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The Long Robe of Envy
11/12/95 & 08/11/02
by Tony Grant
First let us look at what happened in Genesis 37 and then let us make some applications. On the surface, Genesis 37 is about a squalid family squabble.
Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their maids Bilhah and Zilpah were also his concubines. He had sons by all four women. As you can imagine then there was a lot of tension as these women and their sons struggled for leadership in the family. V2 tells us that Joseph brought a bad report of the doings of his brothers to his father.
To which I feel like saying, "Tattletale, tattletale, snag your britches on a nail." My sympathies are with the brothers here. I well remember when I was a kid the time when another child told on my friends and me for something we did. I have forgotten what it was now, but we were very unhappy with that kid, so much so that when we caught him on the street one day, we jumped on him and took his pants off and made him run home without any pants. I am sort of ashamed to tell you that bit of my personal history, but I can assure you of one thing--that kid never had any more to say about anything we did after that.
We do not know whether Joseph was a malicious talebearer, or if he was justified in talebearing. If the report was about cheating on the sheep tally or about saying that they had fed and watered the sheep when they had not, these things had a bearing upon the livelihood of the family and their father Jacob ought to have been told. On the other hand, it may have been that Joseph was talking out of school, so to speak. Whatever the case, one thing is certain, his brothers did not like him very much after that.
Then we come to V3. Joseph was beloved by his father because he was the first son of Rachel, his father's one true love. Rachel had died giving birth to her second son Benjamin, and so Jacob poured out all his love for Rachel on Joseph and Benjamin.
Jacob, who is called Israel here, proclaimed his affection for Joseph by dressing him in better clothes than the rest of his children. The KJV says that he made him "a coat of many colors." Scholars tell us this is not the best translation. Most modern translations say, "A long robe with sleeves." The average male in that time wore a sleeveless tunic that reached to the knees. This long luxurious decorated robe with sleeves indicated that Joseph was the favorite son, and perhaps indicated that Jacob intended to give to him the blessing and the birthright of the eldest son, even though he was one of the younger sons.
Jacob was incredibly insensitive when he gave Joseph this robe. No parent should ever single out one child for special favors. To do so almost certainly disrupts the family and that is exactly what happened in this case.
V4 tells us about the consequences of Jacob's sin. Joseph's brothers hated him so much that they refused even to speak to him, except in the harshest way. Now if Jacob's sin caused the problem, that does not absolve the brothers. They hated Joseph.
Now we can understand that the brothers were ticked off, we can understand that they did not like this situation, but hatred goes too far. It is too harsh a reaction, unless there is some other motivation involved, and of course there is. That other motivation is that old demon jealousy. You see, the brothers did not really resent their father giving a luxurious robe to one son. What each of them resented was that he did not get the robe. So, Joseph's robe has become the long robe of envy. The sin of the brothers is the sin of envy.
Now we can argue that Joseph should have been a better person than he was. He should have told his father, "No, father, I do not want this robe because it will offend my brothers." But we must remember here that Joseph was a teenager. He was not the mature man of God that he would later become. He knew that this robe set him apart, and he liked it. He knew that envy was gnawing at his brothers, and he liked it, and that was his sin.
vs 5-11 tell us of Joseph's dreams. First, Joseph had a dream in which he and his brothers were out in the fields gathering wheat into sheaves. In the dream, Joseph's sheave rose up and his brother's sheaves bowed down to his sheave. Now Joseph told this dream to his brothers. Why did he tell them? Joseph was not stupid. He must have known the effect that his dream would have on his brothers. He was claiming precedence over them. They were certainly not going to like that. So why did Joseph tell them? Because he wanted them to admit that he was their ruler. He wanted them to look up to him.
Then Joseph said he had another dream. In this dream, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. The symbology was obvious to everyone. The sun, moon, and eleven stars represented the whole family bowing down to Joseph. This dream even angered his father Jacob. Jacob said to Joseph, Are you trying to replace me too?
Now these dreams came true. They were prophetic dreams, but Joseph was not supposed to talk about them. We compare Joseph to Mary the mother of Jesus. When the angels sang at the birth of the baby Jesus and the shepherds came, Mary treasured these things up in her heart, but she did not tell anyone about them (Luke 2:51), because she knew that other women would be envious and ridicule her and put her down. Joseph, however, was not as wise as Mary. He knew that with his long robe, his talebearing and his dreams that he was exasperating his brothers, but Joseph was so full of pride and ego, that he just had to talk about himself and his ambitions.
In V12-14, the scene shifts. The eleven brothers are herding their father's flocks in Shechem. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, to bring back a report of their activities. Jacob and Joseph both miscalculated the situation. They knew that the brothers were angry at Joseph, but they thought, "Well, they will get over it, and they certainly will not harm their own brother." Both of them should have realized that sending Joseph to report on the brothers was exactly the thing that would turn their fury into a white-hot heat.
The brothers saw him coming, and V18 says that they conspired to kill him. Probably it went something like this: "Here comes Joseph. The dreamer who wants to tell us all what to do. We ought to do something about him and his dreams." And another brother would say, "Yeah, we ought to beat him up." And another brother would laugh and say, "if we beat him up he will just run and tell daddy." So finally someone would say, "If we kill him, he will bear no more tales." So they talked themselves into it a little bit at a time, the way people always talk themselves into sin.
In V20, they said, Let us kill him and throw his body in a cistern, and tell the story that some wild animal devoured him. How quickly they moved from envy to talking seriously about murder. Whatever Joseph may have done, he did not deserve to be killed for it. The brothers in their anger lost all sense of balance and justice. A psychologist would say that this is an inappropriate response to the situation. That is an understatement.
