Genesis 37-50: Joseph the Dreamer


The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most popular stories in the book of Genesis—so popular, in fact, that it was made into a Broadway musical! In Genesis 37–50: Joseph the Dreamer , author Kevin Perrotta helps us see why the story of Joseph is so critical to a proper understanding of the book of Genesis, and helps us apply this beloved story to our own lives of faith

A Guided Discovery of the ...

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The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most popular stories in the book of Genesis—so popular, in fact, that it was made into a Broadway musical! In Genesis 37–50: Joseph the Dreamer , author Kevin Perrotta helps us see why the story of Joseph is so critical to a proper understanding of the book of Genesis, and helps us apply this beloved story to our own lives of faith

A Guided Discovery of the Bible The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on how we might respond to it. To do this, we need guidance and the right tools for discovery. The Six Weeks with the Bible series of Bible discussion guides offers both in a concise six-week format. Whether focusing on a specific biblical book or exploring a theme that runs throughout the Bible, these practical guides in this series provide meaningful insights that explain Scripture while helping readers make connections to their own lives. Each guide

• is faithful to Church teaching and is guided by sound biblical scholarship
• presents the insights of Church fathers and saints
• includes questions for discussion and reflection
• delivers information in a reader-friendly format
• gives suggestions for prayer that help readers respond to God’s word
• appeals to beginners as well as to advanced students of the Bible
By reading Scripture, reflecting on its deeper meanings, and incorporating it into our daily life, we can grow not only in our understanding of God’s word, but also in our relationship with God.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780829420081
  • Publisher: Loyola Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2004
  • Series: Six Weeks with the Bible Series
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Perrotta is an award-winning Catholic journalist and a former editor of God’s Word Today . In addition to the Six Weeks with the Bible series, he is the author of Invitation to Scripture and Your One-Stop Guide to the Bible . Perrotta lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Louise Perrotta is the author of several books, including 2004: A Book of Grace-Filled Days , 2003: A Book of Grace-Filled Days , Saint Joseph: His Life and His Role in the Church Today , and The Saints' Guide to Learning to Pray . She frequently writes for God's Word Today, The Word Among Us, and other Catholic publications and helps lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

How to Use This Guide

You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, ­­listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
 In this booklet, we will read the main portion of the story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50. We will take a leisurely walk through the six readings, giving ourselves the opportunity to think carefully about what we are reading and what it means for our lives today. Joseph’s life certainly gives us a great deal to reflect on.
 This guide provides everything you need to explore the story of Joseph in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide background and explanations that will help you grasp what this biblical narrative means for today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch your group into fruitful discussion, helping you to both investigate the biblical text for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
 Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
 Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the message of Genesis. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
 Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with the biblical story. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what these words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present. By showing what the story of Joseph and its themes have meant to ­­others, these sections will help you consider what they mean for you. At a couple of points, “Between Discussions” will explore some aspect of the story in more depth.
 How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
 Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they appear. (Be aware that the guide for Week 5 is longer than usual.)
 What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. In the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished amateur biblical scholars, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three ­­people to take turns as facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 92) before beginning.
 Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need his or her own copy of this booklet. It contains the entire text of the readings from Genesis, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. Some of the questions call for reading passages of Scripture that are not included in this booklet. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions (see page 96 for recommendations.)
 How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) or individuals (page 95).

