Genesis 37-50: The 12 Tribes of Israel

A look at the story of Joseph and more on the 12 tribes of Israel and how they came to be.


The information in these chapters set up two major parts of Israelite history: the origin of the tribes of Israel, and how the Israelites came to be in Egypt. Here we discover some of the consequences of their previous actions, as well as learn about what prompted the Israelites to move to Egypt in the first place.


Joseph's story begins in Genesis 37 when Joseph is 17 years old. Our introduction to him includes the narative of him feeding the flock with his brothers—Bilhah and Zilpah's sons—and bringing back a bad report on them to their father. We learn that Jacob loves Joseph more than the other because he had him at an old age. This probably also had a lot to do with Jacob's love for Rachel as well. Rachel was Jacob's favorite wife, therefore it makes sense that her firstborn son would be Jacob's favorite child. To show his love for Joseph, Jacob makes him a special coat of many colors. The combination of this favoritism and Joseph's willingness to rat out the brothers' bad behavior, Joseph's brothers grow to hate him.

Joseph's Dream

Joseph is given two dreams, both of which concern his family. In his first dream, Joseph and his brothers are binding sheaves when his brothers' sheaves make obeisance to his sheaf. The second dream features the sun, moon, and eleven stars. The sun, moon, and stars also make obeisance to Joseph in this dream. The stars clearly represent his 11 brethern, the sun and moon are thought to mean Joseph's mother and father. I also wonder if its possible that the sun and moon represent Israel and Egypt considering the people from all over the world come to him during the famine.

Sold Into Slavery

One day, Jacob sends Joseph to check on is brothers, who despise him even more now that he's shared his dreams with them. When he gets to the field where they are supposed to feed the flock, his brothers are no where to be found. A man there informs Joseph that the brothers have moved so Joseph continues north to their new location. When his brothers see him approaching, they conspire against him. Reuben tells them not to kill him, suggesting they put in the pit instead. They take Joseph's coat and force him into the pit. As they feast at their triumph, they see Ishmeelites whom they think to sell Joseph to. Reuben, who is obviously not there when the brothers decide to sell Joseph, comes to the pit and is shocked to find it empty. Reuben questions the others and tears Joseph's coat in grief. When they take the torn coat back to Jacob, he assumes an animal has attacked and killed Joseph. Jacob is distraught and mourns for many days. Meanwhile the Ishmeelites sell Joseph to Potiphar, and officer of the pharaoh in Egypt.

Joseph's Days as a Slave

God is with Joseph in Egypt so he prospers and is successful in all that he does as a slave. Potiphar (his master) takes note of this and promotes Joseph to overseer. Potiphar's wife also takes note of Joseph. She desire him and tells him to lie with her. Joseph refuses to betray his master and rebuffs her advances. However, Potiphar's wife does not give up. She gets Joseph alone, grabs his clothes and commands he sleep with her. Still unwilling to cross his master (and commit adultery), Joseph flees and is forced to leave behind his clothes. Angered at Joseph's refusal, Potiphar's wife tells the other slaves and eventually Potiphar, that Joseph has tried to rape her. She shows Joseph's clothes as proof. Potiphar has Joseph imprisoned to the same prison Pharaoh has his prisoners sent. God remains with Joseph in prison and he gains favor from the prison guard.

Interpreting Dreams

While in prison, Joseph is joined by at least two other men. One served as the chief butler to the Pharaoh before being imprisoned and the other served as the chief baker for the Pharaoh before being imprisoned. Joseph overhears these two men talking about dreams they have been plagued by and wishing for the magicians of the land to divine the meanings of the dreams. Joseph tells the men that the interpretation of dreams belongs to God alone. He offers to hear and discern the meaning of their dreams, and eventually they oblige.

