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Genesis 37 - 38


The story of Joseph’s life must have been originally written down by the sons of Jacob, especially by Joseph himself. This is probably indicated by the reference in Exodus 1:1, terminating this account, to the "names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt." This is essentially equivalent to the standard formula which would have said: "Now these are the generations of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt." This section, however, probably more than those preceding, had been subject to Moses’ editorial emendations, in view of his more immediate connection to it. Hence the standard formula was slightly modified to indicate that this particular record was not as directly received and transmitted by him as had been those of the patriarchs earlier than Joseph and his brothers.

JOSEPH’S  DREAM  #1  (THE SHEAVES)    Genesis 37:1-8 

    37:1     WAS  A  STRANGER

This, we believe, constitutes the concluding statement and the signature of Jacob’s long record, beginning with Genesis 25:19b. Although he had trusted for years in God’s promise that he would inherit the land, the same as God had promised Abraham and Isaac, he, like they, continued to live as a "foreigner" in the land of Canaan. "By faith [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise……….These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:9,13).


Here we begin the actual story of Joseph. Though he was a great man, Joseph hardly attained the spiritual stature of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God never actually appeared to him, as He had to them, nor were the covenant promises given to him in any special way. If fact, of the sons of Jacob it was Judah, not he, through whom God would fulfill the coming of the Savior in times to come. His personal character, while morally pure, was marred by spiritual pride to a degree which his brothers finally found impossible to tolerate.

Many commentators have considered Joseph to be an almost perfect type of Christ. Though a number of interesting parallels can be noted, it should not be forgotten that the New Testament nowhere speaks of Joseph as a type of Christ.

Jacob recognized Joseph’s leadership capabilities by placing him in charge of the work of shepherding the flock, even though he was younger than the four brothers he was working with. The phrase "feeding the flock" actually connotes that he was "shepherd over the flock".

    37:3     COAT  OF  MANY  COLORS

Joseph’s authority was also indicated by the "coat of colors" which his father made for him. The word "colors" (Hebrew passim) is uncertain in meaning, and newer translations often render it "long sleeves." People have often wondered why a trifle like this gaudy garment should have provoked the murderous hatred of all the brethren. We now know from the painted Tombs of the Bene Hassein in Egypt that, in the Patriarchal age, Semitic chiefs wore coats of many colors as insignia of rulership. Joseph had made himself disliked by his brothers for reporting on them; and Jacob, in giving him a coat of many colors, marked him for the chieftainship of the tribes at his father’s death. Add to this the lad’s vanity in telling his dreams, and the rage of the brethren becomes intelligible.

THE  DREAM    Genesis 37:5-8 

At this time, Joseph had a remarkable dream. Scripture does not say whether this dream came from the Lord (although its later fulfillment makes this likely) or whether it was only an expression of Joseph’s subconscious feelings and ambitions, or both. In any case, even if the dream came from the Lord, it was for his own encouragement, not for their edification, and he was very unwise to insist on telling it to them.

The three times the word dream is used emphasizes three motives for the dream:

1. In his dream Joseph sees himself at peace with his brothers and not at all separated.
2. Together we wanted to gather the small sheaves which each of us had bound, and make them, in the midst of the field, into a large heap of sheaves.
3. But my sheaf refused, arose and stood upright- and now the other sheaves gathered around mine and bowed to it!
(Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Commentary on the Torah)

Of course, they were but shepherds now, and only much later their descendants were to become a people, devoted to agriculture. Was Joseph thinking of the future?

JOSEPH’S  DREAM  #2     (SUN, MOON, STARS)    Genesis 37:9-11 


But then Joseph had still another dream, and this time, it was not only his brothers, but also his mother and father, who were bowing down to him! He understood that he was to be preeminent over his entire family. Once again, even assuming the dream came from the Lord, he was foolish and even arrogant to tell it, not only to his brothers this time but also to his father. This time, even his father rebuked him. Jacob, who had known the Lord more intimately than anyone of his generation, had difficulty believing that this dream was anything but the product of Joseph’s egocentric subconscious.

