The last time we studied the book of Genesis together we were on chapters 35 and 36. And do you remember the four ‘s’es from those two chapters? The first ‘s’ was sin. After God commanded Jacob to go to Bethel, Jacob commanded the members of his family to get rid of their foreign gods. And so we learned how even the members of this covenant family were sinning against the Lord by worshipping and serving idols which cannot save.
The second ‘s’ was for sorrow, because in Genesis 35 we read how Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried. And then we read how Jacob’s father Isaac died and was buried. Because of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, death came into the world and spread to us all so that the people we love die and we’re left feeling sorrow and sadness. And then, we ourselves will one day die unless the Lord Jesus returns first. Everyone dies and our lives are filled with sorrow. But, of course, the good news of the gospel is that the Son of God died for us and rose again and all who believe in him receive forgiveness for our sins and the hope of the resurrection of our bodies and everlasting life in the presence of God.
The third ‘s’ was for salvation and it was also for the Saviour, because in chapter 35 the Lord repeated to Jacob the promises he had made to Abraham and Isaac to give them a people and a place. And while those promises were fulfilled in a provisional and temporal way in the nation of Israel and in the land of Canaan, the promises are fulfilled in a better way by the church of Jesus Christ and by the new heavens and the new earth where we shall live in peace with God for ever. And, of course, God also promised Jacob that kings would come from his body. And while that promise was also fulfilled in a provisional way in the kings Judah — men like David and Solomon and Rehoboam and so on — the Lord’s promise is fulfilled in a better way by Jesus Christ our Great King who rules and reigns from heaven over all things.
And the fourth ‘s’ was separation, because in chapter 36 we read how Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, who had been living in the Promised Land of Canaan, took the decision to move away from the Promised Land. And so, he separated himself from his brother and from all that God was going to do to bring salvation to the world. It’s as if he was saying:
I want nothing to do with this.
And what Esau did is a warning to all those who have been brought up among God’s people not to turn away from the Lord and all his promises. It’s a warning not to separate ourselves from the Lord’s people, but to join with the Lord’s people to give thanks to him for his kindness to us.
So, that’s what we were thinking about the last time. Now, if you have your Bible open, just glance back to the beginning of chapter 36 where it says:
This is the account of Esau.
And then we have a list of Esau’s descendants. And now look at how chapter 37 begins. It says in verse 2:
This is the account of Jacob.
So, in chapter 36 we read about Esau’s descendants. And in chapter 37 and in the following chapters, we read about Jacob’s descendants. The account of Esau’s descendants only took one chapter. There’s not much to say about them. But the account of Jacob’s descendants takes several chapters. And, of course, the story of Jacob’s descendants is focussed really on what happened to one of his descendants. The focus from now on is on Joseph. And chapter 36 — which is the beginning of the story of Joseph — can be divided into two parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 11, we have Joseph’s dreams and his brothers’ hatred towards him. And then, in verses 12 to 36, we read how his brothers sold him into slavery.
Verses 1 to 11
So, verses 1 to 11 first of all. And we’re told in verse 2 how Joseph was 17 years old. And he was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. You’ll remember perhaps that, as well as having children by Leah and Rachel, his two wives, Jacob also had children by Rachel’s servant Bilhah and Leah’s servant Zilpah. So, at the beginning of this chapter, we read how Joseph — who was Rachel’s firstborn son — was with some of his brothers: Dan and Napthali, the sons of Bilhah, and Gad and Asher, the sons of Zilpah. And look at verse 2: he brought a bad report of them to his father. In other words, he told on them.
And then verse 3 is important, because there we read how Jacob loved Joseph. In fact, he loved Joseph more than he loved his other sons. Joseph was his favourite. We don’t know why Joseph was his favourite, apart from the little note there in verse 3 that Jacob loved him because he had been born to him in his old age. So, perhaps it was simply a case of an old man, doting on one of his youngest son. However, you might recall a sermon I preached a couple of years ago, when I suggested that he loved Joseph because Joseph was more righteous than his brothers. Think of how Joseph later refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, and compare that kind of righteous and upright behaviour to what his brothers did to the people of Shechem in chapter 34. In chapter 34, they deceived the men of Shechem. Then they murdered the men of Shechem. And then they looted the city. They also had all these false gods. Joseph’s brothers did all these wicked things, whereas Joseph was careful not to offend the Lord his God. So, perhaps that’s why Jacob loved him more.
Anyway, as a sign of his great affection for Joseph, Jacob gave him this richly ornamented robe. Traditionally it’s been known as ‘the coat of many colours’, though the little footnote in the NIV tells us that no one is entirely sure how to translate the Hebrew word Moses used to describe this robe.
But look now at verse 4 where Moses tells us that when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than he loved any of them, they hated him. They hated him. And they could not speak a kind word to him. Well, that does not bode well for Joseph’s future.
And then we read how Joseph had a dream. And when he told the dream to his brothers, they hated him all the more. What was the dream? It’s there in verse 7: They were binding sheaves of corn out in the field, when suddenly Joseph’s sheaf rose and stood upright. And the sheaves which belonged to his brothers gathered around his sheaf and bowed down to it.
