After his return from upper Mesopotamia, Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, where his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac had resided before his birth. (37:1)
At this point, the Genesis account shifts attention away from Jacob and focuses primarily on Joseph, the son of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. At the age of 17, Joseph shared in shepherding the flock. He did this with his younger half brothers Dan and Naphtali (the children of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid) and Gad and Asher (the children of Zilpah, Leah’s maid). Based on what he saw his half brothers doing, he brought back a bad report about them to his father. (37:2) According to Targum Jonathan, their bad deed was to eat the flesh of domestic animals that wild beasts had torn, and this included eating the ears and tails of the killed creatures.
Israel (Jacob [LXX]) loved Joseph more than his other sons because he was a son of his old age. Probably a major factor was that Joseph was the son of Rachel, his favorite wife. (37:3) Josephus attributed Jacob’s love for Joseph because this son was very handsome, virtuous, and excelled the other sons in sagacity. (Antiquities, II, ii, 1) Targum Jonathan says that Jacob loved Joseph because his appearance resembled his own.
Jacob made a special garment for Joseph, a garment of distinction that set his son apart as the one who was the object of his unique love. There is a measure of uncertainty about the Hebrew expression that describes this garment. The Septuagint refers to it as a multi-colored garment. (37:3)
Jacob’s favoring Joseph gave rise to resentment among his other sons. They began to hate their half brother and ceased to speak to him in a friendly or civil manner (literally, they could not “speak peace”). Joseph’s full brother Benjamin is not included as sharing any resentment, for he was still very young. (37:4)
Joseph must have discerned his half brothers’ hostile attitude toward him. Yet he did not keep to himself the dream he had, a dream that pointed to his coming to have a position of superiority in relation to his brothers. He told them he had dreamed that they were binding sheaves in the field and that his sheaf assumed an upright position and remained thus, whereas the other sheaves assembled around the upright sheaf and bowed down to it. Hearing this, the half brothers came to hate Joseph even more and said to him, “Are you to reign over us or are you indeed to exercise dominion over us?” Their hostile response did not restrain Joseph from relating to them yet another dream. In that dream, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. When his father Jacob heard this, he rebuked his son. “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Are we indeed to come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down to the ground before you?” Apparently because Leah was then the principal wife in the household, Jacob referred to her as the mother of Joseph. The words of Joseph caused his half brothers to harbor intense jealousy of him. His father, however, kept what Joseph said in mind. (37:5-11; see the Notes section regarding verse 9.)
Josephus, in his Antiquities (II, ii, 3), represents Jacob as thinking very differently about what Joseph said. “Now Jacob was pleased with the dream, for, considering the prediction in his mind, and shrewdly and wisely guessing at its meaning, he rejoiced at the great things thereby signified, because it declared the future happiness of his son.”
Later, while Joseph’s half brothers were pasturing the flock in the vicinity of Shechem, Jacob became concerned about them and sent Joseph to find out how they and the flock were faring. According to Targum Jonathan, Jacob’s concern was prompted by fear that his sons might come under attack because of the much earlier slaughter Simeon and Levi had undertaken against the men of Shechem on account of the rape of their sister Dinah. As an obedient son, Joseph expressed his willingness to fulfill his father’s request. (37:12-14)
Upon arriving at Shechem, Joseph met a man who told him that he had overheard his brothers saying that they planned to go to Dothan. It was at Dothan that Joseph did find them. Upon seeing him from afar, they plotted to kill him, throw him into a pit, and thereafter claim that a wild beast had killed him. Their thinking was that this would terminate the possibility that Joseph’s dreams would be fulfilled. Targum Jonathan indicates that Simeon and Levi were the ones who initiated the plan to commit murder. This is likely, for they had been guilty of murderous action against the men of Shechem. It also would explain why, years later, Joseph chose to bind and imprison Simeon to assure that his half brothers would return to Egypt with his full brother Benjamin to purchase food during the time of severe famine in Canaan. (37:15-20; 42:23-34)
Reuben, upon hearing the plotting of his brothers, tried to prevent them from killing Joseph, urging them not to shed blood. He told them to toss Joseph into a pit, and his intent was to rescue him and to return him safely to his father. (37:21, 22; 42:22; see the Notes section regarding the comments of Josephus.)
When Joseph arrived, Simeon may well have been the one who stripped him of his garment and may also have been the one to toss him into the pit. The Genesis account does not contain any specifics about who was involved in the action. Josephus, however, wrote what Reuben (Reubel) did. He “took the lad and tied him to a cord, and let him down gently into the pit, for it had no water at all in it.” After Reuben “had done this,” he “went his way to seek for such pasturage as was fit for feeding his flocks.” (Antiquities, II, iii, 2) Targum Jonathan adds that there were “serpents and scorpions in the pit.” While Reuben was not with them, the other brothers seated themselves and callously proceeded to eat a meal. When they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead (a region east of the Jordan River), Judah persuaded his brothers not to kill Joseph but to sell him to the traders. They heeded his recommendation and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders for twenty pieces of silver (gold [LXX]). The caravan of traders were on their way to Egypt to exchance precious aromatic substances for other goods. In the account, these traders are identified as Midianites and as Ishmaelites. Both peoples were descendants of Abraham and, therefore, the designations may either be used interchangeably or the caravan included both Ishamelites and Midianites. (37:23-28) Josephus (Antiquities,), II, iii, 3) wrote that the traders were Arabians, the offspring of Ishmael.