Regardless of whether Joseph should have reported the dream or not, it does seem likely that it really was sent from God. As unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, it eventually was fulfilled. Furthermore, almost the same symbols appeared in the visions of the apostle John (Revelation 12:1), again probably representing Israel and the twelve tribes. Though Jacob had felt he should rebuke Joseph for dreaming such things and for interpreting them as prophetic of his own future preeminence, he wondered in his heart whether Joseph might be right after all.


While the incident that follows has no real justification, it is important to clarify its motives. We are not dealing with a gang of hoodlums who do not think anything of committing a murder for the sake of a laced coat and hurt feelings. We see that the brothers, when their conscience began to bother them, did not seem to regret their actual crime as much as the cruelty that was employed, indicating that they did not consider their action to be a real crime.

    37:12     IN SHECHEM

An unusual, even strange, development took place at this time. Jacob and his sons were living at Hebron, at least fifty miles south of their old home in Shechem. Presumably there was adequate pasturage around Hebron, especially since Esau had moved away. For some reason, however, the older brothers decided to take the flocks back up to Shechem to feed.

    37:13     I  WILL  SEND  THEE  UNTO  THEM

Finally, Jacob became so concerned about them, what if the Canaanites and Perizzites of the region had indeed attached them (Genesis 34:30)? Jacob sent Joseph who he know he could depend on for a reliable and truthful investigation and report, but he must have had some misgivings about sending him because of the length of the journey (it would take him at least two days to make the fifty miles) and the dangers of the land.

    37:17     LET  US  GO  TO  DOTHAN

Dothan was about twenty miles north of Shechem; so it took Joseph at least another day to reach there. The word "Dothan" is believed to mean "two cisterns," and was presumably so named because of two storage wells there. One of these cisterns was dry at the time Joseph’s brothers were there, and it was into this well that they later decided to place him. Possibly both wells were dry, so that the men were perhaps frustrated at this point anyway, not finding water after they had led their flocks so far from home. This is a good type in that this narrative suggest that the brothers represent the nation of Israel, wandering far from the Father’s house while searching for greener pastures out in the world, but finding none. "For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jeremiah 2:13).

In the further development of this type, Joseph is believed to represent the Lord Jesus Christ, who was sent from the Father to the chosen people, but who was rejected and slain by them. "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:10,11).


The Hebrew word here is Baal Hachalomoth, which means Master of Dreams, this master dreamer. A form of speech which conveys great contempt. They had no doubt previously been muttering about Joseph, and their anger had built to the point where they had actually discussed getting rid of him somehow. Now, here he was, giving them the perfect opportunity. They could slay him, throw him into one of the empty cisterns, and then report back to their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. That would be the end of his dreams! They saw in him a dangerous rival, guilty enough to deserve death.

    37:21     LET  US  NOT  KILL  HIM

He had incurred the murderous hatred of his brothers, and as he approached them in Dothan, he little realized the awful deed they were about to plan. Though it would be a terrible and bitter experience for him, in the providence of God it would work together for good. He himself, with his serious personal problem of pride and arrogance, needed to learn humility and patience before his remarkable gifts of intellectual brilliance and political leadership could be put to God’s use.

His brothers, also, before they could be brought to genuine repentance and spiritual maturity, as necessary for the founders of the tribes of Israel, must be taught the awful consequences of sin and must themselves be brought low in confession and humiliation.


The nation which would come from their loins must also be prepared by suffering and divine deliverance to believe and trust God and His promises, as well as to obey His laws. All of this, in the providence of God, would be the ultimate outcome of the traumatic experience Joseph was about to undergo as he approached his brothers in Dothan.

Reuben, of all the brothers, would seem to have the most cause to resent Joseph, since Jacob obviously intended to give Joseph the birthright instead of him, the oldest son. His defense of Joseph is therefore, the more commendable. Reuben intended, if possible, to help Joseph escape back to his father, but he knew the murderous intent of the brothers would not allow this immediately.

Joseph evidently realized that Reuben was really trying to save him; probably Reuben actually whispered words to this effect as they later cast him into the pit. Years later, Joseph indicated he remembered this by holding Simeon (the next oldest of the sons), rather than Reuben, captive in his prison (Genesis 42:24).



