SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 22 Genesis 37

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis** 37**. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:25
Genesis 3
Genesis 4
Genesis 5-6
Genesis 7-9:17
Genesis 9:18-10:32
Genesis 11
Genesis 12-13
Genesis 14-15
Genesis 16
Genesis 17
Genesis 18-19
Genesis 20-22
Genesis 23-24
Genesis 25
Genesis 26:1-33
Genesis 26:34-Genesis 28:9
Genesis 30:25-31:55
Genesis 32
Genesis 33
Genesis 34
Genesis 35-36

[Genesis 37

New International Version (NIV)](

Joseph’s Dreams

37 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.

2 This is the account of Jacob’s family line.

Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

8 His brothers 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 what he had said.

9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Joseph Sold by His Brothers

12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”

“Very well,” he replied.

14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.

When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”

16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”

17 “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.

19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.

23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing— 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.

26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.

28 So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.

29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”

31 Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.”

33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”

34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him.

36 Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

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The garment given to Joseph by his father was a dress coat, not the cloak-like wrap that the man on the street wore. It was distinguished from the usual ones by its length, and the length of its sleeves. It was a luxury which only those who did not have to work could think of having. It is mentioned later in the Bible, 2 Samuel 13.18, as the garb of royal princesses. The Septuagint and its dependent Vulgate interpreted the Hebrew word, whose meaning has not yet been satisfactorily explained, in the sense of “variegated”.
(from Genesis by Gerhard von Rad)

Joseph’s dreams always come in pairs. They are amazingly (for the Bible) simple in their lack of abstract symbolism. It seems likely that the “eleven stars” refers to eleven constellations (as signs of the zodiac) bowing down to Joseph’s constellation.

Leviticus 27.5 states: “If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, the valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels.” This is Joseph’s sale price to the Ishmaelites.

When I’m up to it, I’ll post more.

Was it common to just sell people as slaves? This is the part that is just a little glossed over here that a brother could sell another brother as a slave.

Not that common. The verse I mentioned in Leviticus above gives that impression, but the whole passage is:

27 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, 3 set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels[a] of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel**; 4 for a female, set her value at thirty shekels[c]; 5 for a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels[d] and of a female at ten shekels[e]; 6 for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels[f] of silver and that of a female at three shekels[g] of silver; 7 for a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels[h] and of a female at ten shekels. 8 If anyone making the vow is too poor to pay the specified amount, the person being dedicated is to be presented to the priest, who will set the value according to what the one making the vow can afford.

So, this isn’t actually for selling people into slavery, it’s for dedicating a person to life working in the temple, as Samuel was at the start of 1 Samuel. I was more struck by the fact that it’s the same amount of money here as there.

Professor Pepperwinkle:

Eleven stars are symbolic of Joseph’s eleven brothers. Why would there need to be additional symbolism? The correspondence is not just simple, but is explicitly interpreted as such in verse 10.


No more so than murder, don’t forget that was what they were contemplating at first. The brothers agreed that they needed to be rid of him for his implied ambitions that he would usurp the family leadership (even from his father!), and selling him was the compromise choice for those not violent enough to engage in fratricide. (Of course, what they didn’t know then was that the dreams were genuinely divine prophecies and not personal ambitions, and that they were bringing then to fruition rather than thwarting them.)

Professor Pepperwinkle:

No it’s not, it’s for making a monetary pledge of “a person’s worth.” It’s not at all based on their potential value as slaves. A quadriplegic has the same “person worth” as an Olympic decathlete of the same sex and age bracket.

Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to a life in the Temple was never assigned a monetary value, it was a pledge of his service.

Joseph is the first example of the Jew serving as resident mystic/soothsayer to the king, like Daniel is much later. Also reminiscent of the role of Nathan the prophet to King David and Samuel to Saul - not a priest, exactly, but the semi-official liaison between Yahweh and the king, whoever it was.

Joseph doesn’t need to interpret his dreams, as he does later with Pharoah and the wine steward and chief baker. The meaning of his dreams is obvious, even to his father and brothers.

