In the story of Joseph in Genesis 37, we see three causes as to what led to the betrayal of this teenager at the hands of his brothers. In these reasons we see the path from jealousy to envy to hatred to malice to betrayal.
The first cause for their betrayal was Joseph’s FAITH. In Genesis 37:2, we read:
“Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father.”
Joseph was out in the field with his brothers and their father’s sheep. We do not know the exact circumstances, but his brothers were involved in some activity that resulted in Joseph telling his father which, no doubt, ended in some type of negative repercussions on his older siblings.
At this point it is easy to conclude that Joseph brought some of the fury of his brothers on himself by being a tattle-tale. After all, no one likes a tattle-tale. But was this the case? I tend to see it differently. Remember the character of his older brothers. They were extremely evil. Back in Genesis 34, after their sister, Dinah, was raped by a man in the city of Shechem, these brothers conspired together to take revenge. They tricked the men of the city into a treaty which required all of them to be circumcised. While they were sick, feverish, and weak from the circumcision, Joseph’s brothers went into the city, slaughtered all of the men, and then took the women, children and all the possessions as their own. Simply put, these guys were evil. It was Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, that in Genesis 35:22 had an affair with one of his father’s concubines that was also the mother of two of his half-brothers (see Genesis 30:1-8).
When you look at the track record of these older brothers, I doubt very seriously that the offense of these brothers that resulted in Joseph bringing this bad report to his father was something minor. It is more likely that it was a very wicked activity that not only could bring a bad name on Jacob and his family but also could have put these very brothers in danger. If this were the case, would you see Joseph’s actions as mere tattling? Of course you wouldn’t. What I believe was driving Joseph’s actions was his sincere commitment to righteousness. That appears to be Joseph’s commitment throughout his life. Later on when he is alone in Egypt after being betrayed and sold as a slave, he is propositioned to a night of sexual passion with his master’s wife. Being that his master was a very powerful and influential man in Egypt, it is quite likely that this wife was very beautiful. After all that had happened to Joseph, it would have been easy to rationalize this pleasure in his mind. But instead Joseph responds by saying,
“How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9)
Even in the worst of circumstances, Joseph’s life was driven by a desire for righteousness. It is very believable to think that this is what motivated him to bring this bad report about his brothers back to his father. And I believe that it was Joseph’s faith and his commitment to obedience that became one of the causes for jealousy in the hearts of his brothers which would ultimately grow to a horrific act of betrayal.
The second cause for their betrayal was Joseph’s FAVORITISM. In Genesis 37:3-4, we read:
“Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.”
“Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”
The key to this robe was not necessarily the many bright colors within it but rather in the extravagance of the garment itself. It was what we would call “over the top” and it would have been extremely expensive. The word used to describe this robe would also suggest that it was a cloak whose sleeves went down to the wrists and had a length that went down to the ankles. In other words, it was not in any way a work coat. Tunics that were designed to work in were short in length and usually were sleeveless. This coat might also have indicated that Joseph did not have to carry his weight when it came to the chores and workload that his ten older brothers had to complete.
As you can imagine, this coat became a lit fuse every time his brothers would see Joseph wearing it. It was a visual reminder of their father’s favoritism. Though we can’t necessarily fault Joseph for his being the recipient of his father’s special treatment, we do see something that offers us a great lesson to be learned when we find ourselves on the receiving end of someone who has a jealous attitude toward us. Later in the story we will see that Jacob will send Joseph to go check on his brothers who were tending their sheep. Guess what Joseph wore to do this? He wore his special coat. I’m not sure that Joseph did this to rub his favoritism in his brother’s face, but there is no doubt that seeing him coming toward them with this colorful robe glimmering in the sun would have only incensed them further. My guess is that Joseph simply didn’t think through how his wearing that coat would set with his older siblings. The better part of wisdom would have certainly been to leave the robe at home while on this errand.
From this we can learn an important principle about betrayal. In most cases, when we are the victim of betrayal, we ourselves may have done things that made the situation worse, not better. That doesn’t in any way justify the vicious actions that might have come our way, but when we take time to look back at our scenario we can usually identify things we could have done differently that may have helped to at least some degree.
When I went through a very difficult time of being betrayed I fell into this very trap. I didn’t necessarily see it then but in the years that have followed as I have taken the time to process the details of what happened I can identify key actions and conversations of mine that, though they were not intended to, made the situation even more difficult and volatile. If you are currently in a situation where jealousy is growing toward an act of betrayal, be sure to walk circumspectly yourself. Prayerfully consider every action before you take it and every word before you speak it so that you, even without realizing it, don’t actually make the situation that much worse for you and for others.
The third cause for their betrayal was Joseph’s FUTURE. As we continue reading in Genesis 37 we see that Joseph had a dream, actually he had two of them. In the first dream he and his brothers were out in the field binding sheaves when his sheave stood up erect and his brothers’ sheaves all bowed down before his sheave. When Joseph told his brothers about his dream they were infuriated as seen in Genesis 37:5.
“Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.”
Joseph also had a second dream. In this dream the sun, moon and 11 stars all bowed down before him seeming to indicate that one day his entire family would bow before him. Again he told his brothers and again their jealousy toward Joseph escalated as seen in Genesis 37:11.
“His brothers were jealous of him…”
Now we know the end of the story. We know that this is exactly what would happen. Ultimately Joseph would become the Prince of Egypt and ultimately his entire family would bow down before him just as Joseph had dreamed. But at the time Joseph had these dreams it seemed like only that – a dream. To his brothers it was brazen narcissism from a hot-shot younger brother. Some might even argue that Joseph was wrong to tell his brothers about the dreams. Some might see this as bragging and that might be the case but it doesn’t seem to be consistent with the character of Joseph. Think of it another way. Who gave Joseph the dreams? It seems very evident that these dreams came from God Himself. Through these dreams God was putting a passion in Joseph’s heart for the way He was going to use him in the future.
One thing I have learned is that when God puts a passion in your heart and gives you a vision for how He wants to use you it is next to impossible to keep it to yourself. You want to share it. You need to share it. You have to share it. As Joseph shares what God had put in his heart about how he was going to use him, his brothers, whose jealousy was already on a course headed toward an explosion, continued to multiply. That shouldn’t really surprise us as it seems to be the norm today. As I look at the state of Christianity today and the way we talk and treat those who are attempting big things for God, it seems to me that those who dream big spiritual dreams often carry a bulls-eye for criticism, jealousy and ultimately, betrayal.
The betrayal of Joseph was at its very root founded in jealousy. Joseph’s faith; his favoritism; and his future all fueled this jealousy which grew to envy, and then hatred, and then to malice which resulted in the crime of betrayal.