Joseph put into the Well by his Brothers - (after) David The Younger Teniers

Joseph’s brothers had gone to Shechem to graze their father’s flocks. Israel (Jacob) said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. I am going to send you to them.”

Joseph responded, “Very well.”

Joseph sold by his brothers into slavery - Unknown artistJacob told Joseph, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and the flocks and bring word back to me.”

Then Joseph set off from the Valley of Hebron.

When Joseph arrived in Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields. He asked Joseph, “What are you looking for?”

Joseph replied, “I am 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. His brothers saw him approaching in the distance and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.

“Here comes the dreamer!”, they said to each other. “Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these wells and tell everyone a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue Joseph from sure death. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. “Don’t shed any blood. Let’s throw him into this well here but don’t harm him.” Reuben planned to rescue Joseph from the well and take him back to his father.

When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped his robe from him and threw him into a well (the well was empty, there was no water in it).

As they sat down to eat their meal, the brothers noticed a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm, and myrrh which they were taking to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Instead, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and leave him unharmed. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”

The brothers agreed. When the Midianite merchants passed through, the brothers pulled Joseph from the well and sold him for 20 shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt.

When Reuben returned to the well and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes in despair. He went back to his brothers and said, ‘The boy isn’t there! What do I do now?”

So they took Joseph’s coat, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in blood. They took Joseph’s ornate coat back to their father and said, we found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s coat.”

Jacob recognized Joseph’s coat and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some evil animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”

Then Jacob tore his clothes in despair, put on sackcloth, and mourned his son for many days. All Jacob’s sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn my son until I join him in the grave.”

Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

What the story means to us today

Bad stuff happens – sometimes as part of God’s plan

Joseph lowered into the well by his brothers - Peeter SionPrefacing the brothers’ plans to kill Joseph, we can see that Joseph’s dreams are foremost on their minds. Ironically, Joseph’s dreams will be fulfilled as a direct result of the brothers’ actions this day. In fact, fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams is the central theme of this story.

Thus we find the brothers’ plan is unknowingly part of a larger plan – God’s plan. Life may present itself in the same manner. We may not always understand why heartache, fear, or anguish occur in our lives, but we can be assured that each event is part of a bigger plan. Like Joseph, even in bad times we must forge ahead with the presumption that bad stuff happens and we may never understand why.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Remember the town of Shechem?

Earlier we saw Shechem as the site where Dinah was raped. Apparently after Jacob’s sons (Simeon and Levi) slaughtered every male in Shechem in retribution for the attack on Dinah, the “fear of God” stayed with inhabitants of the area allowing Jacob’s family to return to the area to graze their flocks.

The roles of Reuben and Judah

It’s clear that two of the brothers, Reuben (the oldest) and Judah (the fourth oldest), played important roles not only saving Joseph’s life, but putting God’s plan into motion. There could be various reasons for their unexpected defense of Joseph.

Reuben, as the oldest son, may have felt responsible for Joseph. Or his earlier sin (sexual relations with his father’s concubine, Bilhah) may have led him to attempt to retain, or regain, Jacob’s favor.

Judah may have been demonstrating the innate deposition of a righteous ruler. Indeed, despite being the fourth oldest son, Judah was granted the role of sovereign ruler and all legitimate rules of Israel, including Jesus, descended from the tribe of Judah. His idea to sell Joseph to the Midianites saved Joseph’s life and directly set God’s plan in motion.

The man in the field

As Joseph wanders in the field looking for his brothers, a man approaches him and offers assistance (“What are you looking for?”). The identity of the man in the field is not specified. The situation however, is oddly similar to Jacob’s earlier wrestling match with God. That the man is “supernatural” (i.e. an angel) cannot be discounted.

Joseph tossed into a well

Some translations tell us Joseph was tossed into a “well” and it remains the most popular version of the story. The original Hebrew word however, is “cistern” which is much shallower than a well. Cisterns were cut out of solid rock or cemented in the ground and used to store water from rainfall in the dry, arid region. Many cisterns have been discovered in the Near East where water is especially scarce from May to September.

Ancient cisterns are typically 10-30 feet deep and pear-shaped with a narrow opening and wide base. A cistern would be deep enough with an appropriate shape to contain a man but not deep enough to kill him when he is thrown into it.

