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Gen 37:1-28

Genesis 37:1-28
Background to the Book of Genesis

Literary Features:
Genesis is a fascinating book which begins with two creation accounts of the world in Gen 1-3, continues with stories about humanity in general through to the end of Gen 11 before we come to the specific journeys of Abraham. Gen 1-11 is often referred to as universal history or primeval history and is applicable to all of humanity. The genealogies enable Abraham to be descended from Adam and Eve. Indeed, another purpose of the genealogies is to divide these eleven chapters as follows into a 5-fold division:

  • Gen 2:4a heaven and earth - these are the generations of the heavens and the earth ...
  • Gen 5:1 ff Adam - This is the book of the generations of Adam.
  • Gen 6:9 Noah - And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth
  • Gen 10:1 Noah’s 3 sons - These are the generations of the sons of Noah. ...
  • Gen 11:10 Shem - These are the descendants of Shem ...

Besides the suggested division above, scholars have proposed different recurring literary patterns such as sin, speech, punishment - Gen 1-3, 4, 6-9,11 (Westermann) in Gen 1-11: von Rad includes forgiveness: sin, speech, forgiveness, punishment. Whether one wants to go along with any of the above suggestions about the literary divisions or patterns in Gen 1-11, there is almost unanimous agreement that there is a tightly formed literary pattern and we are meant read it as a unity. Creation of the world and humans is torn apart when the relationship between God and humans is told in Gen 3 and between humans and humans in Gen 4. One of the literary patterns which may be considered to not only be present in Gen 1-11, but also extend through into the remainder of the book of Genesis is that connected with the command in Gen 1:28 - ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Not only does the phrase occur in a number of places, but the lists of genealogies show that indeed the people have been fruitful and multiplied - Gen 5, 10, 11. The genealogies continue in Gen 12-50 at particular points: Gen 25:12 (These are the generations of Ishmael), Gen 25:19 (These are the generations of Isaac), Gen 36:1, (These are the generations of Esau), Gen 37:2 (These are the generations of Jacob). The genealogies not only show that God's command in Gen 1:28 has been followed, but the promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, Gen 15:5 have come true. That is, Abram will have many descendants and become a great nation. At the point where each of the genealogies are listed we have the story of that person in the following chapters. Abraham in Gen 11:27-25:18: Jacob in Gen 25:19-36:43: Joseph, Judah and Jacob's family in Gen 37:1-50:26. There are a number of covenants mentioned in the Book of Genesis all of which come into the category of unconditional or promissory. Unlike the condition covenant in Exod 19 in which God seeks a response of obedience from the people, the covenants in Genesis are based on first person pronouncements by God. In Gen 9 it is an universal covenant with all living creatures, but once we move into Gen 12 the covenants are specific to Abraham and his descendants. The relationship has been set up from creation when humans were created to be in special relationship with God (Gen 1:26-27).

Attempts have been made since the 18th century to explain such things as: a different word used for God -Yahwist or Elohim: multiple versions of the same story = Abraham’s pretence, Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-18, 26:6-16: repetition within the same story = Gen 6:5-7, 11-12: contradictions - for example, Exod 20:24 gives permission to offer sacrifices at numerous altars v Deut 12:13-14 which forbids this and restricts sacrifice to one place only or Gen 7:17 in which the flood remains for 40 days v Gen 7:24 in which the flood remains for 150 days and other examples. The classic theory suggests that the Pentateuch has a number of written sources as well as the early oral traditions which account for the sort of differences mentioned above. In Gen 1-11 there is the Priestly source which can be seen in Gen1:1-2:4a, 6:9-22, some verses in Gen 7-8, 9:1-17, 10:1-7, 11:10-27 and the remaining texts come from the Yahwistic source. Some characteristics of what is know as the 'P' source are: the use of the Hebrew term toledoth/generations, the writing is sophisticated and often in a liturgical style (Gen1:1-2:4a), in the creation account God speaks and it happens, humans are made in the image of God, the covenant is unconditional and can be made with the animals, and an abiding concern to state numbers and years. The Yahwistic source uses myths and sagas to tell the story, God and animals speak (anthropomorphic), the world is very small (Gen 2:10-14) compared with the universal world of the 'P' source (Gen 1:1-2:4a).