The Butler's Dream

The butler is the first to seek Joseph's help in discerning the meaning of the dream. The butler tells Joseph that in the dream there are 3 branches which bud and bring forth grapes. The butler then presses the grapes into wine in the Pharaoh's cup and gives it to him. Joseph tells the butler that the branches represent 3 days. The dreams is interpreted to mean that in 3 days, Pharaoh will reinstate him. Joseph asks of the butler to remember him and tell Pharaoh about his circumstance (being wrongfully accused and locked away).

The Baker's Dream

Hearing the positive outcome of the butler's dream, the baker decides to let Joseph hear his dream as well. In the baker's dream, there are 3 white baskets. Each basket is full of baked food and birds swoop to eat the food. Joseph explains that the baskets, like the branches, represent 3 days. However, the interpretation of the baker's dream is not as rosy as that of the butler's. Joseph predicts that the baker will be killed and the birds will eat his flesh.

The Butler and Baker's Dreams Fulfilled

After 3 days, just as Joseph predicted, the butler and baker are summoned by the Pharaoh. The baker is killed and the birds feast on his flesh, while the butler is restored to his position. However, in all the excitement, the butler forgets to mention Joseph to Pharaoh, so Joseph is left in prison for 2 more years.

The Pharaoh's Dream

Two years after Joseph's correct interpretations, Pharaoh himself is plagued with dreams and no one in the kingdom is able to discern the meaning of the dreams. It is at this time that butler remembers Joseph and tells Pharaoh of his gift. Pharaoh had Joseph summoned from prison and brought before him to interpret the dream.

Pharaoh tells Joseph that he has been having 2 dreams consecutively. In the first dream 7 healthy and fat cows are grazing, but 7 unhealthy cows come up from the water to destroy the healthy cows. Pharaoh wakes, then falls asleep and dreams the second dream. In the second dream there are 7 ears of corn grow tall, producing full ears of corn until 7 thin ears of corn sprout up and devour the 7 full ears.

First, Joseph reminds Pharaoh that it is not him that interprets the dream, but God (this is an important thing to note as we see many of the patriarchs reminding those around them that they are simply instruments of God who is in control). Joseph informs the Pharaoh that he is having one dream, given twice to indicate the finality of God's decision (Joseph's 2 dreams were another example of God giving the same dream twice with different symbols). Joseph identifies the 7 healthy cows and full ears of corn as 7 years of plenty. The 7 unhealthy cows and thin ears of corn are 7 years of famine. Joseph determines that there will 7 years of great harvest and plenty in the land, followed by 7 years of famine. He suggests that Pharaoh choose officers across the land to store 1/5 of the harvest each year, to be used during the 7 years of famine.

Joseph Appoint 2nd in Command of All Eygpt

Pleased with Joseph's interpretation and plan, Pharaoh makes Joseph 2nd in command, noting that only he (Pharaoh) will be higher than Joseph. With this power, Pharaoh also bestows a new name upon Joseph: Zaphnath-paaneah. The translation of this name is debated, ranging from "the man to whom mysteries are revealed" to "Then God Said Let Him Live."[1] Along with his new name and position, Joseph is given Asenath, daughter of Potipherah, priest of On as a wife. Evidence of Joseph, the 7 years of plenty, and the 7 years of famine are thought to be found through Egyptian records of a man named Imhotep who shares many similarities with Joseph[2][3]. Note Joseph is 30 years old when he goes before the pharaoh and becomes the second in command.

Joseph Descendants

Joseph and Asenath have two sons. Their eldest son is named Manasseh and the youngest, Ephraim. Both sons are born before the famine begins.

Family Reunion

The First Trip to Egypt

When the 7 years of famine roll in, the famine doesn't just effect Egypt. The famine spreads across the whole earth and other countries come to Joseph to buy supplies. Hearing that there is food in Egypt, Jacob sends his eldest sons to buy some, keeping Benjamin with him. He fears something terrible would happen to Benjamin and cannot bear the thought of losing Rachel's only other son. When the brothers arrive in Egypt Joseph recognizes them but they are unable to recognize him. Before they are able to decipher his identity, he disguises his face and voice. After pleading their case, Joseph accuses them of being spies come to scope out Egypt's reserves.

