November 12th, 2017

Joseph’s story is ultimately not about Joseph. Neither is yours about you.

Genesis 37:3-8



Preaching on a familiar story in the Bible presents a unique challenge. That’s one reason that Christmas and Easter are challenging. How many new insights can one gain into the stable or the empty tomb? (A lot, I’ve found over the years.)

The story of Joseph and his coat of many colors is one of the more familiar Old Testament stories. Before you yawn and think, “I’ve heard this one before,” let me suggest a few aspects of this story that were new to me this week.

First, in all of Genesis 37, we never read the word “God” or the name “Yahweh.” I’m not suggesting God is not involved or active, it’s just that this skillful narrator (presumably Moses) wants you reading this story as if God is distant or absent.

Second, there’s nobody in this chapter that’s a “good guy” vs. all the “bad guys.” The story is usually told one of two ways – either that Joseph is a fine young man to whom God gives great dreams and his brothers just don’t listen to God (John Calvin’s view) or that Joseph is an arrogant and impulsive young man who believes he’s better than everyone else and can’t keep his mouth shut at appropriate times. Neither is the case the way the story actually reads in Genesis 37.

Third, Joseph’s story is not about Joseph. I had titled the sermon on Wednesday, “Joseph’s Messy Family.” On Thursday, I renamed it “Jacob’s Messy Family.” As powerful as his story is on its own, Joseph’s story wouldn’t even be in the Bible if he weren’t Jacob’s son. That’s why he is significant.

Even if you know this story well, be ready for a few surprises.

The back story

Jacob is one of the big three names in Genesis – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I said last week that he is arguably more important to the Bible’s story than his father Isaac or even his grandfather Abraham. His story occupies more space in Genesis than either of them, and his name is more common in the rest of the Bible.

The story of Jacob’s messy family begins when he has to move away from home because he and his mother had manipulated his father Isaac into giving Jacob instead of his older brother Esau all the rights of the firstborn. Esau determines to kill Jacob, who flees alone hundreds of miles from Canaan north to Paddan Aram (modern Iraq) where some relatives live.

There Jacob falls in love with his cousin, a beautiful young virgin named Rachel. He works seven years for her father Laban in order to earn Rachel’s hand. The years pass quickly because of his love for Rachel, but on his wedding night his father-in-law tricks him. Behind the veil during the ceremony and in the dark as the marriage is consummated, Laban has given Rachel’s older and less desirable sister Leah. After the honeymoon, Jacob is given Rachel as well. Both sisters come with a maid-in-waiting as part of the package deal.

The sisters compete for how many sons they can produce for Jacob, even using their servant girls as surrogates to win the race. Jacob leaves Paddan Aram with eleven sons and one daughter from these four women – six boys and a girl born to Leah, two each to the servant-concubines, and one son, Joseph, born to Rachel.

Last week, we found Jacob returning home, terrified of encountering his estranged brother Esau. On the way home, God wrestles with him, leaving him with a permanent limp. The meeting with Esau goes surprisingly well, and then Jacob’s family settles in a place called Shechem, about 50 miles north of where Isaac lives.

The story takes an ominous turn in Shechem. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a local man named Shechem (yes, a man named Shechem living in Shechem). This so infuriates her brothers that Simeon and Levi, Leah’s second- and third-born sons, kill all the men of Shechem and take their wives and children as plunder.

Jacob moves further south to Bethel, where he again encounters God, who reaffirms his promises to Jacob and restates Jacob’s new name. He will no longer be called Jacob (deceiver), but Israel (God-wrestler). He then moves even further south to Hebron, where his aged father is still living.

On the way from Bethel to Hebron, two other significant events happen. First, Rachel dies giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. Second, Reuben, Leah’s firstborn,  seduces his father’s concubine, Bilhah (who had been Rachel’s servant). When Jacob (aka Israel now) finally gets back home to Hebron, his father Isaac dies.

It all falls apart

It’s been seventeen years since Joseph was born to Jacob and Rachel up in Paddan Aram. We meet him working alongside his half-brothers keeping the flocks. The sons of the concubines are not performing well. The sons of Leah apparently do nothing about this, but Joseph reports the poor performance to Jacob. This earns Joseph a promotion, which Jacob recognizes with a symbolic gift.

