Sacred Texts  Bible  Bible Commentary  Index 
Genesis Index
  Previous  Next 

Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Genesis Chapter 37


gen 37:0

X. History of Jacob - Genesis 37-50Its Substance and Character

The history (tholedoth) of Isaac commenced with the founding of his house by the birth of his sons (p. 171); but Jacob was abroad when his sons were born, and had not yet entered into undisputed possession of his inheritance. Hence his tholedoth only commence with his return to his father's tent and his entrance upon the family possessions, and merely embrace the history of his life as patriarch of the house which he founded. In this period of his life, indeed, his sons, especially Joseph and Judah, stand in the foreground, so that "Joseph might be described as the moving principle of the following history." But for all that, Jacob remains the head of the house, and the centre around whom the whole revolves. This section is divided by the removal of Jacob to Egypt, into the period of his residence in Canaan (Gen 37-45), and the close of his life in Goshen (Gen 46-50). The first period is occupied with the events which prepared the way for, and eventually occasioned, his migration into Egypt. The way was prepared, directly by the sale of Joseph (Gen 37), indirectly by the alliance of Judah with the Canaanites (Gen 38), which endangered the divine call of Israel, inasmuch as this showed the necessity for a temporary removal of the sons of Israel from Canaan. The way was opened by the wonderful career of Joseph in Egypt, his elevation from slavery and imprisonment to be the ruler over the whole of Egypt (Gen 39-41). And lastly, the migration was occasioned by the famine in Canaan, which rendered it necessary for Jacob's sons to travel into Egypt to buy corn, and, whilst it led to Jacob's recovery of the son he had mourned for as dead, furnished an opportunity for Joseph to welcome his family into Egypt (Gen 42-45). The second period commences with the migration of Jacob into Egypt, and his settlement in the land of Goshen (Gen 46-47:27). It embraces the patriarch's closing years, his last instructions respecting his burial in Canaan (Gen 47:28-31), his adoption of Joseph's sons, and the blessing given to his twelve sons (Gen 49), and extends to his burial and Joseph's death (Gen 50).

Now if we compare this period of the patriarchal history with the previous ones, viz., those of Isaac and Abraham, it differs from them most in the absence of divine revelations-in the fact, that from the time of the patriarch's entrance upon the family inheritance to the day of his death, there was only one other occasion on which God appeared to him in a dream, viz., in Beersheba, on the border of the promised land, when he had prepared to go with his whole house into Egypt: the God of his father then promised him the increase of his seed in Egypt into a great nation, and their return to Canaan (Gen 46:2-4). This fact may be easily explained on the ground, that the end of the divine manifestations had been already attained; that in Jacob's house with his twelve sons the foundation was laid for the development of the promised nation; and that the time had come, in which the chosen family was to grow into a nation-a process for which they needed, indeed, the blessing and protection of God, but no special revelations, so long at least as this growth into a nation took its natural course. That course was not interrupted, but rather facilitated by the removal into Egypt. But as Canaan had been assigned to the patriarchs as the land of their pilgrimage, and promised to their seed for a possession after it had become a nation; when Jacob was compelled to leave this land, his faith in the promise of God might have been shaken, if God had not appeared to him as he departed, to promise him His protection in the foreign land, and assure him of the fulfilment of His promises. More than this the house of Israel did not need to know, as to the way by which God would lead them, especially as Abraham had already received a revelation from the Lord (Gen 15:13-16).

