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37 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Joseph Dreams of Greatness
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him. 36Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.
1. And Jacob dwelt. Moses confirms what he had before declared, that, by the departure of Esau, the land was left to holy Jacob as its sole possessor. Although in appearance he did not obtain a single clod; yet, contented with the bare sight of the land, he exercised his faith; and Moses expressly compares him with his father, who had been a stranger in that land all his life. Therefore, though by the removal of his brother to another abode, Jacob was no little gainer; yet it was the Lord’s will that this advantage should be hidden from his eyes, in order that he might depend entirely upon the promise.
2. These are the generations of Jacob. By the word תולדות toledoth we are not so much to understand a genealogy, as a record of events, which appears more clearly from the context. For Moses having thus commenced, does not enumerate sons and grandsons, but explains the cause of the envy of Joseph’s brethren, who formed a wicked conspiracy against him, and sold him as a slave: as if he had said “Having briefly summed up the genealogy of Esau, I now revert to the series of my history, as to what happened to the family of Jacob.”132132 The second verse is rendered by Professor Bush in a manner different from that of any other commentator whom the Editor has had the opportunity of consulting. His view of the passage is, at least, worthy of consideration. “The correct translation,” he says, “is doubtless the following: ‘Joseph, being seventeen years old, was tending his brethren among the flocks, and he a (mere) lad, (even) the sons of Bilhah, etc.’ The mention of his youth is brought in parenthetically, as something peculiarly worthy of notice; while the clause, ‘the sons of Bilhah, etc.,’ is designed to limit and specify the term ‘brethren’ going before.” This interpretation he proceeds to vindicate by reference to passages of similar construction, which we have not room to quote. The point which it would establish is, that Jacob assigned to his boy, of seventeen years of age, the superintendence or oversight of the sons of Bilhah among the flocks; so that he was rather an overlooker of the shepherds than of the sheep. This would show more clearly the propriety of Joseph’s conduct, in carrying an ill report of his brethren to their father; and would also account for the hostility they felt towards him. But it may be doubted whether this interpretation can stand. — Ed. Moreover, Moses being about to speak of the abominable wickedness of Jacob’s sons, begins with the statement, that Joseph was dear beyond the rest to his father, because he had begotten him in his old age: and as a token of tender love, had clothed him with a coat woven of many colors. But it was not surprising that the boy should be a great favorite with his aged father, for so it is wont to happen: and no just ground is here given for envy; seeing that sons of a more robust age, by the dictate of nature, might well concede such a point. Moses, however, states this as the cause of odium, that the mind of his father was more inclined to him than to the rest. The brethren conceive enmity against the boy, whom they see to be more tenderly loved by their father, as having been born in his old age.133133 “Son of his old age.” The Chaldee renders it, “a wise son;” as if he were a man in intellect, while a boy in years. This would avoid a difficulty; for Benjamin was far more properly the son of Jacob’s old age than Joseph. — Ed. If they did not choose to join in this love to their brother, why did they not excuse it in their father? Hence, then, we perceive their malignant and perverse disposition. But, that a manycoloured coat and similar trifles inflamed them to devise a scheme of slaughter, is a proof of their detestable cruelty. Moses also says that their hatred increased, because Joseph conveyed the evil speeches of his brethren to their father. Some expound the word evil as meaning some intolerable crime; but others more correctly suppose, that it was a complaint of the boy that his brothers vexed him with their reproaches; for, what follows in Moses, I take to have been added in explanation, that we may know the cause for which he had been treated so ill and with such hostility. It may be asked, why Moses here accuses only the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, when, afterwards, he does not exempt the sons of Leah from the same charge? One, indeed, of her sons, Reuben, was milder than any of the rest; next to him was Judah, who was his uterine brother. But what is to be said of Simon? What of Levi? Certainly since they were older, it is probable that they were leaders in the affair. The suspicion may, however, be entertained, that because these were the sons of concubines and not of true wives, their minds would be more quickly moved with envy; as if their servile extraction, on the mother’s side, subjected them to contempt.