I wonder what his motivation was in telling his dream. Even his father seems to have been pissed off by the one about the stars. Interesting that it is Reuben who convinces the others to spare Joseph’s life. He is the first born, but disgraced himself for sleeping with one of his father’s concubines. Maybe he is trying to work his way back into favor.


Interesting contrast in the brothers actions to save Dinah a couple of chapters ago and their willingness to kill or sell Joseph here.

I always thought it was simple obnoxious attention-seeking by the little brother.


His motivation was that a prophecy is given to a prophet for the sake of their telling it over. The others did not recognize the genuineness of his dreams, but he understood that his dreams were prophetic messages.

According to traditional Jewish interpretations, that is exactly Reuben’s motivation.

That said, those same interpretations also say that what Reuben was guilty of was actually not as bad as the explicit text of the Torah makes it sound.

That adds almost a Greek tragedy effect, like the Oedipus story - the efforts of people to stop the prophecy from coming true are what makes it come true. If his brothers had not sold him, he would never have wound up in Egypt as Pharoah’s second-hand man, and thus never been able to save his people from the famine. (And set up the later Exodus).

What do they say it was? I interpreted it as Reuben sleeping with his father’s concubine as Absalom slept with his father David’s wives - a way of laying claim to primacy in the inheritance. That fell thru, so Reuben figures he will curry favor with his father by rescuing his father’s favorite son, and thus forge an alliance with Joseph. It might be easier to just let them kill Joseph and inherit as first-born, but Reuben is too squeamish for that.

One of the many things I find fascinating about the OT narratives in particular are the undercurrents and scheming and things implied or left unsaid. Jacob scheming with his mother to get the rights of the first-born over Esau, and the emotional undercurrents of their reunion. Now this story, where an old man is overly indulgent towards the youngest and least son, because he is “the child of his old age”, the last child he is going to have. So then it is going to be murder, but selling into slavery is their second choice.

And all because it is God’s plan for the good. Not just to mess with people, the way the Greek tragedians wrote, but ultimately for the benefit of the people of Israel. It is the same death-resurrection-redemption cycle that is echoed all the way into the New Testament and Jesus.

Joseph is prophesied to be king. He is symbolically killed and thrown into a cistern (“He descended into hell”). There is a sacrifice and blood is used to demonstrate his death. Then he is off to the Promised Land, to save his people, and even, ultimately, to save his brothers from their sins.


For the two brothers indicated, Dinah was their full sister. Joseph is only their half brother, and, for most of them, the son of their mother’s rival. (That works whether you count Gad and Asher or not.) There were only two brothers present who had no familial enmity towards Rachel–Dan and Naphtali.

Plus the brothers didn’t have any reason to be jealous of Dinah.


The Talmud says that he did not actually sleep with his father’s concubine, for if he had, he would not have immediately been re-acknowledged as Jacob’s firstborn (chapter 35:22-23, the Talmud believes the placement to be significant), he would have been disowned.

What the Talmud says really happened was as follows: You’ll recall from earlier chapters that Bilhah was Rachel’s handmaid and Zilpah was Leah’s (Reuben’s mother). Jacob, having four wives, split his time with his wives equally into four. When Rachel died, Jacob put Bilhah in Rachel’s position, so he was spending half of his marital time with Bilhah, and still only a quarter each with Leah and Zilpah. Reuben felt that his mother was entitled to a third of the marital rights now, and moved Jacob’s bed into Leah’s tent on what he felt should be her night. The severity of the accusation as actually written in the text is to make the point that to interfere in the privacy of matters between husband and wife is (on a lesser level, obviously) a manner of adultery (and that a great person such as a son of Jacob should have held himself to such a standard).

The translation in the OP conceals an ambiguity in the original text. The Hebrew in verse 28 doesn’t say “his brothers” drew Joseph out of the pit; it simply says “they,” and the closest antecedent is not his brothers, but the Midianites.

Proponents of the documentary hypothesis say that this chapter contains two versions of the tale, intertwined. In one, it is Reuben who tries to avoid bloodshed, and is distraught to find Joseph gone after the Midianites take him from the pit. The brothers don’t know what happened to him.

In the other, it is Judah who avoids bloodshed by having the brothers sell Joseph to Ishmaelites.