Now, we don’t know why Joseph told this dream to his brothers. We don’t know what he was thinking. Did he understand the implication of the dream and was he boasting about it? Was he saying:
Hey. Let me tell you this. One day you’re going to bow down to me!
Or was he doing what we do whenever we have an interesting dream? You know, we wake up and we say to the members of our family before we have time to forget:
Listen to this crazy dream I had last night.
And we’re just telling them because we think it’s interesting. Why did Joseph relate the dream to his brothers? And what did he make of it? Well, we don’t know. Moses doesn’t tell us. But he does tell us what his brothers thought about it and what they said about it. Verse 8. They said to him:
Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?
And they hated him all the more because of his dream and because of what he had said to them.
And then he had another dream which he also related to his brothers. But he didn’t only tell this one to his brothers. He also told them one to his father. And in this dream, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to Joseph. And look at verse 10. His father rebuked him, because he understood what the symbolism of the dream. He understood that he was the sun; Joseph’s mother was the moon; and his eleven brothers were the eleven stars. What Joseph was dreaming about was how his father and mother and brothers would one day bow down to him. And though his father rebuked him, he nevertheless kept this thing in mind. In other words, he remembered it and thought about it and he wondered what it could possibly mean.
Meanwhile, his brothers were jealous of him.
Verses 12 to 36
In verses 12 to 36 we see what happened next. Joseph’s brothers had gone off to graze the flocks near the city of Shechem. Shechem, of course, was the city which featured in chapter 34, where we read how Levi and Simeon had brutally murdered the men of the city. So, perhaps Jacob was worried about his sons, being so close to that city. In any case, he sent his beloved son to check on them. And we read how Joseph arrived at Shechem, but there was no sign of his brothers. Someone then informed him that they’d moved to Dothan. So he went on his way to Dothan. But look at verse 18. While he was still far off, his brothers spotted him and they got together and they plotted together how they would kill their father’s beloved son. And verse 19 tells us the details of their plan. They were going to kill him and throw his dead body into a cistern. Apparently these cisterns were all over the place, and were usually filled with water so that the shepherds and herdsmen would be able to water their animals. Well, Joseph’s brothers were going to dump his dead body into one of these cisterns. And then they’d tell their father that a ferocious animal had devoured him. That was their plan.
Well, Reuben, we read, wanted to rescue Joseph. And so, he persuaded his brothers not to kill Joseph themselves, but to leave him in the pit to die. And we’re told that Reuben was hoping to come later and release him. And so, when Joseph arrived, his brothers didn’t kill him. But instead they attacked him and stripped him of his special robe, and they threw him into an empty cistern, just as Reuben had suggested. But before Reuben had a chance to rescue him, Judah had an idea. He said:
Let’s sell him as a slave.
And that’s what they did. They sold him to these Ishmaelites, who were also known as Midianites. The brothers then took his coat, dipped it in the blood of a slaughtered goat and went home. And when Jacob saw the blood-stained coat which belonged to his beloved son, he assumed the worst, that his beloved son was dead. And though his sons tried to comfort him, he refused to be comforted. He said:
In mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.
And so he wept for his son.
Meanwhile, the Midianites took Joseph to Egypt and there they sold him to Potiphar.
Fulfilled in Christ
What can we learn from this story? Why has the Lord included it in his revelation to us? Well, I think we should resist the urge to try to draw out from this story some hints and tips about family life and about being a good father and about being a good sibling. You know: preachers will sometimes use this story to remind fathers and mothers not to show favouritism the way Jacob did. They’ll say:
Look at all the trouble Jacob caused because he loved Joseph more than his brothers. So don’t show favouritism.
Or, preachers will sometimes use this story to teach us to be humble and not boastful. They’ll say:
Wasn’t Joseph foolish, the way he boasted about his dreams. No wonder his brothers hated him. So, if you want to get along with other people, don’t be boastful.
And no doubt we could mine this story for other life lessons. But let’s resist the urge to do that, because by this story which the Lord has included in his word, he is teaching us something far, far, far more important. He’s teaching us about his grace and his mercy to sinners and by this story he’s revealing to us his great plan for our salvation.
Let’s think about this story again. What do we read? Well, we read about this father’s great love for his son. Joseph is his beloved son. And this father loved his son so much that he gave him this special robe to show how much he loved him. But while the father loved Joseph; Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated the beloved son.
And then we read how the father sent his beloved son away from the safety of their home and out into the wilderness to look for his brothers. And the beloved son went willingly. And look how he searched for his brothers! He went to Shechem first of all. They weren’t there. So he went on to Dothan. He travelled for miles and miles and he didn’t stop until he found them, because he wanted to do what his father had asked him to do and to find his brothers. Even though he must have known that his brothers hated him, he wanted to find them, because that was his father’s will.
And so, the beloved son came to his own brothers. And what did his own brothers do? Well, because they hated him, they wanted to kill him. ‘Let’s kill him’, they said. ‘And then, let’s see what will come of his dreams.’ And there, in those words which we read in verse 20, we see precisely why they wanted to get rid of him. They wanted to get rid of him, of course, because he was the beloved son. But they also wanted to get rid of him because of these dreams which foretold how they would one day bow down before him; and they did not want to bow down to their brother or to have him rule over them. And so, because they hated the beloved son and because they did not want him to rule over them, they plotted together how to kill him.