In perfect harmony with the character of the time thus commencing for Jacob-Israel, is the use of the names of God in this last section of Genesis: viz., the fact, that whilst in Gen 37 (the sale of Joseph) the name of God is not met with at all, in Gen 38 and 39 we find the name of Jehovah nine times and Elohim only once (Gen 39:9), and that in circumstances in which Jehovah would have been inadmissible; and after Gen 40:1, the name Jehovah almost entirely disappears, occurring only once in Gen 40-50 (Gen 49:18, where Jacob uses it), whereas Elohim is used eighteen times and Ha-Elohim seven, not to mention such expressions as "your God" (Gen 43:23), or "the God of his, or your father" (Gen 46:1, Gen 46:3). So long as the attention is confined to this numerical proportion of Jehovah, and Elohim or Ha-Elohim, it must remain "a difficult enigma." But when we look at the way in which these names are employed, we find the actual fact to be, that in Gen 38 and 39 the writer mentions God nine times, and calls Him Jehovah, and that in Gen 40-50 he only mentions God twice, and then calls Him Elohim (Gen 46:1-2), although the God of salvation, i.e., Jehovah, is intended. In every other instance in which God is referred to in Gen 40-50, it is always by the persons concerned: either Pharaoh (Gen 41:38-39), or Joseph and his brethren (Gen 40:8; Gen 41:16, Gen 41:51-52, etc., Elohim; and Gen 41:25, Gen 41:28, Gen 41:32, etc., Ha-Elohim), or by Jacob (Gen 48:11, Gen 48:20-21, Elohim). Now the circumstance that the historian speaks of God nine times in Gen 38-39 and only twice in Gen 40-50 is explained by the substance of the history, which furnished no particular occasion for this in the last eleven chapters. But the reason why he does not name Jehovah in Gen 40-50 as in Gen 38-39, but speaks of the "God of his (Jacob's) father Isaac," in Gen 41:1, and directly afterwards of Elohim (Gen 41:2), could hardly be that the periphrasis "the God of his father" seemed more appropriate than the simple name Jehovah, since Jacob offered sacrifice at Beersheba to the God who appeared to his father, and to whom Isaac built an altar there, and this God (Elohim) then appeared to him in a dream and renewed the promise of his fathers. As the historian uses a periphrasis of the name Jehovah, to point out the internal connection between what Jacob did and experienced at Beersheba and what his father experienced there; so Jacob also, both in the blessing with which he sends his sons the second time to Egypt (Gen 43:14) and at the adoption of Joseph's sons (Gen 48:3), uses the name El Shaddai, and in his blessings on Joseph's sons (Gen 43:15) and on Joseph himself (Gen 49:24-25) employs rhetorical periphrases for the name Jehovah, because Jehovah had manifested Himself not only to him (Gen 35:11-12), but also to his fathers Abraham and Isaac (Gen 17:1 and Gen 28:3) as El Shaddai, and had proved Himself to be the Almighty, "the God who fed him," "the Mighty One of Jacob," "the Shepherd and Rock of Israel." In these set discourses the titles of God here mentioned were unquestionably more significant and impressive than the simple name Jehovah. and when Jacob speaks of Elohim only, not of Jehovah, in Gen 48:11, Gen 48:20-21, the Elohim in Gen 48:11 and Gen 48:21 may be easily explained from the antithesis of Jacob to both man and God, and in Gen 48:20 from the words themselves, which contain a common and, so to speak, a stereotyped saying. Wherever the thought required the name Jehovah as the only appropriate one, there Jacob used this name, as Gen 49:18 will prove. But that name would have been quit unsuitable in the mouth of Pharaoh in Gen 41:38-39, in the address of Joseph to the prisoners (Gen 40:8) and to Pharaoh (Gen 41:16, Gen 41:25, Gen 41:28, Gen 41:32), and in his conversation with his brethren before he made himself known (Gen 42:18; Gen 43:29), and also in the appeal of Judah to Joseph as an unknown Egyptian officer of state (Gen 44:16). In the meantime the brethren of Joseph also speak to one another of Elohim (Gen 43:28); and Joseph not only sees in the birth of his sons merely a gift of Elohim (Gen 41:51-52; Gen 48:9), but in the solemn moment in which he makes himself known to his brethren (Gen 45:5-9) he speaks of Elohim alone: "Elohim did send me before you to preserve life" (Gen 41:5); and even upon his death-bed he says, "I die, and Elohim will surely visit you and bring you out of this land" (Gen 50:24-25). But the reason of this is not difficult to discover, and is no other than the following: Joseph, like his brethren, did not clearly discern the ways of the Lord in the wonderful changes of his life; and his brethren, though they felt that the trouble into which they were brought before the unknown ruler of Egypt was a just punishment from God for their crime against Joseph, did not perceive that by the sale of their brother they had sinned not only against Elohim (God the Creator and Judge of men), but against Jehovah the covenant God of their father. They had not only sold their brother, but in their brother they had cast out a member of the seed promised and given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the fellowship of the chosen family, and sinned against the God of salvation and His promises. But this aspect of their crime was still hidden from them, so that they could not speak of Jehovah. In the same way, Joseph regarded the wonderful course of his life as a divine arrangement for the preservation or rescue of his family, and he was so far acquainted with the promises of God, that he regarded it as a certainty, that Israel would be led out of Egypt, especially after the last wish expressed by Jacob. But this did not involve so full and clear an insight into the ways of Jehovah, as to lead Joseph to recognise in his own career a special appointment of the covenant God, and to describe it as a gracious work of Jehovah.