When Reuben returned to the pit for the purpose of saving Joseph, he found it empty. In dismay, he tore his garments. Recognizing the bad position in which this had placed him with his father, he said to his brothers, “The lad is gone, and I, where shall I go?” Reuben was beside himself as to what he was going to do. (37:29, 30) Josephus wrote that Reuben feared that his brothers had killed Joseph but that he stopped his mourning when they related to him what they had done. (Antiquities, II, iii, 3)
To conceal their sinful act against Joseph, the brothers killed a male goat and dipped the garment they had stripped from him into the blood of the slaughtered animal. They then lyingly told their father that they had found the garment and asked him to examine it to determine whether it was Joseph’s. Jacob recognized the garment and concluded that a wild beast had killed his son. In expression of his intense grief, he tore his garments, put on sackcloth over the bare skin of his loins, and continued in mourning for his son for “many days.” Efforts of his sons and daughters to comfort Jacob proved to be useless. There was really nothing that any of the sons could say that could have provided genuine comfort, for they were personally responsible for their father’s unconsolable grief. All that Jacob could say as he wept was that he would go to his son in a state of mourning to Sheol or to the realm of the dead. (37:31-35; see the Notes section.)
After taking Joseph to Egypt, the Midianite traders sold him as a slave to Potiphar (Petephres [LXX]), a man in the service of Pharaoh. The Hebrew expression that designates Potiphar’s position is “eunuch of Pharaoh.” As a married man, however, Potiphar would not have been a literal eunuch. Therefore, the word “eunuch” here means a royal officer, official, or courier. Additionally, Potiphar was called “captain of the guard.” The Hebrew word for “guard” can also mean “cook” or “butcher” and, by extension, an “executioner.” This explains why the Greek designation in the Septuagint has been translated “chief cook” or “chief butcher.” (37:36)
Verse 9 of the Hebrew text says that Joseph related the particulars of his second dream to his brothers. Josephus, however, wrote that “he told the vision to his father” while his brothers were with him, for he expected no ill-will from them. (Antiquities, II, ii, 3) The Septuagint also states that Joseph related the dream to his father and his brothers. Verse 10 in the Hebrew text and also in the Septuagint says that Joseph told the dream to his father and his brothers.
The Genesis account does not contain any extensive quotations about what Reuben said to his brothers, but Josephus included considerable additional material in his Antiquities (II, iii, 1, 2). Reuben (Reubel) “tried to restrain [his brothers], showing them the heinous enterprise they were going about, and the horrid nature of it. … So he entreated them to have a regard to their own consciences, and wisely to consider what mischief would betide them upon the death of so good a child, and their youngest brother; that they should also fear God, who was already both a spectator and a witness of the designs they had against their brother; that he would love them if they abstained from this act, and yielded to repentance and amendment; but in case they proceeded to do the act, all sorts of punishments would overtake them from God for this murder of their brother, since they polluted his providence, which was everywhere present, and which did not overlook what was done, either in deserts or in cities; for wheresoever a man is, there ought he to suppose that God is also.”
Reuben (Reubel) “said these and many other things,” entreating his brothers and endeavoring “to divert them from the murder of their brother. But when he saw that his discourse had not mollified them at all, and that they made haste to do the act, he advised them to alleviate the wickedness they were going about.”
Targum Jonathan indicates that the older brothers sent the blood-stained garment “with the sons of Zilpah and Bilhah” to their father Jacob.
Targum Jonathan says that Isaac also mourned the death of Joseph. Based on the Genesis account, Isaac was still alive at the time Joseph was sold. This can be determined on the basis of the following information: After having served Laban for fourteen years, Jacob became father to Joseph by his wife Rachel. (30:25) Thereafter he served Laban for six more years and obtained wages in the form of sheep and goats. (31:41) At the time Jacob arrived with his household to settle in Egypt, he was 130 years of age, and Joseph was 39 years old. (41:46, 47, 53, 54; 45:11; 47:9) This would make Jacob about 91 years of age at the time Joseph was born and after he had begun to serve Laban fourteen years earlier. Accordingly, he was about 77 years old when his service to Laban began. Isaac was 60 years of age at the time the twins Jacob and Esau were born (25:26) and, therefore, about 137 years of age at the time of Jacob’s departure. Upon Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan 20 years later, Joseph would have been about six years old and his grandfather Isaac would have been about 157 years of age. Isaac lived another 23 years and died at the age of 180. (35:28, 29)