Jacob lived in the land of his father’s travels, in the land of Canaan. 2 This is the history of the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. Joseph brought an evil report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a tunic of many colors. 4 His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and couldn’t speak peaceably to him.Genesis 37:1-4 (WEB)
There has been much written about Joseph, whose life is described in the book of Genesis starting at chapter 37. You may know him as the young man who dreamed dreams and wore a rather colourful coat. For some time, I have wanted to write about him, and see what we can learn from his life. We may be familiar with the Hollywood or Broadway version of events, but what does the Bible actually say about him and what happened?
Let’s take a look at the life of this remarkable young man and learn what we can.
The story begins in the land of Canaan, where we find Jacob (Joseph’s father) living in the land of his forefathers – namely, Isaac and Abraham.
The story opens with Joseph being seventeen. Although it does not say so in the text above, Joseph was the first son of Jacob’s wife Rachel. Rachel was Jacob’s favourite wife, for he had two (Leah being the first) but also, as above, two concubines named Bilhah and Zilpah. Most of Jacob’s twelve sons were born to him via Leah, with Rachel bearing Joseph and Benjamin. Knowing these details will be important later!
The passage above says that Joseph was boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah – who were they? As mentioned, these were the sons of Jacob and the two concubines. They were Dan and Naphtali (of Bilhah) and Gad and Asher (of Zilpah).
An evil report
The first thing we learn about Joseph is the almost throw away remarks of these first few verses of chapter 37. We learn of his age (seventeen) but also that he grew up with these other boys. We are told that Joseph brought an evil report about them to his father. We do not know the nature of this, and so it is difficult to draw too many conclusions here.
Several scenarios are possible. It could have been a complete lie, for example, and Joseph just telling tales on his illegitimate brothers… but this seems very inconsistent with Joseph’s character elsewhere described in Genesis. Most likely, they were up to no good and Joseph told on them. The Bible does not record Jacob’s response.
Was this a good idea on Joseph’s part? It is hard to say without knowing more details. If one of my children were playing with matches, I would want one of the others to tell me about it. We can surmise that Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher weren’t best pleased with Joseph for this.
Some would accuse Joseph of naivety, particularly later when we read about his dreams and what he tells his family about them. This is likely true, but I think it also shows a great humility in Joseph which we will explore another time.
Verse three tells us that Jacob favoured Joseph over his brothers. It gives reasons for this; that Joseph was born to Jacob in his old age, but also that he was born of Rachel, Jacob’s favoured wife.
Jacob gave Joseph a tunic of many colours. This was quite a gift for a number of reasons. Brightly coloured clothing meant expensive dyes, and such a garment would not have been an everyday item. Such colours would have been reserved for the wealthy or people of some high importance. Kings, for instance, would have worn such items.
In addition, it would have signalled two major things to those who saw him wearing it. Firstly, it would have simply stood out from the rest. In a crowd of twelve brothers, Joseph would have been clear to see and marked out as special in some way. Secondly, colours of this nature would have meant leadership and superiority. Jacob was perhaps prophetically signalling Joseph’s rank above the rest.
Having favourites in a family is not a good idea. In a big family, there will always be those characters we get on well with and those we find it more difficult. Even our children can have a wide variety of personalities, and so, it can be easier to connect with some than others. The problem comes when we do not put an equal amount of effort into the relationships which are naturally more difficult. When we compare one child against another, it creates animosity. When we bestow expensive or special gifts on one, and not the other, the rest feel less valued and somehow less adequate.
This favouritism will lead to the major events of Joseph’s life. As we will see, Joseph will go through no small amount of suffering, and although it all turns out for God’s glory, what might have been different had Jacob been less obvious about who he favoured.
What is the result of Jacob’s favouritism? He brothers saw and knew it, and as a consequence, they hated Joseph. Each one was a son of Jacob, each one lived and served the family, and yet each one felt somehow less than Joseph was. Joseph’s actions of giving a bd report would have only added to this hatred (even if he had the best of intentions).
Hate is a powerful word. When my children use it in anger or in vain, I pull them up on it. Hatred should be reserved for evil and sin, and not tossed around lightly. Joseph’s brothers hated him, wishing him ill and later bringing it upon him.
Their hatred for him was so powerful that they could not even speak civilly to him. Imagine living in a household like this? The strife and tension would have been evident for all to see. To live in such an atmosphere would have been intolerable. We must also never underestimate the dangers of living in strife.
For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.James 3:16 (KJV)
Where there is strife, there is “every evil work!” Strife opens the door for the enemy to work in our lives, and we must shut that door at all costs.
Jacob’s actions led to the brothers of Joseph hating him. You may find yourself in a place where someone else’s actions have led you to feel hatred for someone else. Perhaps your parents did to you what Jacob did to Joseph’s brothers. I cannot imagine the pain you must feel for this. If you are able, pray about the situation and tell God how you feel. Ask Him to help you forgive and let go of the hatred. If you simply cannot right now, just bring your pain to the Father and let Him minister to you.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it does not sugar coat anything. Jacob, Joseph and his brothers were a real family with real problems leading to real pain. Many of us can relate! As we study Joseph’s life, I pray that God will help us learn their lessons and not repeat their errors. In Jesus’ Name, Amen!