We see this same "inappropriate response" today. One person cuts in front of another on the highway. Most people are a little bit irritated. They say, "Oh, you jerk," but they slow down and let them in. But we have all read stories about angry drivers pulling out guns and shooting each other. We call it "Road Rage," and it is certainly an inappropriate response. Of course, a driver should not cut in on another, but that is not the kind of thing you do murder over.
Whatever Joseph had done, and certainly he was not sinless, the response of the brothers was a far greater sin. And a couple of brothers realized that things were getting out of hand, that a kind of "road rage" had taken over. Reuben was the eldest son. According to the customs of that time, he was the one who should have had the robe with sleeves, he should have been carrying reports to his father about what was happening with the sheep. But however jealous he may have been of Joseph,Reuben was not going to kill him. Reuben convinced his brother's to throw Joseph in a cistern and let him starve to death. That way no one would actually have to strike the deathblow. The brothers liked the plan. They seized Joseph, stripped him of his robe, and threw him in the cistern. The cistern by the way was a great pit for storing water. The one that they threw Joseph in was empty, for their intent was that he would die of thirst or starvation. Reuben intended to return and rescue Joseph after his brothers left, but his plan came to naught because Judah convinced his brothers to change their plans.
A caravan of nomadic traders came by on their way to Egypt. Like Reuben, Judah was beginning to have second thoughts about killing Joseph, so he persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph to the traders, and they did. V28 says, They "sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver."
Now the brothers must cover up their sin. That is the way sin in. you do not just commit a sin, you must also cover it up. They took the long robe with sleeves, the robe that they had hated so much, and dipped it in the blood of a goat. Then they took it to their father and said, "We found it." Jacob jumped to the conclusion that they wanted him to. In v34, he said, "It is my sons's robe; a wild beast has devoured him."
But the last verse in the chapter tells us what really happened to Joseph. He was not eaten by a wild beast. In Egypt, he was sold as a slave to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh.
Now as we have discussed this chapter, it seems like a family quarrel with plenty of sin for everyone and not much of any spiritual value in it. It was a family quarrel that got out of hand. All families have arguments, and sometimes things like envy and jealousy get involved in the argument, but most families manage to solve these things without selling a sibling into slavery. There were a few times that I wanted to sell my brother into slavery when we were growing up, but still we do not do that kind of thing, or I should say that we do not usually do that kind of thing. More than once I have noticed that the lead story on the local evening news has to do with a family quarrel that got out of hand and somebody shot somebody. So Joseph and his brothers are still with us.
Let us make some applications of this scripture.
First, Let us talk about how God works.
In Egypt, Joseph rose up from slavery and prison to become Pharaoh's first counselor. He prophecied the coming of a monster famine, and he spent years storing up food in preparation for it. When the famine came, it affected not only Egypt but the whole Middle East, so that people from many countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy wheat. Eventually Joseph's brothers came also. All of Joseph's dreams came true. But slavery and prison changed Joseph. He was no longer the pompous young teenager who liked to lord it over his brothers. So when he could dominate them, he is much too spiritual a man to do them any harm. Eventually all the brothers are reconciled and Joseph was able to save the family from famine.
So we can see that God used this whole chain of events--the talebearing and the robe and the anger and the envy--to bring about his purposes to save thousands of people from starvation, and in those thousands to save also the covenant family of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
This should be of comfort to us. Sometimes as we look around us evil seems to be very strong. We wonder if God can have anything to do with this mess that we call the humankind. Yes, God does. God is still here. We can depend upon that. God is still working out his purposes. We can depend upon that.
The second application is that sin is a self-punishing disease.
To say that God is here in the midst of our sins and that God uses our sins to accomplish his purpose in no way justifies us in our sins. I suppose the temptation might be to say, "If God is working in the midst of sin, then it must be all right to go ahead and sin." Not so, Joseph was enslaved. Jacob had to endure for years the anguish of having lost his most beloved son. The brothers had to live with the knowledge of what they had done to their brother and they were not insensitive to that. Finally, when they did recognize Joseph in Egypt, they had to recognize him as their leader and seek his forgiveness. How much better off the whole family would have been if they had not committed sin in the first place. Then God would have saved them from the famine in some other way. We are always better off if we do not commit sin in the first place.
Thirdly, there is a spiritual interpretation to this chapter.
In this interpretation, Joseph represents our soul. Jacob and the brothers represent our sinful nature. They represent all those desires and motives that tie us to this world and cause us to be less than children of God. The robe with sleeves is the garment of envy that our sinful nature seeks to clothe us in. It is the garment that causes us to be always jealous of what others have.
We are Jacob and we are the brothers. We are always tempted to sell ourselves into slavery in Egypt. In the ancient world, Egypt was NYC, London, Paris. It was the capital of the world. It represented all the glitz and glitter of a mighty technological civilization. To be sold into slavery into Egypt represents the selling of our souls for material gain. It is to forget the spiritual, to worship at the altar of the material.
Genesis 37 describes the plight of many people today. They have clothed themselves with the robe of envy. They have sold themselves into slavery for things. They have come to believe that all of life is just getting more stuff. And that is sad because all these things break down and fall apart and come to dust, and if that is all that we want, in the end we have nothing.
They need to be liberated from their slavery to things that do not matter. The NT tells us what they need. They need Jesus. If we will come to Jesus and believe on him, he will liberate us from the robe of envy. He will clothe us in the white robes of victory and purity. He will liberate us from our bondage to material things and make us his brothers and sisters to live and reign with him forever in God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 8/13/02