Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2-11)

In Genesis 37:2-11, we meet Joseph the Dreamer. We see his special status, his father's favoritism, his brother's hatred, and God's providential revelation.

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We continue our study of The Joseph story. It's here in the first section of Genesis 37 where we meet Joseph the Dreamer. Through this passage, we learn four realities.

  • Joseph’s special status (37:2)
  • His father’s favoritism (37:3)
  • His brother’s hatred (37:4)
  • God’s providential revelation (37:5-11)

1. Joseph’s Special Status (v.2)

  • Joseph was the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.
    • Jacob labored 14 years for Rachel.
    • He didn’t choose Leah nor his concubines, his wife's servants.
    • From the moment he first saw her, Jacob chose to love Rachel.

Joseph, being 17 years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his fathers wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.

  • Joseph was still a boy, 17 years old here in Genesis 37.
  • Joseph’s vocation, like his brothers, was a shepherd, pasturing the flock.
  • But Joseph was isolated.
    • He did not belong with the sons of Leah. You recall that Leah was a chief rival to his birth mother Rachel.
    • He may have felt closer with the sons of his father's concubines, especially the sons of Bilhah. But that will be short-lived.
  • Reuben, the eldest son, lost favor with his father when he slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah.
  • Simeon and Levi lost his father’s favor by murdering the men at Shechem.
  • So Jacob was likely planning to make Joseph his heir.
  • We read that Joseph brings a bad report to Jacob, and issuing this bad report is viewed by some as a flaw. Some assume Joseph was a tattler. But likely, Jacob designated Jacob as the manager because of his strong administrative skills.
    • And although Joseph’s report was negative, it was likely true.
    • So it was Joseph’s responsibility to report to his father the truth.
    • Joseph pledged greater allegiance to his father than to his brothers, even though it risked further isolation from his older brothers.
  • Joseph’s special status was being Rachel’s firstborn son and acting manager over his brothers. This status further isolated him from his half-brothers.

2. The Father’s Favoritism (v.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.

  • In the Joseph narrative, Jacob and his new God given name Israel are used interchangeably. In the Joseph narrative, Jacob is often used to highlight his weaknesses.
  • Interesting, in this verse, Israel is used. Israel loved Joseph more than any other son.
    • The reason given was because Joseph was the son of his father’s old age.
    • Joseph was the firstborn son of his beloved wife Rachel.
    • From the time he was born to being placed at the back of the line with Rachel in preparation to meeting Esau, Joseph was favored by Jacob.
  • But Jacob not only favored Joseph privately. He favored Joseph publicly and gave Joseph a robe or tunic of many colors. The translation “many colors” is supported by the LXX (Greek word ποικίλος). Jerome’s Vulgate translates the Hebrew word passim to the Latin word polymitam.
    • In the ancient world, the production of color in garments was a laborious process. Most of the garments worn during this time was black, brown, or white.
    • But this tunic not only had one color but many colors. That made this tunic all the more expensive and more treasured.
    • The Hebrew word that is translated “many colors” is the word passim. The best Hebrew lexicons translate passim to mean “palm of the hand” or “sole of the foot.”
    • One commentator notes, “It is more likely that Joseph’s coat extended to his ankles and wrists. Most tunics were sleeveless and stopped at the knees; they were worn by working men. A long-sleeved, tailored garment was worn by one who did not have to work. So when Joseph appeared in this coat, his brothers recognized it as a sign of his father’s choice of Joseph to be a manager, one preeminent over them.(fn)
  • Whether you hold to the translation “many colors” or this alternative translation, the interpretation is clear.
    • Joseph was on track to receive the title of firstborn from Jacob. Just as Jacob the younger brother was given the blessing and title of the firstborn, Joseph will receive the same title. He is Rachel’s firstborn.
      • Remember in John 4:5, John wrote that Jacob had given a field to Joseph. The only field of land Jacob had ever owned was the plot of land he bought from Shechem’s father in Genesis 33:19. To give this plot of land to Joseph at such a young age would indicate that Joseph was favored to be the heir.
  • Jacob must have known that by giving this tunic to Joseph, it would cause sibling envy and tension. Jacob’s partiality for Rachel and for her two sons doomed his family to the same strife he had experienced in his father’s household.
  • This showing of favoritism in the family appears foolish.

3. The Brother’s Hatred (v.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.

  • There were three reasons why the brothers hated Joseph
    • First, Joseph was given the role of manager, and he gave his brothers a bad report (v.2)
    • Second, Jacob acted out on his favoritism toward Joseph by giving him the robe. The brother’s hatred grew stronger. (v.3)
    • Third, Joseph will soon share his two divine dreams to his brothers, and their hatred goes over the top.
  • They could not speak peacefully to him. Their intense dislike produced only contemptuous words for him.
  • Have you hated a close family member so much that you couldn't even speak to him? We still see this in today’s families sometimes. How toxic it must be to have this present at home.