6. And Joseph dreamed a dream. Moses having stated what were the first seeds of this enmity, now ascends higher, and shows that Joseph had been elected, by the wonderful purpose of God, to great things; that this had been declared to him in a dream; and that, therefore, the hatred of his brethren broke forth into madness. God, however, revealed in dreams what he would do, that afterwards it might be known that nothing had happened fortuitously: but that what had been fixed by a celestial decree, was at length, in its proper time, carried forward through circuitous windings to its completion. It had been predicted to Abraham that his seed should be wanderers from the land of Canaan. In order, then, that Jacob might pass over into Egypt, this method was divinely appointed; namely, that Joseph, being president over Egypt in a time of famine, might bring his father thither with his whole family, and supply them with food. Now, from the facts first related, no one could have conjectured such a result. The sons of Jacob conspire to put the very person to death, without whom they cannot be preserved; yea, he who was ordained to be the minister of salvation to them, is thrown into a well, and with difficulty rescued from the jaws of death. Driven about by various misfortunes, he seems to be an alien from his father’s house. Afterwards, he is cast into prison, as into another sepulcher, where, for a long time, he languishes. Nothing, therefore, was less probable than that the family of Jacob should be preserved by his means, when he was cut off from it, and carried far away, and not even reckoned among the living. Nor did any hope of his liberation remain, especially from the time in which he was neglected by the chief butler; but being condemned to perpetual imprisonment, he was left there to rot. God, however, by such complicated methods, accomplishes what he had purposed. Wherefore, in this history, we have not only a most beautiful example of Divine Providence, but also two other points are added especially worthy of notice: first, that the Lord performs his work by wonderful and unusual modes; and, secondly, that he brings forth the salvation of his Church, not from magnificent splendor, but from death and the grave. Besides, in the person of Joseph, a lively image of Christ is presented, as will more fully appear from the context. But since these subjects will be often repeated, let us follow the thread of Moses’ discourse. God, of his mere grace, conferred peculiar honor on the boy, who was the last but one among twelve, in giving him the priority among his brethren. For, by what merit or virtue shall we say that he attained the lordship over his brethren? Afterwards he seemed, indeed, to acquire this by his own great beneficence: but from the dream we learn, that it was the free gift of God, which in no way depended upon Joseph’s beneficence. Rather, he was ordained to be chief, by the mere good pleasure of God, in order that he might show kindness to his brethren. Now, since the Lord was, at that time, wont to reveal his secrets by two methods — by visions and by dreams — one of these kinds is here noted. For no doubt Joseph had often dreamed in the common manner: but Moses shows that a dream was now divinely sent to him, which might have the force and weight of an oracle. We know that dreams are often produced by our daily thoughts: sometimes they are indications of an unhealthy state of the body: but whenever God intends to make known his counsel by dreams, he engraves on them certain marks, which distinguish them from passing and frivolous imaginations, in order that their credibility and authority may stand firm. Thus Joseph, being certainly persuaded that he had not been deluded by an empty spectra, fearlessly announced his dream as a celestial oracle. Now, although the dominion is promised to him under a rural symbol, it is one which does not seem suitable for instruction to the sons of Jacob; for we know that they were herdsman, not ploughmen. Since they had no harvest which they could gather in, it seems hardly congruous that homage should be paid to his sheaf: But perhaps God designedly chose this similitude, to show that this prophecy was not founded upon the present fortunes of Joseph, and that the material of his dominion would not consist in those things which were at hand, but that it should be a future benefit, the cause of which was to be sought for elsewhere than at home.
