Part 1 of an overview with commentary on the story of Joseph in Genesis 29-41.
In Chapter 29, Jacob arrives in Paddan-aram (age 77) after fleeing from Esau’s wrath when he tricks Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. He meets Rachel his cousin, daughter of Laban his uncle on his mother’s side. Jacob tells Laban his story and Laban agrees to take him in and pay Jacob to work for him. Jacob wants to marry Rachel and Laban agrees to give him Rachel if he works for him for 7 years. Rachel had an older sister named Leah, but Jacob wasn’t interested in her and only wanted Rachel. After 7 years of work Jacob marries Rachel, but before the consummation that night, Laban sent Leah instead of Rachel, and Jacob slept with her without realizing it. He confronted Laban and Laban says it was customary for the older daughters to get married first and promised to give him Rachel after the bridal week, for another 7 years of work of course. Jacob agreed to work another 7 years and married Leah and Rachel, and they each came with their own maids, Zilpah and Bilhah respectively. Since 7 years had passed since he left his father’s house, Jacob was 84 when he married Leah and Rachel. Jacob showed more favor and affection for Rachel than Leah because she was his favorite wife.
In Chapter 30 Jacob had 11 sons between the ages of 84 and 9. From Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun. From Bilhah: Dan and Naftali, from Zilpah: Gad and Asher, and from Rachel: Joseph. Laban tricks him into working 6 more years and changes his wages 10 times. Jacob asks Laban if have leave with the spotted livestock and Laban agrees, however, Laban removed all of the spotted livestock and gave them to his sons. Jacob uses a breeding trick revealed to him by God to get more spotted livestock through breeding. At the end of the six years, Jacob’s sheep are strong meanwhile Laban’s sheep are weak because Jacob used selective breeding.
In Chapter 31 Laban’s sons caught on to what Jacob was doing, and God told Jacob it was time to leave. Jacob took his wives and left at age 97. Laban chased after and made accusations against him because he didn’t want him to go but Laban was warned by God not to harm Jacob. They made a covenant, Laban said goodbye to his grandchildren and Jacob went free. Joseph the youngest son was 6 at the time. Jacob went to meet Esau but was terrified about how Esau would respond to him after all these years.
Jacob’s (Israel’s) Family On the Move (Gen ch. 32-36):
In Chapter 32, While in the wilderness he had an encounter with angels and even wrestled one in order to get the reassurance of God’s blessing, it was then he was first nick-named Israel (“wrestles with God”). Jacob prepared to send his wives and sons away to protect them from Esau. In Chapter 33, to his surprise, Esau welcomed Jacob warmly and they embraced each other. Esau went ahead back to Sier while Jacob moved at his own pace for the sake of the young children and livestock. In Chapter 34, Jacob has some trouble in Shechem when his daughter Dinah (from Leah) was raped, and his sons Levi and Simeon killed all the men in town in revenge after tricking them into circumcising themselves. Jacob was afraid that his son’s violence may trigger a response from amongst the neighbors but God put fear into the nations and no one dared to trouble him. In Chapter 35 Jacob returned to Bethel and worshipped God, who then renamed him Israel. After this point when Israel was 108 years old, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and they lied and said Joseph was killed by a wild animal. He moved down toward Ephrath, where his favorite wife Rachel died in childbirth with Benjamin. 12 years after losing Joseph, when Israel was 120 (Joseph was 29), his father Isaac died at age 180. In Chapter 36, we are given Esau’s genealogy and the history of the Edomites until the time of Moses.
In Chapter 37, there is a flashback to when Israel was 108 years old, before the deaths of Rachel and Isaac. At this time Joseph was 17 and was the youngest son as well as his father’s favorite son because his mother was Israel’s favorite wife. Israel made Joseph a coat of many colors as a special gift for his favorite son. He often would tell on his brothers when he saw them doing things they shouldn’t and they hated him for it. One day he had a dream that he and his brother were in the field and their bundles of grain bowed before his bundle of grain. Then he had another dream of 11 stars representing his brothers and the sun and moon representing his parents bowing before him. These dreams irritated his brothers, but they made Israel curious. One day Israel sent Joseph to check on his brothers, and his brothers made a plan to kill him and say a wild animal did it, but Reuben the oldest didn’t allow it, instead told them to throw him in an empty well. Reuben secretly planned to rescue and bring him to his father for some special favor. When Reuben went away the other brothers took Joseph, ripped his coat, and threw him in the well to leave him for dead as planned, but then they saw a traveling band of Ishmaelites with Midianite traders in their company heading to Egypt, and Judah decided to sell him as a slave for 20 shekels of silver. They did so and when Reuben came back, he freaked out because Joseph was gone. They went back to the original plan and faked his death by taking his coat and covering it in goat blood and ripping it up, and they told Israel he was killed by a wild animal. Israel was inconsolable as his sons, daughters, and wives tried to comfort him. Meanwhile in Egypt, Joseph was sold to Potiphar the captain of the palace guard.