And they would have killed him, if it were not for Reuben and Judah who — providentially, providentially, I say, because the Lord was working behind the scenes, guiding and directing all that was happening in order to fulfil his plans for Joseph — so providentially, Reuben and Judah suggested to their brothers a different course of action.
And so, the beloved son was sold as a slave. And we all know what happened next. We know how he lived for a time in Potiphar’s home, before he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. And having been falsely accused, the beloved son, who had done nothing wrong, was thrown into prison. And there he remained, as good as dead, locked up and imprisoned, with no way out. Until, until something wonderful happened. It was like a miracle. The beloved son, who was as good as dead, was raised from his cell and exalted to the right hand of the King of Egypt where he ruled over all.
And in due course, his brothers came before him, and they bowed down in front of him. And though they once hated the beloved son, in the end they were reconciled to him, because he was willing to forgive them for all that they had done to him. Instead of holding what they had done against them, he pardoned them. And he rescued them from perishing because of the famine and they lived with him in peace and prosperity for the rest of their lives.
Now, do you see? Are you getting it? God has given us this story to reveal to us his great plan of salvation, because years and years after all of this happened, God the Father sent his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. And the Beloved Son came willingly, because he wanted more than anything else to do his Father’s will.
And what happened when he came into the world? His brothers — the children of Israel — hated him. They hated the beloved son. And they hated the thought of bowing down to him and submitting their lives to him. And so, they plotted together to kill the Beloved Son of God. They falsely accused him. And they persuaded Pilate to crucify him. And when Pilate wanted to put up a sign on the cross, saying ‘The king of the Jews’ they said:
Don’t write that. Don’t write that. Write instead that he claims to be king.
What were they saying was really this:
This man claims to be our king, but we will never, ever bow down to this man.
And so, the beloved son, who never did anything wrong, was killed. And his body was laid in a tomb, and the stone was rolled over the entrance so that his body was, as it were, locked up inside, with no way out. But three days later, something wonderful happened. A miracle. The Beloved Son was brought out of the prison of death. And he was exalted to God’s right hand where he rules over all. And every day men and women and boys and girls come and they bow before him and they say to him:
You are our king. We love you and we want to serve you.
And to all who submit to him as king, he rescues them from their sin and misery and he promises them a place in his everlasting and heavenly kingdom of glory.
Do you see? The story of Joseph reveals to us the even better story of Jesus Christ, God’s Beloved Son, who was hated by those he came to save. And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing. By nature, we’re just like Joseph’s brothers. By nature, we hated the Beloved Son and we hated the thought of bowing down before him. By nature, we hated him, because by nature we’re sinners and we don’t want to bow down to God. We only want to please ourselves and we only want to serve ourselves. We don’t want to have to do what God says.
And that’s the way we would still be, and that’s the way we would remain for ever and ever, hating him always, even in hell. That’s the way we would still be, if he hadn’t been so gracious and merciful to us, and if he hadn’t sent his Spirit into our lives to give us a new heart, one that’s able to love him. And the Spirit enabled us to turn from our rebellion and to trust in the Beloved Son and to bow before him and to say to him:
From now on, I want to serve you and to do your will.
He sent his Spirit to us; and his Spirit enabled us to believe and to bow before the Beloved Son. And though we deserve to be condemned for our sins — just as Joseph’s brothers deserved to be condemned for what they did to him — nevertheless, the Beloved Son pardoned us. He pardoned us.
Is that what has happened to you? Have you submitted to Christ and have you decided that you’re going to serve him all the days of your life? Because whoever bows down to him — just as Joseph’s brothers eventually bowed down to Joseph — will find that the Beloved Son is willing to pardon them and he’s willing to give them everlasting life.
And whoever has bowed down to him, ought to remember everyday what he has done for us; and we ought therefore to give thanks to him everyday for his kindness towards us. Joseph’s brothers once hated him, but he only ever loved them and was kind to them. And the true Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, has always been kind and good to us, and so we ought to remember to give thanks to him for his grace and mercy, because, of course, we would never have believed, and we would still hate him today, if he hadn’t sent his Spirit into our lives to enable us to give up our natural hatred and to bow before him.
And then, since we’ve been united with Christ through faith, and now belong to him, we ought not to be surprised when unbelievers refuse to listen to us whenever we tell them about the Beloved Son. Joseph’s brothers hated him; and people today hate him; and they will hate us too when we try to tell them about the Beloved Son and how they too must bow before Christ the King to serve him. And they will not listen to us, because they do not want the Beloved Son to rule over them.
We shouldn’t be surprised if they do not listen to us. And we shouldn’t be surprised if they hate us. But we should continue to pray for them, asking the Lord to send his Spirit to them, so that they are enabled to repent of their rebellion and to bow before Christ the King. And all who bow before Christ the King, will receive from him forgiveness for their sins. And one day, when he comes again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, he will bring them into his heavenly kingdom of glory, where there will be peace and joy forever in the presence of God’s Beloved Son.