8. Shalt thou indeed reign over us? Here it is plainly shown to us that the paternal favor of God towards the elect, is like a fan to excite against them the enmity of the world. When the sons of Jacob heard that they were fighting in vain against God, their unjust hatred ought, by such means, to have been corrected. For it was as if God, setting himself in the midst, would repress their fury by these words, “Your impious conspiring will be fruitless; for although you boast, I have constituted as your chief, the man whose ruin your wicked envy hurries you to seek.” Perhaps, also, by this consolatory dream, he intended to alleviate the trouble of the holy youth. Yet their obstinacy caused it to be the more increased. Let us then learn not to be grieved if, at any time, the shining of the grace of God upon us should cause us to be envied. The sons of Jacob, however, were but too acute interpreters of the dream: yet they deride it as a fable, because it was repugnant to their wishes. Thus it often happens that they who are ill-disposed, quickly perceive what is the will of God: but, because they feel no reverence, they despise it. To this contumacy, however, succeeds a stupor which destroys their former quick-sightedness.
9. And he dreamed yet another dream. The scope of this dream is the same. The only difference is, that God, to inspire greater confidence in the oracle, presents him with a figure from heaven. The brethren of Joseph had despised what was said concerning the sheaves; the Lord now calls upon them to look towards heaven, where his august Majesty shines forth. It may, however, be asked, how it can be reconciled with fact, that his mother, who was now dead, could come and bow down to him. The interpretation of certain Hebrews, who refer it to Bilhah, is frigid, and the sense appears plain without such subterfuges: for the sun and moon designate the head of the family on each side: thus, in this figure, Joseph sees himself reverenced by the whole house of his father.
10. And his father rebuked him. If Jacob suspected that the dream originated in vain ambition, he rightly rebuked his son; but if he knew that God was the author of the dream, he ought not to have expostulated with him. But that he did know it, may be hence inferred, because he is afterwards said seriously to have considered it. For Moses, making a distinction between him and his sons, says that they breathed nothing but the virus of envy; while he revolved in his own mind what this might mean; which could not have happened, unless he had been affected with reverence. But seeing that a certain religious impression on the subject rested on his mind, how was it that he rebuked his son? This truly was not giving honor to God and to his word. For it ought to have occurred to the mind of Jacob that, although Joseph was under his authority, he yet sustained a prophetic character. It is probable, when he saw his sons so malevolent, that he wished to meet the danger by feigning what he did not feel: for he was not offended at the dream, but he was unwilling to exasperate the minds of those who, on account of their pride, would not bear to be in subjection. Therefore I do not doubt that he feignedly reproved his son, from a desire to appease contention. Nevertheless, this method of pretending to be adverse to the truth, when we are endeavoring to appease the anger of those who rage against it, is by no means approved by God. He ought rather ingenuously to have exhorted his sons not to “kick against the pricks.” Or at least he should have used this moderate address, “If this is a common dream, let it be treated with ridicule rather than with anger; but if it has proceeded from God, it is wicked to speak against it.” It is even possible that the unsuitableness of the dream had struck the mind of the old man. For we know how difficult it is entirely to throw off all sense of superiority. Certainly, though Jacob declines slightly from the right course, yet his piety appears to be of no common order; because his reverence for the oracle so easily prevailed over every other feeling. But the most wicked obstinacy betrays itself in his sons, seeing they break out into greater enmity. For though they despise the dream, yet they are not made angry about nothing. Gladly would they have had their brother as a laughing-stock; but a certain secret sense of the Deity constrains them, so that, with or against their will, they are compelled to feel that there is something authentic in the dream. Meanwhile, a blind ferocity impels them to an unintentional resistance against God. Therefore, that we may be held in obedience to God, let us learn to bring down our high spirits; because the beginning of docility is for men to submit to be brought into order. This obstinacy in the sons of Jacob was most censurable, because they not only rejected the oracle of God through their hatred of subjection, but were hostile to his messenger and herald. How much less excusable, then, will be our hardness, if we do not meekly submit our necks to the yoke of God; since the doctrine of humility, which subdues and even mortifies us, is not only more clearly revealed, but also confirmed by the precious blood of Christ? If, however, we see many refractory persons at this day, who refuse to embrace the gospel, and who perversely rise up against it, let us not be disturbed as by some new thing, seeing that the whole human race is infected with the disease of pride; for by the gospel all the glory of the flesh is reduced to nothing; rather let us know that all remain obstinate, except those who are rendered meek by the subduing influence of the Spirit.
