Joseph’s Saga (3): God’s Plan Unfolds

The Dreams

We are still at the very beginning of Genesis 37, that fateful chapter where Joseph’s story begins. I promised to show you how God’s plan unfolds – and the very first thing you would notice if you read these verses in Hebrew, is how many times the word “hate” occurs here. Joseph’s older brothers hated Joseph, they were so jealous of him that “they could not speak peaceably to him[1] (literally, the text says that they could not even say “shalom” to him). And yet, even in this situation there had to be some trigger that made them lose control altogether. This trigger was Joseph’s dreams.

Let us say a few words about the dreams in the book of Genesis. The various dreams occurring in Genesis can be divided into one of two categories. The first class comprises of those in which God actually addresses man (Genesis 20:3, for example), whilst the second class consists of dreams in the form of parables or pictures, which require interpretation. We will definitely speak more of the dreams when we will get to the second part of Joseph’s saga; for now, it is sufficient to say that we have six dreams in this story (two by Joseph, two by prisoners, and two by pharaoh), and that all these dreams belong to the second group: the dreams that need interpretation. In a literary sense, they are like the skeleton of this whole story, holding it all together.

We read that Joseph’s brothers lost control when Joseph began to share his dreams with them. In the first dream, he saw himself as an upright sheaf, while the sheaves of his brothers were bowing before him. In another dream, which Joseph told his brothers and his father, he saw the moon and the sun, along with eleven stars, bowing before him. After each dream, the text says that his brothers “hated him even more”. And at some point, this hatred became an attempted murder. How? How did Joseph end up in Egypt?

The Father Sent the Son

We read in verse 13 that Israel said to Joseph,Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” People often wonder reading this verse: What was Jacob thinking? Why would he send the 17-years old boy, alone and clearly overdressed, on this dangerous journey to check on his brothers who hated him? He must have known that the brothers were not exactly very fond of Joseph, so, why did he do it? No wonder Joseph suspected that his father, from the very beginning, may have been involved in the plot—Jacob’s decision seemed to have no rational explanation.

Last time, I wrote that through this extremely strange and inexplicable decision, God’s plan began to unfold. Jacob is called Israel here, and therefore we know that he is acting as an instrument in God’s hands. He is not just acting as a loving and worrying father, he is God’s instrument here:  “So he sent him out of the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.[2]

 

A Certain Man Found Him

We read that when Joseph reached Shechem, “a certain man found him, and there he was, wandering in the field.”[3] Who was this “certain man”? His namelessness suggests a comparison with the nameless man who wrestled with Jacob at Penuel; we can therefore suppose that it was an angel or some divine being – at least, that is what we read in the Jewish commentaries. The interesting thing, however, is that the angel didn’t send him away from his brothers, but sent him to his brothers.  Have you ever really thought about it? When Joseph reached Shechem and did not find his brothers, with a clear conscience, he could have returned to Jacob: he did what he had been told to do, he went to Shechem,  and it was not his fault that the brothers were not there. Probably, later on, following in the caravan of his new masters, he must have thought a lot about this “man” and of this “fatal” encounter: why was this man there? How did he know where his brothers were? Why did he send him to his brothers? As sad as it sounds, though, this story should be an encouragement for us: when something wrong happens, we tend to ask whether we missed God’s guidance; whether we were out of God’s will? However, as we see from this story, sometimes God guides us right into the trouble, not away from it. “The man” sent Joseph to Dothan – and if before that, the boy had been “wandering in the field, from now on God’s hand firmly led him on the narrow path (even it didn’t feel like that at the time).

Here is a description of Dothan from an old book:

“Dothan was beautifully situated, about twelve miles from Samaria. Northwards spread richest pasture-lands; a few swelling hills separated it from the great plain of Esdraelon. From its position, it must have been the key to the passes of Esdraelon, and so, as guarding the entrance from the north, not only of Ephraim but of Palestine itself. On the crest of one of those hills the extensive ruins of Dothan are still pointed out, and at its southern foot still wells up a fine spring of living water. Is this one of the two wells from which Dothan derived its name? From these hills, Gideon afterward descended upon the host of Midian. It was here that Joseph overtook his brethren, and was cast into the dry well. And it was from that height that the sons of Jacob must have seen the Arab caravan slowly winding from Jordan on its way to Egypt, when they sold their brother, in the vain hope of binding the word and arresting the hand of God.”[4]

Ishmaelites

Writing from Jerusalem of today, I couldn’t help but notice an interesting detail in this narrative.  Joseph is Isaac’s grandson and Abraham’s great-grandson, which means that the story of Joseph happens only two generations after Hagar and Ishmael were sent out from Abraham’s camp – but already, the Ishmaelites that pass by the company of Isaac’s grandsons seem complete strangers to all of them. When the brothers see a caravan of passing merchants, they identify them as “Ishmaelites” in the same matter-of-fact, detached way that they would recognize any other tribe or nationality: as foreigners and strangers who had nothing to do with them. Isn’t that strange? Just two generations after Isaac and Ishmael, and there is no hint of family ties, no trace of any kind of kinship. Nothing! In the lifespan of two generations, Isaac and Ishmael’s families have become completely estranged from one another!

This is a very sober and stern lesson for us, living in the conflict-torn modern Israel. How can we expect any feelings of kinship or family between us today if already back then, two generations after the time when Isaac and Ishmael were part of the same family, their descendants were absolute strangers to each other? Obviously, this huge gap between Isaac and Ishmael’s descendants goes all the way back to the very moment Ishmael was banished from the family. If we want this gap to be filled, if we want this fracture to be healed, we have to start from the very beginning and go all the way back, as well. The Lord is the only One who can heal these wounds – and it is for this healing process we fervently pray. I believe He wants us to be together in Abraham’s family, so we can be together in His plan.

 

[1] Gen.37:4

[2] Gen. 37:14

[3] Gen 37:15

[4] Alfred Edresheim, Bible History: Old Testament.

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) Also, excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you can get them here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Nick

    Amen and amen!

  2. Lois

    Amen, Julia!