Jacob lived in his father’s land, the land of Canaan. His son, 17-year-old Joseph, helped tend the flocks with his brothers (the sons of Jacob’s wives, Bilhah and Zilpah). One day, Joseph brought a bad report about his brothers to Jacob.
Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he had been born to him in his old age. He made an ornate robe (visually striking, of many colors) for Joseph. When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than any of them, they hated him and would say nothing nice to him.
Joseph had a dream and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. Joseph told them,
“We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
His brothers said to him,
“Do you intend to reign over us? Do you think you will actually rule over us?”
And they hated him more because of his dream.
Then Joseph had another dream and he told it to his brothers. He said,
“I had another dream and this time the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
When he told his father this, his father rebuked him saying,
“What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers bow down to the ground before you?”
His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
What the story means to us today
A plethora of lessons are about to be unveiled
When the story begins, we find Jacob living in Canaan, still a stranger in the land waiting for fulfillment of God’s promise. Although the story starts by mentioning Jacob (i.e. “This is the account of Jacob’s family line”), the story is more about Joseph (who ultimately saves the Hebrews from extinction) and Judah (whom Jesus descended from).
The initial passages introduce us to Joseph. He lives in Canaan, he is seventeen years old, and tends flocks with his brothers. We see that Jacob is especially fond of him, not unusual given Joseph is the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. The mention of Joseph bringing a bad report about his brothers gives us insight into his personality and prefaces the tragic but profound events that are about to transpire. As we will see, Joseph’s dreams are not fantasy but rather, prophetic, and set up a story which will provide a plethora of lessons about family relationships, jealousy, love, and forgiveness.
An introduction to Judah, whom Jesus descended from
As we delve through Joseph’s life in the upcoming chapters, pay attention to Judah. Note his relationship with the other brothers. We will soon hear Jacob tell Judah with his last breath, “Your brothers will bow down to you.” This prophetic revelation will be fulfilled through Judah’s familial line and the birth of Jesus.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Joseph’s legacy will help fulfill God’s plan
The story of Joseph is one of the most popular and well-known in the Bible, in part because it is the longest of the patriarchal narratives. Ultimately the events surrounding Joseph will lead Israel into Egypt and fulfill God’s warning to Abraham that his people will be strangers in a foreign land and held as slaves (Genesis 15:13).
Why does the story distinguish the mothers of Joseph’s brothers?
Joseph’s brothers are characterized as sons of Zilpah and Bilhah. Jacob had twelve sons from four different wives.
From Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.
From Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin.
From Bilhah (Rachel’s servant): Dan and Naphtali.
From Zilpah (Leah’s servant): Gad and Asher.
The bothers Joseph was tending the flocks with are limited to Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher – all of whom we would term “half-brothers” today.
The Bible shows us the dangers of parental favoritism
The Bible clearly tells us Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. In fact, we are told that Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. To some degree, the favoritism is understandable. Joseph was born to Jacob and Rachel, his first love who remained barren for many years. We would expect an unusually strong sense of love towards a son from such a special relationship. However, Jacob’s favoritism is made worse by his outward display of preferential treatment of Joseph (e.g. the gift of a special coat to Joseph). The favoritism Jacob exhibits creates a strong sense of jealousy between the other brothers.
It is common for parents to prefer one child over another. This occurs for a variety of reasons but typically occurs because the favored child pleases the parent in one way or another. In extreme cases, favoritism becomes abuse, causing psychological damage in the other children when they are ignored or easily dismissed.
Surprisingly, it is not just the ignored children that are harmed. Favorited children grow up with a sense of entitlement and believe rules do not apply to them. Favorited children will also struggle with relationships and as seen with Joseph, typically grow up alienated from their siblings.
Jacob’s home in the land of Canaan
Although the story does not specifically mention the location by name, earlier verses (Genesis 25:11) tell us that Isaac (Jacob’s father) lived in Beer Lahai Roi. We can presume this is where Jacob lives now.