12. And his brethren went. Before Moses treats of the horrible design of fratricide, he describes the journey of Joseph, and amplifies, by many circumstances, the atrocity of the crime. Their brother approaches them in the discharge of a duty, to make a fraternal inquiry after their state. He comes by the command of his father; and obeys it without reluctance, as appears from his answer. He searches them out anxiously; and though they had changed their place, he spares neither labor nor trouble till he finds them. Therefore their cruelty was something more than madness, seeing they did not shrink with horror from contriving the death of a brother so pious and humane. We now see that Moses does not relate, without a purpose, that a man met Joseph in his wanderings, and told him that his brethren had departed to Dothan. For the greater was his diligence in his indefatigable pursuit, so much the less excusable were they by whom such an unworthy recompense was repaid.
18. And when they saw him afar off. Here again Moses, so far from sparing the fame of his own family by adulation, brands its chiefs with a mark of eternal infamy, and exposes them to the hatred and execration of all nations. If, at any time, among heathens, a brother murdered his brother, such impiety was treated with the utmost severity in tragedies, that it might not pass into an example for imitation. But in profane history no such thing is found, as that nine brethren should conspire together for the destruction of an innocent youth, and, like wild beasts, should pounce upon him with bloody hands. Therefore a horrible, and even diabolical fury, took possession of the sons of Jacob, when, having cast aside the sense of nature, they were thus prepared cruelly to rage against their own blood.
But, in addition to this wickedness, Moses condemns their impious contempt of God, Behold this master of dreams. For why do they insult the unhappy youth, except because he had been called by the celestial oracle to an unexpected dignity? Besides, in this manner, they themselves proclaim their own baseness more publicly than any one could do, who should purposely undertake severely to chastise them. They confess that the cause why they persecuted their brother was his having dreamed; as if truly this ass an inexpiable offense; but if they are indignant at his dreams, why do they not rather wage war with God? For Joseph deemed it necessary to receive, as a precious deposit, what had been divinely revealed unto him. But because they did not dare directly to assail God, they wrap themselves in clouds, that, losing sight of God, they may vent their fury against their brother. If such blindness seized upon the patriarchs, what shall become of the reprobates, whom obstinate malice drives along, so that they do not hesitate to resist God even to the last? And we see that they willingly disturb and excite themselves, as often as they are offended with the threatenings and chastisements of God, and rise up against his ministers for the sake of taking vengeance. The same thing, indeed, would at times happen to us all, unless God should put on his bridle to render us submissive. With respect to Joseph, the special favor of God was manifested to him, and he was raised to the highest dignity; but only in a dream, which is ridiculed by the wicked scorn of his brethren. To this is also added a conspiracy, so that he narrowly escaped death. Thus the promise of God, which had exalted him to honor, almost plunges him into the grave. We, also, who have received the gratuitous adoption of God amidst many sorrows, experience the same thing. For, from the time that Christ gathers us into his flock, God permits us to be cast down in various ways, so that we seem nearer hell than heaven. Therefore, let the example of Joseph be fixed in our minds, that we be not disquieted when many crosses spring forth to us from the root of God’s favor. For I have before showed, and the thing itself clearly testifies, that in Joseph was adumbrated, what was afterwards more fully exhibited in Christ, the Head of the Church, in order that each member may form itself to the imitation of his example.
20. And cast him into some pit. Before they perpetrate the murder, they seek a pretext whereby they may conceal their crime from men. Meanwhile, it never enters into their mind, that what is hidden from men cannot escape the eyes of God. But so stupid is hypocrisy, that while it flees from the disgrace of the world, it is careless about the judgment of God. But it is a disease deeply rooted in the human mind, to put some specious color on every extreme act of iniquity. For although an inward judge convicts the guilty, they yet confirm themselves in impudence, that their disgrace may not appear unto others.
