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Sold into Slavery

Genesis  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  32:38
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Sold into Slavery
Genesis 37:12-36
The threads of Joseph’s rejection by his brothers were woven fine. The sinful human strands of his father’s favoritism and his own naive self-centeredness, plus the threads of the two Joseph-exalting dreams combined to create an ever-tightening noose for the gallows of Joseph’s rejection. The noose was already around the young man’s neck.
And as we all know from the story line, the trapdoor would soon spring, sending young Joseph down to a living death of slavery in Egypt. We know, too, that God’s plan was in full motion, though no one could see it. Israel’s human savior, the future vice-regent of Egypt, was being put in place. Joseph’s story would show how God’s hidden providence works through men’s evil for their ultimate good. Dark as the story is, it shines with hope and optimism.
At the same time, because this is a real story of real brothers in an all-too-real family, we will miss much of what God has for us if we overly dwell on providence. We need to listen to this story as it is and allow the events to speak for themselves in their own power.
As we listen, we will learn essential truth, both theological and personal.

Joseph Sent to His Brothers

The story begins non threateningly enough with Jacob sending young Joseph to check on the well-being of his ten older brothers.
Genesis 37:12–14 ESV
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 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.” 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.
Hebron was twenty miles south of Jerusalem, and Shechem was thirty miles north of the holy city. So, Joseph’s brothers were fifty miles north, or approximately five days’ journey away. This considerable distance to Shechem, coupled with the history of Simeon and Levi’s bloody massacre of the Shechemites, was reasonable cause for Jacob’s unease.
We can certainly understand Jacob’s concern for his sons, but it’s difficult to understand his sending his favorite son decked out in his fabulous coat.
The relational fact was that his brothers “hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.”
Maybe they’d moderated their dislike for Joseph when their father was around. But the sense is that neither Jacob nor Joseph had any idea of their malicious intent. Joseph seems to have gone out with the carefree presumption that though his brothers had been unhappy with him, they loved him like everyone else did. So, Joseph naively made the five-day trek north.
But when he arrived in Shechem, his brothers and their flocks were nowhere to be seen. A well-dressed Hebrew youth alone and roaming about a Canaanite killing field wasn’t good. But God was watchful of his chosen instrument.
Genesis 37:15–17 ESV
And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 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.
Dothan was another fourteen miles farther north, which would place Joseph sixty-four miles from home, far from his father’s protective care.
Evidently, nine of the brothers (Reuben, the eldest, was absent) had been indulging in a party of hatred so intense that Joseph’s approach sparked the will to murder.
One of the brothers saw a figure approaching across the plains and called it to his brothers’ attention. The walk was familiar, and then at once they all knew as they saw the shimmering of Joseph’s multi-colored coat.
Genesis 37:18–20 ESV
They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 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.”
Thomas Mann imagined it like this: “And with one accord … their hearts beat with a wild rapid rhythm, like drums, so that a hollow concerted drumming noise arose in the breathless stillness.”
Vile democracy reigned as each added his bit to the homicidal plan. When young Joseph arrived, the murder was set. The crowning wickedness was the plan to cast his murdered body into a cistern unburied—the supreme dishonor
Their eyes assessed him with bleary-red hatred. Joseph was alone in their hands. Let the murder begin. Would they all beat him formless into the dust? Or should one of them simply cut his throat? Simeon and Levi were experts at that.
But such pleasures were not to be because Reuben got word of the plans. Reuben, so recently fallen from his father’s favor because of his Bilhah affair, couldn’t afford further blame for the death of the favorite son. And as the eldest he would bear the responsibility.
So, Reuben stepped up to the rescue.
Genesis 37:21–22 ESV
But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 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.
His opening words, “Let us not take his life” weren’t a suggestion. Instead, it was a forceful and decisive commitment, “We shall not take his life.” His command to “Shed no blood” was an attempt to distance himself from the very idea. And Reuben’s command to cast Joseph into the pit unharmed was a plan so that he could return and rescue Joseph.
Genesis 37:23–24 ESV
So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
They stripped him” is a term used to describe the skinning of animals. Like a pack of dogs, his brothers were upon him, scratching and pulling the hated coat from him and likely his remaining clothing, finally dumping him like a dead body into a pit so deep and vertical that he couldn’t climb out.
Joseph lay bruised and bleeding and naked on the rocky floor of an empty water cistern. Their intent was to let him starve to death. They would have “shed no blood” in a twisted technical sense, and so they wrongly reasoned that his blood could not cry out from the ground.

