“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt.
But God was with him …”
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Found In Genesis 37
We don’t always see it coming, the hatred of human beings. It takes us by surprise, ambushing our bewildered hearts. We don’t see it coming, but once it hits, it stays, scarring our experiences and lingering in our minds. And there in this pit, pain dwells and all sorts of sadness lingers, feelings too thick to name, too dark to admit out loud. Being forced into a state of powerlessness can fuel all sorts of resentment, all sorts of vengeance, lurking, living in the shadowy bruises of a heart. Forgiveness? Yeah but you don’t know what they did.
And it’s these things we hold onto all white-knuckle-fisted that hold onto us, holding us under the floods of the past, holding us down, holding us captive, holding us in the darkest hole in our hearts, like a pit in the ground that goes on forever.
He knew about holes in hearts and pits in the ground, this young man. And he hadn’t seen it coming either, just like us. The ambush. The hate. The hurt.
He had lived with their taunts for years, but it was only in this moment that he began to understand their hate, the moment he was pleading for his life (Genesis 42:21) the moment he was shoved down a pit in the dark (Genesis 37:24) the moment he was trafficked by his brothers (Genesis 37: 26-28).
Joseph, son of Israel.
And if it was you, if you were in his shoes, if you were motherless, hated, abused, thrown in a pit, sold into slavery in a distant land where you are sexually harassed, falsely accused and then unjustly jailed for years, where would you be at the end of all this? Where would you find your heart? Would you still have it? In tact? Or would bitterness have corroded all the sinews down to dust? Would your beaten heart still beat in time with God’s? Or would it wilt and bitter-beat to the thrum of vengeance in your mind? Or would it still be there at the bottom of that pit, languishing in despair?
He had every reason to give up hope and give into the dark, this one young man. Every reason and then some. Because the people who put him through all this, they were his family: the chosen family of God.
“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. 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.”Genesis 37:3-4
‘Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons…’ the footprints of history are deep, trailing lines in the dusty earth. Lines to live repeatedly without thinking by. Jacob had grown up in the shadow of his brother Esau, and now Jacob’s own son’s, like him, become script-line conditioned to fight, fight for the attention of a father whose attention is elsewhere. An absence of justice and equity in affection becomes once more the presence of jealousy and rivalry in a home.
These ten sons, they learn their lines by heart, habituating them, breathing them in through their lungs, drawing them into their veins, running them straight to their hearts, hearts beating in time to these lines laid out, weaving the future with the threads of the past. How easily we repeat the scars we’ve lived, our parents mistakes becoming our own, cycling through generations.
Joseph, Jacob’s naive, second youngest son, motherless, and artless, trying to keep up with ten older brothers who have been script-line conditioned not to accept him, he blurts out his dreams and offends the hearts of everyone around him.
“Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 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? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
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.”
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?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”
He always was an honest sort, this Joseph, unusual in this family line, so artlessly honest that that he didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, not old enough, or street-wise enough to know better.
Joseph and his ten older brothers were son’s of the same man, but they’d had very different fathers. Jacob-Israel, their father, had met YHWH over thirty years ago, but had only just begun to call on His name more recently. It had taken Jacob decades to understand God’s heart and to understand himself through God’s eyes.
Joseph, Jacob-Israel’s first son by his beloved Rachel, this son born to him in his old age, he’d had a very different father than his older brothers. Joseph’s older brother’s had a father, who had been deceptive, self reliant and manipulative, hustling to make up for the lack he felt in his heart. Joseph’s father however, Israel, was older and humbler, and had begun to understand himself through YHWH’s eyes. Blessed. Blessed with YHWH’s presence. God with him.
But scar lines scraped across children’s hearts, heartbreakingly remain after parents change. It’s a horrible feeling as a parent, looking out over the history of your parenting, the childhood of your children, and realising all the wounds you wound around their hearts through script-lines re-lived repeating the past. It’s a deepening sadness when you wake to the realisation that they have turned out just like you, in all your worst ways.
Joseph had not inherited as many of Jacob’s deceptions and arts as his older brothers had. He’d received a different inheritance, a blessing passed down, taught to him as a child, the inheritance of a family line ‘calling on the name of the Lord’. And Joseph was going to need this inheritance. It would become his only lifeline when his young life was on the line. Repeatedly.
“Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
“Very well,” he replied.
So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”
“They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”
So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” Genesis 37:12-18
Hearts primed with jealousy are ready for revenge. From Cain, the first born son outside the garden long ago, to Jacob’s sons, to the violent threads throughout our whole human race, jealousy is often a short road to hate, and hate, an even shorter road to violence.
But when God is on the journey with us, our failing falling human emotions aren’t the final decider in the outcome of our stories.
It is interesting that the author of Genesis thought to include such seemingly insignificant details, such as the brothers location change. Perhaps because these are actually not insignificant details at all, but an indication of the presence of God with Joseph.
Shechem, where the brothers had told their father they would be, was located on a smaller local road in mountainous country many miles from the valley of Hebron. However, Dothan, where Joseph’s brothers had moved to, was located near a heavily travelled international trade road, the Dothan pass. Caravans frequented this pass. It was Israel’s most travelled international connector from the Mediterranean sea to Transjordan and Arabia1.
