“Just One Big Happy Family!”
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Seudfeld ~ Northwood United ~ August 9, 2020
The birth of a child is usually an occasion of joy within the family. People come to ooh and aah, to goo and gah, and to decide which of the parents or relatives the baby resembles. “He has his uncle’s nose.” “She has her mother’s eyes.” Depending on its temperament, the baby sleeps through it all, or howls in despair at all the strange faces. If there are older children, they may go through a time of “sibling rivalry.” A two or three year old may feel neglected, and say “OK, it’s time for everyone to go home now. And you can take that new thing with you.” Clonking little brother or sister with its very own rattle is not unknown. Fortunately, babies soon grow to a size that is easier to deal with. They learn to talk, to play, to laugh, and become companions rather than threats. Competition later in life can be healthy. Who can get the most A‘s on a report card may be a good motivation for learning. Let’s face it, it’s part of human nature to compare ourselves with others, and want to be good, better, or best. But there is a dark side to family life that sometimes comes to the surface, when competition becomes obsessive, when jealousy turns to hate, when resentment turns to thoughts of murder. Genesis is full of these situations. It starts with Cain and Abel, goes on to Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, and continues in the family pattern with the story of Joseph and his brothers. It won’t stop here, either, and family feuds will appear in the history of King David, among the sons of Zebedee, in the parable of the prodigal son, and into the present day. Folks, Scripture is definitely trying to tell us something about ourselves!
Someone has referred to the story of Joseph as a “short story.” It might be a good three or four part mini-series. It made a delightful musical. For a treat, if you haven’t seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”, rent it on DVD, get some popcorn, and enjoy. This story sits, a little gem, at the end of the cycle of Jacob stories, and serves as a bridge between the history of the patriarchs - the ancient families who receive God’s blessing of land and offspring in the book of Genesis - and the weighty responsibilities of the Law, given in the Exodus accounts. We all remember that Moses was the one who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, to the promised land, but we often forget that it is because of Joseph that they were in Egypt in the first place. Because we always get these stories during the summer months, a lot of people miss the continuity, due to holidays and other absences.
So it might be a good idea to give a short summary, and then you can all go home and read this “novelette” and really enjoy the drama. This is a story that takes an interest in Egyptian court life and politics, in the economy of the land, in official titles, and ceremony. How many of you here were fascinated as children with the pyramids, the sphinx, the legends of “King Tut?” Anyone read Elizabeth Peter’s mystery stories about Amanda Peabody, the intrepid Victorian archaeologist?
We continue to be lured by the beauty of the desert, the artwork, the impressive architecture of ancient Egypt. Too often, we separate it entirely from the modern day tragedies that occur in the Middle East, and tend to take sides in the political conflicts. But here is a story which may be the only one in Scripture that gives us a favourable view of Egypt, in contrast with the “wicked Pharaoh” images with which we are so familiar. It takes us through a cycle of promise and oppression that keeps repeating itself. It starts out looking like an intimate story of family life, and then radiates out to become the story of the whole people of God, throughout history. It’s good to be reminded that Jacob had two wives - Leah and Rachel. He also had two concubines - Bilhah and Zilphah. Between the four women, there were at least twelve sons, and one daughter, Dinah. Rachel, the favourite wife, bore Joseph and Benjamin, and then died.
These two boys were their father’s pride and joy. One day, Jacob gave Joseph a lavish gift; a long-sleeved coat with colourful trimmings. Ordinary workers wore tunics, or coats with short sleeves, so that they wouldn’t get in the way, or get very dirty. A long-sleeved garment was only for those who did not have to work in the fields. It denoted status; it set Joseph apart from the others. Have you ever had to shop for Christmas gifts for several children? Here are the rules: You have to make sure that they all have the same number of gifts, that they cost the same amount or are the same size. If you give a bicycle to one, you have to get a fancy wagon or doll carriage for another. If one child’s new mittens have fur, the other one’s must have little sparkles, or leather trim. They eye each other’s gifts to make sure that everything is “fair.” Children have a real sense of fairness.
Have you ever been involved in the reading and distribution of possessions in a will? How is the stuff divided? Money is easy, the same for each child. But the furniture? Mother’s jewels? Father’s priceless stamp collection? Families have been known to be on non-speaking terms for generations, because cousin Aloysius got the fishing rod that should have gone to brother Baxter, and aunt Hildegard was seen at a family gathering wearing the pearl earrings that everyone knows were destined for the ears of Myrtle’s daughter Ipheginia. Families have a real sense of fairness.