(Note: The very fact that the author of Genesis, who wrote in the light of the further development and fuller revelation of the ways of the Lord with Joseph and the whole house of Jacob, represents the career of Joseph as a gracious interposition of Jehovah (Gen 39), and yet makes Joseph himself speak of Elohim as arranging the whole, is by no means an unimportant testimony to the historical fidelity and truth of the narrative; of which further proofs are to be found in the faithful and exact representation of the circumstances, manners, and customs of Egypt, as Hengstenberg has proved in his Egypt and the Books of Moses, from a comparison of these accounts of Joseph's life with ancient document and monuments connected with this land.)

The disappearance of the name Jehovah, therefore, is to be explained, partly from the fact that previous revelations and acts of grace had given rise to other phrases expressive of the idea of Jehovah, which not only served as substitutes for this name of the covenant God, but in certain circumstances were much more appropriate; and partly from the fact that the sons of Jacob, including Joseph, did not so distinctly recognise in their course the saving guidance of the covenant God, as to be able to describe it as the work of Jehovah. This imperfect insight, however, is intimately connected with the fact that the direct revelations of God had ceased; and that Joseph, although chosen by God to be the preserver of the house of Israel and the instrument in accomplishing His plans of salvation, was separated at a very early period from the fellowship of his father's house, and formally naturalized in Egypt, and though endowed with the supernatural power to interpret dreams, was not favoured, as Daniel afterwards was in the Chaldaean court, with visions or revelations of God. Consequently we cannot place Joseph on a level with the three patriarchs, nor assent to the statement, that "as the noblest blossom of the patriarchal life is seen in Joseph, as in him the whole meaning of the patriarchal life is summed up and fulfilled, so in Christ we see the perfect blossom and sole fulfilment of the whole of the Old Testament dispensation" (Kurtz, Old Covenant ii. 95), as being either correct or scriptural, so far as the first portion is concerned. For Joseph was not a medium of salvation in the same way as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was indeed a benefactor, not only to his brethren and the whole house of Israel, but also to the Egyptians; but salvation, i.e., spiritual help and culture, he neither brought to the Gentiles nor to the house of Israel. In Jacob's blessing he is endowed with the richest inheritance of the first-born in earthly things; but salvation is to reach the nations through Judah. We may therefore without hesitation look upon the history of Joseph as a "type of the pathway of the Church, not of Jehovah only, but also of Christ, from lowliness to exaltation, from slavery to liberty, from suffering to glory" (Delitzsch); we may also, so far as the history of Israel is a type of the history of Christ and His Church, regard the life of Joseph, as believing commentators of all centuries have done, as a type of the life of Christ, and use these typical traits as aids to progress in the knowledge of salvation; but that we may not be seduced into typological trifling, we must not overlook the fact, that neither Joseph nor his career is represented, either by the prophets or by Christ and His apostles, as typical of Christ, - in anything like the same way, for example, as the guidance of Israel into and out of Egypt (Hos 11:1 cf. Mat 2:15), and other events and persons in the history of Israel.

Genesis 37:1

gen 37:1

Gen 37:1-2

The statement in Gen 37:1, which introduces the tholedoth of Jacob, "And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's pilgrimage, in the land of Canaan," implies that Jacob had now entered upon his father's inheritance, and carries on the patriarchal pilgrim-life in Canaan, the further development of which was determined by the wonderful career of Joseph. This strange and eventful career of Joseph commenced when he was 17 years old. The notice of his age at the commencement of the narrative which follows, is introduced with reference to the principal topic in it, viz., the sale of Joseph, which was to prepare the way, according to the wonderful counsel of God, for the fulfilment of the divine revelation to Abraham respecting the future history of his seed (Gen 15:13.). While feeding the flock with his brethren, and, as he was young, with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, who were nearer his age than the sons of Leah, he brought an evil report of them to his father (רעה intentionally indefinite, connected with דּבּתם without an article). The words נער והוּא, "and he a lad," are subordinate to the main clause: they are not to be rendered, however, "he was a lad with the sons," but, "as he was young, he fed the flock with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah."