4. God’s Providential Revelation (v.5-11)

  • From the outset, God the Heavenly Father has been present with Joseph.
  • Joseph not only received a gift, the special robe, from his earthly father. Joseph received a gift from his Heavenly Father.
    • God gave Joseph two special prophetic dreams.
    • God gave Joseph the ability to interpret these dreams.

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.

  • It is one thing for Joseph to receive these two dreams from God. It’s another thing to actually share these dreams with his jealous brothers.

    • We don’t know for sure what motivated Joseph to share his dream with his brothers.
  • Three possibilities

    • First is negative. Joseph was frustrated with his brother’s mistreatment. He wanted to provoke his brothers and gloat using these prophetic dreams from God to retaliate against his brothers.
      • This is not consistent with his character in the rest of this narrative.
    • Second is a bit more neutral. Joseph was unwise and naive. He did not anticipate the increased hatred this would generate.
      • I don’t think Joseph was stupid. He must have known his brothers had already envied him. He knew they would not respond positively when Joseph shared the dream.
    • Third is positive. Joseph realized that these dreams were divinely given, and Joseph had a God-given responsibility to share this divine revelation.
      • In the Old Testament, when prophets were given divine revelation, they were commanded to speak what they had seen and heard. The purpose of God’s revelation is to make it known to others for their edification.
      • One way to discern true from false prophets is this:
        • False prophets only spoke words that their listeners would want to hear.
        • True prophets spoke words that their listeners would not want to hear. Keep this in mind when we later read about how Joseph interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and baker.
  • If Joseph’s dreams were merely ordinary dreams, I don’t think this would have engendered such hostility.

    • But if these were divine dreams that revealed God’s decrees, this would explain the brother’s envy.
    • The brothers were already envious at Joseph’s good character and his father’s partial love.
    • For Joseph to claim to have received special revelation, and for that special revelation to be the brothers bowing down to Joseph himself - that was too much for the brothers.
    • The brothers rejected God’s decrees regarding Joseph’s and their lives. They rejection was ultimately directly against God.

Joseph’s First Dream

  • First dream involves only the 11 brothers, so we read that Joseph shared it only to his brothers.
  • Picture of sheaves resounds because these brothers were shepherds.
  • Joseph likely shared the dream and its interpretation.
  • The brothers clearly disapproved of the notion that they would bow to Joseph. Joseph likely explains this dream as if this were divine decree, and this clearly offended the brothers.
  • The text states that they hated Joseph “even more.”

Joseph’s Second Dream

  • Joseph saw his brother's response after his first dream, but Joseph didn’t stop there. He shared a second dream. Remember that God has gifted Joseph with the interpretation of dreams. This second dream confirms the authenticity of God’s revelation.

And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. (Genesis 41:32)

  • Repetition in the Hebrew culture points to emphasis.

    • Remember how Jesus taught. He would preface an important truth by saying, “truly, truly” or “most assuredly, most assuredly”
  • Dreamers in the Old Testament knew when their dreams came from God.

    • The next three dreams, the cupbearer, the baker, and Pharaoh himself, were disturbed when they had their dreams - for they know their dream was special.
  • If Joseph had any doubt as to the source of the first dream, they would have vaporized with the second dream.

  • The fundamental meaning of this second dream is the same as the first dream. Joseph will rule over his family members.

    • Rachel had died while giving birth to Benjamin
    • It’s possible that Rachel’s servant Bilhah raised Joseph as her own.
    • We know that Jacob never bowed down to Joseph.
    • So it’s possible that that the “sun” and “moon” were meant only to represent the family as a holistic unit, thus including the patriarch and matriarch.(fn)
  • Unlike with the first dream, Joseph reports his second dream to his father.

  • Jacob responds in anger, and he rebukes Joseph.

  • Joseph’s family lived in a patriarchal society. The father was to be honored.

    • Throughout ancient Jewish history, it was the duty of the sons to stand up at the appearance of the father to show a display of respect and honor.
    • The only exception was if the son were a rabbi. Because of the honorific position of rabbi, it was the father who would stand up when his rabbi son appeared.
  • Brothers became even more jealous when they heard this second dream.

  • However in contrast, Jacob mediated on this, implying that he continued to contemplate whether this dream could truly be from God.

So at the end of this passage, we find Joseph is disliked by everyone. His father is annoyed at him. His half-brothers hated him. Because of his association with his family, Joseph is ostracized by his neighbors. He likely had few friends. He was alone.

But we will soon see in this entire narrative, he was not alone. God has been and will continue to be with Joseph.