By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 13, 2023
Genesis 37:1–4, 12-28 (ESV)
1 Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. 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. 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. 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.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 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.” 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. 15 And 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.” 17 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. 18 They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 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.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 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. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24 And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 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. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 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. 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.
Like most narratives within the Old Testament, there is a great deal going on within today’s passage. I spent hours this week studying, trying to figure out what it was I should focus on this week, and like most weeks I found myself jumping from one aspect to another. In my first stint as a pastor, I ministered in a church plant in Winfield, KS. I did not start the work in Winfield, there had been three pastors there prior to me, and I was only there for a little more than a year before the yearly meeting suggested it close. One might say that this was a failed church plant. And in many ways, they would be right because it does not exist anymore. But there was good that came from that church. There were a few students in that meeting. One of those students continued to meet with me as we moved to Arkansas City, KS. And we would have bible studies that would last two to three hours. We would often refer to these times as rabbit trail studies because we would get off topic and go all over the place and eventually would return to the passage we were focusing on. This student would later go to Barclay College, and continued to obtain a master’s degree in ministry and currently serves as a pastor in Oregon. I would not call the work in Winfield a failure because it produced fruit.
But the study method we employed is interesting to me. We once called them rabbit trails; I now call them squirrel tracks. As I have matured, I have noticed that I am often distracted. I would not self-diagnose Adult ADHD, but as my attention span diminishes even more, I tend to wonder. Squirrel tracks. That is my bible study method. I begin to study, thinking that I am making progress, and then I look at my notes and realize I am not even in the same passage. And to be honest I do not even know how I got there.
Today’s passage is one of those passages that lends itself to squirrel tracks. “These are the generations of Jacob,” Verse 2 states. This is where my adventure began. I began to look deeper into the sons and daughters of Jacob. I began to count the years, and attempted to figure out how old each of the people would have been. And I realized that I misspoke last week. This then had me trying to figure out how I was going to apologize for misleading everyone and how to make amends. Anyways, I apologize. I said last week that Jacob spent fifteen years with his uncle, I was wrong. He spent twenty years with Leban. Fourteen years to cover the bride price, and he offered an additional seven years as wages. The reason Leban was upset with Jacob was that once Rachel gave birth to a son, who was named Joseph, Jacob left with a year remaining in his contract.
Jacob worked for seven years and after that he was married to Leah. They enjoyed a wedding night and Jacob went to his now father-in-law upset because the woman he married was Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob was completely fine during the night hours, but that did not matter after the sun rose. Leban manipulated Jacob through his daughters. He told Jacob, “I am sorry it is just our tradition that the oldest daughter needs to be married first, but if you sign on for an additional seven years, you can marry Rachel next week. Jacob decided this plan was worth his time.
For the next seven years, Jacob’s wives and servants were caught in a battle of births and in seven years twelve children were born. Leah had six sons and a daughter. The servants each bore two sons, and at the close of the seventh year Rachel bore Joseph. It was then at the close of the fourteenth year of service that Jacob requested leave, but Leban again manipulated the situation. “I cannot let you go without payment,” So they devised a plan for wages.
At the end of lambing season on the sixth year, the sons of Leban noticed that Jacob’s portion of the flock was growing at a greater rate than their own, and they were convinced that Jacob was involved in treachery. “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.” At this point Joseph was around six years old, and the oldest child Reuben would have been around twelve or thirteen. Culturally this is significant because Reuben was coming of age.
This age does not carry the weight today as it once did, but in this ancient culture Reuben was at the age where he would be leaving the influence of his mother and joining the family business as a man. Jacob had a decision to make, would he allow his family to remain under the house of Leban or would he go back to his father’s house? This is one of many decisions that weighed on Jacob’s mind as he decided to return to Canaan. After twenty years, Jacob decided to return to the land promised to his grandfather, his father, and promised to him in Beth-el.