Genesis 38 focuses on Judah after he sold his brother. He moved to Adullam and stayed with a man named Hirah, and married a local Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua. He had three sons from her, Er, Onan, and Shelah who was born much later when they moved to Kezib. When Er was of marriable age Judah arranged marriage with a woman named Tamar. Er was wicked so God condemned him to death for his sinfulness. Then, Judah had Onan take his brother’s wife in levirate marriage so that Er would have an heir. Onan agreed to the marriage but he refused to give his brother any heirs (it seems that he hated his brother) and would pull out during sex with Tamar. This was the point through levirate marriage to produce an heir for the deceased and preserve the family line. God judged Onan and he died for breaking the levirate marriage agreement and disrespecting his dead brother. Judah was afraid Shelah would suffer the same fate and probably considered Tamar bad luck, so he agree to let her marry Shelah when he was older but never planned on keeping that promise. Years later Judah’s wife died and he was sent to Timnah to shear sheep by Hirah. Someone told Tamar and she realized that despite the fact that Shelah was old enough Judah had forsaken his promise. To get back at him she disguised herself as a prostitute with a veil and seduced him at the entrance to Enaim. Judah didn’t suspect a thing and agreed to pay her with a goat and gave her his seal and walking stick as collateral. The next day he sent Hirah with the goat to Enaim but she was gone, and when asked about the prostitute no one knew what he was talking about. Judah was embarrassed and let her keep his things. Three months later it was discovered that Tamar got pregnant and Judah wanted to burn her alive as punishment for breaking the engagement to his son Shelah. She said the man who got her pregnant gave her the seal and walking stick, this exposed Judah. He felt ashamed for mistreating her and agreed to marry her himself to make up for ignoring his obligation for arranging her marriage with Shelah, but he never slept with her again. She gave birth to the twins Perez and Zerah. While in labor Zerah’s hand came out first and the midwife put a scarlet string on it he went back in and but Perez broke out and came out first. Perez’s name means “he broke out”, and Zerah was named after the “scarlet” string.
Comment: A question arises, why does Genesis 38 exist? This story of Jacob ends in Gen 35, and Joseph’s story picks up in chapter 37. Esau’s descendants are listed in Chapter 36 ending his saga. However, Genesis 38, seemingly disrupts Joseph’s story to tell us about Judah. My thoughts are that this story is here to show how Judah felt after the events of Genesis 37. Genesis 37 and 38’s events take place just before Genesis 35:16 since Joseph never knew Benjamin, so he must have been sold as a slave before his mother died in labor with Benjamin. Genesis 38 does take place right after 37 but it focuses on the events of Judah’s life for the next 22 years. Judah most likely left because he felt guilty for selling his brother Joseph. Especially after Joseph’s mom, Rachel died in childbirth with Benjamin. His father was so devastated by the loss of his son that no one could comfort him (Gen 37:35), how much worse was he after losing Rachel? We know he spoiled Benjamin and treated him like a child even when he was a grown man with 10 sons because he resisted letting him go to Egypt with his brothers to meet Joseph in disguise. It seems likely that Judah left because it was his idea to sell him (Gen 37:26-28). Originally his brothers plotted to kill him but Reuben talked them out of it and told them to throw him into a well to abandon him. Reuben secretly plotted to come back and rescue him, probably to gain favor with their father (Gen 37:21-22). Then when the Ishmaelites and Midianite caravan came, Judah had the idea to sell him and did so without Reuben’s knowledge, causing him to freak out. Judah likely felt very guilty, and his guilt grew worse when Rachel died since now his father lost his favorite wife and son.