Joseph tells the brothers that he will detain nine of them brothers in Pharaoh's prison and allow one brother to go back to get Benjamin and provide proof of their story. He keeps them all in prison for three days, then softens the requirement to one brother staying imprisoned and the other nine returning for Benjamin. Before the brothers travel back they discuss amongst themselves their guilt for selling Joseph, believing Joseph to be an Egyptian unable to understand Hebrew. Possibly softened by their words, Joseph sends them off with full sacks of corn and their money (unbeknownst to the brothers).

On arrival to Canaan, they report the events to Jacob, confiding that Simeon is being held hostage until they return with Benjamin. Jacob maintains his stance that Benjamin cannot go to Egypt. Finding the money in their sacks only heightens their fears about returning. Pleading to go back to Egypt to get Simeon back, Reuben tells Jacob that he may slay Reuben's own two sons if they do not return with Benjamin. Jacob still says no.

The Second Trip to Egypt

Time passes and Jacob's family have eaten all the corn they bought in Egypt but the famine is still worsening. Jacob discusses the possibility of them returning for more. The brothers remind Jacob that they cannot return without Benjamin. Judah stands to take responsibility for Benjamin. He tells Jacob he will bear the blame forever if Benjamin does no return to Canaan. This time, Jacob agrees and sends the to Egypt with gifts for the man they will face, not knowing he is sending these gifts to his own son. Jacob also has them take double the payment to repay the debt from the last trip.

Back in Egypt, Joseph sees Benjamin with them and decrees that they will all feast together. The brothers fear this is a trap to punish them for not paying the first time they visited. When they bring up the matter to the steward, he assures them everything is OK, suggesting the extra money to God. When Joseph arrives to the dinner, the brothers present him with the gifts and bow to him (as in the dream). Joseph inquires about their welfare and the welfare of Jacob. Seeing his brother touches him so deeply he has to go to his chambers so that he can weep alone. He then returns to the feast. We are told that the Egyptians do not join in the feast because they are against sitting at the table with Hebrews.

Joseph then brings about the final test for his brothers; he stashes his silver cup in Benjamin's bag. When they leave to return to Canaan, he sends the steward to catch them. When the steward catches up to the brothers, they are seized and searched. Upon finding the cup, they escort the brothers back to Egypt where Joseph confronts them. It is Judah who speaks for the group. Judah explains to Joseph how Jacob feels about Benjamin and offers to take Benjamin's punishment. This is the moment Joseph's heart is changed toward his brothers.

Joseph Reveals Himself

Joseph sends the Egyptians away so that he may talk to his brothers in private. Once they are alone, he tells them that he is their brother Joseph. He goes on to state that selling him into slavery was God's will, that it was good, because it allowed him to prepare for their arrival. He also tells them he wishes them all to move to Egypt. Joseph is insistent that they feel no guilt for their actions and bring their flocks along with Jacob to live in Egypt. When he tells Pharaoh of his plan to move his family there, he agrees. Pharaoh sends wagons and provisions for the journey to Canaan and back.

Israel in Egypt

Hearing the wonderful news that Joseph is alive, Jacob agree to go to Egypt. God tells him that He will go into Egypt with him and the Israelites will prosper. So Jacob, his sons, and their families all go to Egypt The total number of Israelites that make the journey is 70.

Jacob sends Judah ahead of them to tell Joseph they have reached Goshen, outside of Egypt. Joseph meets them by chariot and tells them they will have to meet with Pharaoh. He tells them when Pharaoh asks their profession, to say shepherding. Egyptians believe shepherding to an abomination, so the brothers should ask to settle in Goshen (also referred to as the best land in Egypt).

