Our Old Testament readings are all about the story of the early Jewish people, from Abraham to Moses. We are reading today about the teenage Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, who would become most prominent in the family lineage. We have had stories of multiple blessings for Abraham, the very elderly births of his sons Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah insisting that Abraham send away of Ishmael and that lineage of Abraham, the testing of Abraham by the sacrifice of his son Isaac, the finding of a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac, the twins Jacob and Esau and their birthright struggles, the deceit of Laban with his daughters Leah and Rachel as wives for Jacob, and Jacob fighting with God in his dream,.
To me, this whole Jewish story is one great soap opera. It has everything you would want—drama, sex, love and hate, family fighting family, families fighting among themselves, jealousy, arrogance, conceit and much more. Today’s reading gives us the hatred, jealousy, and conceit in spades! (I’m giving you a little more of this young Joseph story than what is in the reading itself to help understand even more the hatred that was present.)
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to his older brothers, sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, two of his father’s four wives and servants of Leah and Rachel; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age and was from his beloved wife Rachel. He made Joseph a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak to him without malice.
Joseph provoked this hatred even more. Joseph had dreams, and when he told them to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream. 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.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me. So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at nearby Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 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.” When Reuben heard it, he planned to deliver him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”, so that later he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.
So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 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. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 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. When the 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 off to Egypt.
When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” So to finish the hoax, they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.
They took the long robe with sleeves to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Israel tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 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.” Meanwhile the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.
As they say on PBS, to find out more about the story of Joseph, keep on reading in Genesis!
Can’t you see this as a continuing series on HBO or some other cable network? I sure can! Israel set up Joseph to be the one who was hated by treating him way better than the other brothers, giving him the fancy robe and even having him check up on the other brothers at work. And Joseph acted just like who he was—a spoiled brat! He declared his dreams making him the head over the others, so that even his father questioned what he was saying. So, it’s no surprise that his brothers wanted him out of their lives, sold him away for almost nothing to a band of people who were from his family’s long despised relatives (descendants of Ishmael), and then faked his death to their dad so that no one would look for him.
What this story tells me is that regardless of their belief in God, this blessed family was a lot like, maybe even worse, than what would be a normal one, in that time, or even today. When you have a family with a husband and four wives, 12 sons (and sisters, mostly not mentioned), you have lots of opportunity for poor interactions among relatives. You could wonder how this family actually showed any belief in God. But understand that they were living in a time of little written law or any other ways to “regulate” society, so that only by how they saw others treat them or by what they learned from their parents could they know how to live under God. No Ten Commandments yet, no Code of Hammurabi, no anything! Society at that time was more about survival—just trying to live day by day.
So, in more general terms, what is our society’s excuse today? How are many today acting any differently that these people? We have plenty of organized religions that in their correctly practiced forms expect treating each other with respect, love and caring. Even those people without any religious perspective, by virtue of living in a society and culture that basically has respect and caring as its premises, can act properly if they choose to. We are a society of laws, regulations, codes of conduct and any number of norms by which to live together.
Back to family living, maybe Rev. David Lewicki said it best. (He is a co-pastor of the North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, GA since 2010. His church is strongly committed to social justice, peacemaking, and the education and formation of disciples of Jesus.) He said: “No one I know comes from a perfect family. And while no family I know is like Joseph’s, every family is weakened by the things that weakened Joseph’s: generational dysfunction, parents working out their unresolved issues in the lives of their children, and by love unevenly—even unfairly—apportioned. Here’s another thing true of most every family I know: in the midst of family struggles, it’s hard to tell if God is even paying attention.
Whatever the situation with your family—whether you are Joseph in the pit, a brother standing on the edge looking down, or Jacob, receiving back the bloody coat that you never should have given—this story asks… no, it pleads with you to trust. Trust that God’s silence in your family is not the same as God’s absence. Trust that God has chosen this family to be the bearers of God’s blessing, not only for this family, but for your family, and for the whole world.”