Joseph Sold into Slavery

The merciless lynch-mob callousness is obvious, “Then they sat down to eat.
“Nothing like administering a good beating to whet the appetite!” Likely, the meal came from the foods that Joseph had brought to them from their father. As to poor Joseph, the text here tells us nothing. But the brothers will tell us twenty years later in Egypt when they encounter Joseph:
Genesis 42:21 ESV
Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.”
Joseph’s brothers laughed and joked and feasted while they listened to Joseph’s cries and pleadings.
The brothers’ plan was to eat, move on, and leave Joseph to the birds of the air. But the hidden hand of providence deftly countered when a caravan unexpectedly appeared, offering a solution.
Genesis 37:25–28 ESV
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. Then Judah said to his brothers, “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 hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. 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.
The Ishmaelite traders were made up of the descendants of Abraham through Keturah and also Midianites who were residents of the Arabah with whom the Ishmaelites had intermarried. The point is that both groups were outside the covenant. Joseph was sold to non-covenant people.
In the absence of Reuben, Judah (the fourth-born) bypassed the violent pair of Simeon and Levi and took charge, offering his “better idea” of selling Joseph into slavery. It’s difficult to distinguish Judah’s motivation.
Was it for a few shekels? Or was it due to better motives—his recognizing that Joseph was their “own flesh” coupled with the lasting consequences of fratricide? However, it was, Judah was responsible for saving Joseph’s life. From here on Judah would play a more active role in leadership, and (notwithstanding the Tamar fiasco) he’ll have a more influential role in the covenant. Ultimately Jacob would name him bearer of the messianic line.
Egypt was big in the slave trade.
So, the Midianites looked to a profitable market on the Nile. Likely, they doubled their twenty-shekel investment in Egypt. And what about Joseph? He had begun the day a robed prince in Israel and ended it as a slave.
Joseph had a massive case for victim-hood. Why not pity himself?
He hadn’t done anything to deserve this. His biggest sin was that he liked people and assumed they liked him. How easy it would have been for him to fall into rage.
How could his brothers do this?
And where was God?
Why didn’t God warn him at Shechem? Then Joseph could have easily gone home. And why the appearance of a caravan bound for Egypt? Reuben would have rescued him, had it not been for this. How treasured thoughts of revenge could have become for young Joseph.