Gen 37:3-4

"Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his (other) sons, because he was born in his old age," as the first-fruits of the beloved Rachel (Benjamin was hardly a year old at this time). And he made him פּסּים כּתנת: a long coat with sleeves (χιτὼν ἀστραγάλειος, Aqu., or ἀστραγαλωτός, lxx at Sa2 13:18, tunica talaris, Vulg. ad Sam.), i.e., an upper coat reaching to the wrists and ankles, such as noblemen and kings' daughters wore, not "a coat of many colours" ("bunter Rock," as Luther renders it, from the χιτῶνα ποικίλον, tunicam polymitam, of the lxx and Vulgate). This partiality made Joseph hated by his brethren; so that they could not "speak peaceably unto him," i.e., ask him how he was, offer him the usual salutation, "Peace be with thee."

Genesis 37:5

gen 37:5

This hatred was increased when Joseph told them of two dreams that he had had: viz., that as they were binding sheaves in the field, his sheaf "stood and remained standing," but their sheaves placed themselves round it and bowed down to it; and that the sun (his father), and the moon (his mother, "not Leah, but Rachel, who was neither forgotten nor lost"), and eleven stars (his eleven brethren) bowed down before him. These dreams pointed in an unmistakeable way to the supremacy of Joseph; the first to supremacy over his brethren, the second over the whole house of Israel. The repetition seemed to establish the thing as certain (cf. Gen 41:32); so that not only did his brethren hate him still more "on account of his dreams and words" (Gen 37:8), i.e., the substance of the dreams and the open interpretation of them, and become jealous and envious, but his father gave him a sharp reproof for the second, though he preserved the matter, i.e., retained it in his memory (שׁמר lxx διετήρησε, cf. συνετήρει, Luk 2:19). The brothers with their ill-will could not see anything in the creams but the suggestions of his own ambition and pride of heart; and even the father, notwithstanding his partiality, was grieved by the second dream. The dreams are not represented as divine revelations; yet they are not to be regarded as pure flights of fancy from an ambitious heart, but as the presentiments of deep inward feelings, which were not produced without some divine influence being exerted upon Joseph's mind, and therefore were of prophetic significance, though they were not inspired directly by God, inasmuch as the purposes of God were still to remain hidden from the eyes of men for the saving good of all concerned.

Genesis 37:12

gen 37:12

In a short time the hatred of Joseph's brethren grew into a crime. On one occasion, when they were feeding their flock at a distance from Hebron, in the neighbourhood of Shechem (Nablus, in the plain of Mukhnah), and Joseph who was sent thither by Jacob to inquire as to the welfare (shalom, valetudo) of the brethren and their flocks, followed them to Dothain or Dothan, a place 12 Roman miles to the north of Samaria (Sebaste), towards the plain of Jezreel, they formed the malicious resolution to put him, "this dreamer," to death, and throw him into one of the pits, i.e., cisterns, and then to tell (his father) that a wild beast had slain him, and so to bring his dreams to nought.

Genesis 37:21

gen 37:21

Reuben, who was the eldest son, and therefore specially responsible for his younger brother, opposed this murderous proposal. He dissuaded his brethren from killing Joseph (נפשׁ פ הכּה ), and advised them to throw him "into this pit in the desert," i.e., into a dry pit that was near. As Joseph would inevitably perish even in that pit, their malice was satisfied; but Reuben intended to take Joseph out again, and restore him to his father. As soon, therefore, as Joseph arrived, they took off his coat with sleeves and threw him into the pit, which happened to be dry.

