by Narelle Atkins
We need to look at the relationship between Jacob and his wives to understand the sibling rivalry between Jacob’s sons. Jacob loved Rachel and he worked seven years for her father, Laban, to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. But Laban also had an older daughter, Leah, and custom dictated the older daughter married before the younger daughter. In Genesis 29 we learned how Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob then worked another seven years to earn his right to marry Rachel, Leah’s beautiful younger sister.
The jealousy and rivalry between the two sisters was fierce. Although Leah bore sons for Jacob while Rachel remained barren, Jacob loved and favoured Rachel. As part of their sibling rivalry, Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Bilhal and Zilpah, also bore sons for Jacob.
Eventually Rachel fell pregnant with Joseph. Jacob loved and favoured Joseph above all his children because he was Rachel’s son. Rachel died after she gave birth to her second son, Benjamin.
The sons of Leah, Rachel, Bilhal and Zilpah continued the sibling rivalry exhibited by Leah and Rachel. The older brothers hated Joseph because he was their father’s favourite son. Joseph told his brothers about his dreams, and how he had dreamed his brothers would all bow down to him. Joseph’s dreams incensed his brothers and they plotted to kill him.
The brothers threw Joseph into an empty cistern in the desert and Judah suggested they sell Joseph to the passing Ishmaelite traders instead of killing him. Joseph ended up in slavery in Egypt and, after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and earning his favour, Joseph was put in charge of the whole land of Egypt.
The brothers gave Joseph’s blood stained robe to their father, claiming Joseph must have been killed by an animal. Jacob was devastated and deeply mourned the loss of his son. Many years later a famine struck all the lands, including Canaan and Egypt. Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy food, and they don’t recognise their brother, Joseph.
Joseph kept his identity a secret and he longed to see his younger brother, Benjamin. But Jacob was very attached to Benjamin and wanted to keep him close by his side in Canaan. Benjamin accompanied his brothers on their second trip to Egypt. When Joseph set Benjamin up and planned to keep Benjamin in Egypt as his slave, Judah stepped in and was prepared to sacrifice his life and freedom in exchange for the freedom of his younger brother. In response to Judah’s plea, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers and they were happily reconciled.
Joseph asked Pharaoh to set aside land for his family in the region of Goshen to enable Joseph’s family to survive the next five years of famine. Joseph’s brothers were shepherds and the Egyptians refused to associate with shepherds, which was why Joseph requested his family have land separate from the Egyptians.
In the years to come the Israelites prospered in Egypt and grew in number, in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham that his numerous descendents would become a great nation. The opening chapters in the book of Exodus show how the Egyptians, under a new king who didn’t know about Joseph, oppressed Jacob’s descendents in Egypt.