Ishmaelites with Midianites suggests that in Gideon’s time at least “Midianites” represented a confederation of tribal groups. The interchange of “Ishmaelites” and “Midianites” in Gen. 37 suggests that at one time the Ishmaelites were the most prominent confederation of nomads in southern Palestine, and that their name might be attached to and linked with other groups. This would mean that “Ishmaelite” in Gen. 37 is not primarily an ethnic designation but is a catchall term for nomadic travelers. Thus “Ishmaelite” is the more generic term (Bedouin nomad), while “Midianite” is the more specific and ethnic term.
Does the text provide any evidence for this theory? Why identify this new group first by a more general term (v. 25), and then subsequently re-identify them by a different and more specific term (v. 28a)? To answer the first question, I would point out that the phrase ‘orehat yismeelim in v. 25, which I have translated “a caravan of Ishmaelites.” One might also render it “an Ishmaelite [i.e., nomadic] caravan,” implying a general name for this group. Who constitutes this ambiguous group of caravaneers is made clear by v. 28a: ‘anasim midyanim soharim, “Midianite men, merchants.”
To answer the second question, note that vv. 18-24 follow the same progression of description as vv. 25-28. First, Joseph (v. 18) and the Ishmaelite caravan (v. 25) are observed approaching the brothers from a distance. Second, Joseph (vv. 19-22) and the caravaneers (vv. 26-27) are talked about by the brother before either meets the brothers. Third, when Joseph and the Ishmaelites do meet the brothers, the brothers go into action, stripping Joseph and casting him into a cistern (vv. 23-24), and eventually selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites (v. 28). The last unit, vv. 25-30, describes the group that the brothers saw on the horizon, and for this distant sighting it uses the more general term. From afar, they appeared to be a group of Bedouin nomads. When this group subsequently comes into closer view they are identified as Midianites.
This interpretation raises considerably the possibility that the subject of “pulled up” and “sold” in v. 28 is the brothers. As these Ishmaelite caravaneers (i.e., Midiante merchants as they come into focus) pass by, Joseph’s brothers pull him up from the cistern and sell him to these passers-by.20
In 45:4-5, Joseph states that his brothers sold him into slavery. The idea that the Midianites and Ishmaelites were the same people allows us to reconcile 37:36 and 39:1.
29-30 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?”
That Reuben was dumbfounded to find the well empty indicates that he was not present when the transaction with the Midiantes/Ishmaelites was carried out. Perhaps as the oldest brother he went to guard the sheep that the brothers were pasturing as these strangers passed by. After they depart, he is free to leave the flock unattended or turn that responsibility over to one of his brothers, return to his brothers, and check on Joseph in the well.
It is true that Joseph later identifies himself to the brothers as the one they “sold” into Egypt (45:4), but earlier in his Egyptian confinement he told his cell mate that he was “stolen” from the land of the Hebrews (40:15). Does this variation reflect one tradition in which Joseph was sold by his brothers to Ishmaelites (J), and a second tradition in which Joseph was stolen by Midiantes (E)? Why two words to describe what happened to Joseph – “sold” and “stolen”? It is quite probable that Joseph deliberately adjusted the story as he narrated it in ch. 40, for he was attempting to curry the cupbearer’s favor. He knows the cupbearer is his only path to freedom. To have mentioned that he was sold by his brothers would make the cupbearer suspicious, rather than trusting. By saying he was stolen, Joseph is underscoring that what happened to him was something over which he had no control, and which he, in his judgment, had done nothing to deserve.21
31 Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood.
The brothers use the alibi they had originally planned (v 20). “There is a touch of subtle irony here since years before, a kid [goat] and the garment of his brother had played key roles in Jacob’s deception of his father, as told in 27:9, 15, 16. Now his own sons deceive him through the instrumentality of a kid and their brother’s garment.”22
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.”
Literally, “They sent . . . and they brought,” preserving a separate subject for each verb. Hoping to avoid any suspicion of involvement in Joseph’s fate, the brothers apparently sent the bloodstained tunic to their father by way of others who pretended they had found it. This interpretation overcomes the difficulty of the brothers’ harsh and unlikely statement about “your son’s tunic” when speaking to their father about their brother.23
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.”
Jacob says the words the brothers had originally planned to say (v 20).
Jacob concludes that an evil beast (hayya raa) has killed Joseph. According to Ezek. 5:17; 14:15, 21; 33:27, “evil beasts” are one of four of God’s agents of punishment, along with sword, famine, and pestilence. The idea is also implicit in Jer. 15:3 (where God appoints the sword, dogs, birds, and beasts as destroyers), in Lev. 26:22 (“I will let loose the wild beasts among you”), and in Hos. 2:14 (Eng. 12: “the beasts of the field shall devour them”). This fact may explain the mixture of terror and grief that Jacob now experiences. Joseph may have met this tragic end because of a divine judgment, due either to Joseph’s sin or Jacob’s sin.24
34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days.
“His inconsolable grief was perhaps intensified by feelings of guilt at having sent Joseph alone on such a long and perilous journey.”25
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.
Sheol is the abode of the dead. That Jacob expects to meet his son there indicates that he expected some form of life after death.
36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
The real fate of Joseph is repeated. That Potiphar was an officer of Pharaoh does not mean he was a eunuch. There is no evidence of eunuchs as an institution in ancient Egypt and Potiphar has a wife (ch. 39).26 The Hebrew reflects the Egptian Pa-di-Pre, meaning “he whom Re has given.”27
Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.
1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 254-255.
2Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 406.
3Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 255-256.
4Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 690.
5Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 256.
6Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 690.
7Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 256.
9Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 352.
10Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 694.
11Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 258.
12Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 694-695.
13Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 259.
15Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 418.
17Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 697.
18Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 260.
19Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 697.
20Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 422-424.
22Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 262.
24Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 427.
25Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 262.
27Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 702.