Joseph takes only five of his brothers to meet Pharaoh—possibly to conceal their true number and to seem less threatening. Joseph tells Pharaoh that his family are shepherds, and when, just as Joseph prediction, Pharaoh asks the brothers what their occupation is, they confirm Joseph's statements. The family asks to live in Goshen and Pharaoh agrees. Pharaoh appoints them to oversee the cattle of Egypt. The clan patriarch, Jacob, gets a special audience with Pharaoh. During their conversation, Jacob blesses him and the two discuss Jacob's old age. This is part of the fulfillment of God's promise that other families and nations would be blessed because of the Israelites.

The Bread Famine

Soon, they begin to run out of bread and people clamor to buy Joseph's supply. When people run out of money, Joseph establishes a barter system in which he sells them breath for cattle, horse, and other animals. This goes on for a year, and when the run out of livestock, they begin to sell their land. Once they have absolutely nothing, they sell themselves into slavery for food. It is pointed out that all but the priests, who are given special provisions by Pharaoh, are effected by this. Joseph establishes tenant laws similar to sharecropping, in which the slaves are able to stay on their land, but must give one fifth of their crops to Pharaoh.


Judah is the 4th son of Jacob; he becomes Jacob's most trusted son after Reuben, Simeon, and Levi commit heinous acts.

Judah's Descendants

Judah marries a Canaanite woman who is the daughter of Shuah. He has 3 sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. His eldest son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar. Er is said to be a very wicked man, so wicked that God smites him. During this time period, it was customary for the widower's brother to marry the widow if she had not born children. The children produced from the widower's brother and the widow would be considered descendants of the widower. Since this was the case with Tamar, Judah has his second oldest son, Onan, marry Tamar. Onan does not want to have a child with Tamar because it would be seen as Er's child. We are told that he "spilled his seed on the ground" instead, to this day the name for this is onanism. Onan's selfish acts angered God and so He killed Onan too.

Deception of Judah and Tamar

With two sons dead, Judah feared sending his youngest son to marry Tamar. Instead he tells Tamar that Shelah is too young to marry her and bids her to return to her father's house until Shelah is of age. When Judah's wife dies, Tamar hears the news and goes to Timnath, where Judah goes for comfort. When Tamar sees that Shelah is a grown man, she changes out of her window's clothes, places a vail over her face, and sits out where Judah will pass alone. Seeing a woman with a covered face, Judah perceives her to be a prostitute. Judah asks to sleep with her, promising to send a kid from his flock for payment. Tamar tells Judah she needs some form of insurance, so she takes his signet, bracelet, and staff as a pledge that he will send the kid from the flock. Judah sends his servant to pay the unknown prostitute, but Tamar has put her widow's clothes back on and the prostitute cannot be found. Three months later, news of Tamar's pregnancy spreads to Judah. He is furious that she has strayed instead of waiting for his son, so he tries to have her punished by death. Tamar interrupts to tell them that the father of the baby is the man who owns the signet, staff, and bracelet. Recognizing his own possessions, Judah acknowledges his fault in the matter. Judah admits his wrong doing and professes saying Tamar was more righteous than he.

Tamar and Judah's Sons

Tamar gives birth to the second set of twins mentioned in the Bible. Like Jacob and Esau, these twins also have an interesting birth story. When Tamar goes into labor, one baby begins coming out hand first. The midwife places a red ribbon around his arm, just before the baby takes his arm back into the womb. However, the other baby actually comes out first. Tamar names the first born son Pharez and the second Zarah. Matthew 1:3 tells us that Pharez is part of Jesus' lineage (note Matthew uses the Greek spellings of the names as opposed to the Hebrew spellings of Genesis).

Jacob's Final Prophecies & Blessings

Jacob lives 17 more years after they move to Egypt. Near the end of his life, he asks to be buried with Isaac and Abraham in Canaan. Joseph promises that he will take him back for burial. Jacob then decides to bestow blessings upon his sons, he also prophesies on the fates of each son. Having adopted Manasseh and Ephraim at the time he meets them, they are also included in Jacob's blessing. Not only does he include them, but they receive their blessings first and replace Jacob's eldest sons in rank.


