18 November 2017

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that his father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (vv. 3-4)

Psalm: Psalm 119:145-160


"Israel" is used here to refer to Jacob, whom God so renamed. He had 12 sons and a daughter. Benjamin was actually the youngest son and Joseph the second youngest, but their mother Rachel had died in giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:17-19), which perhaps explains why Joseph instead is described as the "son of his old age" and was Jacob 's favourite. This was symbolised by an expensive gift, a "long robe with sleeves", although the meaning of the Hebrew is not clear and a multi-coloured tunic is equally possible.

His brothers' intense jealousy over the favouritism shown to Joseph was enhanced when he shared two dreams with them that portrayed them and his father and mother (his stepmother Leah) treating him as their overlord. The dream about sheaves is particularly pertinent, since the sequel where the dreams come true happens at a time when the family had no food whilst Joseph was responsible for all the grain in Egypt (Genesis 41-45).

When Jacob, presumably unaware how deeply his brothers hated him, sent Joseph to bring news of his brothers and the flocks, the brothers saw an opportunity for murder. The eldest, Reuben, however, wanted to spare his life and restore him to Jacob, perhaps in an attempt to gain favour with his father who had presumably been on poor terms with him since he had slept with one of Jacob's concubines (Genesis 35:22). Reuben bought time for his plan by persuading the others not to kill Jacob in cold blood, but rather to imprison him in a dry underground water cistern from which he could not escape.

Subsequently, Judah persuaded the brothers that rather than manslaughter Joseph they might sell him as a slave to a caravan of nomadic traders. "Ishmaelites" is thought to be a catch-all phrase for nomadic people in the region, and the particular group referred to here are "Midianites" which is an ethnic term. Twenty pieces of silver was the typical price of a male slave early in the second millennium BC.

To Ponder

  • Have you ever received a unique gift of some kind from someone who considered you very special? If you were to be in that position would you want to wear it all the time and proudly flaunt it as Joseph seems to have done, or would you want your treasured possession to be a much more secret pleasure? Why?
  • What experience have you had or observed of parental favouritism and/or sibling jealousy? What have been the outcomes of such feelings or behaviours?
  • It is easy enough for us to say that Jacob should not have marked out Joseph by giving him a special gift, and Joseph should have kept his dreams to himself. But what better ways might there have been of ensuring happy family relationships? 

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale


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