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.
The relationship between the various members of Jacob’s family had fallen into a very evil way. In a sense it was maybe Jacob’s own fault. He had shown definite favoritism to Joseph, the son of his beloved Rachel, and in this way had given his other sons occasion to be filled with envy and jealousy toward their younger brother. But in an even greater sense it was the responsibility of these older brothers. We would not believe that they were as yet unregenerate men, but it was undoubtedly true that even though they were regenerated they allowed themselves to fall very deeply into the ways of carnality. The trouble started already when they first came into Canaan from Haran. The children of Jacob began to associate themselves much too closely with the Canaanitish inhabitants of the land and consequently began to adopt their habits and ways of life. Thus when the time came that Jacob began to show definite favoritism toward their younger brother, they were too deeply entrenched in the ways of the world to evaluate the situation anymore from the point of view of faith. They would not be kind and understanding with their father’s weakness, but they allowed themselves to become consumed with jealousy and finally hatred. The home life of Jacob’s family was torn asunder by the resulting tensions.
As time went on the situation became ever more acute. Sin has its way, once it has gained entrance, of building up until it rages almost completely free from all control. It is exactly what happened in Jacob’s family. At first it was nothing more than a case of petty jealousy, the brothers complained and chided about the favoritism which Joseph received. Gradually, however, this bitterness and resentment grew to the point where they could no longer speak a decent word either to or about their younger brother. As the ten men worked together in the field, no jest was received with more general favor among them than one which reflected unfavorably upon Joseph. No matter what Joseph did or said was picked up by them to be related among them over and over again with bitter sarcasm and irony. Joseph’s elegant coat and dreams were of course the finest grist for their mills. It came to the point that it was absolutely impossible for Joseph to do anything without it being interpreted by them in the worst possible terms.
Jacob it seems was not aware of the degree of animosity which had developed between his ten oldest sons and his youngest. He must have realized that there was a certain amount of tension between them, especially after Joseph had reported to him concerning the evil way in which the other sons were living. It was perhaps for that reason that he did not send Joseph along with the others when they left to graze the flocks in the fieldsof Shechem. He did not realize, however, how strong this hatred had become. Neither should we consider this strange. In all likelihood the ten brothers did not realize it themselves. We can not believe that there was a premeditated determination to slay Joseph on the part of any of his ten brothers. In fact each in his heart maintained a principle of love for him. It was just that in their communions together the brothers would not admit to this. Each sought to outdo the other in condemning their favored brother.
It was some time after the ten oldest brothers had left for Shechem with the flocks that Jacob became concerned about them. They were gone somewhat longer than had been expected, and he began to wonder if all was well. With hardly’s moment of hesitation he decided to send Joseph after them to find how well they fared. He knew that the others did not appreciate Joseph very much and did not care to have him with them in the field; but there was little reason to consider it very serious. Moreover, Joseph was now about seventeen years of age and quite capable of caring for himself at least on a relatively short journey such as this. Calling Joseph to him he said, “Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? Go, I pray thee, see whether it be well with thy brethren, and well with the flocks; and bring me word again.” After the manner of a young man, Joseph was eager to comply. He welcomed the adventure which the journey promised and appreciated the responsibility which was entrusted to him. With a light and willing heart he set out upon his way.
Arriving at Shechem, Joseph was for a time confused. He searched throughout the territory, but his brothers were nowhere to be found. Soon, however, this problem also resolved itself for he met a man who had been with his brothers shortly before they left that district. Upon request from Joseph, he told him that his brothers had left Shechem to graze the flocks at Dothan. Immediately Joseph set out to follow them there.
From a great distance the brothers saw Joseph approaching. It was not difficult to identify him because of the long robe which he wore, so different from the clothing ordinarily worn in the field. No sooner was Joseph recognized than the jesting began. Each tried to outdo the other in sarcastic slurs about him. It was a common game among them. There was no limit; neither honesty nor integrity restrained them; any remark was received which reflected badly upon Joseph. “Behold, this dreamer cometh.” Always they came back to those dreams again; they bothered them more than anything else. Deep within themselves they were afraid that they were dreams of revelation from God which was exactly what they didn’t want them to be. Hours had been spent together by them ridiculing those dreams and trying to give reasons why they could never be fulfilled. As they saw him approaching now, all of this old animosity boiled up anew. Suddenly one of them spoke up, hardly realizing what he said, “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.” With a stunned silence the thought struck home. Each felt deep in his heart what a terrible and repulsive idea it was; but none dared to speak up against it lest he should displease the others. They had always agreed on the desirability of bringing those dreams to nought; and for that it seemed this plan would be effective. With feigned enthusiasm each added his agreement. Caught up in a plot of intrigue, they consented to do united what each individually neither dared nor cared to do. Ten men of God had given themselves over to an evil way of life, and there was left nothing to restrain them from doing that which each knew within him was a terrible sin.