We may naturally suppose that this was a caravan, composed of different tribes that, for their greater safety, were traveling together, and of which Ishmaelites and Midianites made the chief. In the Chaldee they are called Arabians, which, from the word Arab, which means to mingle, was in all probability used by the Targumist as the word Arabians is used among us, which comprehends a vast number of Clans or Tribes of people. The Jerusalem Targum calls them Sarkin, what we term Saracens. In the Persian, the clause stands thus: Karavanee Ismaaleem Araban Aya. "A caravan of Ishmaelites Arabs came."

    37:26     WHAT  PROFIT  IS  IT

Seeing the Ishmaelites, however, gave Judah an idea. Why not sell Joseph to them as a slave, whom they in turn could sell in Egypt? That way, Joseph would be removed from any further influence in the family-which was what the brothers wanted most-and still his life would be spared and they would not be guilty of murder. After all, he was their brother, and that should count for something. On top of that, they could actually make a financial profit for themselves.

    37:28     MIDIANITES

In the mean while, the brethren being at meal, some Midianite merchants, casually passing by the hearing human cries from the pit near the roadside, carry off Joseph (Gen. 45:4) and sell him to the caravan going to Egypt. The brothers did not thus actually sell Joseph. He was ‘stolen away’, as he himself says in (Gen. 40:15). So even though the brothers didn’t sell Joseph, they did noting to prevent the sale, and the entire responsibility rested upon them.

    37:28     TWENTY  PIECES  OF  SILVER

After bargaining a bit, they settled on a price of twenty pieces of silver as Joseph’s price. The price paid for Joseph was later fixed as the price of dedication for a young man or boy (Leviticus 27:5). The price of a mature slave was set at thirty pieces of silver (Exodus 21:32).

THE  CONVENIENT  LIE    Genesis 37:29-33 

They all finally settled on a convenient lie. They would lead their father to think Joseph had been slain by a wild beast, as they had originally intended to say anyway (verse 20). They would not overtly tell a lie, however; they would simply let their father deduce this from the evidence. They dipped Joseph’s coat in the blood of a slain kid of the goats, and then had it brought to their father when they finally returned home. They said they had "found it" (not saying where they had found it), and wanted him to tell them whether he thought it might be Joseph’s coat. Jacob, of course, immediately recognized it. But, rather than questioning his sons more carefully, in grief he jumped to the conclusion that Joseph had been slain by an animal and torn in pieces. (He evidently didn’t stop to notice that the cloak was not torn in pieces.)

    37:35     ALL  HIS  DAUGHTERS

His daughters also tried to comfort him. This is the first mention of any daughters besides Dinah, though they are also mentioned in Genesis 46:7,15, so that he must have had at least one other daughter by this time.

    37:35     I  WILL  GO  DOWN  INTO  THE  GRAVE  (Sheol)

He said that he would continue to mourn until he actually died and went to his son in Sheol (translated "the grave," but really referring to the place of departed spirits).


Potiphar is called an "officer," but the Hebrew word is saris, meaning "eunuch," which fact is no doubt partially explanatory of his wife’s later attempt to seduce Joseph. His office was the rather unsavory duty of captain of the "guard," or, more literally, the "slaughters" or "executioners" for Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Actuality he was called "prince of the cooks". In Pharaoh’s state, the most important state of ancient times, we meet "princes" of the cooks, bakers etc., a significant fact. In an ancient state of Egyptian demensions where the kings assumed Divine status, a ray of reflected splendor also shone upon those who were allowed to serve the exalted ruler. - However, the office of the "prince of cooks" involved another terrible assignment: the slaughterer of animals was at the same time slaughterer of human beings: Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard was also the royal court’s chief executioner! (II Kings 25:8,9).

JUDAH AND TAMAR    Genesis 38:1-30 

The time that elapsed between the events of Genesis 37, when Joseph was sent into Egypt, and those of chapter 47, which describe the coming of Jacob into Egypt, was about twenty-two years (Genesis 37:2; 41:46; 41:53; 45:6). It is strange and sad that almost the only information we have concerning Joseph’s family back in Canaan during that period (except concerning their trips down into Egypt to buy corn) is the tale of Judah’s shameful experience with Tamar, as recorded in Genesis 38.