A Story for Your Enjoyment

Isn’t it amazing how a good story can leap over canyons of time and space, bringing strangers near and making them seem familiar? You may never have met any sheep and goat herders who carry all their belongings around with them on donkeys. You may not know any ­­family with twelve br­others and—simultaneously!—four m­others. Yet when a story about such a ­family begins “When [Joseph’s] br­others saw that their father loved him more than all his br­others, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him”—well, it’s easy to feel that this ­family is as close as the ­family next door, or closer. Hearing about a father’s favoritism and br­others’ envy, we immediately feel that we are on common ground with these ­people. We suspect that their story will involve conflict, tragedy, and, hopefully, reconciliation—as our own families’ stories sometimes do.
 Joseph and his ­family are far away from us. They lived thirty-three centuries ago or more in the dry hill country of Canaan (home of modern Israelis and Palestinians) and in the lush, marshy delta of the Nile River. Yet their experiences of longing for a parent’s love, of maturing through suffering, of bearing the responsibility of compassion toward ­family members, of perceiving the hidden hand of God in human affairs—these themes play out in our own lives also.
 Given its broad appeal, Joseph’s story has been retold many times. Most prominent in recent years has been Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. For many of us, say “Joseph” and the songs of their musical begin playing in our heads. But the biblical story has its own unique character and flavor. It may be true, as the title of Rice and Webber’s song proclaims, that “Any Dream Will Do” if you stick with it through thick and thin; in any case, however, that is not the message of the Joseph story in the Bible. You will enjoy the biblical story most if you silence the echoes of its later retellings and try to approach the original as though for the first time.
 But is the account of Joseph indeed a story to be enjoyed?
 To some, the word story indicates fiction. It might seem that calling the account of Joseph a story denies that it is historical. In the case of the account of Joseph, however, history and fiction are not an either-or.
 On the historical side, Joseph and his ­family were links in a chain of actual ­people stretching from Abraham to Jesus. The account of Joseph (in the book of Genesis) provides the background to the account of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt (in the book of Exodus) by explaining how they came to be in Egypt in the first place. Since there is a historical core to the Exodus account, there is at least a historical kernel to the Joseph account, too. On the fictional side, the account of Joseph is an imaginative blend of historical traditions and other material, composed in such a way as to instruct a much later generation of readers. In other words, it is composed as a good story. Thus the account of Joseph is history in the form of a story. This blending of historical and fictional elements was comfortable for ­people in the ancient Near East but is foreign to us, who expect our historians to keep fictional elements out of their history writing.
 The blending of fiction with history in the account of Joseph does not make it any less true. Straight historical narratives are not the only kind of writing that communicates truth. Other kinds of writing—novels and poems, for example—can be true, even if they are not factual. Nor is the account of Joseph any less authentically God’s word for not being written in the manner of modern history. When God inspired the biblical authors, they remained fully human authors. They wrote in their own languages, according to the outlook of their own cultures. The writings they produced belonged to their particular world as much as the clothes they made and the houses they built. Yet, by God’s grace, their writings communicated his message not only for their times but for our time also.
 It is possible to read the account of Joseph with an eye to its historical dimension, pausing at every step to consider the historical background and ask to what extent the events occurred as recounted. But such an approach is very complicated—so complicated that it would distract us from reading the account itself. Besides, even if we were to investigate all the conceivable historical questions, we would still ultimately come back to the story as it is written in order to ponder its meaning for us. In this guide, then, we will not have much to say about the historical character of the story, except to offer some information about the background that is useful for understanding it.
 What about enjoying the story? Doesn’t such an approach trivialize reading the Bible? After all, the Bible is some-thing we are supposed to study, believe, and obey.
 Well, of course, we take up the story of Joseph hoping for more than enjoyment. We hope to meet God in his word—a serious matter indeed. Yet the most direct path to this awesome encounter in the story of Joseph is, quite simply, to enjoy it.
 Under God’s inspiration, the human authors of Scripture produced a wide variety of writings. In order to hear God’s voice in these writings, we need to tailor our reading to the particular purpose and form of each. If the writing is a theological argument, such as Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we need to apply ourselves to understanding his reasoning. If the writing is poetry, we should appreciate its beauty. As St. Basil pointed out centuries ago, the psalms draw us into communication with God by the beauty of their music. If, as in the account of Joseph, the writing is a tale artfully told, we should enjoy it.
 To enjoy Joseph’s story, however, does not mean giving it a quick read and a smile. Enjoying the story means approaching it as we would a first-class novel, movie, or play: entering into it, identifying with the characters, probing their motives, evaluating their decisions. To enjoy the story involves examining the artistry of its construction and reflecting on parallels with our own experiences. If we enjoy the story of Joseph in this thoughtful way, we will discern its depth and wisdom. It will begin to live in our minds and hearts—thus becoming God’s word in us.