As we read through these stories, I sometimes wonder if we grasp the significance of the situation. They were leaving the place they called home. Jacob was leaving a career that had provided for him and his family for the past twenty years. He was going to take his children away from their grandfather and take them to a land they had only heard about in stories. Jacob looked at the situation and decided it was better to leave than to continue to raise his family within a community that would make fraudulent accusations out of jealousy.
Jacob ran from his father’s house; he ran from his father-in-law’s house and last week we found him wrestling with God. After this bout in the night, Jacob then met his brother Esau. Jacob expected his brother to attack, he expected that everything he had labored for over the past decades would be lost. But after he wrestled with God, Jacob was changed. He emerged with a new name, Israel, and a limp.
And Jacob then settled just east of the Jordan, just outside the land promised for a time. He built a house and made lodgings for his livestock in a place called Succoth. The next thing we know is that they then traveled west over the Jordan to a place called Shechem.
This region is important in the history of Israel as a people and a political entity. This was the first place Abraham camped within the Canaan. That night, God visited Abraham and reestablished his promise saying, “To your offspring I will give this land.” And Abraham built an altar of praise. Later as Joshua leads the tribes of Israel back to the land after their forty years of wondering in the desert, it is at Shechem they gathered after their initial battles. Joshua stood before them and recounted their history and said to them, “No therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” And the people answered that they too would serve the Lord. It was from this place Shechem that Israel took their inheritance.
It is fitting that it was to this place that Jacob, Israel himself, entered the land after his own exile. But this place became a place of trouble. Jacob left Succoth and came to Shechem, and his daughter Dinah desired to see the women of the land. And as she walked within the city a prince within that land seized her, took advantage, and defiled her. Shechem, the prince begged his father to go to Jacob and retrieve Dinah as his wife, but the whole situation angered the brothers.
We do not know how old the children would have been at this time, but Dinah was the last child Leah bore to Jacob. And she was born before Joseph, which would lead us to believe that she was nearly the same age as Joseph. When they left Leban’s house she would have been around six years old, while Reuben would have been nearly thirteen. She was now old enough to marry, which would mean she would be twelve years old or older. The brothers convinced Shechem’s father to agree to their terms of circumcision before a marriage could occur and while they were recovering from this, the brothers extracted revenge for their sister’s honor.
Jacob was upset by this matter. He had just entered the land and hoped to settle once again in the land promised to him. But as soon as he entered his children began to make trouble. We can understand the brother’s desire to defend their sister’s honor, but their violence and looting continued the cycle Jacob was hoping to leave behind. And they find themselves again traveling to get away from their troubles. On this next journey the last of Jacob’s children was born, Benjamin. The distance in age between Joseph and Benjamin was like the distance between Reuben and Joseph. Approximately thirteen years.
I say all this because that is where my mind went this week. I had to know the range of ages and why they took these various journeys, so that I could look at the narrative in the proper context. When they initially left Shechem all the boys except for Joseph would have been considered adults. And their ages would have ranged from approximately twenty to fourteen, maybe older. Each of the boys were old enough to be responsible for their own actions, and Jacob moved them to avoid war. Now his favorite wife has died, left him with a baby, and he is not a young man anymore.
Five years down the road Joseph is now seventeen. I speculate the age of the others based on this one fact we are given. Reuben would have been seven years older than Joseph, so he is now twenty-four. And each of the boys except for Benjaman, who is five, would be out working for the family. Jacob is at this time basically retired. He is the patriarch of the family and still has final say on all that is done, but much of the operations have been turned over to the eldest son. But this is not the case here.
Jacob’s family is filled with drama. While Benjaman was just a baby, while his father was distracted by the loss of his wife and this new addition, Reuben decided he would make a move of his own. He went to Rachel’s servant Bilhah and dishonored his father’s name. Because of this action Reuben was disinherited. He lost his standing within the family, so that honor would go to another. We would immediately think that the second born would take that role, but Jacob had multiple wives, so this makes inheritance tricky. He had two wives and two concubines. He had options available to him in this regard. He could make Simeon the second oldest the one who would take the double portion, or he could make Joseph the first born of the second wife the one who gained the inheritance.