In the history of Jacob’s family the two central persons are Judah and Joseph. The former became the leader of his brethren and the ancestor of David; the latter, from his noble character and personal influence on the future destinies of Jacob’s children, is regarded as next in importance. Before recounting Joseph’s fortunes in Egypt, Scripture records the following incident in the life of Judah, so as to draw a contrast between his conduct and that of Joseph in the hour of Temptation.


Judah had become friendly with an Adullamite named Hirah, and decided to live near him. Judah was possibly so disturbed by his brother’s actions, and his father’s resulting grief, that he resolved to get away from the entire situation. Since Judah was evidently looking for a wife he did not even consult his father, Jacob, in the matter, nor even the girl’s father, Shua. He apparently simply married her on his own initiative. Shua’s daughter, though physically attractive to Judah, was a true Canaanite, not only in parentage but in character, and was evidently unwilling to be converted to the worship of Jehovah. It is true that the Bible does not say this, but the inference is justified in view of the fact that all three of her sons were rejected by God from carrying on Judah’s patriarchal line. Two of them, at least, were notoriously wicked, and it is likely that their characters largely reflected their mother’s character and teaching.

    38:3     BARE  A  SON

Evidently her three sons were born in fairly rapid succession. They were named Er (meaning "watcher," so named by Judah), Onan (meaning "strong," named by his mother), and Shelah (also named by his mother, the meaning of the name being uncertain).

    38:6     TAMAR

As Er grew into his late teens, Judah was anxious to obtain a wife for his oldest son. Knowing the weak and sinful character of his sons as he must have by this time, he probably felt it was all the more important that a wife be selected for his oldest son who would be a good influence on her husband, as well as on her children. Tamar was indeed to be the mother of the Messianic line from Judah; so we must assume that God Himself, in the long view, must have participated in this choice.


In view of Onan’s specific sin, which later resulted in his death also, it seems most probable that Er’s sin had to do with his refusal to consummate the marriage with Tamar as arranged for him by his father.


This refers to the custom of the Levirate Marriage by which a surviving brother-in-law (in Latin Levir) marries the childless widow, see Deut. 25:5 and compare Ruth 4:5. The eldest son of such a marriage inherited the name and property of the deceased.

    38:9     HE  SPILLED  IT  ON  THE  GROUND

In his indecisiveness, he did go ahead and marry Tamar and actually "went in unto his brother’s wife." At the last moment, however, he changed his mind and "spilled the seed on the ground." As a result, the Lord was greatly displeased, and slew Onan also.


Still, Judah did have a serious obligation to Tamar, and he did want a grandson who would carry on his family line and patriarchal leadership. Not knowing what to do, he simply deferred his decision for a time. Shelah was not really quite old enough to get married anyway; so he told Tamar to wait for a while until Shelah was older. As things later developed, of course, Shelah did not marry Tamar. That he did marry someone, however, is evident, in that be became the ancestor of the Shelanites, in the tribe of Judah (Numbers 26:20).


To prevent detection by Judah. She resorts to a disguise and stratagem that must have appeared quite honorable in her Canaanite eyes. Even the profession of temple prostitute was considered respectable. It is known that in many such ancient religious systems, all the women of the community were expected to devote themselves on occasion to this practice, as an actual votive offering to their pagan gods and goddesses. That she was actually posing as such a temple prostitute, rather than as a common harlot, is evident from the fact that the word used to describe her later by the Canaanite men themselves (Hebrew cedesha, meaning "one set apart," as used in verses 21 and 22) was the word used for this purpose. She assumes the veil of a votary of Astarte. Her intention was to force Judah himself to perform the levirate duty. In pre-Mosaic times, it seems, every member of the late husband’s family was under that obligation.

