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Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Our passage begins, “But Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings as [i.e., where his father Isaac was only] a resident alien–in the land of Canaan. These are the toledot of (accounts belonging/pertaining to) Jacob” (author’s translation). Both statements project a sense of transition. Previously, the narrative introduced Lot, then Ishmael, then Abraham’s sons by Keturah, only to inform us by laying their stories aside that none would inherit God’s promises to Abraham. Now, we see, neither would Esau. The conjunction (vav) we have translated “But,” emphasizing the conclusion of Esau’s genealogy that fills chapter 36. The reader knows this from the narrative arc begun in chapter 25, but this line–Jacob, not Esau, dwelt in Canaan–puts a bold and italic finis to the few Esau narratives in Genesis; Jacob inherited the promises.

The second statement is the tenth and final toledot pronouncement in Genesis. Sometimes “these are the toledot of . . .” refers to genealogies, sometimes to narratives. Sometimes, it seems definitively to introduce what comes next; other times, just as definitively, to conclude what comes before it. This final occurrence exemplifies the uncertainties. We can say with confidence that toledot means, “This is a transition: it ends one major segment; it begins another.”

Confirming that we don’t know everything about toledot, what follows–from here to the end of Genesis–is not about Jacob at all. It is about Joseph, and includes Jacob only when he is important to Joseph’s story.

In these first verses, Joseph is not the paragon we often picture. But what youngster spoiled for most of his childhood would be? Pick a top-of-the-line men’s fashion name: Brooks Brothers? Armani? Savile Row? Whoever was best when Jacob decided to clothe the elder son of his favorite, grievously lamented wife, that was who he went to. The noun kutonet/ketonet simply means tunic, but the second noun of this construct chain (Hebrew passim–not Latin this time!) makes the phrase, literally, “a tunic of palms,” i.e., a tunic with longer-than-normal sleeves, reaching (nearly) to the palms of the wearer’s hands. This tunic was stylish in every way, emphasizing Joseph’s status as Daddy’s favorite. He may have worn it every day, reason enough for his brothers to despise him. But there was more.

Dan and Naphtali were the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid, bore Jacob Gad and Asher, “for” Leah. Each knew he had been conceived as a prize in the bitter battle between the sisters for the affections of their mutual husband. Having the young, not-yet-wholly-competent (v. 2; the meaning of na’ar here–NRSV’s “helper”) half-brother foisted on them as a shepherding partner, only for him to tattle on them to their father, was unbearable. Whether the reports were true, or whether Joseph already had his precious tunic by then, mattered little; “they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (v. 4b, NRSV).

On top of all that, Joseph demonstrated his still-immature judgment in not keeping to himself the dreams predicting his own future dominance. Of course, these dreams added fuel to the fires of his brothers’ ill will, and even their father was offended (v. 10). But in the Middle East to this day, dreams are taken seriously, and often are understood as predictive.

What Joseph’s brothers did to prevent his dreams from becoming reality makes his a “foundling child” story, though his age of seventeen years is atypical. Most foundling child stories, historical or fictional, feature an infant or young child abandoned or otherwise put out of the way (often sympathetically, as Reuben tried with Joseph, to avoid murdering an innocent), to prevent realization of the expected or prophesied destiny. Of course, the irony in all these stories (again, whether historical or fictional) is that the “disposal” invariably starts the protagonist on the path toward fulfilling the destiny the antagonist(s) had sought to prevent. Why and how would Joseph have gone to Egypt, had his brothers not sold him?

Another irony the narrator intends the reader to notice: Jacob sent Joseph (v. 14) to check on the shalom of the brothers who could not speak in shalom (v. 4; “peaceably,” NRSV) with him. They had taken their father’s tson about forty miles north, from “the valley of Hebron . . . to Shechem” (v. 14). This indicates the time of year was early-to-mid-summer. Hebrew tson occurs only twice (vv. 12, 14), though it is implied where NRSV supplies it (vv. 13, 16). Every indication throughout the Genesis “Patriarchal Narratives” is that Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob each possessed significant numbers of flocks, not just one. As tson is a collective noun, we should translate “flocks.” Each flock comprised both sheep and goats, not necessarily in equal numbers, and each was under the direct supervision of one or two of Jacob’s sons. In the time-honored practice of pastoralists in the Canaanite Highlands (observable yet today on a more limited scale), they had taken the flocks north for the water and pasturage still available there, as both dried up further south with the increasing heat of summer.

By the time Joseph arrived at Shechem, his brothers had moved another ten miles north to the Dothan Valley (v. 17). As they watched him approach, their words reveal their contempt and animosity, “Look, here comes this master of dreams! Now, let’s kill him . . .. Then we’ll see what will become of his dreams!” (vv. 19-20, author’s translation). As in most such stories, their intent to kill arose from a combination of malice and fear–a latent or even as-yet-unrecognized fear that their contemptuous title, “Master of Dreams,” actually could be true of their hated younger brother. One function of this feature of foundling-child stories, too often ignored, is to prompt the reader to ask, “Do I hate (or fear) someone enough that I would think seriously about murder, if I had the chance? If my answer is ‘Yes,’ what am I going to do about it?”

Though obvious, it is worth stating that Reuben prevented the irrevocable (vv. 21-22). Murder does not come with a mulligan, and even a short delay may mitigate disaster.

The reader who is paying attention cannot but stand in awe of the consummate literary artistry of the biblical narrators. The brothers seized Joseph and stripped him of his hated tunic. They dropped him (none too gently, we may imagine) into a dry pit–not a cistern; those came later. Reuben left. (The narrator lets the reader infer this from what follows–still more literary craftsmanship.) The other brothers “sat down to eat”! (v. 25). The reader imagines them hearing Joseph’s pleas, and the narrator does not object: they continue their munching and their banter. Only when the possibility of some profit arises do they bestir themselves and move again toward the pit. At this time, Joseph may have been naïve and arrogant, but he was not dull. As soon as he saw the trading caravan, he knew he was not going home.

Wisely, the narrator refrains from discussing Joseph’s state of mind during his all-expense-paid trip to Egypt. Further injustices befell him, and we are given to know he had to learn patience to endure. But at the close of the Genesis narrative, Joseph looked his formerly felonious brothers in the eye, knowing he could have executed them at any time, and reassured them he harbored no animosity. They had intended permanent riddance of a bratty young brother, but God used his many adversities to fashion him into the deliverer of all Jacob’s household (50:20).