Genesis 37-40: Dream interpretation, slavery, rape

Jacob settles in Canaan with his sons.  He loves Joseph more than all the others, arousing their jealousy.  To make matters worse, Joseph has two dreams.  In one, Joseph’s sheaf stands upright and all his brothers’ sheafs bow to it.  In another, the sun, moon, and stars all bow to Joseph.  Enraged, his brothers sell him into slavery and dip his clothes in goat blood to pretend that a beast killed him.  About that time, Judah marries a Canaanite and has 3 children.  He gets a wife (Tamar) for his son Er, but Er displeases the LORD and the LORD strikes him dead.  Jacob asks Onan to impregnate Tamar, but he refuses; for this, the LORD strikes him dead.  Jacob promises to give Tamar to another son, Shelah, when he grows up, but violates this promise for fear that the LORD would kill Shelah too.  Tamar tricks him by pretending to be a prostitute and having sex with Jacob, causing her to give birth to twins.

Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt, where he becomes such an accomplished slave that his master let him manage all his possessions.  The master’s wife repeatedly tries to have sex with Joseph; due to his repeated refusal, she falsely claims rape, and Joseph is thrown into prison.  In prison, he meets the Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief cupbearer.  He successfully deciphers their dreams, predicting that the cupbearer will be pardoned while the baker will be executed.


  • Onan is obligated to impregnate Tamar because, under the laws for levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10), the brother of a man who dies childless is obligated to marry the widow.  Her first son is then considered the son of the deceased.  Onan doesn’t want to fulfill this obligation because his biological son would then be the heir of Er, the firstborn, thus displacing him from the inheritance.
  • 37:28 disagrees with itself about whether Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites or the Midianites.  Possibly the Midianites are from the E version of the story, while the Ishmaelites are from the J version.
  • The ancient Egyptians were renowned for being dream interpreters.
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