Family life gets very messy in scripture. Jocob chose Joseph to take the position of the first born, because he was the second first born of his wives. This did not sit well with the other brothers, all of which except for Benjamin were older. This seventeen-year-old man, just in his fourth year of adulthood was given the position of steward over the family. And Jacob codified this position of honor with a robe or a coat of many colors, some of us know this as the techno-colored dream coat.
Another squirrel track. Tradition tells us that the coat was multicolored. This tradition arose because when the Hebrew scriptures were translated to Greek, they did not have a word that was similar, so they used a word that meant diverse. As we have gained more understanding and more Hebrew fragments of scripture, we have learned more about what this coat really was. The term in Hebrew is derived from a word for palm and ankle, so some believe that this coat was not necessarily multicolored, but a long-sleeved robe that stretched to his ankles. I bring this up, not because I want to ruin a wonderful musical based on multiple colors, nor because I want to throw out tradition. I bring it up because there is much to learn about scripture, and we are always learning. The fact remains that this coat was special. It was a garment specially designed using various colors, premium fabrics, or unique sizing that set the wearer apart from others. Jacob gave Joseph the steward’s coat; he gave him the lead supervisor position. Jacob made Joseph the youngest of the men, manager over the rest, and Joseph had only four years’ experience within the family company.
Reuben, the first born, was disinherited. Dan and Gad, the first born from each of the servants were overlooked because they were the sons of the servants and not the wives. And each of the others were overlooked because of some cultural convention. In their eyes life had treated them unfairly. And as they watched their brother approach in his special coat, jealously gripped them.
They plotted to kill him, but Reuben stepped up and prevented the death. “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him.” Reuben, the one that dishonored his father, was the only one that understood the gravity of what they were discussing. Reuben understood that his actions had set all this into motion. But he also knew that his brothers were rash and prone to act hastily as was seen previously with their sister. Reuben hoped that if he could convince them to simply put him in a pit and then distract them, later he could go back and pull Joseph out and allow him to return to his father.
Maybe Reuben was hoping that by saving Joseph his father would restore his own honor, or maybe it would at least assist in reconciliation. But the brothers agreed, and they put him in one of the pits that gave that region its name. Dothan means two cisterns or wells. Then something unfortunate happened. Dothan was a wealthy region because it was situated along a trade route. It was not an international trade route that went from Mesopotamia to Egypt, but it was a tributary to this route because it was along a resource rich area. While the brothers were eating, Judah was inspired. “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 hands be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” The brothers stripped Joseph of his coat and took twenty shekels of silver from the traders.
We can learn a great deal from these verses. The first thing is how easily I can be distracted. But we also learn that actions have consequences. Jacob kept doing things and then running from the consequences that he faced. I am not saying he was right or wrong, I am simply saying he ran, but consequences always follow. Even though God had blessed Jacob, his life and lifestyle had been passed on to his own children. Reuben lost his inheritance out of desire. They were all filled with jealousy. And they were each willing to take advantage and even manipulate a situation so that they could take advantage of others.
So often we look at this story and see a coat. We see jealousy, we see greed, we see how group thinking can lead to evil plots. All of this is true, but there is more. The sons of Jacob, learned from their father. They learned from Leban, their grandfather. They learned from their mother and their stepmothers. They learned from all these figures in their lives that it was acceptable to act in a manner that would give themselves and advantage over others. They learned plotting, manipulation, conspiring. They were children of the world, and they gained a profit.
Reuben was the first to understand the true cost of this lifestyle. He lost his position within the family with lustful tryst. But when the brothers took the coat soaked in the blood of a goat, the rest saw something that shook them to their very core. They saw the father they once cherished, the father they thought was wise in the ways of the world, brought to tears. He tore his garments and he put on the clothing of mourning and none of them could comfort him.
We cannot change our past actions, but there is hope. We can change the course and the cycles within our lives by making changes today, for good or evil. We can take steps toward heartbreak or hope. The choice is ours. What will we choose?
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