And we shall see what will become of his dreams. As if the truth of God could be subverted by the death of one man, they boast that they shall have attained their wish when they have killed their brother; namely, that his dreams will come to nothing. This is not, indeed, their avowed purpose, but turbulent envy drives them headlong to fight against God. But whatever they design in thus contending with God in the dark, their attempts will, at length, prove vain. For God will always find a way through the most profound abyss, to the accomplishment of what he has decreed. If, then, unbelievers provoke us by their reproaches, and proudly boast that our faith will profit us nothing; let not their insolence discourage or weaken us, but let us confidently proceed.
21. And Reuben heard it. It may be well to observe, while others were hastening to shed his blood, by whose care Joseph was preserved. Reuben doubtless, in one affair, was the most wicked of them all, when he defiled his father’s couch; and that unbridled lust, involving other vices, was the sign of a depraved nature: now suddenly, he alone, having a regard to piety, and being mindful of fraternal duty, dissolves the impious conspiracy. It is uncertain whether he was now seeking the means of making some compensation, for the sake of which he might be restored to his father’s favor. Moses declares that it was his intention to restore the boy in safety to his father: whence the conjecture which I have stated is probable, that he thought the life of his brother would be a sufficient price by which he might reconcile his father’s mind to himself. However this may be, yet the humanity which he showed in attempting to liberate his brother, is a proof that he was not abandoned to every kind of wickedness. And perhaps God, by this testimony of his penitence, designed in some degree to lessen his former disgrace. Whence we are taught that the characters of men are not to be estimated by a single act, however atrocious, so as to cause us to despair of their salvation.
22. Cast him into this pit. The pious fallacy to which Reuben descended, sufficiently proves with what vehemence the rage of his brethren was burning. For he neither dares openly to oppose them, nor to dissuade them from their crime; because he saw that no reasons would avail to soften them. Nor does it extenuate their cruelty, that they consent to his proposal, as if they were disposed to clemency; for if either one course or the other were necessary, it would have been better for him immediately to die by their hands, than to perish by slow hunger in the pit, which is the most cruel kind of punishment. Their gross hypocrisy is rather to be noticed; because they think that they shall be free from crime, if only they do not stain their hands with their brother’s blood. As if, indeed, it made any difference, whether they ran their brother through with a sword, or put him to death by suffocation. For the Lord, when he accuses the Jews by Isaiah, of having hands full of blood, does not mean that they were assassins, but he calls them bloody, because they did not spare their suffering brethren. Therefore, the sons of Jacob are nothing better, in casting their brother alive under ground, that, as one buried, he might in vain contend with death, and perish after protracted torments; and in choosing a pit in the desert, from which no mortal could hear his dying cry, though his sighing would ascend even to heaven. It was a barbarous thought, that they should not touch his life, if they did not imbrue their hands in his blood; since it was a kind of death, not less violent, which they wished to inflict by hunger. Reuben, however, accommodating his language to their brutal conceptions, deemed it sufficient to repress, by any kind of artifice, their impetuosity for the present.