Even though Ephraim is the younger of Joseph's sons, Jacob blesses him to be greater than Manasseh. Jacob pronounces the name of Abraham and Isaac upon them, guaranteeing the two Egyptian born Hebrews grow in Israelite culture instead of Egyptian.


Manasseh is blessed second, even though he is the older brother. Joseph tries to correct his father's mistake, but Jacob says he knows what he is doing. It is possible he does this as he himself was the younger son.


Jacob blasts Reuben for defiling his father's bed. Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, one of Jacob's wives, which is not only a sin but angers Jacob.


Simeon is condemned for his part in the deaths of the men in Shechem after Dinah's rape. Jacob says he will be divided and scattered because of his cruelty. Jacob also tells him that his anger is cursed.


Levi is given the same condemnation for his part in the deaths of the men in Shechem as his brother. Jacob says he will be divided and scattered because of his cruelty. Jacob also tells him that his anger is cursed.


Jacob tells Judah that he is the one the brothers will praise, they will bow before him, and he will be stronger than his enemies. Judah is compared to a lion's cub. Judah is given told that the sceptre and lawgiving will not depart from the house of Judah until "Shiloh" come. Shiloh translates to "him to whom it belongs"[4]. This is considered a messianic prophecy with the identity of Shiloh being the Messiah or Jesus Christ.


Jacob tells Dan that he will judge the people of the tribes of Israel, but he will also be a serpent that causes trouble.


Naphtali is compared to dear that has just been set free. He is predicted to give good words


Gad is predicted to be overcome by some group, but Jacob assures him that in the end, Gad will overcome.


Asher is prophesied to have fat bread and yield royal dainties—this is probably symbolic of wealth.


Issachar is compared to a donkey; Jacob says that he is crouched between two burdens. Issachar's land will be good, but he will become a servant.


Zabulun is told that he will dwell in a haven of the sea and a haven for ships. The border of his land is to be unto Zidon.


Joseph is said to be a fruitful bough and said to be the stone of Israel. Jacob states that the blessing on Joseph are greatest that the are as a crown on his head.


The youngest son of Joseph is compared to a wolf. He is to devour his prey then divide the spoil; this is symbolic of being warriors of whom the others would benefit from due to their protection.


Jacob's Death

After blessing his sons, Jacob repeats that he wishes to be buried in Canaan in the cave of Machpelah with his ancestors. Joseph has the Egyptians embalm Jacob which took 40 days. The period of mourning for the Egyptians is 70 days after the Jacob is embalmed. Once this passes, Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to take Jacob back to Canaan as he promised. Pharaoh obliges and even sends his servants to accompany Joseph and his brothers. Joseph and his family mourn for 7 days out of Egypt, then returned to Egypt.

Joseph's brothers fear Joseph once again when their father dies. They repent again and bow for Joseph professing that they are servants of his—this is the second time they have fulfilled his dream of them bowing to him. Joseph, however, tells them not to fear. He reminds them again that they meant to cause evil, God created a situation of gain for their family.He promises to take care of his brothers as well as their families. Most importantly when the brothers offer themselves as servants, Joseph refuses stating that he will not take the place of God.

Joseph's Death

At 110 years old, Joseph dies. He lived long enough to meet his great-grandchildren; we are also told that Joseph adopted some of his son's children. Joseph reminds everyone that God will come to call them back to Canaan eventually. Like Jacob, Joseph wants to be carried to Canaan, though he tells them to wait to transport his body until they are called back. Until then, they embalm him—an Egyptian custom—and place him in a coffin.Joseph and Jacob are the only people in the Bible to be embalmed.


  1. "Zaphnath-paaneah". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906
  2. Wyatt, Mary Nell and Wyatt, Ron. "Joseph was Imhotep of Egypt". 2015
  3. Sweeny, Emmet. "Were Joseph and Imhotep of Egypt The Same Man?". The Genesis of Israel and Egypt. 2nd Edition. 2001
  4. Holman Publishers. The Holman Study Bible. pg 92. 2014

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