Soon after this, Joseph’s brothers went to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem. 13 When they had been gone for some time, Jacob said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing the sheep at Shechem. Get ready, and I will send you to them.”
“I’m ready to go,” Joseph replied.
14 “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are getting along,” Jacob said. “Then come back and bring me a report.” So Jacob sent him on his way, and Joseph travelled to Shechem from their home in the valley of Hebron.
15 When he arrived there, a man from the area noticed him wandering around the countryside. “What are you looking for?” he asked.
16 “I’m looking for my brothers,” Joseph replied. “Do you know where they are pasturing their sheep?”
17 “Yes,” the man told him. “They have moved on from here, but I heard them say, ‘Let’s go on to Dothan.’” So Joseph followed his brothers to Dothan and found them there.Genesis 37:12-17 (NLT)
We return to the story of Joseph today, and pick up a section of text which is, well, not apparently all that interesting! You can sum it up in a few lines. Joseph’s brothers go to pasture the flocks, and after a while Jacob sends Joseph to go check on them. Joseph can’t find them, and an unnamed man directs him to them. No great theological revelation there right?
Is this section just padding though? Is it just a build up to the real action scenes that follow? It is my firm belief that nothing is in the Bible by accident, and every single word is in there for a purpose. If so, what is the purpose here? Let’s walk through the text and see what we can find. And I do not claim to have all of the answers.
Ready To Go
The first thing I want to note is how ready Joseph is to serve his father and family. Jacob wants to check on his sons and the flocks, but doesn’t immediately give reasons. Is he potentially concerned about what they might be getting up to? Verse 14 is an instruction to go and see, and then return with a report. This may suggest concern on Jacob’s part, but it may also just be a fairly normal practice. Remember, they had no mobile/cellular phones in those days!
A few questions start to emerge here. Why was Joseph not with them? It could be that they simply did not want him around, so left him behind. It could have been that Joseph was favoured such that he did not have to go along, and could stay home and please himself.
Given the brothers’ hatred of Joseph, which they made little attempt to hide, neither Joseph nor Jacob showed any apparent concerns for sending the dreamer off into the wilderness to look for them. Clearly, neither had any idea of what the brothers would soon do, or were even worried about giving them such an opportunity.
Sending Joseph to bring back a report reminds us of the early verses in this chapter where Joseph had brought an evil/bad report back about some of the brothers. Perhaps he and/or Jacob made a habit of checking up on them. Why? Were they known for their not so exemplary behaviour?
Shechem and Dothan
Shechem is an interesting place to go and pasture the flocks. The last time we encountered Shechem, was in Genesis 34. This is a rather grizzly affair where one of Jacob’s daughters in defiled, and the brothers hatch a plan to take vengeance on the man and town of the same name. We do not know how much time has passed since those events, but it is probably advisable to steer clear of the place for a long while. That may explain Jacob’s concern for how they are getting on.
I cannot help but wonder if there is some prophetic or symbolic inference here. Joseph travels to Shechem – the place of recent violence – but does not find either the brothers or trouble there. The fact that they have moved on, and he too heads away from Shechem may allude to Joseph avoiding the same kind of violence the people of that place felt at the hands of the brothers.
I certainly do not want to read more into the text than is there, but as I mentioned above, every word and every place mentioned in the Scripture is there for a purpose.
Verse 15 sees Joseph arrive in Shechem, find nothing and encounters a man of the area. On the surface, he asks what Joseph is looking for, and then directs him to where his brothers have travelled on to. Again, the text could simply be reporting what happened, and there always danger of seeing things that are not there.
Likewise, however, some questions arise in my mind. Does Joseph bump into this man by accident? There is no such thing as coincidence in the Bible! Also, Joseph does not appear to introduce or identify himself to the man, so how does he know who “my brothers” are? The family of Israel were likely quite well known in that area of course, and we know from later events that Joseph was once again adorned with the coat of many colours. No ID required in that case!
Whenever I see an unnamed individual or servant in the Bible, I immediately ask if this is a representation of the Holy Spirit. That statement takes some explaining, but often in the Old Testament we see the Spirit of God prophetically depicted as a servant with no name – because He never testifies about Himself. In Genesis 24, an unnamed servant (named elsewhere) is dispatched by the “father” to obtain a bride for the “son.” This is prophetically similar to the Father sending forth the Holy Spirit to prepare the Bride of Christ.
Back to Genesis 37, this unnamed man directs Joseph away from Shechem (the place of former violence) and towards a place called Dothan. As far as I can tell, the only other time that this place was mentioned in the Bible was in 2 Kings 6.
In 2 Kings 6, we read of the Aramean king who was attacking Israel. Every time he formed a plan against them though, God would reveal this to Elisha – the man of God – and the plan would be thwarted. The King of Aram became so frustrated, he believed there was a spy in his ranks. It was told to him that Elisha was the one who somehow knew ahead of time, so the king sent to capture him. Where? At Dothan.
When the Arameans arrived however, they were met with a heavenly army that not even Elisha’s assistant could see. Elisha prayed, and the invading army became blind and he was able to lead them out and into captivity.
What does any of this have to do with Joseph? Well… truth be told, potentially nothing whatsoever! I do think it is interesting though that Joseph was heading into a place known for violence, was directed away by an unnamed man, and ends up going to Dothan. Dothan would later be the place of a great rescue. It could have been a slaughter, and yet God rescued Elisha and the rest in a miraculous way. Joseph is likewise rescued… although it may not seem like it.
If you know what happens next, then you know Joseph is sold into slavery. This is not a pleasant fate of course, but it is rather better than the brothers first idea, which is to kill him. As I say, without reading too much into the text, Joseph avoids violence (Shechem) and is instead led away into slavery (Dothan).
Let me restate that not every passage of the Bible has a hidden meaning, or some code you have to crack. I do not advise missing the obvious meaning of the text in favour of some other mysterious interpretation.
On the face of it, this text simply tells us that Joseph went to look for his brothers, and ultimately finds them. If we see other possibilities, then it is not wrong to explore them, but we must be very careful not to wander into heresy or falsity looking for things that simply are not there. I share what I have shared today to help us examine the text on different levels.
We will explore what happens to Joseph at Dothan next time. Thanks for reading.