23. They stripped Joseph out of his coat134134 The coat of many colors was supposed by some to be the garment belonging of right to the first-born; consequently, Reuben would be entitled to it, till he forfeited it by his misconduct. Jacob, therefore, is understood to have transferred this coat, together with the rank of primogeniture, from Reuben to the eldest son of Rachel, his most beloved wife. If this were so, it would make the conduct of Reuben, on this occasion, still more generous than it appears on the ordinary supposition. There is, however, this objection to such an interpretation, that Jacob is said to have made it for Joseph, (see ver. 3,) and not merely to have given it to him. — Ed. We see that these men are full of fictions and lies. They carelessly strip their brother; they feel no dread at casting him with their own hands into the pit, where hunger worse than ten swords might consume him; because they hope their crime will be concealed; and in taking home his clothes, no suspicion of his murder would be excited; because, truly, their father would believe that he had been torn by a wild beast. Thus Satan infatuates wicked minds, so that they entangle themselves by frivolous evasions. Conscience is indeed the fountain of modesty; but Satan so soothes by his allurements those whom he has entangled in his snares, that conscience itself, which ought to have cited them as guilty before the bar of God, only hardens them the more. For, having found out subterfuges, they break forth far more audaciously into sin, as if they might commit with impunity whatever escapes the eyes of men. Surely it is a reprobate sense, a spirit of frenzy and of stupor, which is withheld from any daring attempt, only by a fear of the shame of men; while the fear of divine judgment is trodden under foot. And although all are not carried thus far, yet the fault of paying more honor to men than to God, is too common. The repetition of the word coat in the sentence of Moses is emphatical, showing that this mark of the father’s love could not mollify their minds.
25. And they sat down to eat bread. This was an astonishing barbarity, that they could quietly feast, while, in intention, they were guilty of their brother’s death: for, had there been one drop of humanity in their souls, they would at least have felt some inward compunctions; yea, commonly, the very worst men are afraid after the commission of a crime. Since the patriarchs fell into such a state of insensibility, let us learn, from their example, to fear lest, by the righteous anger of God, the same lethargy should seize upon our senses. Meanwhile, it is proper to consider the admirable progress of God’s counsel. Joseph had already passed through a double death: and now, as if by a third death, he is, beyond all expectation, rescued from the grave. For what was it less than death, to be sold as a slave to foreigners? Indeed his condition was rendered worse by the chance; because Reuben, secretly drawing him out of the pit, would have brought him back to his father: whereas now he is dragged to a distant part of the earth, without hope of return. But this was a secret turn, by which God had determined to raise him on high. And at length, he shows by the event, how much better it was that Joseph should be led far away from his own family, than that he should remain in safety at home. Moreover, the speech of Judah, by which he persuades his brethren to sell Joseph, has somewhat more reason. For he ingenuously confesses that they would be guilty of homicide, if they suffered him to perish in the pit. What gain shall we make, he says, if his blood be covered; for our hands will nevertheless be polluted with blood. By this time their fury was in some degree abated, so that they listened to more humane counsel; for though it was outrageous perfidy to sell their brother to strangers; yet it was something to send him away alive, that, at least, he might be nourished as a slave. We see, therefore, that the diabolical flame of madness, with which they had all burned, was abating, when they acknowledged that they could profit nothing by hiding their crime from the eyes of men; because homicide must of necessity come into view before God. For at first, they absolved themselves from guilt, as if no Judge sat in heaven. But now the sense of nature, which the cruelty of hatred had before benumbed, begins to exert its power. And certainly, even in the reprobate, who seem entirely to have cast off humanity, time shows that some residue of it remains. When wicked and violent affections rage, their tumultuous fervor hinders nature from acting its part. But no minds are so stupid, that a consideration of their own wickedness will not sometimes fill them with remorse: for, in order that men may come inexcusable to the judgment-seat of God, it is necessary that they should first be condemned by themselves. They who are capable of cure, and whom the Lord leads to repentance, differ from the reprobates in this, that while the latter obstinately conceal the knowledge of their crimes, the former gradually return from the indulgence of sin, to obey the voice of reason. Moreover, what Judah here declares concerning his brother, the Lord, by the prophet, extends to the whole human race. Whenever, therefore, depraved lust impels to unjust violence, or any other injury, let us remember this sacred bond by which the whole of society is bound together, in order that it may restrain us from evil doings. For man cannot injure men, but he becomes an enemy to his own flesh, and violates and perverts the whole order of nature.
