31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
September 25, 2016
Genesis 37:1-8, 17b-22, 26-34,
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
The story of Joseph, the 11th born son of Jacob, is a story that encompasses 13 chapters of the book of Genesis and has more drama in it than an episode of the ‘Young and the Restless’. Really, the drama goes back so much further – to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham. Abraham, the one God called out of Haran to a new land, a promised land; Abraham, the one God promised descendants as numerous as the stars; Abraham, the one Christians, Jews, and Muslims all claim as our ancestor in the faith.
To hear the stories of Abraham’s family, though, it’s a wonder how this motley crew of imperfect people ever became God’s chosen people. Their lives are as filled with unfaithfulness as faithfulness, with betrayal as much as love. It’s quite a tale, and it starts with Abraham and his wife, Sarah.
God promises Abraham and Sarah, children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but in their old age, they can’t see how God is going to accomplish this. So Sarah hatches a plan. Abraham will just have to have a child with Sarah’s slave, Hagar.
Ever hear the phrase, while we plan, God laughs? Well, God wasn’t laughing here. Despite it being her own plan, Sarah is jealous of the younger Hagar and the child Hagar has with Abraham. When Sarah’s own child, Isaac, is born, Sarah sends Hagar and Ishmael, away into the wilderness without a thought as to how they will survive. God does not abandon Hagar and her child though. God provides for them in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, the conniving and jealousy continue with the next generation. Isaac and his wife, Rachel, are blessed with twin sons, but instead of loving them both equally, they play favorites. Isaac loves Esau best, and Rachel loves Jacob. Jacob plays right into the sibling rivalry. First, Jacob tricks his brother out of Esau’s birthright of inheriting their father’s land, and then Jacob, with his mother’s help, tricks his father into giving Jacob Esau’s blessing, naming Jacob the head of the family.
The name ‘Jacob’ means trickster, and the trickster finds himself tricked into marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel. And the legacy of favoritism and sibling rivalry continues – first between the sisters and then amongst Jacob’s sons, specifically between Joseph and his brothers.
Our scripture passage this morning gives us insight into why Joseph’s brothers “hate” him so much. Since Joseph’s birth, his brothers have found themselves competing for their father’s attention and time. What a lousy feeling to know that your father loves your brother more than you! What heartache to see your father lavish gifts on your brother and not on you! Every time they saw that coat of many colors, that robe with such long sleeves, they must have felt jealousy rise up and almost choke them.
Joseph adds to the animosity by tattling on his brothers, bringing a bad report to their father. And then, as if it was even possible, Joseph makes it even worse by saying to his jealous brothers: “Listen to this dream I dreamed. 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.” (Genesis 37:6-7)
If his brothers could not speak peaceably to Joseph before this, imagine how they felt now?! Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Issachar, and Zebulun must have been breathing flames of green fire by now.
As Jacqueline Lapsley, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary writes, “It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires of enmity. He’s a jerk.”
Joseph has been proudly flaunting his status as their father’s favorite with his coat; Joseph has gladly tattled on his brothers giving their father an unfavorable report of their behavior; Joseph has matter of factly shared his prophetic dreams of how his brothers would bow down in reverence to him someday.
Joseph is a jerk, and “Yet even jerks do not deserve to be thrown into a pit to die.” Professor Lapsley wisely writes.
Jerks don’t deserve to be thrown into a pit to die nor do they deserve to be sold into slavery. (Did you notice that Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites? The descendants of his grandfather, Isaac’s, half brother, Ishmael?) Even jerks do not deserve to be treated as if they had no feelings and no redeeming qualities.
And even jerks can be used by God as instruments of God’s spirit. God loves Joseph. God loves Joseph in his faithfulness. God loves Joseph with his flaws. And God uses Joseph as an instrument of God’s blessing.
And not just Joseph. Look at Joseph’s eldest brother, Reuben. Like the rest of his brothers, Reuben hated Joseph, but when they hatched the plan to kill Joseph and pretend that wild animals had killed him, well, that went too far for Reuben.
Reuben was not a murderer but neither was he willing to stand up to his younger brothers. Instead, Reuben has the idea that he will play the last minute hero. Reuben will simply go back later, rescue Joseph, and be the “good son” who brings Joseph back to their father. It’s a good plan, until it’s not.
Reuben clearly is not part of the conversation to sell Joseph into slavery, and when Reuben returns and finds Joseph gone, he is distraught to the point that he tears his clothes. Notice who Reuben is upset for, though – himself! “The boy is gone, and I, where can I turn?” (Genesis 37: 30, itz added) Like many of us, Reuben has good intentions, even hopes to be the savior and hero, but when things get complicated, when they get messy, when his choice is either telling their father the truth and revealing his role in the conspiracy or keeping quiet, Reuben keeps silent.
It takes tremendous strength to speak the truth, to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable and puts us in a bad light. It takes tremendous strength to speak the truth instead of going along silently with bullies and wrong doers.
Reuben does not have that strength. And yet, God loves Reuben. God loves him when he is merciful. God loves him when he is self-serving and complicit. And God uses Reuben as an instrument of God’s blessing.
But what about Judah. Can God love Judah?
If that name sounds familiar, it should. During Advent and Christmas, we hear, “But you, Bethlehem…, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5)
Yes, Joseph’s brother Judah is that Judah, the patriarch and tribe from which King David comes. Yes, Joseph’s brother, Judah, the one who says ‘why shouldn’t we profit from getting rid of our brother’ is the ancestor of Jesus the Christ.
The 38th chapter of Genesis tells another story about Judah, and it does not put him in any better light than this story does. It’s reaching to call Judah “good”, and yet, do you see how God works even through Judah? God loves even Judah and uses Judah as an instrument of blessing – in Joseph’s life and in our lives.
It is so hard not to judge others, so hard to say, “Am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19), so hard not to declare someone “bad”, “the enemy”, “a jerk”. As humans, we like to judge each other and put people in categories.
That is not God’s way. God sees our good sides; God sees our bad sides, and God loves us. God loves us when we are generous and kind and faithful, and God loves us even when we are ungrateful and wicked.
God loves us because that is who God is. God is love, and God uses us, all of us, as instruments of God’s peace, as instruments of God’s blessing.