 If you read the story of Joseph with care and attention, questions will inevitably occur to you. For example, you may wonder whether Joseph bears some responsibility for his br­others’ dislike for him. Do his dreams express his own desires or God’s will? Does Joseph change in the course of the story, and if so, what causes the change? What motivates him to treat his br­others as he does? Where and how is God present in the story?
 Perhaps surprisingly, it is not easy to give definitive answers to these questions. The narrator has described some of the situations in a way that leaves them open to more than one interpretation and has not given us enough information to deter-mine which interpretation is correct. The basic story line of Joseph’s life is clear enough. But the narrator has left gaps and ambiguities along the way.
 These gaps and ambiguities stand as the narrator’s invitations to explore the story carefully. “Consider alternative interpretations,” he seems to be saying, “and reach your own conclusions.” His purpose, it seems, is to lure us deeper and deeper into the story. In order to close the gaps and resolve the ambiguities, we reread and reread again. Characters who may have appeared two-dimensional at first reading, Joseph above all, gradually become more rounded. One scholar, Meir Sternberg, remarks that while the suspense of wondering how the story is going to turn out holds our attention only during our first reading, the gaps and ambiguities keep us interested long after we know the ending. In this guide, we will point out some of the intriguing gaps in the story and some of the clues that may help to bridge them.
 It is worth noting that the narrator leaves not only gaps that produce ambiguity but also gaps that require us to exercise our imagination. He relates key incidents in vivid detail while passing over years of Joseph’s life in Egypt without a word. He tells us what ­people say and do but leaves us to infer what they think and how they feel. He does not describe the terror of being kidnapped, the dispiritedness caused by chronic hunger, or the despair of indefinite imprisonment. He leaves it to us to fill in these blanks as best we can.
 You will notice that we have been speaking of “the narrator.” Who was he? Little can be said about him with certainty. He was a master storyteller; he belonged to the ­people of Israel. Almost certainly he did not complete the work alone; ­others added to it and revised it. When and where did he work? Possibly in Jerusalem between the tenth and sixth centuries before Christ. (How’s that for vague? It’s like saying that the author of Moby Dick possibly lived in America between AD 1700 and 2200.) Fortunately, ignorance about the narrator’s identity, situation, dates, and audience does not prevent us from enjoying his story.
 A ­­little background is helpful. Joseph’s story reflects a period when Egypt is already a large, developed, and powerful nation, and Canaan is a land of small cities and towns inhabited mostly by shepherds and peasant farmers. Egypt has a strong central authority—the government of the king, called Pharaoh—with a system of administrative districts, food-storage facilities, and, of course, tax collections. This authoritarian system primarily benefits the small class of officials who run the government departments, army, and temples. But the system has advantages for the rest of the population, providing stability and buffering them from the most severe natural fluctuations, such as droughts, that spell disaster for their less highly organized neighbors in Canaan.
 Joseph is born into a ­family of wandering shepherds who for some generations have experienced a relationship with the God who later reveals himself to Moses and ultimately makes himself fully present in Jesus of Nazareth. In earlier chapters of Genesis, God has promised Abraham, Abraham’s son Isaac, and grandson Jacob that he will make their ­family great and will give them the land of Canaan. Joseph is one of Jacob’s sons.
 Some of God’s communications with Joseph’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father occurred through dreams—not surprisingly, since ­people in the ancient Near East regarded dreams as a point of contact between the divine and human realms. In these dreams, as well as in other ways, God revealed himself directly to Joseph’s forefathers—and to at least a couple of his forem­others. But Joseph’s dreams are different from theirs. His dreams are more symbolic, and God does not directly reveal himself in them. Indeed, there is no record of God ever revealing himself to Joseph or speaking to him directly. This is an important feature of Joseph’s life—and one that may make it ­easier for us to identify with him than with his ancestors.
 Joseph is born into a ­family where parental favoritism has wrought conflict. Joseph’s grandfather Isaac had favored his son Esau while grandmother Rebekah favored Esau’s twin brother, Jacob. Seemingly in reaction to this treatment by his father, Jacob deceived his father into giving him the paternal blessing that should have gone to his brother. After this deception, Jacob had to flee Esau’s wrath. He traveled to his ­family’s relatives in an area in present-day southern Turkey, where he married his uncle’s two daughters and also took two of their slave girls as his concubines. Between them, these four women bore a dozen sons and one daughter. Repeating the pattern of parental favoritism, Jacob preferred Joseph and Benjamin, the two sons of his favorite wife, Rachel. Although Joseph was not the first of Jacob’s twelve sons—he was number eleven—Jacob treated him with the favor a father might have been expected to lavish on his firstborn, probably because Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn. In fact, Jacob sometimes speaks as though Rachel were his only wife and her two sons his only children. When the story of Joseph begins, Rachel has already died giving birth to Benjamin.
 Oh, one final piece of background information is important. A while before the story begins, the ­family was camping with their flocks near a town called Shechem (modern Nablus, a Palestinian city in the territory known as the West Bank). A young man of Shechem raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and then proposed marriage to her. In response, the br­others plotted revenge. They lulled the towns­people into thinking they agreed to the marriage proposal and were willing to make a treaty with the whole town. Then, when the Shechemites’ guard was down, they sneaked into town and slaughtered all the men. This tells you something about the br­others Joseph has to deal with as his story begins.