Did Joseph’s brothers have the right to sell him into slavery?

Joseph Thrown Into A Well By His Brothers - Circle of Johann HeissSlavery in the ancient Near East was common and a person could be enslaved for crimes, debts, behavior, or profit. Their treatment after the sale depended on the reason for their enslavement. Prisoners of war were typically forced into difficult manual labor such as construction or mining while persons who willfully sold themselves into slavery may be assigned minor household duties or even given skilled labor jobs. Often, a person sold into slavery became a veritable member of the purchaser’s family and lived in better conditions than common peasants.

The process for selling a slave varied. In Joseph’s instance, the brothers may have convinced him to go along with the sale, forcing Joseph to sell himself to the Midianites under threat of violence or death. More likely, the older brothers possessed the right to sell a younger sibling. We know that parents sometimes sold children into slavery for a variety of reasons. This right may have extended to older siblings as well.

The science and history behind the story

Who were the Ishmaelites, Midianites, and Medanites?

In many translations, the verses refer to three different groups of people – Ishmaelites, Midianites, and Medanites. In some translations however, the names seem to be used interchangeably, often prompting confusion in the reader.

It is likely “Midianites” and “Medanites” are two different spellings of the same group. The difference in spelling between each is slight. In fact, some translations mention only the Midianites. Most however, consider Midianites and Ishmaelites separate groups of people – Midianites as descendants of Midan and Ishmaelites as descendants of Ishmael (both from the line of Abraham).

It may be that Joseph changed hands several times between the Midianites and Ishmaelites. Or possibly one name was an ethnic term and the other a more generic term. Or it could be that each (or one or more) are a subset of the other group. It’s possible the two groups (both descendants of Abraham) were so closely related they were considered a single group.

This interchanging of names is seen in other verses in the Bible. For example, in Judges 8:24, Midianites are again referred to as Ishmaelites.

Travel from Hebron to Shechem to Dothan

Joseph sought his brothers by travelling from Hebron to Shechem. The distance between the two locations is about 50 miles. Their travel would take them about five days on foot.

From Shechem, the brothers (and later Joseph) travelled to Dothan to allow their flocks to graze. Dothan is only about 15 miles north of Shechem or about two days travel. It lies on a primary trade route between the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Thus, the location would indeed be a place where traders happened to travel by Joseph and his brothers.

The tearing of clothes and donning of sackcloth

The “tearing of clothes” is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. In the ancient Near East, the tearing of clothes signified great distress and the donning of sackcloth signified mourning. Whether the participants literally tore their clothing is unknown. It may have been a metaphorical phrase, similar to our modern-day phrase “tear my hair out” (with frustration).

Twenty shekels of silver for a slave

Ancient law books from around 1,900 BC say the average price for a slave was 20 shekels. Some suggest it is possible this knowledge could be used to date the story. The price of a slave however, varied greatly and was dependent on location, age, sex, health, skillset, etc. Thus, we cannot conclusively date the story using the price of the transaction.

Notes on Biblical translation

Until I join my son in the “grave”

The original Hebrew word for “grave” (Sheol) can also be interpreted as “realm of the dead” or “underworld”. Both describe the abode of spirits beyond the grave.

Bible Text

Joseph sold by his brothers into slavery - Unknown artistNIV

12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 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.

14 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, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”

16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”

17 “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. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.

19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “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.”

21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “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.

23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing—24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.

25 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.

26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 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.

28 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.

29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”

31 Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 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.”

33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”

34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 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.

36 Meanwhile, the Midianites r sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

13 His brothers had gone off to Shechem where they were pasturing their father’s flocks. Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are with flocks in Shechem. Come, I want to send you to them.”

Joseph said, “I’m ready.”

14 He said, “Go and see how your brothers and the flocks are doing and bring me back a report.” He sent him off from the valley of Hebron to Shechem.

15 A man met him as he was wandering through the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”

16 “I’m trying to find my brothers. Do you have any idea where they are grazing their flocks?”

17 The man said, “They’ve left here, but I overheard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph took off, tracked his brothers down, and found them in Dothan.

18–20 They spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, “Here comes that dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We’ll see what his dreams amount to.”