    38:15     A  HARLOT

In v. 21 she is described as a Kedeshah; that is, a woman dedicated to impure heathen worship. This repulsive custom was common in ancient Phoenicia and Babylonia and survives in many forms of Hindu worship. No Kedeshah was permitted in Israel. See Deut. 23:17

    38:18     WHAT  PLEDGE

He must have known quite well that sex outside of marriage was not pleasing to the God whom he was trying, however poorly, to serve, but he (like many others since) was a rather weak and carnal believer, and he justified himself on the basis of all his other trials and tribulations and his won immediate physical needs, which could be satisfied in no other way, so he thought. Therefore he turned aside to Tamar and struck up a bargain with her for her favors. He agreed to send her a kid from his flock in payment. In the meantime, until he could return to his flock he would leave his signet, bracelets and his staff. These were the insignia of a sheikh in Canaan, as of a man of rank among the Babylonians and Egyptians.

    38:20     HE  FOUND  HER  NOT

However, search and inquire as he would, Hirah could find neither the woman nor anyone who remembered ever seeing her there. The men who were regularly in the area assured him that there was no prostitute who frequented that place. Mystified, Hirah finally had to return to Judah with his mission unfulfilled.


It was some three months later when Judah heard a bit of shocking news. His daughter-in-law, Tamar, was pregnant! He was righteously indignant. Not only had she somehow been the occasion of the death of two of his sons, but here she had disgraced their memory, and his own name as well, by an adulterous intrigue with some nameless lover.

    38:24     LET  HER  BE  BURNT

Judah, as head of the family, had power of life and death; compare Gen. 31:32. Tamar was the betrothed of Shelah, and betrothal was considered to be as binding as marriage. The penalty for adultery in such a case, even in an ungodly society like that of Canaan, was death, as may be observed in the Code of Khammurabi and other ancient codes.

    38:25     BY  THE  MAN,  WHOSE  THESE  ARE,  AM  I  WITH  CHILD

He himself -self -righteous Judah!- had been the adulterer responsible for her condition. There was no doubt about it, because she brought forth his seal and cord and staff to prove it. Tamar did know enough about Judah that she had confidence he would treat her fairly, once he saw the full truth of the situation. She had been more righteous than he. Rather than slaying her and her unborn child, he would care for them as his own. He could no longer give her to Shelah, nor would it be right for him to live with her as husband and wife, but he would at least acknowledge her son as his heir.

    38:27     TWINS  WERE  IN  HER  WOMB

As it turned out, Tamar, instead of bearing one son, was to be the mother of two sons. The entire situation was, in many respects, similar to the birth of Jacob and Esau, with an apparent conflict between the two sons even before birth. There seemed almost to be a contest between the two as to which would have the honor of being firstborn.

    38:28     A  SCARLET  THREAD

The midwife attending the birth first saw a tiny hand emerge and, in order to keep the twins distinct, assuming this one would be born first, she tied a scarlet thread on his hand. But the, surprisingly, his hand drew back, and the other twin forged ahead and came out first. The latter was named Pharez, meaning "breaking-through," in token of the manner of his birth. The other was named Zerah, meaning "rising." It was he on whose hand had been tied the scarlet thread. There is no connection between the scarlet thread (Hebrew shani) of Zerah and the line of scarlet thread (Hebrew chut) used by Rahab (Joshua 2:18,21). The two words are quite different.

Tamar, therefore, had the distinction of being one of the few women whose names are listed in the official genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3). The others were Rahab, Ruth, and the one who had been wife of Uriah, that is, Bathsheba (Matthew 1:5,6). Tamar was a Canaanite, Rahab a native of Jericho and thus presumably also a Canaanite, Ruth was a Moabitess, and Bathsheba probably a Hittite (at least by marriage to Uriah, if not by birth). Each of the four came into the family of Judah and Israel by morally dubious means. Tamar posed as a prostitute, Rahab was a harlot by profession, Ruth persuaded Boaz to marry her by the questionable device of spending the night with him, and Bathsheba became wife of King David by first committing adultery with him. Each one became a strong and faithful believer in God; and God signally honored them by placing them in the genealogical line of the Messiah. Rahab became one of the heroes of faith in the New Testament (Hebrews 11:31). What a marvelous testimony to God’s grace, and the truth that God forgives past sins and brings new life!


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