Joseph’s bad report about his brothers
Joseph brings a “bad report” regarding his brothers to Jacob. In other words, Joseph reported to Jacob that his brothers were not completing their tasks in a manner considered sufficient by Joseph. Joseph may have freely brought the report to Jacob but equally likely, given Jacob’s favoritism and special treatment of Joseph, Jacob may have requested the report from his trusted son (as he will in the verses that follow). Regardless, the “bad report” caused Joseph’s brothers to resent him.
Does Joseph gloat over his dream?
Some commentators portray Joseph’s telling of the dream as an act of gloating. Although this could be an accurate assessment, the verses do not tell us this. Scripture says “he told his brothers about it”, a normal act you would expect from any family member. Still, given the jealous relationship between his brothers, Joseph’s sharing of the dream further enhances their resentment towards him. As the verses tell us, they hated him all the more.
The sun, the moon, and the eleven stars
Joseph dreams the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. The sun probably refers to Jacob, the moon to Leah or Billhah (Joseph’s stepmothers), and the eleven stars to Joseph’s eleven brothers.
Clearly Jacob recognizes the dream implies the entire family will one-day worship Joseph and he admonishes Joseph for suggesting such. However, Jacob “keeps the dream in mind” and does not totally dismiss Joseph’s dream as mere fancy. The dream will soon be fulfilled when Joseph becomes the second ruler of Egypt and his entire family becomes dependent on him.
Why are their prophetic dreams in the Old Testament?
Prophetic dreams are not a common occurrence in modern times but in the Old Testament, there are several instances where God communicates to people through dreams. Why would God deliver prophetic messages through dreams? It is possible God chose to do this because it was how people expected the divine to speak to them. In the ancient Near East, it was widely considered a common means of divine communication. Any other form of communication may have been met with skepticism (as would prophetic dreams be met in modern times).
Notes on Biblical translation
Joseph’s coat of many colors
The original Hebrew words describe Jacob’s gift to Joseph as a “coat of extended length” or possibly a “tunic that was embroidered with intricate designs” but most know it as the “coat of many colors”. The idea of a coat of many colors originated with the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was not however, clearly expressed in the original text. The same Hebrew phrase also appears in 2 Samuel 13:18-19 but with little explanation, is impossible to know if the coat was unusually long, constructed with expensive materials, or embellished with many colors. Despite the unclear interpretation, it is clear that Joseph’s coat set him apart from his brothers.
37 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the account of Jacob’s family line.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
37 Meanwhile Jacob had settled down where his father had lived, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the story of Jacob. The story continues with Joseph, seventeen years old at the time, helping out his brothers in herding the flocks. These were his half brothers actually, the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought his father bad reports on them.
3–4 Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was the child of his old age. And he made him an elaborately embroidered coat. When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than them, they grew to hate him—they wouldn’t even speak to him.
5–7 Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said, “Listen to this dream I had. We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine.”
8 His brothers said, “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” And they hated him more than ever because of his dreams and the way he talked.
9 He had another dream and told this one also to his brothers: “I dreamed another dream—the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to me!”
10–11 When he told it to his father and brothers, his father reprimanded him: “What’s with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?” Now his brothers were really jealous; but his father brooded over the whole business.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
37:1 But Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, in the land of Canaan.
37:2 This is the account of Jacob.
Joseph, his seventeen-year-old son, was taking care of the flocks with his brothers. Now he was a youngster working with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father.
37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons because he was a son born to him late in life, and he made a special tunic for him. 37:4 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated Joseph and were not able to speak to him kindly.
37:5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him even more. 37:6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 37:7 There we were, binding sheaves of grain in the middle of the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose up and stood upright and your sheaves surrounded my sheaf and bowed down to it!” 37:8 Then his brothers asked him, “Do you really think you will rule over us or have dominion over us?” They hated him even more because of his dream and because of what he said.
37:9 Then he had another dream, and told it to his brothers. “Look,” he said. “I had another dream. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 37:10 When he told his father and his brothers, his father rebuked him, saying, “What is this dream that you had? Will I, your mother, and your brothers really come and bow down to you?” 37:11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept in mind what Joseph said.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
37 And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. 4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him. 5 And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. 6 And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: 7 For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. 8 And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. 9 And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. 10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth? 11 And his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.