Traditionally the gift is called a “coat of many colors,” but most scholars now think that is a mistranslation. The NIV says “richly ornamented” (1984 NIV) or “ornate” (2011 NIV) robe. It’s sort of like giving Joseph a three-piece business suit while his brothers wear overalls and work gloves. There’s something about this that bothers us, but from Jacob’s and Joseph’s perspective, life is humming along well. Among twelve boys, Jacob has little reason to believe that most of them will amount to anything. Now he’s found the one who’s worthy of responsibility.

This doesn’t sit well with Joseph’s brothers, who rightly see this as a sign that their father clearly favors Joseph over all of them, that he loves Joseph more than any of them. The word used repeatedly in this chapter is that his brothers hated him. Remember, they have proven themselves capable of both physical and sexual violence.

It certainly doesn’t help that Joseph dreams not once but twice that they will all bow down to him. The narrator doesn’t say whether these dreams come from God or from the overly active and arrogant subconscious mind of a young man who thinks more highly of himself than he ought.

The first dream is agricultural. He and his brothers are sheaves of grain in a field, where Joseph’s sheaf stands up straight while theirs genuflect toward him. When he tells them the dream, their hatred intensifies. “Do you intend to be in charge of us?” they ask him, infuriated.

The second dream is astronomical. This time Joseph is a star. Not only eleven other stars, but even the sun and moon bow down to him. This dream Joseph tells his brothers in the presence of their father. The brothers are jealous, and Jacob is incredulous. “You mean your mother and I and all your brothers will actually bow before you?” The reference to his “mother” is probably to Leah, since Rachel is dead. Jacob didn’t actually reject the dreams as teenage fancy. He ponders and waits.

Meanwhile, grazing flocks have to move around from time to time, and Jacob figured since the Shechem area had been depopulated by his own sons, that would be a good place to send his boys and their large flock. Notably, however, this time Joseph was not sent to the fields. His ten older brothers traveled that fifty miles with all the sheep, probably leaving their own families behind but not their resentment.

Joseph is later sent by his father, apparently and surprisingly alone, to check on them. Wearing his stately robe would mark him as their supervisor, come to evaluate their performance away from their father’s direct oversight. Joseph comes to Shechem, and is surprised his brothers are nowhere in sight. As he looks for them, a stranger asks if he can help. When Joseph inquires about his brothers, the stranger says he had overheard them say they were moving on to Dothan, about ten miles further north.

So regal Joseph moves on. His brothers spot him from a distance, and their deep resentment mutates into an action plan. The coat, the dreams, their father’s partiality, it’s all too much for them to leave unaddressed. Things are only going to get worse. “Let’s kill him,” one brother says. Another adds, “And toss his body into a cistern.” Still another says, “We’ll just tell Dad that a wild animal got him.” “Yeah, that will put an end to the dreams and the dreamer!”

Reuben, either because he’s the oldest or because his conscience is still raw after what he did to his father’s concubine, offers an alternative plan. “Let’s not kill him – not actively, anyway. No blood. Let the cistern do the killing for us.” They all knew that bottle-shaped cisterns were death traps. There was no way out. He would die there, even if the cistern was dry. They strip him of the hated symbol of his position over them. Reuben intends to return later and rescue Joseph. For now, though, just hear Joseph pleading for his life and then listen to his muffled cry as his brothers walk away, congratulating each other on their plot.

The men sit down for a meal. Rather callous, don’t you think? They just dispensed with their own flesh and blood and now they’re going to chow down. About that time, a traveling sales team of their distant cousins, the Ishmaelites, happens by. This time it’s Judah, Leah fourth son, who suggests an alternative to letting Joseph die in the cistern. “We’re not going to gain anything by killing Joseph,” Judah says. “Let’s sell him instead. He is, after all, our brother.” Judah knows the Ishmaelites were businessmen and would seize the opportunity to make a buck off a human in addition to the spices, balm, and myrrh they were taking to Egypt. The band of brothers agrees to the proposition, and Joseph is sold for the normal price of a slave, eight ounces of silver.

When Reuben returns to the cistern, he is dismayed that Joseph is gone. The whole band of brothers then conspires on the story they would tell their father. They dipped Joseph’s fancy coat in a goat’s blood and carried it to their father. They didn’t have to lie. They only presented false evidence. He comes to the conclusion on his own that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal and is dead.

The end of this chapter is agonizing. This is the part of the story that gripped Peter Corneliussen, our Music Director, this week. He wrote a moving piece for soloist and choir, titled “Jacob’s Torment.” You don’t get Genesis 37 unless you hear Jacob wailing, inconsolable grief. He has sons, wives, a daughter, daughters-in-law, memories, flocks, riches, land, anything a man could want. He’s lost a wife and his parents, but nothing compares with the violent death of a child – especially this child, his favorite son. He resolves never to let this grief be resolved. He will die in torment. His family is not only messy, the best part of it has been taken from him.

