Joseph Sold to Slavery — Genesis 37:12-36
The brothers sold Joseph to slavery for 20 shekels of silver when Joseph was 17 years old. Arriving in Egypt, Joseph is sold again to Potiphar.
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In the second section of Genesis 37, we learn how Joseph's brothers betrayed him and sold him to Egypt to slavery.
A. How old was Joseph when he was sold to slavery?
- Joseph was sold to slavery when he was only 17 years old. (Gen 37:2)
B. Who sold Joseph and to whom?
- Joseph's brothers sold him to descendents of Ishmael who were Midianite traders. (Gen 37:25)
- Arriving in Egypt, these Midianite traders sold Joseph to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard. (Gen 37:36)
C. For how much was Joseph sold?
Joseph was sold for 20 shekels of silver. (Gen 37:28)
D. When was Joseph sold to slavery?
According to William Foxwell Albright (1891–1971) and Cyrus Herzl Gordon, the Joseph story takes place during the Middle Bronze II Age, perhaps between 1900–1800 BCE.
Genesis 37 Outline
- Joseph is sent to Shechem (v.12-17)
- Joseph is sold at Dothan (v.18-30)
- Jacob mourns in Hebron (v.31-35)
- Joseph is sold to Potiphar (v.36)
1. Joseph Sent to Shechem (v.12-17)
Now his brothers went to pasture their fathers flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, and 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. 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. (Genesis 37:12-17)
Israel was concerned about the welfare of his son who were shepherding their flocks in the vicinity of Shechem.
- He was expecting his sons would send some sort of report after many days.
- The fact they were near Shechem where they had pillaged the town would have heightened his concern.
Some cultural background: Joseph’s family were nomadic. They lived in tents, and they would travel to allow their flocks to graze. Servants and son would take the sheep and follow them to distance areas while the rest of the family would stay at one place.
Distance from Hebron to Shechem was maybe 40 miles or 60 km.
- It was too far for Joseph’s brothers to bring back a report each day.
- Dothan was another 10 miles or 15 km north of Shechem. So the total distance the brothers travelled was likely over 50 miles or 75 km.
Notice Joseph’s willingness to obey saying, “Here I am.”
Can you picture the scene?
- Sending a 17 year old boy alone to Shechem is no small task and not without risk.
- Jacob was reluctant to have Joseph travel anywhere alone, especially near Shechem after Simeon and Levi killed all the men in that city. Dinah was kidnapped and raped when she travelled alone.
- “See ya dad.” “Remember, look out now, son. Just find your brothers, check on them, and come straight back home.” “Sure thing. I’ll be back, Dad.”
- Those final words must have been replayed in Jacob’s head for the next 20 years. How could he forget this final goodbye with Joseph, believing that he would never see his favored son again.
You will never know when you will say goodbye to your wife for the last time. When you kiss your mother goodbye for that final time.
We don’t know when we’re saying goodbye for the last time. So make each goodbye count.
A certain man sees Joseph wandering probably outside Shechem.
- Joseph explains he is looking for his brothers.
- The man tells Joseph he overheard them saying they were going to Dothan and saw his brothers leave.
Joseph could have easily returned home from Shechem and reported he was unable to find his brothers.
- Instead, Joseph persisted to complete his task.
2. Joseph Sold at Dothan (v.18-30)
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.” 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. 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. (Genesis 37:18-24)
- How did the brothers see Joseph from a distance? Likely from his coat.
- Few people would have worn a multicolored robe with sleeves going down to the wrists.
- So Joseph’s brothers quickly identified the man in the tunic was Joseph.
- Joseph’s brothers understood that the two dreams Joseph had shared were prophetic. To make sure the prophecy would not be fulfilled, they sought to kill Joseph.
- So the brothers conspired together to kill Joseph and then throw him into the pit. They prepared a false story that Joseph was devoured by an animal. These brothers were ready to act out on their intense hatred toward Joseph.
- When we sin, it’s nearly impossible to commit just one sin. We commit many sins at once, and often there will be a series of lies to cover up our sins.
- But Reuben suggests to his brothers to throw Joseph into a cistern. His motive was to spare Joseph’s life and restore him to his father.
- Reuben may have persuaded the other brothers that by dying from dehydration in the pit, it would be more painful for Joseph than dying a quick death.
- Perhaps because he was the eldest son, Reuben had some authority over his brothers and was able to order his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit.
- Reuben may have been motivated by self preservation.
- Perhaps as the eldest son, Reuben would have been held most responsible for Joseph’s welfare.
- Perhaps by bringing Joseph back later, he thought he could regain the favor of his father. Reuben lost his father’s favor when he slept with his father’s wife Bilhah in Genesis 35.
- As soon as Joseph had arrived, the brothers grabbed Joseph and stripped him of his multicolored tunic. Then they threw him in an empty pit. The pit had no water. Joseph would likely die in the pit without intervention.
- There would have been little water in this desert area. To throw Joseph in this pit without water is to cause certain death.
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. 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?” (Genesis 35:25-30)
- It’s amazing what happens here in verse 25.
- The brothers sat down to eat.
- Many who feel remorse or guilt would lose their appetite.
- Joseph’s brothers, in contrast, had no issues with appetite. Their immediate next action was to share a meal.