21–22 Reuben heard the brothers talking and intervened to save him, “We’re not going to kill him. No murder. Go ahead and throw him in this cistern out here in the wild, but don’t hurt him.” Reuben planned to go back later and get him out and take him back to his father.

23–24 When Joseph reached his brothers, they ripped off the fancy coat he was wearing, grabbed him, and threw him into a cistern. The cistern was dry; there wasn’t any water in it.

25–27 Then they sat down to eat their supper. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way from Gilead, their camels loaded with spices, ointments, and perfumes to sell in Egypt. Judah said, “Brothers, what are we going to get out of killing our brother and concealing the evidence? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not kill him—he is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.

28 By that time the Midianite traders were passing by. His brothers pulled Joseph out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who took Joseph with them down to Egypt.

29–30 Later Reuben came back and went to the cistern—no Joseph! He ripped his clothes in despair. Beside himself, he went to his brothers. “The boy’s gone! What am I going to do!”

31–32 They took Joseph’s coat, butchered a goat, and dipped the coat in the blood. They took the fancy coat back to their father and said, “We found this. Look it over—do you think this is your son’s coat?”

33 He recognized it at once. “My son’s coat—a wild animal has eaten him. Joseph torn limb from limb!”

34–35 Jacob tore his clothes in grief, dressed in rough burlap, and mourned his son a long, long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him but he refused their comfort. “I’ll go to the grave mourning my son.” Oh, how his father wept for him.

36 In Egypt the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, manager of his household affairs.

Joseph sold by his brothers into slavery - Unknown artistPeterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

37:12 When his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 37:13 Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” “I’m ready,” Joseph replied. 37:14 So Jacob said to him, “Go now and check on the welfare of your brothers and of the flocks, and bring me word.” So Jacob sent him from the valley of Hebron.

37:15 When Joseph reached Shechem, a man found him wandering in the field, so the man asked him, “What are you looking for?” 37:16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Please tell me where they are grazing their flocks.” 37:17 The man said, “They left this area, for I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ ” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

37:18 Now Joseph’s brothers saw him from a distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. 37:19 They said to one another, “Here comes this master of dreams! 37:20 Come now, let’s kill him, throw him into one of the cisterns, and then say that a wild animal ate him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out!”

37:21 When Reuben heard this, he rescued Joseph from their hands, saying, “Let’s not take his life!” 37:22 Reuben continued, “Don’t shed blood! Throw him into this cistern that is here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” (Reuben said this so he could rescue Joseph from them and take him back to his father.)

37:23 When Joseph reached his brothers, they stripped him of his tunic, the special tunic that he wore. 37:24 Then they took him and threw him into the cistern. (Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.)

37:25 When they sat down to eat their food, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh down to Egypt. 37:26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 37:27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not lay a hand on him, for after all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” His brothers agreed. 37:28 So when the Midianite merchants passed by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. The Ishmaelites then took Joseph to Egypt.

37:29 Later Reuben returned to the cistern to find that Joseph was not in it! He tore his clothes, 37:30 returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy isn’t there! And I, where can I go?” 37:31 So they took Joseph’s tunic, killed a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood. 37:32 Then they brought the special tunic to their father and said, “We found this. Determine now whether it is your son’s tunic or not.”

37:33 He recognized it and exclaimed, “It is my son’s tunic! A wild animal has eaten him! Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” 37:34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned for his son many days. 37:35 All his sons and daughters stood by him to console him, but he refused to be consoled. “No,” he said, “I will go to the grave mourning my son.” So Joseph’s father wept for him.

37:36 Now in Egypt the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

12 And his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. 13 And Israel said unto Joseph, Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them. And he said to him, Here am I. 14 And he said to him, Go, I pray thee, see whether it be well with thy brethren, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again. So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field: and the man asked him, saying, What seekest thou? 16 And he said, I seek my brethren: tell me, I pray thee, where they feed their flocks. 17 And the man said, They are departed hence; for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan. And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan. 18 And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. 19 And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams. 21 And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. 22 And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many colours that was on him; 24 And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. 25 And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. 28 Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt. 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go? 31 And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood; 32 And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no. 33 And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces. 34 And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him. 36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, and ||captain of the guard.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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