The interleaving is not seamless, because by the time Joseph gets to Egypt, he is back in the possession of the Midianites, rather than the Ishmaelites.

Thank you.


I apologize in advance for being long-winded, the story is very complex and there’s lots of subtlety to point out. More space is devoted to Joseph in the Pentateuch than to any other figure except Moses, and Joseph is the only major character to whom God never, ever speaks. It’s therefore a very interesting section. As an overview, I suggest one major literary theme of the Joseph story is: as you do to others, so is done to you.

Joseph tends the flocks with his brothers. Note that Bilhah and Zilpah are mentioned, but not Leah. In verse 3, we learn that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, and we remember that he loved Rachel (Joseph’s mother) and not Leah. We should have no doubt that the sibling rivalry arises from Jacob’s poor parenting and showing favoritism, both to Rachel and to her son Joseph. The outrageous sign of this favoritism is that he gives Joseph an “ornate robe” (KJV: coat of many colors.)

Joseph brings “bad reports” of the brothers to Jacob; the only other use of this term is in the story of the twelve spies.

So our introduction to Joseph at age 17 is that he’s a snitch and spoiled brat, and we can understand why his brothers hate him.

Next come Joseph’s dreams. There are three sets of two dreams in the Joseph story:

  • Joseph has two dreams here in Ch 37;
  • The baker and butler each have a dream in prison;
  • Pharoah has two dreams.

As noted by Prof P, the dreams come in pairs. This indicates that they’re serious. The ancients acknowledged that not all dreams had significance – there were random, irrelevant dreams. But repeated dreams meant something. We have other ancient writings outside the bible about repeated dreams, two, three or seven times, as warnings. Dreams are not the same as prophecies: prophecies come true, while dreams may or may not (and never come true in whole.)

Yes, as Shodan mentions, there’s an element (for these first two dreams) of Greek irony: if the brothers hadn’t sold Joseph, the dreams (presumably) wouldn’t have come true. Or at least, not in that way. But the later dreams do not have that element of irony.

All six dreams in Joseph’s story foretell rise and fall. Five of the six involve food; that’s a nifty motif since Joseph’s story is all about feast and famine.

As noted earlier, the first dreams, Joseph’s own dreams, are pretty much self-explanatory, while the later dreams in Egypt will need interpretation.

About the second dream: Jacob berates Joseph for telling it, and interprets the sun, moon, and eleven stars as himself, Rachel, and the brothers. This is a little odd, since Jacob clearly wants to set Joseph up as successor. So why berate Joseph, and why mention Rachel? Rachel is already dead, so perhaps Jacob thinks the prediction is impossible? In any case, Jacob brings up Rachel, even though she’s dead, and not Leah. For the brothers, then, the situation – both Joseph’s dream and Jacob’s interpretation – is infuriating. They have jealous/zealous rage; the term is used elsewhere as reaction to betrayal, like at the golden calf.

Shodan above asks why Joseph told the dream. I disagree with cmkeller: this is not prophecy, but dream. It doesn’t come fully true (Rachel is dead and so can’t bow to Joseph.) I think Joseph tells the dream because he’s a teenager, and full of self-importance. In addition to what we’ve already seen as a tattle-tale and spoiled brat. During the course of his story, he will mature, and move from bragging about his own dream to helping others with their dreams.

Verse 13: Jacob sends Joseph out to his brothers, saying “Go and see if all is well with your brothers.” Arguably, compared to verse 4, Jacob recognizes some danger and hopes Joseph can reconcile with his brothers? But the location is Shechem, the site of the rape of Dinah. It is not hard to imagine the brothers are already annoyed because of the memories stirred up at that place, so their tempers are already on edge.

The NIT translation here misses a major point. Joseph doesn’t respond “Very well” to his father. He says hineni, literally: here I am. This is Abraham’s response at the sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses’ response to God at the burning bush, among others: Joseph using those words echoes profound existential statements.

The brothers decide to kill Joseph. In verse 21, Reuben steps in and tries to save Joseph, telling the brothers to throw him in a pit (much more dramatic translation than “cistern.”) instead and let him die of starvation, intending to sneak back later and rescue Joseph. Reuben is the first-born and eldest of Leah, and would gain the most by Joseph’s death, but nonetheless deplores murder. [For those who think that there are multiple authors, this would be the E-author, showing Reuben – and hence the northern tribes – in a favorable light.]