28. Then there passed by Midianites. Some think that Joseph was twice sold in the same place. For it is certain, since Median was the son of Abraham and Keturah, that his sons were distinct from the sons of Ishmael: and Moses has not thoughtlessly put down these different names.135135 Perhaps, however, the passage may be better explained by supposing the caravan which was passing, to be made up of Ishmaelites and Midianites. The Ishmaelites might form the larger and more conspicuous part of the company, and thus give the name to the whole; but the actual purchasers of Joseph might be the Midianitish merchants among them. — Ed. But I thus interpret the passage: that Joseph was exposed for sale to any one who chose, and seeing the purchase of him was declined by the Midianites, he was sold to the Ishmaelites. Moreover, though they might justly suspect the sellers of having stolen him, yet the desire of gain prevents them from making inquiry. We may also add, what is probable, that, on the journey, they inquired who Joseph was. But they did not set such a value on their common origin as to prevent them from eagerly making gain. This passage, however, teaches us how far the sons of Abraham, after the flesh, were preferred to the elect offspring, in which, nevertheless, the hope of the future Church was included. We see that, of the two sons of Abraham, a posterity so great was propagated, that from both proceeded merchants in various places: while that part of his seed which the Lord had chosen to himself was yet small. But so the children of this world, like premature fruit, quickly arrive at the greatest wealth and at the summit of happiness; whereas the Church, slowly creeping through the greatest difficulties, scarcely attains, during a long period, to the condition of mediocrity.
30. And he returned. We may hence gather that Reuben, under pretense of some other business, stole away from his brethren, that, unknown to them all, he might restore his brother, drawn out of the pit, to his father; and that therefore he was absent at the time when Joseph was sold. And there is no wonder that he was anticipated, when he had taken his course in a different direction from theirs, intending to reach the pit by a circuitous path. But now at length Reuben having lost all hope, unfolds to his brethren the intention which before he dared not confess, lest the boy should be immediately murdered.
31. And they took Joseph’s coat. They now return to their first scheme. In order that their father may have no suspicion of their crime, they send the bloody coat, from which he might conjecture that Joseph had been torn by some wild beast. Although Moses alludes to this briefly, I yet think that they rather sent some of their servants, who were not accessory to the crime, than any of their number. For he says soon afterwards, that his sons and daughters came to offer some consolation to him in his grief. And although in the words they use, there lurks some appearance of insult, it seems to me more probable that they gave this command to avert suspicion from themselves. For they feign themselves to be of confused mind, as is usual in affairs of perplexity. Yet whatever they intend, their wickedness drives them to this point, that they inflict a deadly wound upon the mind of their father. This is the profit which hypocrites gain by their disguises, that in wishing to escape the consequences of one fault, they add sin to sin. With respect to Jacob, it is a wonder that after he had been tried in so many ways, and always come forth a conqueror, he should now sink under grief. Certainly it was very absurd that the death of his son should occasion him greater sorrow than the incestuous pollution of his wife, the slaughter of the Shechemites, and the defilement of his daughter. Where was that invincible strength, by which he had even prevailed over the angel? Where the many lessons of patience with which God had exercised him, in order that he might never fail? This disposition to mourn, teaches us that no one is endued with such heroic virtues, as to be exempt from that infirmity of the flesh, which betrays itself sometimes even in little things; whence also it happens, that they who have long been accustomed to the cross, and who like veteran soldiers ought bravely to bear up against every kind of attack, fall like young recruits in some slight skirmish. Who then among us may not fear for himself, when we see holy Jacob faint, after having given so many proofs of patience?
35. And all his sons and daughters rose up. The burden of his grief is more clearly expressed by the circumstance that all his sons and daughters meet together to comfort him. For by the term “rose up,” is implied a common deliberation, they having agreed to come together, because necessity urged them. But hence it appears how vast is the innate dissimulation of men. The sons of Jacob assume a character by no means suitable to them; and perform an office of piety, from which their minds are most alien. If they had had respect unto God, they would have acknowledged their fault, and though no remedy might have been found for their evil, yet repentance would have brought forth some fruit; but now they are satisfied with a vanity as empty as the wind. By this example we are taught how carefully we ought to avoid dissimulation, which continually implicates men in new snares.