Jacob’s Mourning

As the oldest of the brothers with the care of several flocks to supervise, Reuben was naturally on the go. No doubt he left briefly so that he could return at an opportune time and spirit Joseph away.
Genesis 37:29–30 ESV
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?”
But to his horror an unexpected caravan had come and gone with Joseph! Reuben’s tearing of his robes and cry to his brothers, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” revealed how much he really did care for Joseph and his father. In agony Reuben cried in effect, “Where shall I go to escape?”
The only response from the brothers was silence.
Joseph’s magnificent robe had been at the heart of the story. “The robe began in deep love. Then it was torn in deep hate. Now it is the main tool for a deep deception” (Brueggemann).
Genesis 37:31–33 ESV
Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.”
There is a bitter irony here as Jacob’s sons used their brother’s clothing and the blood of a slain goat to deceive Jacob, just as Jacob had long ago deceived his own father Isaac with his brother’s clothing and the skin of a slain goat.
Jacob’s deceit had come full circle.
The full force of the pain descended upon Jacob’s consciousness in three quick stages.
· First, he identified “my son’s robe.”
· Second, its torn condition led him to conclude that “a fierce animal has devoured him.”
· And third, a horrible mental image gripped his soul, “Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Oh, the shock! His boy, his wonderful boy, was gone.
What unbelievable sorrow!
Genesis 37:34–35 ESV
Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.
Jacob insisted that he would publicly mourn for Joseph to his dying day. Conventional grieving lasted a week for a parent.
And when Moses died, the people mourned for the extraordinary period of a month.
But Jacob refused to be comforted by his sons and daughters. And he may well have kept up something of his public mourning for two decades until the day he saw Joseph.
What a mess and mockery his sons had made of their family devotion. Their comforts were hollow and ineffectual, because they had done the deed, and as they went through the motions, they all could hear Joseph’s lost cries coming out of Egypt.
And about Joseph, we have this postscript:
Genesis 37:36 ESV
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.
The providential threads of Joseph’s rejection had brought about his sale into Egypt. Israel’s human savior was in place. God had planned it all. The awesome God of the Bible and of all history was at work.
But Joseph wasn’t a robot. He lived his life as we live ours—with God’s word to guide him (though far less of it than we have, notwithstanding his dreams), with an imperfect understanding of life around him, with his own personal sins, and with sinners framing his existence.
Joseph lived a real life in real time.
As we’ve seen, Joseph had plenty of reasons for self-pity, rage, anger with God, and revenge. He had reasons to become enslaved to victimhood. He had been relationally crippled by his father’s favoritism. He had suffered from the “yours, mine, ours” relational pathology of polygamy. He had been monstrously abused by his brothers.
The scars were there to stay—their homicidal rage, his beating and humiliation, their demeaning labels, the agonizing trip to Egypt, and his naked humiliation on the slave block.
What an opportunity for enslavement to victimhood. But there is not a “poor me” hint anywhere in the entire Genesis account of Joseph! And in Egypt his treatment would become even worse. What the writer wants us to see is that though enslaved, Joseph chose to reject the slavery of self-pity and victimhood.
How and why?
Like his great-grandfather Abraham, he believed the word of God.
Joseph believed the promise handed down from Abraham, Isaac, and his father Jacob. He extended the continuity of their faith. He was a righteous man. He also believed God’s word in the dream. He believed that one day his family would bow down to him as part of God’s plan.
So, what does this have to do with us?
Very much. We all carry wounds, some of which go all the way back to when we were young. For some that’s recent history, for others antiquity! Yet, for many of us all it would take to reopen those wounds is a high-school reunion and the rerun of old insecurities and hurts.
Most can name those old wounds like it was yesterday.
And some of the wounds are gaping—from irrational parenting, abuse, rejection or abandonment.
Many bear the scars of betrayal of their nearest and dearest in various ways.
And today’s culture doesn’t help us with its encouragement of the culture of victimhood. Victimhood is in. Just turn on the talk shows and you’ll see it encouraged, be it economic victimhood or political victimhood or ethnic victimhood or social victimhood or domestic and religious victimhood.
Joseph’s life teaches us that life is full of injustices and unfairness and tragedies. But it also teaches us that we have a great God who works in the midst of human life to do his will.
We must understand that as God’s children, we are called to give everything to him, even the bitter things of the past.
As believers, we have been set free from the bondage of sin and death.
We must rest everything on the God of the Bible. We must believe that the awesome God of Genesis is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him—that he is good and just to all his children. We must appropriate the freedom of Christ.
Galatians 2:20 ESV
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Here is reality.
· Real life is unfair.
· Real life deals out many inequities.
· Real life is filled with sin and sinners.
· Real wounds are everywhere.
But the reality is that God is all-powerful and that his providence is at work in his children’s lives.
Life brims with hope and optimism.
As God’s children, we must believe his word—that God will work good out of past evils—and that trusting him we will one day say with Joseph to past evils, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
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