We are told the pit has no water; such cisterns were usually dug for water storage, so this information is necessary. And while Joseph is in the pit with no water, the brothers sit down to a meal (verses 24-25). Again, the leitmotif contrasting food/famine.

In verse 26, while Reuben is gone, Judah steps in to save Joseph’s life by suggesting he be sold to the Ishmaelites. [For those believing in multiple authors, this is the J-author supporting the southern cause, with Judah shown in a favorable light.]

Reuben returns and finds Joseph gone, sold to the Midianites [The E-author had Joseph sold to the Ishmaelites.]. Judah is dismayed, and tears his clothes (still a ritual sign of mourning among Jews.)

The brothers rip the ornate tunic and spatter blood on it, then give it to Jacob. They say, “is this your son’s robe?” They do NOT say, “our brother’s robe.” The brothers do not directly lie to Jacob. He jumps to his own conclusions. He “recognized” the coat, and the same verb was used in Gen 27:23 when Jacob used clothing to fool his father Isaac. What goes around, comes around; what you do to others, is done to you. He is deceived by his sons as he had deceived his father.

Joseph is sold to slavery to Potiphar, a courtier of Egypt. The name Potiphar is not known elsewhere, but could be a short form of the Egyptian Pa-di-pa-re meaning “He whom Re [the sun-god] has given.”

Next chapter is a interesting digression, and we’ll get back to Joseph in Chapter 39.

Just some random thoughts about this that are a bit scattered.

  1. Is there any reason for Joseph to be so…passive? We have his brothers plot to kill him but instead they throw him in a cistern/pit and then just sell him off. He doesn’t seem to have any objections. I guess, if the choice is to be silent and sold as a slave vs vocal and killed by the brothers, that might be some motivation. But there seems to be a lack of (recorded) dialogue between Joseph and his brothers here.

What’s interesting here is Reuben’s standing with the rest of his brothers. I assume the eldest son to be the leader of the group, but once he leaves, the other brothers talk about assuming their original plot to kill Joseph. Judah seems to assume that Joseph’s life is still precarious.

  1. Reuben’s subsequent reaction seems to be a bit all over the place. He returns to the cistern, finds Joseph gone and tears away his clothes. I’m assuming this means he’s some combination of pissed/ distressed/ sad that his brother is just missing. But then he is quickly complicit in covering up the sale by smearing blood all over the coat. He does this as opposed to blaming his brothers for selling Joseph to slavery (or at least asking them where Joseph is now).

CK Dexter Haven:

This is exactly Rashi’s take on Jacob’s reaction, and…

Rashi further continues that Jacob didn’t realize that the “moon” symbolized Bilhah, who raised Joseph as his mother after Rachel died. So yes, this dream is a prophecy, did fully come true, and interpreting the moon as Rachel was an incorrect interpretation.


They outnumbered him by a factor of 10 or 9-to-1 and he knew that Simeon and Levi had killed an entire city before. I think it’s safe to guess that he could tell they weren’t about to kill him immediately and didn’t want to possibly make matters worse for himself.

We will learn later (in Ch 42, when Joseph next meets his brothers) that he pleaded and begged and they ignored him. However, that’s not recorded here.

cmkeller: I’m actually studying Tractate Berakhot, which includes a section on dreams. The Talmud is very clear, that dreams are NEVER fully predictive, and they use Joseph as the prime example. Rashi, of course, is much later. However, thanks for the info, I wasn’t aware that Rashi thought the moon was Bilhah.

On the diff between prophecy and dreams, I think we’ll disagree. These are just dreams, and the point is that Joseph brags about them. The dreams have a predictive element, but they are vastly different from (say) the prophesies of Isaiah or Jeremiah. The prophets say, “God spoke to me (possibly in a vision) and said…” Joseph says, “Hey, guys, did I have a weird dream!” Similarly, we’d never think of the later baker or cupbearer or Pharaoh as “prophets”, just because they have dreams that (in the hands of an able interpreter) are predictive of the future.