Week 1
There Goes That Dreamer

Questions to Begin

15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.

 1 What’s the nicest article of clothing you ever received when you were growing up? What’s the most outrageous?
 2 This question is for everyone who remembers being in a class that had an obvious teacher’s pet: did the favoritism make you angry?
? No.
? Yes—at the pet.
? Yes—at the teacher.
? Yes—at both.
?  Yes—at myself for not being the pet.
? No. I was the pet.

Opening the Bible

5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading sections.

The Reading: Genesis 37

A Tale of Love and Envy
2 This is the story of the ­family of Jacob.
 Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his br­others; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his br­others saw that their father loved him more than all his br­others, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His br­others said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
 9 He had another dream, and told it to his br­others, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his br­others, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your br­others, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his br­others were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Conspiracies and Deception
12 Now his br­others went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your br­others pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your br­others and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. . . .
 17 . . . Joseph went after his br­others, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his br­others, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
 25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his br­others, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his br­others agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
 29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his br­others, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him. 36 Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

Questions for Careful Reading

10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.

 1 The narrator presents a ­family in crisis (37:2–11—unless noted, all biblical citations in this book refer to Genesis). Who is to blame? Support your answers with specific verses.
 2 Why does Joseph tell his dreams? What does he think of them?
 3 Many Scripture commentators—as well as Joseph’s ­family members—find the dreams “obvious” and “self-explanatory.” What do you think?
 4 When do the br­others show solidarity? When do they disagree?
 5 At this point, what is your impression of Joseph? Jacob? Reuben? Judah? of the br­others as a whole? Again, cite specific verses.
 6 Do Joseph’s dreams come from God or from himself? Is there any way to tell?