- Likely, Joseph may have been crying out - hoping that one of the brothers or an innocent bystander might save him.
- To sit down for a meal after this treachery was despicable.
- Look how God’s providence orchestrated the sparing of Joseph’s life.
- First, we see the caravan of Ishmaelites
- Second, we see Judah’s conscience prompting him to not actively participate in the murder.
- Caravan used to transport goods from one commercial center to another
- They travelled from the northern region to Egypt.
- Their camels were loaded with spices, balm, and myrrh which were valued by the Egyptians.
- Judah’s conscience at work
- “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?”
- Implies that Judah had some fear of punishment.
- “let not our hand be upon him (Joseph), for he is our brother, our own flesh.”
- Implies that to murder one’s brother is too great a sin.
- Judah did not know Reuben’s original plan, and his plan is not as compassionate as Reuben’s. Both seemed to have a little concern about their younger brother’s welfare.
- “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?”
- Sold to the Midianite traders for 20 shekels of silver.
- So their conscience prevented them from murdering Joseph, but their jealous hatred propelled them to sell Joseph.
- Joseph is betrayed and sold for 20 shekels of silver.
- Twenty shekels was the going rate for a slave in the ancient Near East in the mid-second millennium, supported by ancient documents including the Code of Hammurabi.
- Remember that similarly, Judas betrayed Jesus and sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
- Some commentators believe that the Midianites and the Ishmaelites are referring to two groups of people.
- Because the original Hebrew text is not explicit in who is the subject of the clause, “And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver..” - they believe it was the Midianites who found Joseph in the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites.
- However, this is not supported by the biblical text. Joseph accused his brothers later in Genesis 45:4 saying, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”
- So the brothers did throw Joseph in the pit, and the same brothers without Reuben took Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Midianites who were members of a tribal league known as Ishmaelites
- Reuben was absent from the other brothers when they changed the plan.
- So when Reuben sees the empty pit, he tears his clothing and cries out “where shall I go?”
3. Jacob Mourns in Hebron (v.31-35)
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.” 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. (Genesis 37:31-35)
- Here we read how the brothers deceived Jacob and covered up their sin.
- They dip Joseph’s robe in goat’s blood.
- They return home and present the robe to Jacob.
- Notice they didn’t say anything but asked their father to draw his own conclusion.
- In modern times, one could easily distinguish animal blood from Joseph’s blood. But Jacob was convinced by the forensic evidence presented to him.
- Picture Jacob’s grief mixed with guilt.
- Overwhelming grief was the loss of his beloved son.
- But what guilt Jacob must have felt, for it was Jacob’s idea to send his young son on this treachery journey, putting his son in danger.
- While Jacob is unable to stop mourning, his sons and daughter came to comfort him.
- perhaps his daughters did not know, but his sons were not moved to repentance while witnessing Jacob’s grief
- Joseph’s brothers did not just sin against Joseph, but they sinned against their father
- What hypocrisy to seemingly comfort their grieving father.
- they would continue the deception for the next 20 years.
- at this point, Jacob has no hope for the future.
- a word of warning: if like Joseph’s brothers, you start and continues a pattern of lying and sear your conscience with a life of duplicity, you will destroy your life.
- you will neuter your efficacy for God. You will destroy yourself. You must repent. Beware.
Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)
- Joseph was likely screaming for help when he was thrown in the pit. He must have cried out to his brothers on the back of the caravan’s camel headed for Egypt.
- Joseph’s anguish was etched into his brother’s memories even over 20 years later.
- When we studied the early life of Jacob from Genesis 27-35, we saw the trials that Jacob had to endure. But God never promises that our greatest trials will only come early in life. Many times, our greatest challenges come later in life. We see this to be true for Jacob in the Joseph narrative.
4. Joseph Sold to Potiphar (v.36)
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37:36)
- The final verse of Genesis gives us hope that Joseph’s new life will begin in Egypt in the household of Potiphar, a high royal official.
- The exact function of “captain of the guard” is not clear. Potiphar was likely in charge of the prison for royal officials. This same term was used to describe Nebuzaradan the Babylonian general in 2 Kings 25:8-12.
- The chapter ends with hope. Joseph did reach Egypt. He is still alive. God has and will continue to protect Joseph.
- Joseph will cling to all the stories grandfather Isaac and father Jacob would have taught him about God.
- He will remember his two divine dreams.
- He will trust in the promises of God given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- He needed to in order to endure what will lie ahead in his future over the next 13 years.
William F. Albright, Archaeology, Historical Analogy and Early Biblical History, chapt. II: “The Story of Abraham in Light of New Archaeological Data” (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1966), 22–41. ↩︎
Cyrus H. Gordon, “Biblical Customs and the Nuzi Tablets,” BA 3 (1940): 1–12; idem, “Hebrew Origins in the Light of Recent Discoveries,” Biblical and Other Studies, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 3–14; ↩︎
Kaiser, Walter C. A History of Israel: The Old Testament and Its Times. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998. ↩︎
Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph
- Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
- Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
- Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
- Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
- Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
- God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
- Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
- Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
- Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
- Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
- Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
- Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
- Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
- Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
- A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
- It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
- Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
- God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
- "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
- Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
- God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)