‘So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.’
When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. ‘Let’s not take his life,’ he said. ‘Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.’ Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.
So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe – the ornate robe he was wearing – and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.’ Genesis 37:17-24
‘The cistern was empty; there was no water in it’… as empty as their hearts, hearts consumed with jealousy and lack; hearts empty of God, empty of love.
But God wasn’t done with these brothers yet. Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom before you realise you’re in a pit, stuck in a hole in the ground without wholeness or hope. They may have thrown Joseph in an empty cistern, but it’s their own hearts which were broken and vacuous, unable to hold living water (Jeremiah 2:13).
Callously they sit down to eat while their younger brother lies terrified, in a dark hole in the ground alone. A cistern for holding water that just so happened to be empty.
“As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.”
The brothers had just so happened to move from Shechem to Dothan. Dothan just so happened to be on this international trade route. So his brothers just so happened to look up and see a caravan heading to Egypt. They just so happened to have ‘looked up’ and unknowingly seen God at work unfolding His purposes and plans for this whole family.
“Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.” Genesis 37:25-28
Had Joseph’s brothers been in Shechem where they had told their father they would be, this story in all likelihood would have ended very differently. But they weren’t. Because there just so happens to be a God in Heaven. With Joseph. With them. Saving them from themselves.
Joseph would not have felt it, known it or seen it yet, but even in this lowest point of his young life he was right where God had chosen for him to be. Completely abandoned. Held by God. Completely alone. With God. Nowhere. Nowhere but the very centre of God’s great plan of redemption for Joseph’s whole family. The plan God had whispered to him in a dream, but Joseph hadn’t yet understood.
I find it interesting that one of the Hebrew words translated as ‘hope’ (tiqvâ) also means cord, line or rope. It is this word for hope that is also used by Jeremiah when God, through him, is sending the exiled remnant of Israel a message,
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
I know the plans I have for you…plans for a hope and a future. Plans to give you a life-line out of the hole you’ve found yourself in, dug yourself in, been thrown in by others.
God is our hope, our lifeline reaching into our pits, the cord stretching down into the dark holes we find ourselves in. Holes in the ground that seem to go on forever. In Him, cistern situations just so happen to become plans that give us a hope and a future, as He takes the fraying threads of our broken breaking lives and reweaves them with His healing grace and purpose. No torn thread will go unused. No fraying edge will stay un-mended.
And it is a great irony that it’s Joseph’s brother’s jealousy and over-reaction to his dream that leads to the fulfilment of that dream. They will one-day bow to Joseph in Egypt because they first sent him there as a slave. It’s what God does in between that salvages Joseph’s life, eventually theirs, and continues the outworking of God’s purposes and plans for this family. Like a master craftsman weaving in gold, God uses Joseph’s brothers very act of jealousy and hate to set things in motion for their own redemption. Instead of an unravelling, there will be a revelation. God revealing His presence with them.
“When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”
Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.”
He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”
Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him. Genesis 37:29-35
Hate may look strong and successful in the short term. But it never wins in the long run of things. Malice may win some battles, but it’s love who wins the war. Eventually. Always. Because God is on His throne, even when all we can see is the dark.
But how could Joseph know all this now. His life upended by the betrayal, hatred and violence of his family? All he could see was his complete abandonment. All he would feel was… alone.
“Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.” Genesis 37:36
Sometimes when everything else is stripped away, and all we have is the raw torrents of our grief, that is when we finally look up and discover YHWH’s silent presence which has been there all along. The noise of success, comfort, entertainment and busy day to day existence doesn’t always help us hear His voice. Not because He is absent, but because we are.
But suffering, challenge, the moments when life stops us in our tracks and brings us to our knees, when plans dissolve and hopes dash and disappointments swirl like storms around us, that is the moment we realise we need a rock to stand on. That is the moment we reach for Him and we find Him reaching back.
It’s this moment Joseph finds himself in now. Completely abandoned. Alone.
And he is about to learn that alone with God is not alone, and stripped of everything but Him, we still have everything we need.
And let’s get this one thing clear right from the very beginning: God, He leans towards the vulnerable, He stands beside the weak, His heart is with the smallest and poorest, the victim of injustice or abuse, the widow, the stranger, the orphan, the one with nothing left but Him. God leans towards the small the frail the vulnerable; the ones trapped in a hole in the ground they just can’t get out of.
God is with Joseph.
And Joseph knows he is with God. It’s all he knows right now. Every other future he’d dreamed he’d have has just been upended and undone. Nothing is sure now. But God.
God with him.
His only hope.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.”
Can you think of a ‘hole in the ground’ time in your life when everything seemed dark and you struggled to hope? What was this experience like?
What does it mean for you to trust the words of Jeremiah 29:11…
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
References, Notes and Credits
1 Paul H. Wright, Holman Illustrated Guide to Biblical Geography, B&H Publishing Group, 2020 pg 198, 263
All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.