When bad things happen to good people

Jacob had entrusted the flocks to Joseph’s older brothers, but now he sends him to check on their welfare. Joseph had been shepherding with some of his brothers before (37:2), work that could start at far younger than his seventeen years (37:2), and perhaps had been kept home because of conflicts (37:4-11). In any case, Joseph inquiring about their welfare (literally “peace”) offers a stark contrast with the treatment that Joseph will receive at his brothers’ hands.

Concerned about his sons’ welfare, Jacob thus sends Joseph to find out how his brothers are doing near Shechem. Here is what seems a remarkable point in the story, because the ruins of Shechem remind us immediately of his brothers’ violence there in ch. 34—a violence that may foreshadow what awaits Joseph. Figuring out why Jacob feels free to let his older sons pasture there (37:12) and to send Joseph there by himself (37:13-14) is harder to determine. The family knew well the pasturage near Shechem (33:18). Perhaps trouble in the neighborhood of Shechem must have now quieted down (cf. 35:5). Alternatively, perhaps this narrative chronologically precedes Gen 34 (and perhaps Joseph’s dream that includes his mother in 37:9-10 even precedes her death in 35:19). Genesis might choose to keep the Joseph narrative together at the expense of chronology. The information needed to decide on such a matter historically is no longer available to us, but the narrative in its current form presumes that matters had become more quiet. (Joseph was probably six when they entered Canaan, and Dinah only a little older; see 30:25-26; 31:41. If he is seventeen in 37:2, this is eleven years later; still, Dinah was probably only a little older than Joseph, 30:21, so the terrible events in Shechem may have remained more recent.)

But while this was a fairly peaceful period in Canaan, wild beasts remained a possibility, and Jacob’s sending of Joseph in what will become Joseph’s disappearance will haunt Jacob for years to come. That will be why he will fear to leave Benjamin out of his sight (42:38). Any of us who worry about our children’s safety can identify with Jacob, but this is especially true for someone who has endured great loss.

Joseph’s response to his father’s commission, literally, “Behold, I [am here]” (37:13) is the appropriate response for an obedient son to a father’s summons (27:1, 18), just as it is for a human obedient to the Lord’s command (22:1, 11; 31:11). That a man had overheard the brothers discussing their move to Dothan, and found Joseph looking for them (37:15-17), seems providential: God planned Joseph’s difficult encounter with his brothers and made it happen even despite some natural circumstances that could have worked against it. The narrator would hardly have expended such detail on how Joseph learned of his brother’s whereabouts were it not significant. (As for why the man was in the vicinity and had had contact with his brothers, it is not unlikely that some people had resettled, or were at least making use of, the remains of Shechem. Had fugitives simply returned, they would probably have been less than hospitable to Joseph’s brothers, but it is possible that other rural people once oppressed by Shechem have now found a place there. Whether by returned fugitives or by new residents, sites of previous habitation were usually quickly resettled.)

In the same way, the circumstances of our lives are not accidental. Theologians debate whether God plans the details (such as, here, Joseph’s brothers having moved on), but God certainly does arrange matters to bring about his purposes (such as Joseph’s encounter with his brothers, ultimately to save many lives, 45:5, 7). We cannot second guess ourselves, with, “What would have happened if …” We can instead recognize that God has a plan and purpose in our lives and entrust ourselves to him from here forward.

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