A Guide to the Reading

If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”

37:2–4. Disaster is brewing in Jacob’s ­family, and this teasingly open-ended introduction suggests that no one is blameless. In the Hebrew, verse 2 alone abounds with seemingly deliberate ambigui­ties. Is Joseph an apprentice shepherd, caring for the sheep with his ­brothers, or is he shepherding his ­brothers, in the sense of lording it over them? Does he give his “bad report” about the ­brothers once or regularly? Is Joseph a responsible lad or a priggish squealer? Is he even truthful?
 Jacob loved Rachel more than his three other wives, and he favors her firstborn over his ten older sons. He proclaims his favoritism by making Joseph a distinctive garment that all but shouts, “I am Dad’s real firstborn.” It is safe to assume that this is not just a nice gift. Scholar Claus Westermann observes: Jacob is “raising the boy to a level above that of his ­brothers.”
 37:5–11. The spark of hatred kindled by Jacob’s in-your-face gift (37:4) bursts into a blaze when Joseph tells his dreams. Is he brimming over with wonderment or boasting? Assuming the worst, his ­brothers take the first dream as Joseph’s arrogant assertion of his ambition to “reign” over them (37:8; the verb derives from the Hebrew word for king).
 The second dream offends even Jacob, who thinks Joseph is predicting that the entire ­family—Jacob, Rachel, the ten older ­brothers, and the youngest, Benjamin—will bow down to him one day (37:9–10). For a father in this patriarchal society to prostrate himself before his son is a radically offensive idea. But Jacob’s interpretation is impossible: Joseph’s mother, Rachel, is in her grave (35:19). Perhaps there is more to Joseph’s dreams than his ­family has perceived.
 37:12–28. Jacob’s behavior is hard to explain. He sends his precious son alone to Shechem, where the ­family has bitter enemies (Genesis 34; see page 11). This also puts Joseph at the mercy of his ­brothers, whose buildup of anger and breakdown in communications (37:4) has somehow escaped Jacob.
 If the sight of daddy’s boy all decked out in his “I am special” finery is hard for the ­brothers to take, it is the thought of his dreams that triggers their urge to kill. They be­little Joseph as “this dreamer” (the literal Hebrew—“this lord of dreams”—is bitingly sarcastic: 37:19). The scorn masks a deep-seated fear. What if the dreams are prophetic? What if subservience to Joseph is in their future? To eliminate this nightmarish possibility, the ­brothers will eliminate the dreamer.
 The plot takes on a life of its own. As one plan gives way to another, we see chinks in the ­brothers’ outwardly united front and ponder some intriguing questions. What has made the ­brothers so savage that they will gleefully murder Joseph and deny him proper burial, the ultimate dishonor in their world (Plan One: 37:20)? Reuben pushes for sending Joseph to a lingering death in an empty “pit,” or water cistern (Plan Two: 37:21–22), while secretly planning to save him. Why? Is Reuben trying to compensate for past sins (see 35:16–22)? Does he hope to gain Jacob’s favor by aligning himself with Number One Son? Or has he realized that, as the eldest, he will be held accountable for any mishap?
 Selling Joseph into slavery is Judah’s bright idea (Plan Three: 37:26–28). What motivates him? money? second thoughts about bloodguilt? a sudden pang of concern for “our brother”? Literary critic Robert Alter wryly observes that “it is, of course, a dubious expression of brotherhood to sell someone into the ignominy and perilously uncertain future of slavery.” (In later Jewish law, it was a capital offense: Exodus 21:16).
 Verse 28 leaves us guessing about who actually makes a profit on Joseph. It may be the ­brothers, who interrupt their lunch to make a deal with the Ishmaelite caravan (37:25). Or is it Midianite traders who find and sell him?
 37:29–36. In the end, the ­family is more unhappy than ever. Reuben, who seems to have been absent when Plan Three was hatched, is distraught (37:29–30). Jacob is inconsolable. His sons have deceived him easily, using their brother’s garment and a goat—“evidence” reminiscent of the props with which Jacob once tricked his own father, Isaac (27:5–23). They will not find it easy to live with the ghost of Joseph’s memory, which lives on in Jacob’s unceasing laments (37:34–35).
 As for Joseph, we know nothing of his thoughts as he travels toward Egypt. He is as inscrutable as the sphinx.

Questions for Application

40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.

