Text: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21
It is pretty amazing that we gather together each week and consider words written by people who lived 2-3000 years ago. It was a completely different world. Housing, transportation, health care, retirement, basic ideas about the nature of the world were very different. Yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.
And the amazing thing is, as different as these people may have been, we read stories of real people, real communities that know both struggles and joys, and we can see ourselves in these stories. We know that at some level, these are also our stories, and God speaks to us in the midst of this.
Last week we looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s faithfulness to them. God told Abram to count the stars, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God’s promise proved to be true.
Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac. Isaac is not a part of our reading today, but what happens in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca. You may recall that they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau. The two sons had an intense sibling rivalry that was only encouraged by their parents. Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s favorite. His mother helped Jacob to cheat his brother out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to Esau as the firstborn. Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do. He worked for his Uncle Laban, back in the old country, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and it turned out that the woman under the veil, the woman whom he had married, was not Rachel but her sister Leah. He worked for Laban another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.
By now, Jacob is back home, he has more or less made amends with Esau, and he has many children. But his entire family history is one of dysfunction. Jacob is now known as Israel, which means “Striving with God.” He has grown and learned along the way, but he still hasn’t learned that much. The very first verse we read this morning says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.” Instantly, this is a red flag. We know that this is a really bad idea.
We are told that Joseph was the son of his old age. What the narrator does not tell us is that Joseph was the first child born to Rachel – the sister he had wanted to marry in the first place and his favored wife. (That’s another bad idea, but that is probably another sermon.)
It is not just that Jacob has a favorite child; he is so obvious about it. He has a coat made for Joseph with long sleeves. That is the Hebrew text. For some reason, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, has this as a coat of many colors. Now you tell me: what sounds more appealing – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Joseph and the Long-Sleeved Robe?
You may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference, and ideally that may be true, but clothing can definitely convey status. I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they just did not stack up next to Converse All-Stars.
Now think about this: an awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe, or tunic. If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one from Amazon. Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and that might take months. Clothing was very much a symbol of status, of importance, of wealth.
Whether it was a special long-sleeved robe or whether it was an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – or maybe an Amazing Long-Sleeved Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jacob had given Joseph a robe that not only conveyed status, that not only made people take notice of how special Joseph must be, but that also rubbed it in to Joseph’s siblings every time they saw it. Jacob did not even pretend to love his children equally. And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there will be repercussions.
Joseph, for his part, is not embarrassed by the special attention; he seems to love it. He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers. This does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.
One day Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them. Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance. As he approaches, the brothers vent their anger and hostility toward him.
They are so consumed with envy, with jealousy, with hatred that they would kill their own brother – even their younger brother they were supposed to take care of. But Reuben, the oldest, doesn’t want to do him harm. “Let’s not shed his blood – let’s just throw him in the pit and leave him here,” he says. He planned to come back and help him out later. The others listen to Reuben and throw Joseph in a pit.
Reuben wanders off apparently, and when some Midianite traders happen to pass by, Judah says that it would be better to sell him into slavery than to leave Joseph to die. So that is what happens. Reuben returns and is distraught by this turn of events. The brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to their father.
Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph. But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back this gift he had given Joseph – with blood on it. They are not just getting back at Joseph, they are also getting back at their father.
This is a seriously messed-up family. I guess one of the things that happens when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Well, maybe we’re not that bad. Our family isn’t perfect, but I guess it could be worse.”
It is a wild story. The coat may or may not be technicolor but the characters and the story certainly are. From Abraham and Sarah down through the generations – to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers – the promise has been that God will use these people as a blessing to others. A blessing to others. Right now, they are not even a blessing to each other, much less to the nations. How will this ever happen?
The second part of our reading comes much later. Joseph winds up in prison in Egypt but rises almost miraculously, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation. In a time of impeding famine, he is in charge of all the grain stores in the nation. And when his brothers come, desperate to buy grain, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph. There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death. And when Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.
The younger Joseph wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But now he is older and wiser. He has experienced hardship and he has grown from it. And time has given him perspective. He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”
Joseph can see in retrospect that what had happened actually served to save his family. In a time of severe famine, somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any grain. In the end, good came of what was meant for evil.
This is not to say that God orchestrated the whole thing. This is not to say that God led his brothers to plot to kill Joseph. This is to say that God has a way of working out God’s purposes even in the midst of treachery and human sin. God is faithful even if we are not.
Now, if you look at this story and want to find a few practical applications, it’s not that hard. Here are a few:
#1 – Don’t play favorites. Generally, as a parent or an employer or an educator, it is a bad idea. Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child. As much as I love Harry and Rudy, Zoe is my clear favorite. Of course, Harry and Rudy are a cat and a dog. If you want to have a favorite child, just have one child.
#2 – Don’t be a jerk. You may be thinking, I came to church just to be told “Don’t be a jerk?” Well, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simple things. Joseph was handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible. As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favorite status in the face of others, and the result is probably not what he would have wanted. I hate to be so obvious, but one of the takeaways is, don’t be a jerk.
#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid. Again, it’s pretty simple. Reuben was distraught over what the others had done to Joseph. As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions. A little foresight on the front end would have gone a long way.
I have a friend named Ken who has several nephews and other family members, all young adults, who live in a particular area where guns are plentiful, and almost all of their friends and social group are carrying. They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much at times, and they tend to get in arguments. Now, conflicts are a part of life and disagreements are going to happen. But when you compound that with alcohol and when everybody has a gun, bad things happen. Nearly all of Ken’s male young adult family members in that area are in jail, they have been shot, or they are dead. It’s tragic.
We can make poor, impulsive choices as individuals and we can also make poor, impulsive decisions as a society. A little thoughtfulness, a little foresight, might serve us well.
#4 – Remember who you are. God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and a blessing to the nations. It was a covenant passed on generation by generation. Israel’s children were heirs to that promise, a promise they no doubt had been hearing all of their lives.
But to observe their behavior, you wouldn’t know that. To see the pettiness and arrogance, the envy and jealousy, to see the treachery and bitterness and violence in their hearts, you wouldn’t know that.
We need to remember who we are. We are children of God. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world. When times are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled, we need to remember who we are.
And then, #5. This is where the story ends. Even if we mess up, even if we fail on numbers 1-4, even when we play favorites, behave like jerks, act without thinking and forget who we are, God is there. God loves us. Even in our world of dysfunction and violence and sin and evil and just plain meanness, God does not forget us and does not abandon us. God forgives and God gives us, like Joseph, the strength and ability to forgive.
God is always faithful. Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good. And our calling is to join God in that work. Amen.