Commentary on Genesis 37 (Joseph Sold into Slavery)

Post Author: Bill Pratt 


As Jacob grew into adulthood, God re-confirmed to Jacob the covenant promises made to Abraham and then Isaac. Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel.  He had originally intended to only marry Rachel, but was tricked into marrying Leah by their father. Jacob also took on their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, as wives. Through these four women, Jacob fathered 12 sons. The sons that each wife bears are summarized in Genesis 36 as follows:

The sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin.

The sons of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali.

The sons of Leah’s maidservant Zilpah: Gad and Asher.

The descendants of these sons of Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, would form the 12 tribes of Israel.

When chapter 37 begins, Jacob (Israel) has settled in Canaan where Abraham and Isaac had lived. Joseph, one of his two sons from Rachel, is seventeen years old. This places the date at roughly 1898 BC.


Although verses 1 and 2 announce the account of Jacob, the primary actors of the following chapters are Jacob’s sons, especially Joseph. Recall that Joseph was the firstborn son of Jacob and Rachel, and that Rachel was Jacob’s most favored wife. These facts will play out in chapter 37.

In verses 2-10, we discover several reasons why Joseph’s half brothers would come to hate him. First, Joseph brings bad reports about his brothers to his father. We can imagine that Joseph was obedient and well-behaved, and did not excuse the behavior of his disobedient brothers.

Second, in verses 3-4, we learn that Jacob (Israel) openly favored Joseph over his brothers, and this fact was brought home when Israel gave Joseph, and not his brothers, a richly ornamented robe. This robe indicated that Joseph was to be given the double inheritance and receive the rights of the firstborn, even though he was not actually the firstborn son of Israel (that was Reuben).

Third, Joseph reports two dreams to his brothers. In the first dream, his brothers’ sheaves of grain bow down to his sheaf of grain. In the second dream, the sun, moon, and 11 stars bow down to him. The sun and moon represent his father and mother, and the 11 stars his 11 brothers. According to verse 8, his brothers “hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.”

These dreams indicated that Israel’s choice of Joseph as receiving the rights of the firstborn was confirmed by God. According to Allen P. Ross in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , “God’s sovereign choice of a leader often brings out the jealousy of those who must submit. Rather than recognize God’s choice, his brothers set on a course to destroy him. Their actions, though prompted by the belief that they should lead, shows why they should not have led.”

The story is now set up for what happens next. In verses 12-17, Jacob’s older sons leave to graze their flocks in a distant place called Dothan. Joseph is sent by Israel to find his brothers and report back to his father.

In verses 18-20, his brothers see him coming in the distance and plot against him. Their plan is to kill him, throw him in an empty cistern, and tell their father that he was killed by a wild animal. The oldest son, Reuben, however, steps in and convinces the brothers to throw him in the cistern and not kill him. Reuben’s plan is to come back later and get Joseph out of the cistern and save him.

At this point, it appears that Reuben leaves the brothers for a short time. When Joseph finally arrives, they strip him of his cloak and throw him into the cistern and sit to eat a meal. As they sit down to eat their meal, they see a caravan of Ishmaelite traders coming toward them; they are headed toward Egypt. Remember that Ishmael was the firstborn son of Abraham who was replaced by Isaac in the covenant promise.

Judah, Reuben’s younger brother, proposes that they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites instead of killing him. The other brothers, except Reuben, agree and sell him. When Reuben returns, he sees what his brothers have done, and tears his clothes in sorrow. The brothers all agree to dip Joseph’s robe in goat’s blood, take it back to Jacob, and let their father believe that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

At the end of the chapter, we see that Jacob is inconsolable for his loss, and we learn that Joseph has been sold by the Midianites (Ishmaelite and Midianite are used as synonyms) to “Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.”

Allen P. Ross concludes:

This is a story of hatred and deception. The brothers tried to improve their lot with their father by wicked means. Jacob himself had attempted something similar with his father. The brothers would have to learn, however, as did Jacob, that God does not continue to give His blessings to those who do such things. Their use of goat’s blood is ironic, for the skins of a goat were used by Jacob to deceive his father (27:16). Jacob’s sin of years before had come back to haunt him. The brothers’ attitude would also have to be changed by God, or there would be no nation. Here then is the beginning of the suffering of Joseph, the obedient servant. God would test his character through the things he suffered, so that he could then be exalted.