Historical: (History within the text). Gen 12-50 tells the stories about Abram and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and begin wandering around the land and then into Egypt. These stories began as oral traditions passed down within the tribes long before they became part of the written tradition. It is the way many cultures remember their history, but in the Western world we became influenced by the enlightened definition of 'history' which understood 'history' as written facts from an objective viewpoint. This has caused many scholars to debate whether the Patriarchs can be proven to be true people through archaeological means. Other scholars say that this is not possible and therefore they cannot be historical people. If this argument was applied to Bedouin tribes or Australian Aboriginal people we deny them any history. History as oral tradition passed down is the history of a people, and does not need to be justified by Western values. The people are portrayed as very human with all their faults and strengths - they lie, deceive, steal, test God, they have courage, journey into the unknown, seek God, question God and are obedient. These traits apply to men and women, and many of the women (Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar) play a significant role in the working out of the promises of God. I encourage people to read these stories for themselves. After the story of Abram in Gen 11:27-25:18 the next block, Gen 11:19-36:43, tells us about Jacob and finally about Joseph in Gen 37:1-50:26. At the end of the book we are placed ready to begin the story of Moses, the release of the Hebrews from Egypt and their wanderings in the wilderness.

We know something of this period from the discoveries of the Mari Tablets - 20,000 tablets in old Akkadian of which 5,000 were official correspondence (J.Bright. A History of Israel. London: SCM Press, 57). Mari was a great city with highly sophisticated living conditions and the centre of trade. Terah and his family would have travelled through Mari to get to Haran. Mesopotamia was a centre of civilisation in the Far East in the same way that Egypt was in the Near East.

It is a period in which some people lived in cities and others lived a semi nomadic life travelling with their herds and stopping for periods, but rarely settling to an agrarian life style. We seem to have examples of both these life styles within the story of Abraham.

Context of Genesis 37:1-28
Immediately after Jacob met Esau (Gen 33), he continued to Succoth and built a house there. The chapter following describes the rape of Dinah and the deceit of her brothers in order to get retribution for her. Marriage had been arranged but her brothers were determined to kill those responsible and Dinah disappears from the tribal lists. After this incident Jacob goes to Bethel and builds altars on the way. God speaks with him and repeats the promise from Gen 1:28. It is on this journey that Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and dies in childbirth. Jacob's father Isaac who is very old dies at Mamre also called Hebron. Gen 36 is a complicated genealogy of Esau whose progeny became kings of Edom as foretold at his birth. Gen 37 moves back to Jacob and we move into a section which leads us into the stay in Egypt. Joseph becomes the focus of the narrative in Gen 37 through to the end of the book of Genesis. After the twenty eight verses of the lectionary reading for this week the sons have to explain to Jacob what has happened to his favourite son. They deceived the old man by showing him Jacob's cloak covered in animal blood suggesting that he had been killed while tending the flock. Gen 38 moves the focus away from Joseph and onto Judah. It is a fascinating story of how a woman has to act to get justice in her situation because her father-in-law refuses to comply with the law. Immediately following the birth of the twins, Perez and Zerah (Gen 38:27-30) we are with Joseph in Egypt and the start of all his amazing adventures.

