Joseph – Family Dysfunction

The story of Joseph differs from the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The promise God made to Abraham was renewed to Isaac and Jacob but not to Joseph. God spoke to the patriarchs directly or through messengers. There is no theophany in the story of Joseph. God speaks to him through dreams and guides him through a series of ups and downs, good times and bad times, twists and turns that culminate with Joseph becoming the prime minister of Egypt.

Josep’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob
by Diego Velázquez, 1630

Joseph grew up in a broken family. His story reveals the tension between Joseph and his brothers that intensified because of Joseph’s dreams. His brothers hated Joseph and were jealous of him because of the way they perceived their father’s favoritism for their younger brother. The story of Joseph is, as Brueggemann puts it, the story of one son having been loved too much, one father loving too much, and eleven brothers feeling loved too little (Brueggemann 1982:300).

Joseph’s Coat

Joseph’s story begins with the declaration that his father Jacob had settled in the land where his ancestors had sojourned for many years. Abraham and Isaac were sojourners in the land of Canaan, but Jacob settled down to grow his family and develop his business. The family business was tending the flock. All of Jacob’s sons were involved in the family business, probably except Benjamin since he was too young.

Jacob was the owner of a large flock. Joseph was a young man, seventeen years old, and he and his brothers took care of his father’s flock. Joseph was the son of Rachel, the woman Jacob loved. Joseph was Rachel’s first son. When Rachel gave birth to her second son, Benjamin, she died in childbirth. Because Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn son and “because he was the son of his old age,” Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” (Genesis 37:3).

Jacob showed his great love for Joseph by making “a richly ornamented robe for him” (Genesis 37:3 NIV). The meaning of the Hebrew expression ketōnet passîm is unclear and scholars differ with its translation. The KJV, following the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, translates ketōnet passîm as “a coat of many colours” (Genesis 37:3 KJV). The NRSV, following patristic tradition, translates ketōnet passîm as “a long robe with sleeves” (Genesis 37:3 NRSV).

The only other place in the Old Testament where the expression ketōnet passîm appears is in 2 Samuel 13:18–19 to describe the robe of a princess. Tamar, David’s daughter wore a ketōnet passîm. Thus, the NIV’s translation, “a richly ornamented robe” (Genesis 37:3 NIV) may reflect the kind of robe Joseph had. The special robe Jacob made for Joseph serves to demonstrate the special love Jacob had for his son and the special place Joseph occupied in his family.

Joseph’s Dreams

Jacob’s family was a divided family. Jacob had two wives and two concubines. Joseph, the son of the wife Jacob loved the most, was hated by his brothers. The intensity of the hate is evident because the biblical writers said three times that Joseph was hated by his brothers. Joseph’s brothers hated him because of the favoritism Jacob had displayed in his love for Joseph.

Wenham says that “Favoritism has a long pedigree in Jacob‘s family. Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, Rebekah loved Jacob more than Esau, and most pertinently Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (25:28; 29:30). His old love for Rachel is now transferred to Joseph, Rachel’s son” (Wenham 1994:424). When the brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than them, their hate for him increased and they were unable to speak to him on friendly terms.

The brothers hated Joseph because he “brought their father a bad report about them” (Genesis 37:2 NIV). The “evil report” (Genesis 37:2 KJV) refers to the bad things his brothers were doing when they were away from their father. Joseph has been criticized by some writers for being a tattletale. Wenham believes that “Joseph misrepresented his brothers to his father, his father believed him, and his brothers hated him for his lies” (Wenham 1994:424). Hamilton said that for “some undisclosed reason, Joseph maligned his brothers to Jacob” (Hamilton 1995:383).

Jacob asked Joseph to bring him a report about the activities of his brothers while they were in the field watching the flock (Genesis 37:13–14). At the request of his father, Joseph brought a true report of his brothers’ activities in the field; they were not handling their responsibility well. Joseph’s report enraged his brothers, because Joseph’s report probably brought the criticism of their father. Joseph was doing his best to please his father, but the report produced an undesirable effect. Joseph’s brothers despised him because of what he told his father about them.

The hate for Joseph acerbated on the day Joseph had his first dream. In his dream (Genesis 37:5–8), Joseph saw his brothers bowing before him, in submission to Joseph. When Joseph told his brother the dream, “they hated him even more for his dreams and his words” (Genesis 37:8).

Joseph had a second dream (Genesis 37:9–10) in which his father, his mother, and his brothers were bowing down to the ground before Joseph. At this, his father rebuked him and his brothers were jealous of him because of the dream. Although Jacob rebuked Joseph, Jacob kept the dream in mind and wondered what the meaning of the dream was.

Why did Joseph share the dreams with his brothers when he knew they would criticize him for his dreams? Joseph was not being arrogant in telling his dream. Joseph knew that the dream was from God and that God wanted him and his family to know what would happen in his future. Brueggemann writes, “Though hidden in the form of a dream, silent and not at all visible, the listener will understand that the dream is the unsettling work of Yahweh.” Joseph believed that God wanted him to share his dreams with his family “for his dream will save the whole family. Without Joseph, there is no future” (Brueggemann 1982: 298–299).

Joseph’s dreams were prophetic dreams. They were part of God’s purpose for Jacob and his family. The prophet Isaiah said that Yahweh works in history to fulfill his saving purpose, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention’” (Isaiah 46:9-10). The fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams was to be a blessing to his family. God had a purpose for Joseph and his family, and the dreams were a revelation of things to come.

Joseph Sold to Egypt

Joseph had good intentions in telling his dreams to his family, but Joseph’s words did not go well with his brothers. Joseph’s dreams were a threat to them because they saw themselves subservient to the one they hated. The solution to their problem was to kill the dream by killing the dreamer.

