Today we are continuing our series on the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which as we have noted more than once is also largely the saga of one extended family. With the emergence in today’s text of Joseph we have reached the fourth generation.
The story of Joseph, which takes up a surprisingly large part of the book of Genesis, is one of the most memorable stories for me (and many others here today I am sure) from Sunday School days – maybe because I was the youngest of three boys; although Joseph is not the youngest of these 12 boys – Benjamin is.
Any youngest members of the family here? Did you get away with heaps that just drove your older siblings crazy? Or were you the older family member that resented the younger? May determine to some extent where your sympathies lie in this story. As I have said before there are so many stories in the bible of sibling rivalry starting with what we are told was the first pair of siblings Cain and Abel.
Some pretty glaring shortcomings here in this family. We have already come across a number of these family traits over the past Sundays. Jacob plays favourites and sows the seeds of animosity among his own children. Note well it is the favouritism of the father that stirred up the deep seated animosity and jealousy between his children. And all that bristling, toxic animosity is starkly symbolised by that famous, (if mis-named) Coat Of Many Colours. Old Jacob gives his son this coat that no-one else can have. And it reappears in the story to be presented back to Jacob covered with blood. Animal blood but Jacob thinks it is Joseph’s
Well surprise surprise… Jacob’s parents played favourites. His father Isaac favoured Jacob’s twin Esau while Rebekah favoured Jacob. How often do we see entrenched systemic behaviour passed down the generations? How challenging to break out of these patterns. And not just for our own sake. For we do come to realise our actions have this ripple effect. You act a certain way over here but you cannot contain it to that small area. It will spill over and poison (or nurture and strengthen if our acts and words are positive and life giving) other parts of your life. Thinking of your life as a kid and those of you who are parents what patterns have you inherited and what ways have your been able to break out of?
Not to say Joseph does not have a part to play. He feeds into this toxic situation. Joseph flaunts his position and becomes pretty full of himself (pride), the siblings get eaten up by jealously to the point where they are prepared to committ a terrible action against their own brother.
We are told in the text Joseph is 17 years old when these events take place. At around age 17, I like Joseph thought I might have had something over (in my mind at least!) my two somewhat daggy older brothers. A better sportsman than the eldest cos I played football – but as it turns out in our not quite old age, but approaching, he beats me consistently in table tennis, and he still plays competitive tennis and squash and runs the odd marathon, none of which I do. More adventurous than the middle brother I thought, but then he took off at age 21 on his own and hitchhiked across Asia to Europe where he lived in a London squat before riding a bike to Spain, running out of money and eventually marrying a Spanish woman. And I became a minister living out my quiet days in Melbourne. Hmm, things don’t always go according to youthful expectations.
Joseph’s did not help the situation with his brothers when he share his youthful dreams about them. These dreams were fulfilled in the most remarkable way – more of which we shall hear about next week, but it is important for today’s instalment to know that in the verses excised by the lectionary he has had a dream the meaning of which is that his older brothers and even Jacob the revered father will bow down in honour of Joseph. Perhaps arrogantly and certainly insensitively Joseph tells everyone about his dreams. Not surprisingly they do not warm to the lad. In fact they decide they have had more than enough of him and plot his departure, one way or another. And so Joseph ends up in a pit, something like a dry well we imagine.
As a youngster I was taken with the idea of this teenager getting chucked into a pit – not by his sworn enemies mind you but by his own brothers. Or step brothers. You see there are four different mothers in this family. Now we know there are many different forms families take today and many are cohesive and work well, but there is always the possibilities of alliances, cliques factions. It was an ominous warning to a boy far too young to embrace the full profundity of the message that sometimes those who intend harm to you are not the obvious and easily recognizable enemy but may also be people from within the ranks. Ask our previous four Prime Ministers about this. Ask the many young people abused by those who responsibility to care for them in schools and scouts and churches. Ask women who are the victims of domestic violence.
And don’t think for a minute that behaviour such as we read of today – selling a person, even a family member, into slavery does not exist today. It takes a number of forms – an impoverished family sells a young daughter into sex slavery, human trafficking, indentured labourers
And so we see this situation rapidly spiralling out of control. Jealousy has turned murderous and away from their father it seems that much easier to put a dastardly plan into action. They sell the boy and spill animal blood on the despised coat of Joseph and spin an invented tale to the devastated father.
How do you think it felt for those brothers when they saw the anguish of Jacob? Our story says that they all tried to comfort him. What would that have been like? To have the truth inside of you like a lead weight, watching your father cry but trapped by your own deceit. Trapped because to tell the truth you fear will endanger your own life from the other brothers. How do you touch the shoulder of someone you love who doesn’t know that the reason he’s hurting is your fault? The guilt must have been unbearable. You could say they were in their own spiritual kind of pit. The past could not be undone; it could not even be mentioned. There would be no closure. Their father Jacob had said that he would mourn Joseph all the way to his grave. They would likewise carry the burden of their deed all the way to their graves. In a pit with no way out.
Anyway, as a youngster Joseph’s story where he arises out of the pit his brothers throw him into and later prison in Egypt to prominence and prosperity engaged me; and then (we see this next week)having the chance to stick it up the brothers who would have killed him he forgives and so of course in the end he acts graciously as befitting a biblical hero!
Joseph and Peter in today’s gospel reading both share experience of descending/sinking – for Joseph a pit that is fortunately for him actually dry at the time and Peter beneath the waves when he loses his focus and attention upon Jesus. Both rise from their experiences, have them reversed, to become leaders and visionaries for God. Great stuff!
Just to back up for a brief time to Joseph’s dream which is actually about precisely what I said in the Isaac (Joseph’s grandfather) part of the series –and what I have said many many times in sermons over the years – that one of the major themes of the gospel is the notion of reversal, that is of subverting the current order of power/authority. Jesus says stuff like this often, the widow who gave one coin was more favoured that the rich person who gives much much more out of their abundance. The first will be last and the last first. The poor man Lazarus gets his reward in heaven while the rich man who ignored him during his life is told he has already had his blessings. he tells stories to illustrate it and in his own flesh enacts it-with God and in the reign of God, the first will be last, and the last will be first.
That God may not be too overly impressed by our human constructs of power and authority introduces another allied theme into today’s story. It is a theme that has been running through this series on the family that dominates the book of Genesis. It is the seething cauldron of destruction and animosity set up by favouritism of children, wives, concubines, and the resulting tensions of sibling rivalry within families. Now I hear there are some families that have kids who grow up in harmonious peace, with little more than a minor sibling scrap over who gets to watch their favourite TV program, or getting to choose what is for dinner. But for other families this notion of sibling rivalry, and perceived favouritism by parents, leaves a deep seated sense of resentment and a life-time feeling of being slighted, unappreciated.
Some of us here today may not feel ready to go there – the conflict is too recent or deep to talk about, or too distant to drag up, too painful to embrace, whatever. But today’s story is one of hope, although we do not get to see this fully played out until next week when Joseph does forgive his brothers wo sold him into slavery. Nevertheless it is there today and we live as Christians with the the hope for forgiveness. That God can reach into those places in our hearts that have become hardened and calloused over the years and we can find a new freshness and tenderness growing that will allow us to both forgive and accept forgiveness. This whole series has been a call to allow reconciliation to reign in our lives, for the restoring and gracious power of God to rule our hearts and lives. For a powerful reminder that there is nothing and no situation that is beyond the redemptive power of God.