 1 Is it possible to love a person too much?
 2 Scholar Laurence Turner observes that Joseph seems to possess one gift of wisdom—dreams—while lacking another—prudence. Do you agree?
 3 How does envy affect a person’s ability to make judgments and decisions? What are the warning signals that envy is eating at a relationship?
 4 If you wanted to encourage someone’s cherished hopes, desires, and ambitions, how would you go about it? What are some surefire ways of squelching another person’s dreams?
 5 When is solidarity—standing together with ­others—a force for good? What could you do to build solidarity within your home, parish, school, workplace, or community? When is solidarity not appropriate?
 6 From your experience of giving and receiving comfort in times of sorrow, what kind of consolation is truly helpful? Do you know anyone who could use such consolation now? What might you do to comfort them?
 7 For personal reflection: Is there anyone in your life to whom you just cannot “speak peaceably” (37:4)? Have you asked the Prince of Peace to bring healing to this relationship? How can you cooperate with his work?

You do not have to be an expert on Scripture to lead a group.
Clarence and Edith Roberts, Sharing of Scripture

Approach to Prayer

15 minutes Use this approach—or ­­create your own!

 ♦ With your closest relationships in mind, read aloud these words from 1 Corinthians 13:4–8, 13:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. . . . And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 Take a few silent moments to present all your relationships to the Lord and ask him to show you what love means in each of them. End with an Our Father.

Saints in the Making The Power of a Dream

This section is a supplement for individual reading.

Does God still speak through dreams? Consider Alessandro Serenelli, whose daydreams led him into darkness—until another kind of dream showed him the light.
 In 1902, Alessandro and his father were struggling tenant farmers living twenty miles from Rome. They shared a house with a widow and her six children. When not in the fields, twenty-year-old Alessandro was in his room reading sensationalized newspaper accounts of crimes of passion. As his mind filled with violent images, his lustful desires settled on eleven-year-old Maria. He made sexual overtures, which Maria rejected with a horrified no. He made threats: “If you tell your mother, I’ll kill you.”
 One Saturday when Maria was alone in the house, Alessandro insisted that she have sex with him, or else. But even when he pulled out a dagger, Maria stood her ground: “No! No! What are you doing? Don’t touch me! It’s a sin! You’ll go to hell!” Enraged, Alessandro stabbed her repeatedly, then threw himself sullenly on his bed. “I killed her because she refused,” he later admitted. Maria was treated for fourteen major stab wounds and died the next day, after declaring that she forgave Alessandro.
 Alessandro showed no remorse. A thirty-year prison sentence left him unmoved. Then one night, eight years later, Alessandro had a dream. He saw Maria, bathed in light, standing in a field of flowers. She was smiling and holding out an armful of radiantly white lilies. “Take them,” she said. Alessandro’s hardness of heart evaporated; he recognized the dream as God’s invitation to repent. When the local bishop sought him out a few days later, Alessandro admitted his guilt and received God’s forgiveness.
 While in prison, Alessandro returned to the sacraments and to prayer. Released after serving twenty-seven years, he visited Maria’s mother to beg her forgiveness, then spent the rest of his days working at a monastery and living a penitential life. “I hope to be able to save my soul, because I have a saint in heaven who is praying for me,” Alessandro once told a priest. On June 24, 1950—almost three decades after the “mysterious, surprising dream” that precipitated his conversion—Alessandro saw his intuition confirmed. Along with Maria’s ­family, he was present in St. Peter’s Square in Rome as Maria Goretti was officially declared a saint.