If that’s not bad enough, the narrator ends this part of the story telling us that the Ishmaelites (aka Midianites) successfully sold Joseph to the captain of Pharaoh’s palace guard. It’s hard to imagine this part of the story ending any more badly. Jacob has every reason to believe his son is dead. Joseph isn’t dead, but he’s a continent away languishing on the bottom caste of a highly developed civilization.

If you’re thinking, “Keep going, I don’t want the story to end there,” you’re a victim of Moses’ story-telling genius. He wants you begging for the rest of the story.

Give God time

So what are the lessons for us in this remarkable story? First, when you think God is nowhere, think again. Remember that “God” or “Lord” never appears in this chapter. That’s not unique among the chapters of Genesis, but it’s certainly rare. I think it’s intentional on the narrator’s part. If you can picture Moses sitting around a campfire in the wilderness telling this story to his people between Egypt and Canaan, he wants them to know there are times when it will seem like God – the main character in every Bible story – is completely absent. He’s probably telling the story to people who think exactly like that in their own situation. Sure, they get manna every day, but after 40 years of it, it no longer feels like that’s a God-thing either.

Do you have times when it seems to you that God has stepped away from his desk? Of course you do. Maybe now is one of those times. Think again about this story. There are several places in which it might have played out differently. One of them is that the brothers had moved on from Shechem to Dothan. We’re not told why. Maybe they needed better pasture, but I kind of doubt it. Shechem was a place known for good pastureland. My theory is that they knew Joseph would be sent to check on them, and they wanted to evade him. What if they hadn’t moved on? What if the right stranger hadn’t overheard their plans and then been in the right place for Joseph to meet him? They wouldn’t have been in the path of the Ishmaelites who were headed to Egypt. Joseph probably would have died, either by blood or by starvation.

Second, when your family is messy, own your own sin. Everyone who lived this story believed he was doing the right thing for himself. Jacob was placing the one responsible son over those who had proven themselves irresponsible. The brothers were being denied their rights as older sons and possibly their inheritance by a cocky teenager. Joseph didn’t choose his favorite status; he was simply carrying out what his father wanted.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up – those times when we fear reconnecting with the messy extended family. There’s Uncle Billy with the beer belly and the loud mouth, Aunt Jane who always thinks your business is her business, and Cousin Fred who turns every holiday into a political argument. What do we do about it? I asked someone just yesterday about his dad, and he answered, “I’ve cut him off.” I don’t want to judge that particular individual, because I know there’s a lot of pain in the way his father has treated him. I responded to him, “Your dad must have a lot of pain. People in pain usually pass it on.” He answered, “I do pray for him.”

Whom have you “cut off” – if not outwardly, at least in your heart? The Gospel of Jesus is not about separation – it’s about incarnation. We whose hearts have been changed by what Christ has done for us move toward, not away, from those imprisoned by their sin. We ask the Holy Spirit, “What sins have I rationalized? Where have I come to believe they have wronged me without asking how I’ve contributed to that pain?”

Finally, while you grieve your torment, widen your hope. As a skillful story teller, Moses wants you hearing this story without knowing what happens next or down the road. The story of Joseph is not referenced often in the rest of the Bible, which somewhat surprises me. The New Testament only refers to Jacob’s son Joseph twice – in Hebrews 11, where Joseph is one of the great heroes who dies believing God’s promises will still come true, and in Acts 7. Stephen is reminding the Sanhedrin that their forefathers regularly closed their hearts to God’s faithful messengers, and often persecuted them. He says, “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave in Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles” (Acts 7:9-10).

Nobody gets tossed into a cistern thinking “This is the best thing that could happen to me.” Nobody enjoys being hated by his family. Nobody wants to be supervised by an arrogant teenager. Nobody loves losing a spouse or a child. Yet all of this is part of larger story. Joseph’s messy family is ultimately not about Joseph. Jacob’s messy family is ultimately not about Jacob. Life is about the good and gracious plans of a loving God who sees what is invisible to us – his work unfolding in our lives.

Our part is not to try to decipher his will, but to trust. There’s a bigger story to your life, and there’s a bigger story to Joseph’s. We’ll continue it next week. Amen.

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