Well, Jacob didn’t. You would think that he’d have learned what it was like to feel rejected by a father, from his own experience with Isaac, who seemed to prefer his twin brother Esau. But Jacob repeated the cycle of rejection by picking a favourite child and letting everyone know about it. What do the other boys do? They don’t confront their father. They turn their resentment onto Joseph.
They plot to kill him, until one of the older brothers points out that this is one of the worst crimes that can be committed. So they compromise. They grab him, take off his fancy coat, throw him into a dry well, and then sell him to some merchants as a slave. Then to close the case once and for all, they pour animal blood on his special coat, and show it to Jacob, who assumes that his beloved son is dead, and vows to grieve for the rest of his life. What a terrible thing to do! This goes far beyond the childish “OK, take that baby away now” sentiment.
That’s an honest feeling. This goes beyond trying to be good, better, best in school or in your profession. It’s worse than stealing an inheritance, or cheating, or lying. These men harboured murder in their hearts, until they were stopped. Murder, in ancient times, meant killing a brother, a clan member, a person of your own people, who were of course, the chosen ones. It wasn’t the same as killing the Amorites, the Huzzites, the Perrizites. They didn’t “belong”, so that was OK.
But killing a person of your own blood was unforgivable. And that’s how far the brothers were willing to go, in their jealousy. Causing an elderly parent such grief was almost as terrible. Old age was to be respected, parents were to be honoured and cared for.
Although this story comes before the giving of the ten commandments, we can see where some of those rules came from. If you read through Genesis you will find that the patterns of family life are repeated, over and over again. This is an interesting story for many reasons. It’s sometimes confusing, because the names of the brothers and some places change depending on which writer – and there may have been several – is in focus. There’s a reason for that.
In Genesis, many stories begin on an intimate family level, as this one does, with proper names of Reuben and Jacob, and great-uncle Ishmael’s descendants. Then the story expands and here it involves what will later be the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and includes the Midianites, people who will be Moses’ in-laws. It goes even further as Jacob, the individual, starts being referred to as Israel, the whole people of God. The story of humanity ripples out as society expands, from family, to tribe, to nation. The circle of evil intent gets larger; it cannot be contained.
This is no longer the story of a bunch of jealous brothers, it a universal theme. It tells us that oppression is not just a problem that we read about in the Bible, or in the newspaper; not something “out there” that can be ignored. We can’t just shake our heads and hope it will go away. Like some evil thing with tentacles, it grows larger and larger and reaches out to grab us too. Childhood jealousy is usually outgrown. Most adult brothers and sisters love one another, support each other, defend and enjoy the others. But family violence is also a reality in today’s world.
Strangely, in this part of the story, there is no judgement. It just begins with an account of jealousy, and ends as Joseph is taken off into slavery. Nowhere is blame placed on the father for his favouritism, on the brothers for their behaviour, on the slave trade, or even on Joseph, who appears to have been a tattle-tale and a pest to his older siblings. It’s simply part of a story that tells us what life is really like, and what the family of God does every day. It makes us wonder about our own situations, and how we handle family problems. It makes us consider how we can express anger in acceptable ways. We may not like what we see in this story, because we know that is not the way God expects us to behave. There is no punishment here, because God isn’t finished telling the story.
At the beginning of this sermon I mentioned that the Joseph story takes us through a cycle of oppression and promise that keeps repeating itself. So here is the Good News for today. We can break the cycle of anger, hatred and violence, and live God’s promise to our generation and beyond. This week, let’s think about our own families, past and present. If we have brothers and sisters, and there are things between us, maybe now is the time to mend them, with a call, a letter, a sign of love. Let’s look at the world situation, and see if there are ways we can participate in bringing peace and harmony to our communities, to our nation, to international situations. If we are working for justice, perhaps a little extra effort is needed. Rather than pronounce judgement on all the evil we see around us, let us work for peace. Many of the stories in Genesis begin on an anxious note; they include the whole range of human emotions, and most of them end, if not “happily ever after”, at least with a note of confidence in God’s love and blessing.
If the themes seem to repeat themselves, it’s not so much that there are different story tellers or writers involved, but that human behaviour, and our relationship with God, is a continuous cycle of ups and downs, and of exciting possibilities and blessings. Jacob was reconciled with his brother Esau. After many years, Joseph was reunited with his brothers. The theme of healing, of blessing, of family unity and harmony, is stronger than its counterpart of dissension and hatred. We need to remember that with God’s help, and our own small, but faithful acts, the promise is greater than the threat, and that we will continue to grow in grace and strength on our path to the holiness of the Kingdom.