Furthermore, it seems most likely that this chapter concludes right before the family reunion with Joseph in Genesis 42-45. Israel was 108 when Joseph was sold by his brothers, and they are reunited in Genesis 45 when Israel is 130, so Genesis 38 spans 22 years. Judah moved to Adullam and married the year they sold Joseph at the earliest. His wife likely gave birth to Er the next year (Israel is 109) and Onan the following year (Israel is 110). Then Shelah could have been born about 3 years later when Israel is 113. Then let’s say Er gets married at 18 when Onan is 17 and Shelah is 14. He dies that year and Onan marries Tamar and dies the same year. Then 2-3 years later when Israel is 129-130 and Shelah is 16-17, Tamar marries Judah, giving him Perez and Zerah as sons. Then he moves back to his father’s house two years into the famine at the latest.
The Focus on Joseph:
Chapter 39 takes the story back to the end of Chapter 37 when at age 17, Joseph was sold to Potiphar in Egypt by the Ishmaelite and Midianite trading caravan. Like his father when working for Laban, God blessed Joseph and made him good at his job and Potiphar promoted him to managing everything in his house. Potiphar’s wife lusted after Joseph but he rejected her time after time. Eventually, in one encounter she grabs his cloak and runs away, but she lies and said he tried to assault her using his cloak as evidence. Potiphar had Joseph put in prison, but even in prison, God gave Joseph favor with the prison warden. Joseph was good and managing prisoners and was put in charge of them.
Chapter 40 picks up 11 years after Joseph went to Egypt (a year before Isaac died), so Joseph was 28 years old. (It is unknown how much of that time Joseph spent in Potiphar’s house and how much of it he spent in prison.) Two new prisoners were added because they had offended Pharaoh, and Joseph was put in charge of them. One man was the Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and the other was his chief baker. Three days before the Pharaoh’s birthday both men woke up from strange dreams and they were depressed about it. When Joseph asked what was wrong they said they didn’t understand their dreams and needed an interpreter. Joseph said his God interprets dreams and listened to the men. The cup bearer’s dream was of a vine with three branches that budded into clusters of grapes, and he was holding Pharaoh’s cup and pressed the grapes into wine and filled the cup. God revealed to Joseph that in three days, Pharaoh would restore the cupbearer. Joseph asked the cupbearer to remember what Joseph had done for him and appeal to Pharaoh to release him since he was unjustly imprisoned. The baker thought his dream would be favorable and told Joseph about his as well. The baker’s dream involved him storing three baskets of bread and other baked goods on his head, but then birds came to eat them. God reveals to Joseph that the baker will die in the days, and Pharaoh will have him hung and birds will eat his body. Three days later was Pharaoh’s birthday and these things came true but the cupbearer forgot about Joseph.
Chapter 41 is set two years after the previous chapter. Joseph is now 30 and the Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams. The first one features 14 cows and seven healthy cows and even sickly cows, and the sickly cows devoured the healthy cows. The second one features 14 ears of grain, seven sturdy and seven weakly ones. Likewise the seven weakly grains overtook the seven sturdy ones. Pharaoh summon all of his magicians and wise men, but none of them could interpret the dream. Then the chief cupbearer remembered how Joseph interpreted his and the former chief baker’s dreams with accuracy. Pharaoh summons Joseph from prison and asked for an interpretation. God revealed the interpretation and Joseph said that both dreams have the same meaning. The seven healthy cows and sturdy grain represent seven years of abundance, and the seven sickly and weakly ones represent seven years of famine. Joseph proposed that Pharaoh put someone in charge of collecting extra grain through 20% taxation and store it preemptively for the famine. Pharaoh figured that since Joseph interpreted the dream no one else could, he should be in charge of that, and he made Joseph 2nd in command of Egypt as Vizier. Pharaoh named Joseph, “Zaphenath-paneah”, for his godliness and wisdom, and he was in charge of managing the next seven years of abundance in preparation for the famine seven years later. Pharaoh arranged for him to marry Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera the chief priest of On (Heliopolis). By the end of the 7 years of plenty (around age 36-37) he had two sons, the firstborn was Manasseh which means “God has made me forget all my troubles”, and the second was Ephraim which means “God has made me fruitful in this land of my grief.” The chapter ends 2 years into the famine with Joseph at 39, and many surrounding nations coming to Egypt to buy some of their excess grain.