But he refused to be comforted. It may be asked, whether Jacob had entirely cast off the virtue of patience: for so much the language seems to mean. Besides, he sins more grievously, because he, knowingly and voluntarily, indulges in grief: for this is as if he would purposely augment his sorrow, which is to rebel against God. But I suppose his refusal to be restricted to that alleviation of grief which man might offer. For nothing is more unreasonable than that a holy man, who, all his life had borne the yoke of God with such meekness of disposition, should now, like an unbroken horse, bite his bridle; in order that, by nourishing his grief, he might confirm himself in unsubdued impetuosity. I therefore do not doubt that he was willing now to submit himself unto the Lord, though he rejects human consolations. He seems also angrily to chide his sons, whose envy and malevolence towards Joseph he knew, as if he would upbraid them by declaring that he esteemed this one son more than all the rest: since he rather desires to be with him, dead in the grave, than to enjoy the society of ten living sons whom he had yet remaining; for I except little Benjamin. I do not, however, here excuse that excess of grief which I have lately condemned. And certainly heproves himself to be overwhelmed with sadness, in speaking of the grave, as if the sons of God did not pass through death to a better life. And hence we learn the blindness of immoderate grief, which almost quenches the light of faith in the saints; so much the more diligent, then, ought we to be in our endeavor to restrain it. Job greatly excelled in piety; yet we see, after he had been oppressed by the magnitude of his grief, in what a profane manner he mixes men with beasts in death. If the angelic minds of holy men were thus darkened by sadness, how much deeper gloom will rest upon us, unless God, by the shining of his word and Spirit, should scatter it, and we also, with suitable anxiety, meet the temptation, before it overwhelms us? The principal mitigation of sorrow is the consolation of the future life; to which whosoever applies himself, need not fear lest he should be absorbed by excess of grief. Now though the immoderate sorrow of Jacob is not to be approved; yet the special design of Moses was, to set a mark of infamy on that iron hardness which cruelly reigned in the hearts of his sons. They saw that, if their father should miserably perish, consumed with grief, they would be the cause of it; in short, they saw that he was already dying through their wickedness. If they are not able to heal the wound, why, at least, do they not attempt to alleviate his pain? Therefore they are exceedingly cruel, seeing that they have not sufficient care of their father’s life, to cause them to drop a single word in mitigation of his sorrow, when it was in their power to do so.
36. And the Midianites sold him into Egypt It was a sad spectacle, that Joseph should be thus driven from one hand to another. For it added no small indignity to his former suffering, that he is set to sale as a slave. The Lord, however, ceased not to care for him. He even suffered him to be transferred from hand to hand, in order that, at length, it might indeed appear, that he had come, by celestial guidance, to that very dominion which had been promised him in his dreams. Potiphar is called a eunuch, not because he was one really; but because, among the Orientals, it was usual to denote the satraps and princes of the court by that name. The Hebrews are not agreed respecting the dignity which Moses ascribes to him; for some explain it as the “chief of the slaughterers,” 136136 The term applies primarily to butchers, who slaughter animals for food; then to persons who slaughter animals for sacrifice; and then to executioners who put men to the slaughter under the authority of the monarch or the state. — Ed. whom the Greek interpreters follow. But I rather agree with others, who say that he was “the prefect of the soldiers;” not that he had the command of the whole army, but because he had the royal troops under his hand and authority: such are now the captains of the guard, if you join with it another office which the prefects of the prison exercise. For this may be gathered from Genesis 39:1137137 See ver. 20 The words rendered “prefects of the prison,” are praefecti hospitii — and in the French, Prevosts de l’hostel — perhaps, prefects of the town-house, or town-hall, would have been more correct. The expression in the original, שר-הטבחים, sar-hatabachim, means the captain of the executioners; that is, of the king’s body guard, whose office it was to inflict capital punishments; as in the Turkish court at present. — See Gesenius’ Lexicon. — Ed