One day when Joseph’s brothers were in Shechem taking care of Jacob’s flocks, Jacob sent Joseph to see how his sons and the flocks were doing. Jacob said to Joseph, go to Shechem “then come back and bring me a report” (Genesis 37:14 NLT). Joseph had done the same thing before for his father. He had told his father about his brothers’ behavior in the field, but his brothers did not like what Joseph had told his father.

Joseph went to Shechem, but his brothers were not there. At Shechem, a man told Joseph that his brothers had gone to Dothan (Genesis 37:15-17). Joseph went to Dothan looking for his brothers. When the brothers saw him coming, they said, “Here comes that dreamer” (Genesis 37:19 ). The English word “dreamer” in Hebrew is “a master of dreams.”

The sarcasm in the words of the brothers is evident. Their hatred for Joseph is manifested even before Joseph joins them, “Come now, let’s kill him” (Genesis 37:20). The reason for killing the dreamer was to kill his dreams “and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Genesis 37:20).

The brothers’ decision to kill Joseph reveals another aspect of how dysfunctional Jacob’s family was. The brothers had decided to kill Joseph. Reuben however, intervened on behalf of Joseph. Reuben said to his brothers, “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert” (Genesis 37:22 NIV).

Reuben did not want bloodshed. He proposed an alternative way to get rid of Joseph. He proposed that Joseph be thrown into a cistern that was out in the desert. The cistern was empty and there was no water in it.

In the cistern, without food and water Joseph would die slowly. The brothers agreed with Reuben and they threw Joseph in the cistern. Reuben, however, was deceiving his brothers in order to save Joseph. His real plan was to come back later, remove Joseph from the cistern, and bring him back to his father.

After they had placed Joseph in the cistern, the brothers sat down to eat. At that time, they saw a caravan of merchants on their way to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there in putting our brother to death? Let us sell him.” At the recommendation of Judah, the brothers sold Joseph to the merchants. They got rid of their brother by selling him and made money in the process.

Reuben probably was away at the time when Joseph was sold. When Reuben returned, he went back to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there. Reuben was shocked! He tore his clothes as a sign of grief and mourning. He went to his brothers and asked what had happened to Joseph. The brothers told Reuben what they had done. In preparation to tell their father what had happened to Joseph, the brothers took Joseph’s robe, killed a goat, and put blood on Joseph’s robe and then lied to their father by saying that a wild animal had killed him.

When Jacob heard the news of the death of Joseph, his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but Jacob refused to be comforted. He wept for Joseph and told his sons, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son” (Genesis 37:35).

Conclusion

The story of Joseph is one of the most fascinating stories in the Old Testament. In the story of Joseph, we see the consequences of family dysfunction, of favoritism, and of sibling rivalry. Joseph’s early life captures some of the tensions he faced in his family: he was hated by his brothers, threatened with a slow death, and sold into slavery.

Joseph’s dreams were related to the future God had for him, the preservation of his family. Jacob and his family survived because of the hatred and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers. In the midst of several adversities Joseph faced at the hands of his brothers, Joseph experienced the presence of God and his divine protection.

Application

On August 22, 2021, my pastor Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on Genesis 37:1-36 titled “Joseph – Family Dysfunction.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.

At the end of his sermon, Jeff spoke about family dysfunction and the problems with Joseph’s family. Joseph’s family was a very dysfunctional family. Family life is beautiful, but families can have problems; every family has problems. Family life is a challenge. Jeff mentioned three important lessons we learn from the early life of Joseph.

The first lesson is that God can and will use imperfect families to accomplish his purpose in the world. Jacob’s family was a dysfunctional family, but God had chosen him and his sons to create a nation that would become God’s agent of reconciliation in the world.

The second lesson that we learn from Joseph’s story is that the primary cause of relational conflict in Joseph’s family was sibling rivalry. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him. Joseph’s dreams of superiority were threatening to his brothers. They criticized Joseph and hated him because of what he had told them. They tried to kill Joseph to prevent his dream from coming true.

The third lesson is that God had a special plan for Joseph and also for his brothers. In the Old Testament, generally God chooses one individual from a family to receive a special blessing. Abraham had eight sons but only one, Isaac, received the promise. Isaac had two sons but only one received the promise.

God had great plans for Joseph but his brothers were jealous because they believed that God had neglected them. But, without their knowledge, God also had great plans for them. In Genesis 49, when Jacob blesses his children, Jacob announces the plan God had for them, they will become the heads of the tribes and they will become a blessing to many people.

But among all of the sons of Jacob, Joseph received a special blessing from God. Although Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob, it was Joseph who received the blessing of the firstborn son. In the Law of Moses, the firstborn son receives a double portion of the inheritance, “but he shall acknowledge the first-born . . . by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the first issue of his strength; the right of the first-born is his” (Deuteronomy 21:17).

When Jacob blessed his sons, he said to Reuben, his firstborn son, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it” (Genesis 49:3–4). Joseph received a double portion of the land of Canaan because Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, became two tribes in Israel.

Jeff concluded by saying that God has a plan for every person. Christians should not worry about others because each individual story is precious to God. Christians must celebrate their lives and at the same time, celebrate the journeys of other people.

Video Presentation

Joseph – Family Dysfunction – A Sermon by Jeff Griffin

Other Related Studies on Joseph

Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors

How Can Someone Sell His Own Brother to the Egyptians?

The Complete Series on the Life of Joseph – Seven Studies

Studies on the Life of Joseph

Other Sermons by Jeff Griffin

The Sermons of Jeff Griffin

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982.

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis 18–50. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.

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