Genesis 37:25

gen 37:25

Reuben had saved Joseph's life indeed by his proposal; but his intention to send him back to his father was frustrated. For as soon as the brethren sat down to eat, after the deed was performed, they saw a company of Ishmaelites from Gilead coming along the road which leads from Beisan past Jenin (Rob. Pal. iii. 155) and through the plain of Dothan to the great caravan road that runs from Damascus by Lejun (Legio, Megiddo), Ramleh, and Gaza to Egypt (Rob. iii. 27, 178). The caravan drew near, laden with spices: viz., נכאת, gum-tragacanth; צרי, balsam, for which Gilead was celebrated (Gen 43:11; Jer 8:22; Jer 46:11); and לט, ladanum, the fragrant resin of the cistus-rose. Judah seized the opportunity to propose to his brethren to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. "What profit have we," he said, "that we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites; and our hand, let it not lay hold of him (sc., to slay him), for he is our brother, our flesh." Reuben wished to deliver Joseph entirely from his brothers' malice. Judah also wished to save his life, though not from brotherly love so much as from the feeling of horror, which was not quite extinct within him, at incurring the guilt of fratricide; but he would still like to get rid of him, that his dreams might not come true. Judah, like his brethren, was probably afraid that their father might confer upon Joseph the rights of the first-born, and so make him lord over them. His proposal was a welcome one. When the Arabs passed by, the brethren fetched Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, who took him into Egypt. The different names given to the traders - viz., Ishmaelites (Gen 37:25, Gen 37:27, and Gen 37:28), Midianites (Gen 37:28), and Medanites (Gen 37:36) - do not show that the account has been drawn from different legends, but that these tribes were often confounded, from the fact that they resembled one another so closely, not only in their common descent from Abraham (Gen 16:15 and Gen 25:2), but also in the similarity of their mode of life and their constant change of abode, that strangers could hardly distinguish them, especially when they appeared not as tribes but as Arabian merchants, such as they are here described as being: "Midianitish men, merchants." That descendants of Abraham should already be met with in this capacity is by no means strange, if we consider that 150 years had passed by since Ishmael's dismissal from his father's house, - a period amply sufficient for his descendants to have grown through marriage into a respectable tribe. The price, "twenty (sc., shekels) of silver," was the price which Moses afterwards fixed as the value of a boy between 5 and 20 (Lev 27:5), the average price of a slave being 30 shekels (Exo 21:32). But the Ishmaelites naturally wanted to make money by the transaction.

Genesis 37:29

gen 37:29

The business was settled in Reuben's absence; probably because his brethren suspected that he intended to rescue Joseph. When he came to the pit and found Joseph gone, he rent his clothes (a sign of intense grief on the part of the natural man) and exclaimed: "The boy is no more, and I, whither shall I go!" - how shall I account to his father for his disappearance! But the brothers were at no loss; they dipped Joseph's coat in the blood of a goat and sent it to his father, with the message, "We have found this; see whether it is thy son's coat or not." Jacob recognised the coat at once, and mourned bitterly in mourning clothes (שׂק) for his son, whom he supposed to have been devoured and destroyed by a wild beast (טרף טרף inf. abs. of Kal before Pual, as an indication of undoubted certainty), and refused all comfort from his children, saying, "No (כּי immo, elliptical: Do not attempt to comfort me, for) I will go down mourning into Sheol to my son." Sheol denotes the place where departed souls are gathered after death; it is an infinitive form from שׁאל to demand, the demanding, applied to the place which inexorably summons all men into its shade (cf. Pro 30:15-16; Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5). How should his sons comfort him, when they were obliged to cover their wickedness with the sin of lying and hypocrisy, and when even Reuben, although at first beside himself at the failure of his plan, had not courage enough to disclose his brothers' crime?

Genesis 37:36

gen 37:36

But Joseph, while his father was mourning, was sold by the Midianites to Potiphar, the chief of Pharaoh's trabantes, to be first of all brought low, according to the wonderful counsel of God, and then to be exalted as ruler in Egypt, before whom his brethren would bow down, and as the saviour of the house of Israel. The name Potiphar is a contraction of Poti Pherah (Gen 41:50); the lxx render both Πετεφρής or Πετεφρῆ (vid., Gen 41:50). סריס (eunuch) is used here, as in Sa1 8:15 and in most of the passages of the Old Testament, for courtier or chamberlain, without regard to the primary meaning, as Potiphar was married. "Captain of the guard" (lit., captain of the slaughterers, i.e., the executioners), commanding officer of the royal body-guard, who executed the capital sentences ordered by the king, as was also the case with the Chaldeans (Kg2 25:8; Jer 39:9; Jer 52:12. See my Commentary on the Books of Kings, vol. i. pp. 35, 36, Eng. Tr.).

Next: Genesis Chapter 38