Insights/Message of Genesis 37:1-28
Literary:From this point on until the end of the book of Genesis the focus is on Joseph, and Jacob while in the background, still exerts an influence on how the family responds to certain situations. Very early in the chapter we are told that Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his brothers (v.3) which caused the brothers to hate Joseph. Israel and Joseph exacerbated this hatred by their actions. Israel made Joseph a special coat and Joseph told tales about two of his father's wives (v.2) and recounted the dreams he had which depicted himself as lording it over his brothers. God doesn't appear in Joseph's dreams yet we know that God's hand is directing this action and we will know the fulfilment of these dreams later in the narrative. The narrative repeats the statement twice that "they hated him". We are not going to be surprised with the action which occurs later in the narrative. Even Joseph's father reacted when told the second dream and was indignant at the idea that he would be bowing down before his son. However, he didn't dismiss the dream totally as we are told by the narrator that he kept it in his mind (v.11). Rachel's death has been recorded in Gen 35:19, yet Jacob refers to Joseph's mother in Gen 37:10 as though she is still alive. The narrator has set the scene for us and now moves the action forward in time to show the consequences of what we have been told in vv.2-11. Joseph is sent off by his father to see how his brothers are faring. We are told the place is Shechem but not how far away this is from the home base of Jacob (Israel). The last place at which Jacob built a house was Bethel which means Joseph would have had a journey of 20 miles north to Shechem (Fretheim says 50 miles: 599) and another 20 miles north west to Dotham. Dotham is situated close to the trade routes from the Mesopotamia to the coast and down into Egypt. Reuben intervenes with their plan to kill Joseph and thinks if he is put in a pit that he could return and rescue Joseph. However, Judah intervenes with his idea when he sees a caravan of Ishmaelites traveling through and makes the suggestion to give Joseph to them as a slave. This way there is no blood on their hands. We note that after Ishmaelites are mentioned in vv.25-26, Midianite traders pass by and because the verse is ambiguous we are unsure whether the Midianites drew Joseph up from the pit or whether the "they" in v.28a refers to the brother. This action foils Reuben who returns to the pit to find Joseph gone. We don't know from the narrator whether Reuben is included in the "they" in vv.31-32. While Jacob mourns for his son we know that Joseph is still alive, but has now been sold into service in Egypt (v.36).

Message:The narrator is telling us how the family of Jacob end up in Egypt where they will become slaves, and later how God takes them to be the nation which will enter Canaan. As Fretheim says it is a move from the individual Israel to the nation Israel (Fretheim: 600). While Joseph is not the youngest we are seeing a repeat of what happened with his father who was the younger and therefore not the one who was supposed to be the head of the family. Joseph is suggesting by his dreams that he will become the leader. It is no wonder jealousy occurs and is the major reason put forward for the brother's treatment of Joseph. This emotion can indeed cause havoc in families, leading in some cases to murder and in other cases to hatred with attendant inappropriate behaviour. We have see many examples in Australia and overseas of this. Again, the jealousy that was aroused by Jacob's love of Rachel over Leah is being lived out in the children and Jacob is portrayed as responsible in the way it makes his feelings so overt. We know from Reuben's actions in renting his clothes (v.30) and his words that he feels badly about what has happened to Joseph. On the other hand, his brothers appear quite cold blooded about their actions (vv.31-32) which are meant to convince their father that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Jacob's response when shown the coat covered in blood is the same as that of Reuben's. The emphasis in v.35 on "all his sons" would indicate the hypocrisy of those who instigated Joseph's demise. Joseph's dreams are interpreted as Joseph's imagination rather than divine messages given through this medium and later the narrative will tell us how wrong they were to ignore them. God will work through their wrong actions as God has done in the past with those who cheat, lie and are less than perfect instruments of God's purposes. We say glibly the church is for sinners, but I am unsure we really believe this statement. We sometimes want to excuse our behaviour by blaming some characteristic or behaviour on the victim, for example, women wearing provocative clothes are "asking to be raped". Notwithstanding, Joseph and Jacob's provocative behaviour it is unacceptable to kill someone because of jealousy. We end the chapter with Joseph in Egypt who will become the saviour of Israel.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 14:22-33: there are no direct allusions or quotes in these sections from the Old Testament.

Resources/Worship for Genesis 37:1-28
:  If there are children involved in worship this story makes a good play in which they can be involved quite easily. The context of the whole chapter needs to be noted so that the congregation and children know that Joseph is alive, but now in Egypt.

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Genesis, the author is R.W.L.Moberly, 1992. (Genesis 12-50)

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist companion to Genesis. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
---. ed. Genesis. Feminist companion to the Bible (Second Series), 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Int. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox 1982.
Coats, George W. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. FOTL. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. The world of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Fretheim,Terrence E. "The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections." In The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol 1. Abingdon: Nashville, 1994.
Hamilton,Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1990.
---. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Hess, Richard S., and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
*Moberly, R. W. L. Genesis 12-50. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
*Rogerson, J. W. Genesis 1-11, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996.
Scullion, John J. Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, c2001. Call Number: 222.11077 W237g
Wenham,Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
---. Genesis 16-50. WBC. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1994.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11

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