Finally Reuben, burdened by the sinfulness of that which they planned, could contain himself no longer. “Let us not kill him. Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him.” Reuben could not bear to shed the blood of his younger brother. His intentions were already clear in his mind. If they would cast Joseph alive into a pit and leave him to die, he could return later after the others were gone and release him. Still there is something sad about these words of Reuben. How much better it would have been if he had told his brothers outright that their intentions were evil and should not be followed. Had he with boldness stood up for the right, he might well have dissuaded them completely. But rather he made it sound as if essentially he was in agreement with the expressed intentions except that he did not want to actually shed their brother’s blood. The effect was to actually encourage them in what they were doing.
Tremendously hard must have been the scene which took place when Joseph finally approached his brothers. The lad came to them eagerly, happy to have found them after many days of searching. Now that he had arrived he was overflowing with questions concerning their welfare. To his happy greeting there came back only a sullen silence. They had not the heart even to express anger as they stood there committed to a plot which none in himself really wanted to perform. There was just rough hands grabbing him, tearing off his coat, carrying him, and finally casting him down into the deep pit of a dried-up cistern. The feeling of Joseph we can hardly picture, the amazement, the fear, the tears and pleading, and finally the lonesomeness as he lay in the solitude of the dark pit, cast there by his own brothers. Terrible was the end to which the tensions in Jacob’s family had finally come.
They were ten troubled men who left the mouth of that pit that day. Every moment drove deeper into their hearts the consciousness of what a terrible thing they had done. But now there seemed no turning back, for should they release Joseph their father would learn what had happened and that they couldn’t allow. Moreover, each one had to struggle with his conscience alone, for pride would not let them reveal to each other that they had any qualms at all. First a few faint attempts to joke about the matter and pass it off lightly, and then over them falls the heavy stillness of men suffering under the voice of their own consciences. Silently brooding, there is nothing to be said to each other. Reuben separates himself and steals away to look for an opportunity to approach Joseph’s pit without being seen by the rest. The others just sit, together but in their guilt so very much alone.
Almost in contrast was the experience of Joseph in the pit. From an external point of view his suffering was much more evident. On his face the lines of pain were visible, tears streamed from his eyes, moans of anguish came from his lips. Joseph was forsaken of his brothers, and he felt it. Nevertheless, he had something which the others did not. He could still pray to God in his misery and know that God would answer. The grace and mercy of God were there to comfort him. Though he was but one, he was not so much alone in his sorrow as were the ten. He felt the presence of God in his life while the others felt only his wrath.
Soon afterward as the children of Jacob sat in their camp eating bread, they looked and saw a company of Ishmeelitish merchants making their way toward Egypt. At that sight the mind of Judah began to work in much the same way as Reuben’s had. He began to devise a plan by which Joseph could be saved alive without exposing himself to the brothers as one who had gone soft on Joseph. “What profit is it we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?” he said. “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.” To this they readily consented for all by that time had sorely repented within himself for what they had done. Although it was in itself evil enough that they should sell their brother for a slave, it did seem to them the better of two evils. Eagerly they hastened to the pit and drew Joseph from it. Thinking at least for a moment that now they would be free from his blood, they took from the hands of the Ishmeelites twenty pieces of silver exchanging for it their brother to be carried as a slave into Egypt.
All this time Reuben was away from the others. He was waiting for them to leave the vicinity of the pit so that he could return to release Joseph. When finally he returned to the pit, it was too late, Joseph was already gone. Rending his clothes, he returned to the others crying out, “The child is not; and I whither shall I go?” Overwhelmed with strong feelings, he no longer cared to keep his intentions from the brothers. He told them that he had had no desire to slay Joseph but only to deliver him. Soon it came out from all. They had all felt much the same, but they had proceeded with the plan for the sake of appearance before the others. ..It was a sad group of men that turned their faces toward home that evening. They saw no other alternative but to continue with their plan. Dipping Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat, they then brought it to their father. “This have we found,” they told him. “Know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no?”Little were they prepared for the greatness of the sorrow which filled their father at this news. Clothed in sackcloth and ashes he mourned day after day. Wretched men, they tried to comfort him; but what comfort could they give in their hypocrisy. They could talk to their father; they could speak of a providential visitation of God, but themselves they knew it was their own sin. Many were the years of grief which they would have to experience before they would know for truth that what they had intended for evil God intended for good. Yet it would only be in that day that they would receive complete peace again.