Between Discussions


Not for Sunday School

Once when Louise’s mother was in her twenties, she asked the parish priest for advice about reading the Old Testament. “Don’t,” he told her. “There are things in it that you won’t understand and that will only upset you.” My guess is that he was referring to stories like the one in Genesis 38—the tale of Tamar and Judah. Certainly this story is not immediately edifying to the modern reader.
 Postponing the story of Joseph in Egypt until chapter 39, the narrator follows the fortunes of Jacob’s fourth son as he goes away from his ­brothers, finds himself a Canaanite wife, and quickly fathers three sons. Fast-forward twenty years or so. Judah’s oldest son, Er, marries a local woman named Tamar. Before they have any children, and for unexplained reasons, Er incurs God’s displeasure and dies (38:7). Some ancient rabbis speculated that Er did not want Tamar’s beauty marred by pregnancy. Whatever motivated him, “Er erred,” as one modern commentator remarks.
 Judah then instructs his second son, Onan, to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law” to Tamar, that is, to have sexual relations with her in hopes of providing a son who can be counted as Er’s firstborn (38:8). Odd-sounding to us, this legal obligation was widespread practice in the ancient Near East, where a ­family’s quality of life and very survival hinged on the existence of an heir. Later Jewish law explained it as a measure to ensure that the deceased brother’s name “may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5–6).
 Our English word onanism describes Son Number Two’s response: on every occasion of intercourse with Tamar (the Hebrew makes it clear that this was not a onetime thing), he ejaculates on the ground “so that he would not give offspring to his brother” (38:8–9). No surprise that Onan, too, displeases God, and dies (38:10).
 In contrast to Jacob’s wild grieving over Joseph, Judah is not pictured as mourning his sons’ deaths. Callous he may be, but certainly he fears for his third and last son, Shelah, who should step in to fulfill the obligation Onan refused (38:11). Perhaps holding Tamar responsible for his sons’ deaths, Judah puts her off by telling her to wait until Shelah is older. But he has no intention of following through.
 Judah’s wife dies. Shelah grows up. Finally tiring of the charade, Tamar decides to provide Er with an heir by means of a highly risky and risqué plan. She disguises herself, tricks Judah into taking her for a prostitute, and has sex with him. First, however, she sets her price—one goat—and exacts Judah’s seal, cord, and staff as a pledge of payment (38:18). She drives a hard bargain, Robert Alter observes. “Taking the instruments of Judah’s legal identity and social standing is something like taking a person’s driver’s license and credit cards in modern society.”
 Tamar hangs on to these items, and good thing, too! On the day she is found to be pregnant and is denounced as an adulteress, Judah, without any reflection or call for evidence, sentences her to death, the usual penalty for adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22)—but by the unusually severe means of fire. In the story’s dramatic climax, Tamar is being dragged off to the stake when she sends Judah’s signet, cord, and staff back to him with the message: “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant. . . . Take note, please, whose these are” (38:25).
 Judah gets the point and vindicates Tamar immediately: “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (38:26). If Tamar behaved unconventionally, Judah realizes, he himself was unjust. “Tamar opens Judah’s eyes and teaches him to take responsibility and secure his ­family’s future,” comments scholar Ron Pirson. These will be valuable lessons for the future.
 The story closes with the birth of Tamar’s twins, Perez and Zerah—two boys who replace, as it were, Judah’s lost sons. In time, Perez will head the clan of Judah from which King David will come. Thanks to Tamar’s determination, Judah will have the honor of “fathering” not only David, but—through the legal fatherhood of Joseph of Nazareth—the Savior of the world (Matthew 1:2–16).
 Keep your eye on Judah as the story of Joseph unfolds. The loss of his sons, his deception by Tamar, the chastening discovery that he is in the wrong and has almost condemned a courageous woman to death—all of this makes him a character to watch.

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Table of Contents


    4    How to Use This Guide
    6    A Story for Your Enjoyment

    12    Week 1
            There Goes That Dreamer

            Genesis 37
    22    Not for Sunday School

    24    Week 2
            Not Your Boy Toy

            Genesis 39

    34    Week 3
            Tell Me Your Dreams

            Genesis 40–41

    48    Week 4
             Well, Look Who’s Here

             Genesis 42
    58    What’s Joseph Up To?

    62    Week 5
             Take Me Instead

             Genesis 43–44

    76    Week 6
             I Am Your Brother

             Genesis 45; 46:28–31

    86    Afterwords
    88    What’s the Story with Joseph’s Dreams?
    92    Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups
    95    Suggestions for Individuals
    96    Resources

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